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The After-Image

How Nathaniel Dorsky's newest films ask viewers to think in images, not words.
Ryland Walker Knight

A variety of films by Nathaniel Dorsky play three successive Sundays in June to help kick off the summer season at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. Though the series has already begun, we offer one take on how Dorsky’s work works and we hope you can make it to the rest of the shows if you are in the Bay Area.

Above: The Visitation.

Last week while on Twitter, my eyes widened at an abbreviated idea cribbed from a Paris Review interview with William Burroughs in 1965 that read, “Start thinking in images, not words.” The simple truth, whether you’ve read that interview or any Burroughs book (such that they are books), is that words rarely do images justice. We’ve been given a number of vocabularies of the image over time, in particular during the cinema century we recently left, and the Internet age has morphed that understanding yet again by making the links between things (websites, sites, sights) explicit, but we still get confused by certain ways of seeing that stray from recognizable patterns. One of the difficulties of watching a film by Nathaniel Dorsky is precisely that it asks us to think exclusively in images, and without any easily-discernible framework to their arrangement. There are links to be made, from one shadow to another, but it takes more work than I, for one, am accustomed to in the everyday. Which points to just how unique an opportunity this program is to test my skills of reading and sense-making, of opening my eyes and letting the images work on me, instead of trying to work on the images.

Another truth: much as I find it nearly impossible to read some books for longer than one chapter at a time, as with Burroughs’ “Western Lands” for example, I find it similarly difficult to watch more than one Dorsky film at a time. The films exceed me. Not because I cannot make sense of them, and not because I don’t enjoy them; rather, a customary program of three in a row is too much for me to process at one time. The films wash past me, almost, and become, simply, objects to be regarded instead of the unique works of art that they are, to be discovered and stitched together anew individually. Each film is so rich, triggering as many associations as there are edits, and in just as many directions, that to watch an hour of their 18fps flicker is exhausting.

It doesn’t help that they are silent. We rely on our ears to see as much as we rely on our noses to taste. Yes, every sense infiltrates another. Watching a Dorsky picture, I find myself painfully loud. My nose whistles, my bones crack, I shift in my seat, I pop my eardrums and my neck and my wrists all too often. Never mind the impossibility of scratching out notes in the dark (as I’ve tried every time I see a Dorsky, a practice I usually abjure while movie-going)—simply seeing the screen for what it is, and then seeing the images for what they are, and then seeing how they talk to one another, is as alienating an experience as I can imagine, as it makes my body, however noisy, into an afterthought, which feels just as uneasy as it does suitable to the event. But encountering a Dorsky film (or any silent a-g film) has its virtues. It’s an education, for one. A Dorsky picture is—as is any film (a-g, genre, whatever) if we’re honest—an object lesson in seeing.

Burroughs might help, here, too: in that same 1965 interview, he suggests that silence is crucial to understanding the image, to get into its vocabulary. He talks about his desire for images as a desire to move outward, to leave the body behind and “to learn to see more of what’s out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings.” He even gave his interlocutor an imperative: “Try this. Carefully memorize the meaning of a passage, then read it; you'll find you can actually read it without the words making any sound whatever in the mind's ear. Extraordinary experience, and one that will carry over into dreams. When you start thinking in images, without words, you're well on the way.” Burroughs goes on to discuss his ideas of the cut-up, how he would physically rearrange text with scissors and tape and glue, as a way to create more images than if he were to simply write a story, or a poem. In effect, he would force ideas into conjunction, which is an apposite concept when thinking about these Dorsky films.

Above: August and After.

Let’s take a look at the title the PFA has given this series of Sundays: Afterimage. I’ve added an article and a hyphen to my title, above, because that’s how I read this lovely phrase. One of the rhythms I develop while watching a Dorsky is looking for what remains of an image after an edit takes us someplace new. It’s easier when going from light to dark or from dark to light, but even when we transition from the sun occluded by branches to the sidewalk occluded by glass, the branching pattern of shadows from the first image lingers over the odd angles on pavement in the successive composition. The easy metaphor, here, would be to see this as the natural world’s imprint on the one we humans have made. More interesting, maybe, is how close our world is to the natural world, and how easily we forget it.

One of Dorsky’s many gifts is his ability to see a world of multiplicity, of things overlapping and abutting, but without any notion of chaos. Even when his camera moves, and moves into an edit, what persists is this layering intention, and the desire for layers to fold—to fold back, to unfold, to fold in, in any direction. However, the pleats in these later films do not mean images collide so much as simply move into one another. Hence my desire for the “lingering” concept, ignited by how retinae work like film stock, with the world printing itself in reverse, and by how brains are built to work fast but not that fast. As hinted at before, speed is something I might want inside a Dorsky film (along with a soundtrack?), but it suits me and the films to try to slow things as best I can in an attempt to isolate the images, to kind of file them for later, while also allowing them to flow and inform one another as they unspool forward. (Again, Burroughs: his desire for heroin was a desire to slow his metabolism in order to slow time, or at least his experience of it.)

Afterimage might also come to mean a certain place where these films reside. That is, the world we see there, in that lingering, is one we rarely see but for the fact that we cannot see without the image, without images. But here I am playing with words to try to get there (a viewer can only talk about the films after they’re gone, after all) and that might be another way to read this phrase: after image, word; or, words after images. What’s plural and what’s singular is going to confuse everybody, though, so let’s leave this for now with the next idea: that we can only categorize or program these films in a vocabulary within which they do not participate. This is not Godard, who feigns to say goodbye to language in his next (3D!) film, who uses intertitles and voice-over galore. In Dorsky, there are simply titles—up front, over black—and then these images, after which we trail and curl like so many children chasing balloons.

Above: August and After.

This past Sunday’s program featured a new work, August and After, a pointed remembrance of George Kuchar and Carla Liss, that is the most “documentary” work I’ve seen of Dorsky’s to this point. That is, there are more humans. In truth, all of his films are of particular documentarian regard for the world. (However, this understanding gets fudged by all the films’ interest in light: certain shots’ duration seem determined by the sun’s movement more than the shadows’ waving, which could be read as privileging daylight over night, but the mosaic effect here erases almost any notion of privilege, of one image meaning anything more than its confederates.) You might characterize these films as akin to poetry, but the materiality of his practice—Dorsky is devoted to 16mm, to filming films on film—is matched by the granular textures of many images. In an earlier film, The Visitation (2002), shower curtain polka dots look like the universe come alive, undulating, but the overall mode is presentational as much as the more common avant-garde thrust towards “pure expression” or some such. These are films of objects and how they figure into a world, however canted the angles may be.

Though August and After spends a lot of time in public, amongst the bustle of the street, it is an elegy. After some preliminary snippets of what I presume is a final or near-final visit to the Kuchar home, and of other mingling bodies, we see a flag turned black by a back-lit composition of the wind rippling that unknown banner, caught in a close-to-pinhole exposure that gives the image a phenomenal depth of field but limits the palette to a contrast-heavy grayscale. (This effect also speaks to the new Kodak film stock Dorsky is now employing.) But, despite the somber tone this sets, the film is also lively with crowds of people scuttling in and around the various markets that line Clement Street in San Francisco’s outerland known as The Richmond. This activity is seen from a surprising variety of distances, setting up the closest thing to a dichotomy I’ve seen in Dorksy, with all this human-body-commotion pitched against the placid skies, as the flag-sky image rhymes with a number of images born from inside an elevator, one of which signals the end of the piece, as it rises into a lens flare, until this is cut away from, to show us what looks like snow descending slower than usual in the slight unreality of 18 frames per second.

The images are doleful, though mixed with the colors of moving through life, and the final image is certainly a farewell, for, though it appears static, its image shivers unstuck without the the director’s familiar obfuscation or sliding movements. It’s a simple composition that can carry manifold meanings, but it’s significant for this seeming-stasis niggled into the film’s otherwise unhurried and sedate flux of time. Given the distance from the camera to its subject, which I suppose I can say is a tanker on the Pacific Ocean, it’s almost as if Dorsky has finally unfolded a map and, in holding the shot for as long as he does, and as steadily as he does, it’s like he’s smoothing the creases in that map, to make the path forward (and back) as legible as possible. I was not expecting such a lucid finale, but the simplicity makes sense in a lament like this.

Part of what makes the image of the tanker so moving is just how simple it is to read as an image of ferrying. But the ship is not quite moving, and the image is not quite at the port of the San Francisco Bay or the Golden Gate Bridge; nor is there anything but water and a few flowers in front of it, rising from the horizon of the cliff Dorsky is obviously shooting from, high above the waves that seem, yes, at rest. It’s yet another image of a specific object from a specific perspective that places the object in a specific, nigh documentary, space and time. The title of the film aims at the "After," given its syntax and rhythm, and this composition of a ship literally at bay may well be our quintessential Afterimage because it shows something present that will undoubtedly leave, even if its trajectory is a mystery for now.


Long ReadsNathaniel Dorsky
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