Nathaniel Dorsky: Shimmering Golden Music

A conversation with the American experimental filmmaker on the occasion of Barcelona retrospective and a new book.
Maximilien Luc Proctor

April (2012)

Over the course of ten programs across five days in Barcelona this January, curators Francisco Algarín Navarro and Carlos Saldaña presented a career-spanning series devoted to American experimental filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler. The series was curated to coincide with the release of a brand-new book, Illuminated Hours. Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, focused on the pair’s early years; meeting and struggling to understand the elusive medium of film. As is the case for all Lumière publications, it is a beautiful object, complete with full-color stills and archival documents. The bulk of the book consists of extensive interviews with Dorsky and Hiler conducted by Navarro and Saldaña, and features texts by curator Mark McElhatten among many others, and incorporates excerpts from prior interviews, including one I conducted with Hiler for Ultra Dogme last year. Illuminated Hours is currently only available in Spanish, with an English language version slated for later this year.

As Dorsky and Hiler exclusively screen their work directly from 16mm prints (rentable from Light Cone in Europe or Canyon Cinema in the U.S.), there were only two individual exceptions to this rule. Library (1970) was screened as a digital file, from a 2021 restoration by the Harvard Film Archive. A collaboration between the two filmmakers, Library is based on the old style “industrial,” highlighting the various community benefits of its namesake. Dorsky’s 17 Reasons Why (1985-87) was screened once from a print and was available to watch on a four-monitor (one for each of the 8mm frames shown simultaneously) constellation on a loop, from a 2020 digital scan done by MoMA. It is a delightfully playful whirlwind (I’m thinking here of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it composition where Dorsky films his pants around his shoes while sitting on the toilet)  which condenses the visual beauty from across his filmography into a metabolism more often associated with the work of someone like Joseph Bernard.

Apart from his fascination with photographic beauty formed through dense reflections and thick, high contrast plays of striped shadows silhouetting over brightly sunlit people and objects, Dorsky often holds a shot until time allows itself to unfold so that a surprise may surface. They are simple surprises, but ones that often bring about great pleasure; take three women seen through a window, all wearing deep red clothing. When one changes position, she reveals a bottle of ketchup in their midst, perfectly suited for the occasion. When we are presented with a collection of minute glimmering lights, we wonder for a moment where they might originate, until Dorsky turns the aperture to reveal they are light reflected in the droplets on the hood of a car. In Love’s Refrain (2000-2001), a clear plastic to-go box is opened by the wind, leans backwards, and its own contents (a lonely plastic fork and styrofoam cup) slide into the center, forming a new arrangement for this found statue. It is an image in conversation with the plastic bag floating in the wind of Variations (1998). There are beautiful rippling lights seen in macro, manifested as out of focus orbs, ruptures of the universe, shimmering golden music.

Through Dorsky’s polyvalent montage he hopes that certain shots will be taken as reverberations of ones previously seen within a film—the edit is arranged intuitively yet strategically. The larger body of work supports and re-amplifies so many reverberations across the decades; Jerome Hiler appears numerous times throughout, as do endless bushes, shrubs, saplings and veteran trees. Text silhouetted and thrown onto unusual surfaces, human behavior when unaware (one presumes) they are being observed. Perhaps most fascinating are the infrequent yet recurring interludes of three to five shots of rapid movement through dense cross hatcheting created by shooting through an orange construction fence or by simply filming similarly shaped shadows intersecting with stairs—thrilling in their velocity within the context of such steady and measured work. Dorsky is interested in geometry and its permutations through movement, be they such rapid ‘stackings’ or the languid vibrations of nature reflected on the pulsating surface of a pond.

So too do certain ideas reverberate across the pair’s collective body of work, though in less obvious ways. Where Hiler works with multiple exposures to overlap, echo, and strike lightning, Dorsky achieves his density of image in a single shot, with concrete, recognizable photography—we understand the literal images but not always the how or what of their surroundings. When we see a “pseudo-Hellenic bust” (to borrow from P. Adams Sitney’s apt description) lying on its side in Dorsky’s Threnody (2003-2004), it comes back to mind when we see the face of a similar figure in Hiler’s Words of Mercury (2010-2011), surrounded by a barren rural area in the background. In both cases the old world has fallen. Dorsky presents us with texts being written or copied down (by Hiler), but Hiler presents text itself (one screen-filling superimposition close-up of German text makes legible the name “Maria Rilke”). Hiler also creates text through the scratching of the film surface, such as in the notes he scrawls onto Marginalia.

Immediately after stepping out of a Dorsky screening, some images remain in the mind’s eye with power, others vanish almost instantaneously—not for lack of visual virtuosity, but for their settling somewhere deeper in the mind than what is accessible on the surface. A few hours later certain images would return, but what truly astounded me was a shot which came to mind with complete clarity the following afternoon when I happened upon its analogous manifestation in the physical world: Dorsky’s camera careening into the flowers, leaning in closer to catch a pollinating bee, startlingly yellow in a sea of lavender, obstructing pedals pressed forward by the lens as it passed…

Over a FaceTime conversation, Dorsky powered through a light COVID-induced brain fog to speak of his work with his usual wisdom and clarity. Since Dorsky and Hiler both only screened their work privately for many years, our conversation began there. Special thanks to Paul Attard for contributing questions.

Love's Refrain (2000-01)

NOTEBOOK: Did screening for an audience instead of just for your friends change your approach to filmmaking at all?

NATHANIEL DORSKY: There was something I found very attractive about showing camera rolls to friends. There was something spontaneous in them: odd juxtapositions, or progressions revealing one’s method of arriving at a chosen shot. By that I mean you might approach a subject with a camera a certain way, and then again and again, maybe four or five times, so that you would actually see the progression of relationship between the camera and the subject. There was something very interesting about showing footage to friends. Also it was less burdensome on the ego—it was still an open process. The film was still alive, it wasn’t a corpse yet: signed, sealed, and delivered with a title and a print. Before it became a corpse it was more fun, there was less pressure. The only trouble with that way of working is that it was usually good on the first viewing, but the second or third time you saw the same thing, it didn’t function that way. I remember asking Stan Brakhage about this, I said, “Stan I’m very confused, I love the spontaneity and the casualness of just showing camera rolls.” He said, “You have to remember that life is life and art is art. They’re two separate things.”

Even to this day I get greater joy out of having friends over to look at footage than a final film. It’s alive, and if someone says something you can adjust it. The trick was to figure out, “how can I get a finished film to have the qualities of a private film?” That took some time to figure out. I think now I’m closer to that, especially in the films you haven’t seen from the last two years.

Around the time of the Arboretum Cycle (2017) I began to drift away from polyvalence and more toward in-camera sequences. Like in Hours for Jerome (1966-82) there are many sequences which are in-camera improvisations, especially forest textures. I began to go back to how I shot when I was in my twenties. I began to find a way through camera improvisation mixed with polyvalence to come upon a style which gave me the freedom and joy of the private pleasures of screening for friends and the public pleasure of a refined, finished work.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting that you mention the style you’re working with now trying to emulate how you were shooting in your twenties, because I also got to see 17 Reasons Why in Barcelona, as an installation on a loop.

DORSKY: They also showed it on film at 16 frames per second—I requested it but I didn’t think they’d do it—which is what the installation is transferred at.

NOTEBOOK: And why was that at 16fps when the rest of your filmography is projected at 18fps?

DORSKY: Because the 16fps is slower, and therefore gives you a greater opportunity to enjoy the articulation of the four screens. You see more because it’s slower. It becomes more articulate at the slower speed.

Also, at the time I did 17 Reasons Why, making an unslit regular 8mm film was a known trope within experimental film. Stan had a long sequence that way in 23rd Psalm Branch (1967). If you went to open screenings—at that time there was a lot of going over to other people’s houses and screening footage—you would see people doing things with Double 8. I absorbed a lot and one thing I noticed that was annoying to me was that people would always have one side upside down, so I always shot the second half with the camera upside down so they would all be right-side up in the final film. That was one thing I thought I improved on. Almost every roll had at least two layers of superimposition.

In short, that film has a particular set of problems to solve, Double Regular 8. It’s almost like a musical form that has certain requirements, not applicable to other forms. One thing to consider is you’re driving the images up against one another. If you pan the camera, the image slides across the screen, but it’s not the whole screen, it’s just part of the screen is sliding, so you get relationships between various squares. And there are things to discover, for instance if you shot every other frame black, then you could suspend an image just in one corner, because the other image is black. Then you could maybe put two black between each frame and then the image would flicker from the top to the bottom. It was fun. When I was a kid I saw a program on television where they gave toy instruments to three or four very accomplished jazz musicians and let them play something with a toy piano and similar instruments. It’s a little bit like that, giving a toy to an adult.

NOTEBOOK: Hours for Jerome was almost like a compact lexicon of the whole of visual grammar and language. You said you were trying everything out, was there any conscious effort at that time to try and create this compact amalgam of all those elements? And now with the current works trying to go back to that type of style while filming, is it a tighter approach to having more play with the camera while filming or are you also trying to be as loose as you were back then?

DORSKY: With Hours for Jerome I was not trying to build a glossary of techniques at all. I was trying techniques which I thought were appropriate for expressing the subject matter. I was very interested in the collision of elements. I tried more and more to see how much I could bang things together that were different from one another but at the same time became some kind of visual whole. There’s a sequence on 14th Street in New York in the rain: a frame held open, a little time-lapse intercut with a black and white television, back and forth. I always saw those kinds of discount stores with their fluorescent lighting as close to television in a way. Somehow the intermittent quality of fluorescent light bulbs reminded me of television and advertising products. I was trying to find little sections like that where I could take elements and bang them together and make some kind of whole out of them. But it wasn’t supposed to be a catalog of techniques. It was just the way I collected what I was interested in.

I was going back to in-camera improvisation, building rhythms in the camera. There’s a couple of films right before the Arboretum Cycle where that began to take over.

Love's Refrain (2000-01)

NOTEBOOK: I noticed that in Intimations (2015). Are you using a variable ND filter in Arboretum, or just sliding the aperture?

DORSKY: It’s just the aperture. But what’s interesting about it is you see how the film responds to color at various exposures, so the exact same image, so to speak, can become six different images, just by what you’re exposing for. Of course, being smart and having made films all my life, I would choose things that would go through variations because of the aperture changes. If you just shot a flatly frontlit scene and made it darker and lighter, it wouldn’t go through the variations, it would just be darker and lighter. But if you set up a different kind of tension of light in the image, then it actually changes the composition.

NOTEBOOK: Because you mentioned the neon signs and TV screen, I’m curious about your fascination with these, why you’ve continued to film those so much over the years.

DORSKY: Because I’m lazy. [Laughs.] They’ve already done the work. I shot a lot of sections from fashion videos that are in store windows. Not the whole screen but just a little corner. But you mentioned seeing a laptop in Intimations. One thing you should notice is that the image on the laptop screen is not a computer image, it’s a reflection of a tree out the window. That was a wry joke on my part.

NOTEBOOK: What compelled you to start filming people using their phones? Was it just that before that they weren’t so prevalent in public spaces?

DORSKY: Yes. Actually, do you know what it was? The film I had made before April (2012), the film with George Kuchar, August and After (2012). George died. He was in hospice for a number of months. That became a preoccupation, visiting him everyday. When he died I felt released, that I could go back into the world in a way. Another thing happened simultaneously, Kodak came out with a new color negative, 50D 7203, and I noticed that it was very pictorial.

NOTEBOOK: Pictorial in what sense?

DORSKY: In the sense that you could take pictures of things. I tend not to take pictures of things because they’re already complete, and when you photograph them you reduce them somehow. I try more to find something that by photographing it it becomes something. When I came back to the world I was walking around downtown San Francisco and I began to take more notice of these buildings that were all around. And everyone was on cell phones. That transition happened in about a year. I remember the first time I heard a cell phone ring on a train or in a bus, and it totally blew my mind that somebody was getting a phone call in the bus. I think it was only a year later that by that time they were everywhere. So it was a combination of two things: I came back into the world—and the world I saw was on the phone—then this pictorial stock came out, and it looked nicer to take pictures of things.

NOTEBOOK: In April and Intimations in the sequences where you're showing people on phones we also got these more pictorial portraits of people. Usually in your films we see hands or a part of a body but we don’t often see faces, especially not looking at the camera or while in conversation. Here you had one really striking portrait of a woman with just a piece of her face lit. And just over her shoulder we see another woman on her phone adjusting some flowers to take a picture of them.

DORSKY: Like any visual artist, one is torn between working with the all over quality of the frame or working with depiction of figure. Every painter, photographer, is torn between these two things, the pictorial sense of figure introduces psychology and drama—the psychological state of the people you’re shooting. They’re dramatic in the sense that they become characters. It’s a delicate balance. It changes the whole genre; if I’m just working with reflections and small details and abstractions, and part of people’s hand gestures, it’s all part of one world.

The minute you introduce a whole person… That was a problem I had to solve: how do you introduce a whole person without changing the whole genre? Is this a documentary? Is this a fiction? Do people know they’re being shot and they’re making believe they're not being shot? Is it just secretly stealing shots of people? Does that have its own meaning? I’m still torn between making a film human by including humans or making a film human by its abstract qualities; expressing the qualities of being human.

Threnody (2004)

NOTEBOOK: That brings me to a question about a film I haven’t been able to see, William (2020). Based on just the stills, it seems to be far more concerned with the whole human figure. What pushed you in that direction and is that a sign of further experimentation to come or do you see that as kind of an anomaly within your filmography?

DORSKY: My friend Owsley Brown III’s son William was studying screen acting at USC. We’re both fans of certain noir cinematographers, like John Alton and Nicholas Musuraca, who shot Curse of the Cat People (1944), an extraordinary film. Musuraca shot several films for Jacques Tourneur, who always has a forest at night. William loved those films, so I said let’s go to the park and we’ll shoot some film together. This was thrilling for me because it wasn’t a friend trying to be—as Bresson would say—a model for you, this was someone who was actively trying to create a reality in front of a movie camera. I loved that all of a sudden I was going to photograph someone who wasn’t embarrassed or shy that the camera was pointing at them, but knew that he was part of the process of creating an image, as an actor. We went to the park three or four times and just like kids, played “movie.”

William asked, “what’s the plot?” I said, “your sister’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a Tibetan monastery. You fly there in a private plane to save her, but on the way there your plane runs out of gas and you land in the jungle. So we come upon you at this point staggering through the forest. Maybe it’s like an acid trip.” We had a wonderful time, I was in charge of light and camera. I would set up the lighting limitations (all natural), and then he would be a character, either stalking, looking, or overwhelmed by beauty. Like anybody I love dramatic fiction, so it was enjoyable to shoot someone who wanted to create a dramatic fiction, who wasn’t self conscious about being in front of the camera but in fact loved being in front of it.

I don’t know if it is a public film or not. To me it’s my friend’s son, who I’ve known since he was an infant. To me, it’s my friend’s son, who I’ve known since he was an infant. One likes all kinds of cinema. Even the Library film came from a love Jerry and I had from childhood of industrials. I went to summer camp and on a rainy day we would see movies in the dining room. They would always be these industrials, like “how you make paper.” So that came out of our love of the squareness of an industrial; the narrator, showing something. Do you know what an industrial is?


DORSKY: Are you sure? Not fibbing?

NOTEBOOK: Well, now I’m second-guessing myself. They’re educational films?

DORSKY: An industrial is an educational film but usually it’s made by a corporation or a company to promote their product in a subtle way. It’s not an ad. There were some extraordinary industrials made in the ‘50s. William came from a love of noir black and white square screen films. An interesting thing is William's face—he’s not of this age. I love films in the realm of the avant-garde from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s which usually have to do with a pursuit, one character following another character with late romantic classical music.

Aubade (2010)

NOTEBOOK: Since the onset of COVID you've completed six new films. Did a slow down of the world around you prompt an increase in your rate of production? Or has the change in the world flow otherwise influenced your approach in any significant way?

DORSKY: The world became sort of claustrophobic. I couldn’t just go downtown in San Francisco and shoot on the street as if nothing was going on. It felt strange. It didn’t feel real. I don’t know how to say it. I couldn’t just shoot a store window or people walking on the sidewalk and make believe that it was normal. I live right by Golden Gate Park so I began to hang out in the park because one had freedom there. You could not think about COVID, and you could shoot in that context and not feel I was lying, so to speak. A few of those films came out of being in a certain place.

[At this point Dorsky turns his camera toward the window. “You see my insulators?” he asks, showing me a collection of compact round glass objects in myriad colors, sunlight shining through. Before pointing out that “This is a life-changing moment, are you ready to be a different person than you were?” he proceeds to explain that the collection is made of insulators from the top of telephone poles, to protect them from short-circuiting in the rain.]

NOTEBOOK: When you said that when you finish a film it’s dead, it becomes a corpse—

DORSKY: —It doesn’t need you anymore, that’s the saddest thing. This thing which you’ve given your whole psyche to, let’s say for two months, suddenly didn’t need you anymore. It’s done. It must be like when parents send their kids off to college and suddenly the house is empty, that kind of feeling.

The first time you see a film outside of your editing room, on a big screen for instance, every screening becomes like a live music performance. It’s also the psychic nature of the evening: you could have the exact same show two nights in a row—they would be very different. Which film came forward as the most interesting would change.

Everyone will come up to you and say, “you know, I really loved…” I say, “yeah that one really worked tonight.” I don’t quite understand that. There is a sense of them still being alive, especially when you go to different venues with different qualities, projectors, and audience vibes. It’s still not that much fun to show films publicly. One of my favorite places to show films is Anthology Film Archives, the Maya Deren theater. First of all, they have the greatest projector, an Eastman 25 or 40, this projector that James Bond rebuilt. James Bond is the great American projector mechanic.

Anthology also has a very steep rake. I don’t like a theater where people are looking up at the screen like it’s on a stage. That’s great for dramatic film, but for my kind of film it's much better, like a painting, to look straight at it. So a raked theater, everyone’s looking straight at the screen rather than looking up at the screen like it’s a stage. They’re more enjoying the screen as a wall of energy.

So I’m sitting there and I'm saying to myself—you know the movie’s looking as gorgeous as it’s ever gonna look, there’s a full house, everyone is quiet, and I go, “am I enjoying myself? Is this enjoyable?” and I said, “‘no, I’m not enjoying myself.” The adventure of making the films is the joy.

NOTEBOOK: Apart from not enjoying it, do you ever feel anything else just watching your own work with an audience, is there anything that resonates from those images?

DORSKY: You know what’s fun is when you see a film you haven’t seen in a long time. And now I’ve made enough of them—maybe too many—so that I don’t know them anymore. I think I usually have the best time when I see a film I don’t know anymore and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then a little bit of the original joy comes back. Once you know them, you know them. But when you don’t know them anymore and you’re surprised by them you can’t guess what the next moment’s going to be. Especially when it works. But you learn from it, you see weaknesses, strengths, you get cues about how to go forward. Especially in a situation where you’re showing a number of films over a few days. You learn a lot. 

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