Manifesting the Ineffable: A Conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky

Above: Frames from Nathaniel Dorsky's 2008 film, Sarabande.

As he writes in his short book, Devotional Cinema (2003), Nathaniel Dorsky aspires to discover in film a way of “approaching and manifesting the ineffable.” In recent years that has meant fixing his camera on the world around him, usually his adopted home town of San Francisco, and finding in its mundane details images of extraordinary wonder. His work counters what Peter Hutton, another practitioner of devotional cinema, calls the “emotional velocity and visual velocity” of our times. Dorsky’s films manage to shift our perception, making us more alive to the strange beauty of the physical world we inhabit.

Dorsky’s latest films, Winter and Sarabande, premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where they were screened on a program with Jean-Marie Straub’s Le Genou d’Artemide. Dorsky took the stage for a brief Q&A following the screening of his films—but before the Straub—and, frankly, it didn’t go particularly well. The first question was a back-handed compliment that set an unfortunate tone for the session. He did, however, offer a few insights into his process. Rather than beginning with a particular subject in mind, he instead shoots from “a certain aspect of [his] psyche” and trusts that a through-line will emerge in the editing. Titles come much later, “when desperate.” And he described himself as a “corny” guy who has seen and internalized more than10,000 films and wants, most of all, to discover and share something new.

Sarabande and Winter will screen Saturday as part of the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde program, and Dorsky will also be in attendance for a week-long retrospective of his work at Anthology Film Archives.

I spoke with Dorsky immediately after the screening in Toronto. As we were walking across the street to a coffee shop, I asked if he knew Pedro Costa’s films.

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NATHANIEL DORSKY: I’m very weak on contemporary narrative film. I mean, I just don’t know that much. There’s one or two people I like, and I love their films, but I don’t know how to begin with other filmmakers.

DARREN HUGHES: Too much to keep up with?

DORSKY: Yeah, I think it’s the starvation and gorge thing. You don’t see someone’s films for maybe 12 or 15 years and then you see 20 of them in two weeks on double bills. I do go, though, when someone says, “Please, go check out these films . . .” Like, someone said, “Please go see Apitchatpong,” and I loved it.

HUGHES: Which ones did you see?

DORSKY: The first one I saw was Tropical Malady.

HUGHES: That was the first of his I saw, too, and it’s a very strange film to see with no preconceptions.

DORSKY: I had no preconceptions. All of his films fold in half. I love the way it echoes without echoing too specifically. Very LSD, that film. Deeply primordial.

HUGHES: In Devotional Cinema you say that, ideally, watching a film should be like an intimate, heart-felt conversation. I have to tell you, I’m so grateful to hear a filmmaker talk about the cinema without speaking in terms of commerce. You treat film as a transformative experience without being pedantic about it.

DORSKY: Yeah, I’m sorry if I was so off-putting on stage. Sometimes I get off on the wrong footing when the questions seem so deeply ungenerous. Usually I’m generous no matter how ungenerous people are. Maybe it’s just the situation. People in the audience are forced to perform before the Straub. I didn’t feel that the evening was mine. I thought it would work, and then I realized it wouldn’t work. It’s like interrupting lovemaking for a Q&A session.

HUGHES: Did you stay to watch the Straub?

DORSKY: Yeah. I read it and watched it.

HUGHES: I’ve only seen a few of his films.

DORSKY: Have you seen Moses and Aaron?

HUGHES: No.

DORSKY: It’s wonderful.

HUGHES: They’re difficult to get a hold of.

DORSKY: This one seemed a little . . . Well, you know Mouchette by Bresson?

HUGHES: Sure.

DORSKY: It ends with the Monteverdi over the credit. There’s no music for the entire thing. I felt it was a gesture [in the Straub] going to the Mahler Heinrich Schutz, who’s kind of the next generation Monteverdi. I felt that was so worn. That gesture is so accomplished in Mouchette that here, I go, “Ooooh.” That’s what I mean about being corny. That’s why I don’t want to have to think up anything clever [to say about the new Straub].

HUGHES: It actually helped me being primed by your films. I read about half of the Straub and then became much more interested in the ways light was hitting leaves in the background and the shifting shadows cast by clouds.

DORSKY: Yeah, that was nice.

HUGHES: When watching your films, the conscious part of my brain battles constantly to interpret and assign meaning to your images, but my mind slows down a bit when it encounters something closer to pure abstraction. How do you balance abstraction with more traditional, narrative-like images like the cute puppy in Winter?

DORSKY: Well, the puppy is a being. That shot is preceded by a series of car headlights. So then with the dog’s two black eyes, which are like negative headlights, there’s something interesting to me there.

HUGHES: I’m a little surprised to hear you say that. Do you have an intellectual justification for each of your cuts?

DORSKY: I would say that, primarily, the justifications are the actualness. Along with that actualness, the nature of the human mind is such that it tries to build concepts out of each moment, and so, therefore, if I think the concept it can build is interesting and poignant, then I’ll stick with it. If I think the concept it builds is reductive, then I won’t do it.

HUGHES: I saw a really bad film today that ended with a shot of a pet turtle swimming back into nature. It was such a great example of how an image becomes a symbol for an empty idea to the point that it can function as nothing else. It’s not even a turtle anymore.

DORSKY: It’s like the last shot of Scorsese’s The Departed, which has this $30,000 trained rat walking across a window sill. This is what I mean by these gestures. You know Pather Panchali? One of the last shots is the snake taking over their house. I feel like my films come from knowing films well and wanting to find fresh and adventurous territory.

HUGHES: In Devotional Cinema you write, “One’s hand is a devotional object.” I’m fascinated by Lisandro Alonso’s film Los Muertos, which observes the body and behavior of its protagonist in really beautiful ways, but it also adds an interesting narrative quirk: This guy has just been released from prison and he’s a man capable of great violence. So, Alonso is using the formal tropes of contemplative cinema but he’s infected the narrative with dread and sin (or whatever you want to call it).

DORSKY: I’d love to see it.

HUGHES: Given your desire to, as you said tonight in the Q&A, “touch the heart” of your viewers, is there room in your cinema to touch on the darker aspects of our nature?

DORSKY: The world seems so violent to me, and the media seems so violent, maybe I’m a bit reactive to that.

HUGHES: I’m grateful to hear it.

DORSKY: Maybe I don’t have to bring any more fearful adrenaline onto the planet with my work. That’s one answer. With Sarabande I was trying my best to make a film that – I don’t know how to say this – it has struggle in it. It has struggle and release on a more subtle level. To me it does. The film at times opens up and contracts, it opens up and contracts.

I don’t know how to answer your question. There are so many people with a lot of money and power making films about society. If someone gave me the opportunity I could do anything.

HUGHES: Are you interested in “doing anything”?

DORSKY: I’ve done a lot of different kinds of films, in terms of my life and making a living. I’ve even made a film about cheerleaders. [Dorsky frequently edits PBS documentaries and won an Emmy in 1967 for his work on Gaughin in Tahiti: Search for Paradise.] The only way I can answer your question is to say that perhaps it’s something lacking in my self. I’m too much a person in my hermitage of quietude.

HUGHES: I didn’t mean at all to suggest that you should, but I think it’s an interesting question. For example, in Catholicism there’s a tradition of meditating on . . .

DORSKY: Sadism?

HUGHES: {laughs} That’s one way of putting it. Or meditating on suffering. Does your concept of devotional cinema leave room for that?

DORSKY: Of course. Diary of a Country Priest is a kind of Passion. I love that film. Voyage to Italy is about a couple having a horrible argument, and I love that film. I wouldn’t know how I’d do that on my own, you know? Unless I made something up. What am I gonna do? Make a film about a slaughter house? {laughs} I love people who do that, but I don’t know. My films are homemade films. I can’t answer you so much as to just say your question is inspiring.

HUGHES: One reason I ask is because in Devotional Cinema you write a bit about Dreyer, about The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet. If I were asked to name two great works of “devotional cinema,” even without knowing your concept of it, I would name those two films. And like you I’m also not as fond of Day of Wrath.

DORSKY: No one would ever put that film down. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed that it was so outrageous. But I’ve questioned it. I think there’s much to question about a lot of films that have a good reputation.

HUGHES: I think in the book you questioned Dreyer’s direction rather than the subject.

DORSKY: Yeah, that it wasn’t present, that it was literary because of the nature of the cross-cutting. That it fell into a literary form. Once you have a B plot that you’re cutting against an A plot, then you’re gone.

HUGHES: As opposed to Ordet where there are multiple plots being threaded together but not at cross purposes.

DORSKY: Yeah, you don’t have the second plot in order to relieve the pressures of the first plot. Now, in theater that works. In Shakespeare it certainly works. But there’s something about film I don’t think it works, because film is a solid, plastic form – a solid piece of time form – and there’s something about breaking that time form. In Ordet the point of view is actual. We’re actually some place rather than the point of view being images from a more literary form of cinema.

HUGHES: Ordet is one of my favorite films, but I find it almost impossible to write about.

DORSKY: Have you seen Silent Light?

HUGHES: I have.

DORSKY: I haven’t seen it. It’s coming New York when I’ll be there. I hear different things.

HUGHES: I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it. I saw it here last year and immediately wanted to see it again. So, I assume you’ve heard . . .

DORSKY: I know that it has something to do with Ordet. That’s all I know.

I’m sorry I’m a little tongue-tied, but I feel like Devotional Cinema is complete. Complete and pithy.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take life for granted. I don’t even take the premise for granted. I love not even taking the premise for a moment for granted. Like, let’s say, even knowing what this is, us talking to each other. This is a common experience for filmmakers. There’s an interviewer, and, say, we’re doing an interview for some puff piece after a screening. But that’s never been my sense of reality, of getting absorbed in the societal belief of things. I’ve always felt a little out of it, a little bit like a ghost. So I’m like a ghost and society is a phantom. They’re phantoms but somebody made them. I’m a ghost and I’m not even here. At a certain point I decided, “Well, I’m going to make films from my point of view. What would they think if I started to express my point of view? Would it mean anything to anybody?” So I decided to make films about my point of view. How I feel and see cinema. And then it turns out I end up being invited to Toronto.

HUGHES: Have you ever run into Caveh Zahedi?

DORSKY: Sure.

HUGHES: That is a very Caveh-like approach to reality.

DORSKY: Do you mean his interview in Waking Life?

HUGHES: Well, that, and I spent an evening with Caveh once and we had a long talk.

DORSKY: Okay, well this is presumptuous on my part and this could be wrong, but I think that conversation he had in that film came from a conversation I had with him over coffee once.

HUGHES: {laughs} Really?

DORSKY: It was very familiar. I was watching the film, I like the film very much, and suddenly this guy walks up – I didn’t realize it was him – and I think, “This conversation is awfully familiar.” I’m watching it and thinking, “This is weird. It’s like deja-vu. Why is this conversation so totally familiar?” And then at the end the character says, “Thank you, Caveh.” That’s all I know. I know it was like a deja-vu of a conversation I’d had with him. He likes Devotional Cinema quite a lot.

HUGHES: I’m not surprised. It seems right up his alley. {Laughs} When I had dinner with Caveh, he said that the very last scene, the one where Linklater is playing pinball and talking about Lady Gregory’s visions – Caveh swears Linklater stole that conversation . . .

DORSKY: . . . from him. Oh, sure. {laughs} It’s a mean world. It’s a thieving world. But, you know, we all grow up with these ideas, or we wouldn’t even be able to talk to each other.

HUGHES: So, since switching over to making films from your own point of view, do you have a particular viewer in mind.

DORSKY: Yeah. Here’s what it is: Usually sound films and character-based films are a social experience. I don’t know how else to say it. And my films are about being alone. And if they had sound, they wouldn’t be alone. Someone would be holding your hand.

I grew up as an only child, and I’m a poetic type person. I don’t mean that I’m unsocial or that I don’t have a lot of friends, but in my aloneness I feel the ultimate kind of poignancy and the deepest sense of mystery and, generally, a not knowing – like, the idea that you and I are two beings speaking to each other. And so, like anything that you feel with great tenderness and with great heart, you want to share it. Like you’re alone and listening to something and you think, “Oh, I wish someone was with me.” A loved one or someone you care for a lot. So it comes from that. It’s made with that spirit.

I would like to offer somebody some poignancy of my aloneness. Or, not mine, because I don’t want to get in the way, but some poignancy of aloneness that happens to be mine. So in a way I’m offering something quite intimate. The things that work about my films are quite intimate. They touch your mind, do you know what I mean?

HUGHES: There’s a moment in Sarabande. I don’t know what I was looking at exactly, but it reminded me of when I was a kid and we would go on family vacations. I remember laying in the back seat of the station wagon, looking up through the window and watching . . .

DORSKY: {smiles} . . . the passing wires? Yeah, I love that.

HUGHES: That’s what I loved about the films – the moments that tweak a very personal impression. It’s not even memory.

DORSKY: It’s something primal, right? It’s a moment that has no purpose, except that it’s pure is-ness. So, I make films that way. There’s still more to do. I feel like I’m only slowly getting better. Sarabande is better than Winter. Winter is a little better than Song and Solitude. I think they’re a little better. Maybe they’re just different. I still have places to go with my films.

HUGHES: Do you shoot constantly?

DORSKY: Not when I’m editing. And then after I edit I usually need three months of nothing.

HUGHES: Really?

DORSKY: I’m pretty done for a while. I have to wait for my psyche. What happens is, I finish a film – I’m into it, I like it, I worked hard on it, everything seems to be right about it – I finish it, and then it’s dead and no longer needs me. It’s like one of your children, and you realize they’re not all you wanted them to be. {laughs} So I look at the film and I go, “Ewwwww, that could be better.” And then I think, “I gotta fix that.” And so I begin work on another one. {laughs}

I used to turn against the films and think they were generally awful, but then I realized you go through a little rite of passage. You finish your work and then you are done. It’s like a snake skin. You’re done with that snake skin that slides off, and then people look at the snake skins you leave behind.

HUGHES: So in your frustration with the previous film do you come away with a new problem you want to solve?

DORSKY: Yeah. Like in Sarabande, for the first time I feel the nature of the images work together in a way that’s more of a unified braiding of shots and time, rather than the film as a montage of images. It’s getting more musical.

HUGHES: Hence the name Sarabande?

DORSKY: Yeah.

HUGHES: This is when it would have been nice to see the film a couple times before speaking with you. I don’t want to pin you down, but can you think of a moment in that film that you knew worked, or that surprised you, as soon as you found it in editing?

DORSKY: Well, the second cut. You see extremes – winter trees and sun, and then clouds and sun, and then a cut to a very still shot on a diagonal, and then a cut to a very dark shot where the camera is moving past some trees. They’re actually trees in a store window at Christmas time. There’s something about the whole screen imploding into darkness and then your eye finding the image in that darkness. It’s moving, while the other one was completely still.

And then you cut to a grey shape. You can’t tell what it is. I don’t even know what it is anymore. It’s sort of quivering in the light. And then down to these other colors. It’s a journey: You’re welcomed, but then it’s undercut into a deeper, more interior sense. And then you’re taken along. I think it’s all becoming more in union with itself. The nature of the shots and cuts are getting more in union with their multiple purposes.

HUGHES: The camera was moving more in Sarabande.

DORSKY: I think so, yeah. And right now I’m working on one and I’m moving the camera a lot more. What’s important is that the film doesn’t break down into a dualism. It’s not a camera looking at something. It’s a unified movement: the screen is becoming something, as well as the camera is moving. It doesn’t break down into, “I’m taking a picture of that,” which is when cinema collapses.

Out of a certain kind of self-hatred, I was afraid to include my body more – not shots of my body {laughs}, but moving my camera more. So I feel that I’ve done enough quietude in the key of quietude, and I’ve become much more interested in seeing how much movement and activity I can get into the film and still not break the quietude.

In the film I’m working on now, I’m being much more energetic with the camera. I want to see how totally visually active I can be and still have this essence be still – the spiritual essence be still. Whereas before I felt like I had to be still. But that’s only logical. It’s how anyone would learn to walk or anything. First you learn to be still by being still, and then you start to take risks. I think risk and adventure is the key to good filmmaking. You have to go on adventures – be where you haven’t been before.

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