Nathaniel Dorsky's Song

In his final installment from NYFF 51, Critics Academy member Gus Reed takes a look at Nathaniel Dorsky's new work, Song and Spring, which screened in Views from the Avant-Garde at the recent festival.

Ten years after the death of the composer Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky famously described him as a visionary whose icily spare compositions fell on deaf ears in his own time, but who nonetheless “inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, of whose mines he had such perfect knowledge.” San Francisco-based experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is, thankfully, very much alive and still creating, but his remarkable body of work thus far—only about two dozen 16 mm, silent short films in nearly fifty years— suggests a similarly steadfast commitment to a meticulously personal vision. In an age where any given film (even one still shot on film) is immediately converted for and disseminated across an ever-expanding number of digital platforms, Dorsky’s self-imposed restrictions on form may seem like relics from a bygone heyday of the American avant-garde.

Anyone who experienced Song and Spring, his two new works, which screened at NYFF, realized that Dorsky’s insistence on this habitual form is not an affectation or the stamp of a inflexible mind, but simply a means to an uncommonly intimate kind of visual storytelling. The “diamonds” Dorsky inexorably keeps on cutting are films that bypass sound, narrative and character in their immediate, irresistible plea to the senses.  

The opening frames of Song, in a single, generous stroke, teach us how to watch Dorsky’s films. From blackness, a sliver of light comes into view. The camera seems to tilt, revealing, in crystalline focus, a perspective through a window looking out into light. What precisely we are looking at isn’t as important as the process of looking, which isn’t nearly as simple a task as we might have thought it was. Hardly any image in a Nathaniel Dorsky film has only one dimension. He places his camera before surfaces that allow for constant reflection and superimposition, so that the moment our eyes encounter a stable focus, we suddenly become aware of an entirely separate field hovering above or lurking beneath our vision. Looking through a store window, our attention dilates between the glass itself, the objects just beyond it, and the warm blur of movement on the street reflected back at us. Traces of human activity haunt the outskirts of Dorksy’s frames, never coming fully into center. There is nothing desolate about this human absence, since nearly every image glows with signs of life—human and otherwise.

Nathaniel Dorsky's Spring

Not all of Dorsky’s beguiling surfaces are uncomplicatedly beautiful—or harmless. Even at its most lyrical and celebratory, Song exudes an awareness of impermanence and death; at its most lush, Spring never gives us the sense of a paradise that didn’t grow from dirt. Some images—like a glittering skull made of jewels or the pale, synthetic faces of models in storefront advertisements in Song—have a sinister wit. Others, like the time lapses of nature in Spring, which seem to bloom from blackness to color and back, seem like poignant, awe-struck reminders of processes beyond human control. 

Dorsky’s images are not the vehicles of an overriding theme, and he shies away from blunt symbolism. The total absence of story, however, doesn’t mean that these films are unstructured, only that this structure is one of interwoven visual connection, not cause and effect. “They say that grandchildren are actually more like their grandparents than their parents,” Dorsky joked in a 2001 interview with Scott MacDonald for Film Quarterly. “My method feels something like that: I want each shot to continue to play a role, after the next shot, and the next, has passed.” Each image, which illuminates the screen only for a few moments, also resonates after it is gone, as time passes and patterns of light, color and movement collect in the viewer’s memory.  

In many ways, the experience of watching these two twenty-minute films is more like listening to a continually fluid, mysterious piece of music in a concert hall or observing the relentless motion of dancers’ bodies in a ballet. In fact, Dorsky counts choreographer George Balanchine among his chief influences— along with Henry James, Walt Disney, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, and his life-long partner, Jerome Hiler, whose film, Misplacement, screened in the same program with Song and Spring.

As Dorsky freely admits, there’s something worshipful in the close communion with silent images that his films foster. A film played in silence demands a more total surrender on the part of the viewer than one that uses music and voices to smooth over the ambience of a group of people sitting and breathing together in a darkened theater. Exposing an audience to silence, and the unpredictable host of chance sounds—coughs, whispers, shifts in weight, crinkling wrappers, buzzing cell phones—that emerge in this quiet, is a risky undertaking, with equal potential for frustration and transcendence.

Dorsky’s films risk this divisiveness. They don’t take us out of ourselves or provide a flight into a fully-formed universe so much as they ask us to marvel at the blinding, impermanent luminosity of our own. We may not be used to giving so much of ourselves to an experience at the movies. We may be too exhausted to look deeply, or embarrassed by the sudden intimacy of our exposure to these images and the people encountering them with us. Those willing to surrender, momentarily, to Dorsky’s uncommon vision will find that Song and Spring return, in full, their devotion.