Back at Cannes, when I first saw Jean-Marie Straub’s Le Genou d’Artemide, I was reminded that one of the basic materials—and pleasures—of cinema was simply light and shadow. (Seeing Le Genou again, with its lush, unpredictable score of rushing wind and the background cacophony of crying birds, I must humbly admit to neglecting the sound of the film. A briefly heard, and clipped, tolling of a bell “between” an edit of two shots is particularly beautiful, and passed unnoticed upon first viewing.) After seeing for the first time some of the work of Nathaniel Dorsky here at Toronto’s first Wavelengths program of experimental cinema, I must assert something precedes even light and shadow in the cinema, but it is not material. It is, rather, an attitude towards creation, namely, discovery.
What it was like to see the Lumières’ train rushing at you, Merrie Melodies’ first three-strip Technicolor, more vibrant than any imagination, Last Year in Marienbad’s ouroboros narrative, Inland Empire’s searing digital nightmare—that unbeatable, marvelous high of the camera’s revelation, which takes in reality and, in filming it, finds something, shows something no one in the world would discover without it. That is what Winter and Saraband, Dorsky’s two films at the festival, are like. Colors that seem familiar in shades and hues you never knew existed; the shadows of things that camouflage the world around you, coating the world in a dim, romantic blanket of day-for-night, shade and obfuscation. Or Ernie Gehr-like frames, structures, and rhythms of color and brief movement within and between shots, only far more lyrical. Stan Brakage’s Text of Light but taken out into the world instead of shot inside the filmmaker’s living room. Seeing for the first time, and experiencing that fresh wonder anew.
Juxtaposed against Straub’s film, which has been covered at The Notebook in the past, one feels the difference between discovering the tactility of the cinema in Straub—the weight, feel, and presence of words, bodies, light, and sound—which is almost sculptural, and Dorsky’s cinema. Winter, which seems a bit more grounded in the world, and Saraband, more abstract and celestial, reveal a state of cinema before Straub’s strict materiality, before things can be seen clearly, brought into focus, lucid and sharp. This indistinctness is no complaint; it is just a different kind of beauty, less contextualized, more primordial and free, and, perhaps, more surprising.