Basso Profondo: Nathaniel Dorsky’s "The Return"

A consideration of Nathaniel Dorsky's "The Return" (2011), in light of the filmmaker's earlier work and the new film's formal innovations.
Michael Sicinski
The Return

At the Q&A following the presentation of his latest film The Return, which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program, Nathaniel Dorsky was asked, “Could you please say a little bit about your editing style?” Without missing a beat, Dorsky replied, “How little?” It’s a great laugh-line (and like all of Dorsky’s Q&A humor, good natured and never at the questioner’s expense), but it also speaks to an irony about the reception of Dorsky’s cinema over the years, something to which I myself have hardly been immune. Since the late 1990s, when Dorsky emerged with what has become identified as his present, ongoing (not to say “mature”) style of filmmaking, inaugurated with Triste (1996) and Variations (1998), a great deal of attention has been paid to the highly unique editing patterns in these films, as well as their penetrating beauty.

The latter has proven an elusive topic for writers (myself included, though I’ve tried), since Dorsky’s images frequently appear to summon the sublime from the mundane and quotidian, not through arduous extraction but by an apparent glance or flick of the wrist, and even as I type these words I recognize that the alchemy they imply disguises the material labor that Dorsky clearly and lovingly pours into his films, the consummate craftsmanship at the sites of both shooting and assemblage, that produces this deceptive air of effortlessness. Still, it is Dorsky’s ability to notice and register the precise moment of (for example) multiple directions of motion—a horizontal bus passage and a diner patron standing up from a table—both reflected in the double reflection of facing plate glass windows, as the sun, glinting off a moving car, shifts the visual terms of the planes’ engagement, as well as their color values, a moment, that is, that exists in the human sensorium as peripheral excitation at best, that makes the individual shots of his films both unforgettable and hard to hold onto.

Since it is typically these singular moments that jump out and grab hold of a spectator during Dorsky’s films, at least upon initial viewing, critical discourse has largely focused on the editing patterns. This is not, I should add, because they are any easier to understand or describe. It can simply be a bit easier, initially, to get a grip on what these challenging films are not—edited to the measure of languagethan on what they arefully-formed, self-sufficient film images subject to macro-organization that, while in the midst of that flow of moments, can feel rather cloudlike. That’s because Dorsky’s films radically refute both the standard montage rhetoric of narrative cinema (weak articulation, predominant sameness, minor change within a basic framework of spatial and temporal continuity) and most avant-garde films (pattern repetition, clear delineation of a visual theme, or the minimization of editing in favor of long takes). Dorsky’s films, from shot to shot, emphasize a gentle dissimilarity (not “collision montage”), so as to generate for each shot a kind of full temporal presence, a hovering “now” that does not co-dependently cling for its meaning to the previous or the next shot.

This is not to say that there are not patterns or relationships; there are, and they become evident the longer you watch and the more times you view the films. But if the total picture is harder to conjure in your memory than it is for other films and filmmakers, it has to do with the replacement of the above mentioned aides memoire with full pictorial independence in the moment, summoned into existence as a single film (and not ever just a random assortment of single shots) by longer term rhymes, variations, and structures of intensity. Although Dorsky has cited Bresson and Ozu as forebears to this way of thinking about cinematic construction, it strikes me that the great Armenian independent Artavazd Peleshian and his theory of “distance montage” are just as apposite. Every shot retains its identity, while still gaining a new meaning through its association. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this basic definition seems like a starting point not only for radical cinema, but radical democracy as well.)

Nevertheless, Dorsky’s latest film The Return is not only another perfect example of this method; it’s also one of the filmmaker’s finest works to date. Since the discontinuation of Kodachrome, Dorsky’s film of choice, he has had to turn to Fuji color film, essentially a new medium whose parameters he continues to explore. Let’s take a moment to consider this. Many film artists, both commercial and avant-garde, have stepped from celluloid to digital and merrily continued their practice as though nothing has changed. Dorsky’s work, just as much as any so-called structuralist, is so medium-specific that a switch from one kind of film to another, with its distinctive capacities and color temperatures, necessitates a new way of working, as well as set of works devoted to exploring (among other things) the material parameters of the new film. What The Return does on this score, first and foremost, is locate the bass register. This is a film that pushes the bottom, exploring the darkest reaches of the spectrum, the filmic black that is, in many ways, cinema’s last stand against digital encroachment. Although reading too much into a Dorsky title is usually a mistake, we might think of this is a “return” of the deep soul of film.  In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Dorsky expressed his frustration with the Eastman color negative film used for his two previous films, Aubade and Pastourelle (both 2010) and his hopes for Fuji negative. It paid off.

The Return

But apart from the general depth of tone, The Return finds Dorsky exploring specific relationships of light and darkness within the frame, as well as multiple planes of focus and layers of ambiguity. The opening two shots are characterized by extreme darkness, pierced and anchored by a bright light on the left side of the frame. (The second time it grows larger and more colorful.) This maneuver recurs a few more times in the film. Dorsky, then, introduces the aesthetic “problem” of celluloid blackness not only through internal contrast, but also by easing us “into” the film frame from the side (not unlike Straub / Huillet’s real world-film world edge play). The “lighter side” is the boundary of our world, and we are gradually nudged into The Return’s dark spaces.

This is not, however, to say that The Return is a comprehensively black-filled film. Dorsky continually introduces contrasts, both within and across shots. Inside individual shots, the play of light and dark tends to be exaggerated through a masterful manipulation of flatness and depth. Sometimes, as with the street scene window reflections, this movement is rather obvious, engaging our eye almost immediately. But at other times Dorsky’s subtlety practically combines the painterly push/pull of Cézanne with the time-based misdirection of Tati. In several shots Dorsky fills the screen with an all-over pattern of gray puddle or pond water with light and movement, including reflected treetops. Then the “painterly” field will separate and divide, showing us that somehow we are viewing a double reflection of the water, or an upward reflection of an optical “event” on the ground, resulting in a tripled or even quadrupled plane of activity. Recall that even with the attenuated sunlight (triangulated from god-knows-where), this is a dark gray field, and so Dorsky’s image is registering micro-shifts between gradations of medium gray, again exploring the new film’s potentials for differentiation between darks.

But then there are similar shots of all-over light and dark interplay that amplify the use of the higher end of the temperature range, the deep darks operating more as crevices and inlets. This is especially the case in Dorsky’s close-up shots of flowers and tree branches, in which the negative space “holds” the Fuji blacks like a thick weave, sometimes resulting in undulating plays within, or along, an essentially flat surface, not unlike certain canvases by Pollock or de Kooning. Nevertheless, what at first appears basically two-dimensional is usually not; a slight shift in movement, the touch of the breeze, will activate the composition, so we see that there is a larger cluster of flowers in the foreground, or a crisscross of branches where we had originally seen only one solid object. This shift, of course, does many things within the frame, all at once, within a relatively brief span of time.  It extends the “present tense” of the individual shot, instigating internal relationships that render any shot-to-shot semiotics wholly secondary. It activates the picture plane, alternating flatness and depth, in a manner related to but certainly different from that encountered in a modernist painting. It insists (if it has not already happened earlier in the shot) that the eye move through the picture plane, marking difference(s) within it, rather than try to absorb it as a whole meaning-sign (as in Eisenstein). And it alters the shot’s ratio of light and shadow, which is particularly significant in a work dedicated, in part, to exploring the potential depths of the exposed film image.

But then, as I mentioned above, Dorsky’s films always assemble their singular film images into macro-structures or assemblages. One of the reasons people like the questioner from the audience, or writers about Dorsky, tend to be interested in his editing patterns is precisely because these patterns are clearly perceptible but often difficult to parse, at least on initial viewing, because they do so eschew the syntactical shorthand that governs most films. Some of the recent films, such as Winter (2007) and Sarabande (2008), exhibited visual motifs based on recursive shapes. Winter features many variations on the diagonal, while Sarabande contained numerous spinning forms and helixes.

The Return, by contrast, does not have any single dominant form, but certain forms and patterns can be traced throughout it. For example, one shot of long, thin fronds waving in the foreground, moving in and out of the sun, serves to divide the screen into a light zigzag pattern: /\/\/\/\. Several shots later, we see this form repeated in a variety of subtle ways—jutting branches, the close-up tines of a fork on a lunch plate, fingers on gesticulating hands, etc. None of these images is a repetition of the original. Rather, they provide echoes across the time of the film—to paraphrase Jimi Hendrix, “slight returns.”

And if there is one dominant motif in Dorsky’s newest film, it is the idea that time, if we allow ourselves and the world enough of it, will instigate these slight returns and small disclosures. The movement of one plane behind another is a perceptual disruption, but only a temporary one. The planes shift, and those things that have left our field of vision almost always come back, albeit with a difference. From one set of shots to the next, The Return offers the purest of perceptual life—light, reflections, distortions, pure color—as well as natural forms, human beings, cats and dogs. However you, the viewer, define cinematic “life,” wait for a bit and it will “return.” Even one of Dorsky's classic motivic structures, the multi-shot sequence of beaded rain on glass, colored light popping through in drizzled intervals, “returns,” from earlier films, in all its cyclical autumnal grace. Likewise, Dorsky’s final shot, like so much else in The Return, harks back to many other elements in the film (the layered water, the play of deep gray, the raindrops) while retaining its strength as a self-sufficient image. It is a single gray cloud with a glowing penumbra. Over the length of the shot, the cloud (held steady in Dorsky’s camera) reveals the tiny edge of the sun peering out from its lower right hand corner. The film brings us gently out into the brightness again. Fiat lux.

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Nathaniel DorskyTIFFTIFF 2011WavelengthsViews from the Avant-GardeNYFF 2011Festival CoverageNYFFLong Reads
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