To sing like a mockingbird: A conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky

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In conjunction with an upcoming screening at San Francisco Cinematheque, Nathaniel Dorsky recently discussed his ideas and work with fellow filmmaker Michelle Silva of Canyon Cinema; Canyon is the sole distributor of Dorsky's exquisite personal films, which are not available on video.
A shorter version of this interview, with introductory notes, can be found within this week's issue of the Guardian.

Michelle Silva: First I want to ask about your recent book Devotional Cinema. I think it’s some of the most thoughtful and introspective writing on the human experience of cinema and the physical properties we share with the medium -- such as our internal visual experience, metaphor, and the art of seeing. What’s great about the book is that it’s accessible to people who aren’t well versed in cinema, but who might be interested in a deeper understanding of their own senses.
Nathaniel Dorsky: The basic ideas for the book were originally formulated because I was hired to teach a course on avant-garde film at UC Berkeley for a semester. I didn’t want to teach a survey course on avant-garde cinema; I didn’t think I could do that with real enthusiasm, I thought it would be a little flat. I decided that what was most interesting to me about avant-garde film -- or at least the avant-garde films that I found most interesting -- was a search for a language which was purely a filmic language.

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Still from Nathaniel Dorsky's film Threnody
Not something limited to film, but a purely filmic language that also had human value to it. There are various filmmakers who’ve explored human cinema language, or cinema human language, which is something other than using film to replicate a written language form, whether it be the novel or the poem. I was interested in something that was actually intrinsic to the nature of cinema, expressive as cinema, and at the same time expressive of our human needs and human worth.

MS: Within the book, you focus more on narrative cinema than on the avant-garde.
ND: One reason for that is that the book comes from a lecture. Even though the initial structure of the book and the ideas were first formulated for teaching an avant-garde film class in Berkeley in 1990, it really [formed] when I was invited to be a keynote speaker in Princeton in 2001 on the topic of religion in cinema. I reworked the lecture and moved it in that [narrative] direction.
I’d spoken to P. Adams Sitney, who is a professor of film at Princeton. I asked, “What kind of films can I talk about – what kind of audience is this?” He said, “If you talk about avant-garde films, they’re not going to know what you’re talking about. If you mention [Stan] Brakhage, they’ll only know of Brakhage as an idea.” He said to make references to films that people might find more familiar.

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Cover of Nathaniel Dorsky's book Devotional Cinema

The book really came out of the transcript of that lecture, as first published by the Museum of Modern Art. Princeton gave me a tape of the lecture and the Modern transcribed it for me, and then I sat down with a dear friend, Nick Hoff, and we had a wonderful time working for two or three months, twice a week for four hours, from one to five in the afternoon. He lives up above Chinatown, and I would take him to dinner. We never got burnt out, and we worked at it very, very hard. We’d put it away for a few weeks and then I’d reread it to see if there was any word that was faking it in some small way. I slowly polished it – it’s highly polished as a written text taken from the spoken transcript.

MS: Do you keep a diary or journal about your own filmmaking and/or film watching experiences?
ND: No. When one is young, in one’s twenties, one might begin to keep a list of every film one saw. When you’re young, you’re trying to give your film-going a sense of seriousness.
It’s very easy to forget a bad film.

MS: One time I was questioning you about why we torment ourselves making films, and you said, “It’s to attract a mate.” Could you elaborate on that theory?
ND: I myself met my friend Jerome, who I still live with, on the night that I premiered my first film, when I was 20. So in a way it happened right away for me.
But I’ve worked for many people in the film industry as an editor, especially in the area of documentary, and I think that at least three or four times I’ve worked for someone who was looking for a mate. I’ve said to them, “Don’t worry, when you finish this film – if you listen to me and we make this film good – I guarantee that you’ll get a mate from this film.”
Once, a friend, Richard Lerner, was producing and directing a film on Jack Kerouac called What Happened to Kerouac?, which I edited. It came time to write out an enormous check to make a 35mm print from the video material. He was really hesitant, and he was single at the time. I said, “Don’t worry, there is no way you won’t get a permanent relationship from this film.” He got irritated with me, because it was something like the third time I’d said that to him. But a woman approached him after the film premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and they’ve been married ever since.
That has happened with at least four other filmmakers. I worked with Kelly Duane, who made a wonderful film [Monumental] about David Brower, the guy who radicalized the Sierra Club. She was single. She met someone when she showed the film in LA at an environmental film festival, and now she’s married and has a child.
If the film is well-edited, you’ll wind up with a mate.

MS: Is that why you’ve earned the reputation of being the editing doctor of San Francisco?
ND: Yes. I work for a lot of single women.
But to answer your question in a more simple way, birds sing, and every February or March, a mockingbird always appears in my backyard and sings all night. If it’s a bad singer, there can be trouble. One bird three years ago was not a good singer. It sang from February until the first week of July before another bird sang along with it -- then it disappeared. But sometimes they sing for four nights and it’s over. They’ve gotten someone, because they’re really good singers.
To sing for four nights as a mockingbird would be the equivalent of a music group putting out three or four CDs. They all meet girls or boys, in the spirit that our desire to sing, so the speak, is intrinsic to our passion and to sharing passion with others.

MS: I’d never thought of filmmaking as a mating call, but you’re right.
ND: Many people don’t understand that, and they try to win their mate by making horrible and aggressive conceptually-based films. No one is drawn to them, and then they get even more conceptual and aggressive. It can be a downward spiral.

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Still from Nathaniel Dorsky's film Triste (from Canyon Cinema website)

MS: A lot of people think that high concept means a film can’t be visually interesting or beautiful.
ND: The percentage of successful avant-garde films is no less or greater than the percentage of features. There might be a higher percentage, because there are fewer avant-garde films than the thousands of features you’d never want to see again. The trouble is that life is a very full experience – it involves form and feeling and psychology. Unfortunately, most films in the narrative and non-narrative form don’t play with a full deck. They’re isolated in the realms of concept or visual ornament or idea, and life is more than any of those things.
It’s difficult, because you’d think anyone who’d want to make a so-called handmade film would do so to have complete control of the situation. It’s also a chance to make a film that isn’t based on socialized needs. When you make your own individual film, it’s generally an opportunity to be completely who you are and share the intimacy with someone else. In my experience, the more purely individual a film is, the more universal it is. The less successful attempts at filmmaking occur when people are trying to make something which functions within the context of current belief systems. It’s like trying to get a good grade in society, even if it’s alternative society, rather than actually taking the risk of letting the audience feel your heart and your clarity and [to] touch them with that.

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Nathaniel Dorsky, photo by Jerome Hiler

MS: That’s definitely connected to what’s happened to avant-garde film -- it has become a genre. It used to be that true form of expression and creativity. Then the renegade filmmakers started teaching to make a living and make their films. It became a study, then it became a genre in which you have techniques that are academic and formalized.
ND: Society is very animal-like, not in a pejorative sense. Like pack dogs – usually one dog is willing to go out and bite the deer, and the others just stand there; once the deer is wounded, the others will join in. That’s a rather inappropriate allegory –

MS: You’re absolutely right, though. There are audiences frozen wondering, “Does everyone else like it? Should we applaud?” It can be infuriating.
ND: It seems also like the nature of things. In evolution, you read how there is a stasis for millions of years, and then suddenly during a 30,000-year period there will be an explosion of new forms, almost like some kind of catastrophe theory. There’s a certain kind of stasis and the form continues that way, and then suddenly there’s a collapse and all these new forms open up. Once something revolutionary happens, there’s this automatic wake, like a wake following a boat – ripples that go on for quite a while. Maybe it’s really nature and how nature evolves biologically and psychologically.

MS: We might be in a dark age in architecture, design, fashion, and everything that involves representing ourselves visually. Aesthetics are ignored, intellect isn’t challenged, nor is spirituality. In contrast, all of those things are at the foundation of your work. Does it bother you that the audience is small?
ND: I’m not sure. I’m 63 now, and in the last few years while showing my films in Europe and Canada and the US I’ve noticed that people in their twenties are really loving them. There’s some kind of interesting face-off between my own generation and people who are in their twenties now.

MS: It might be cyclical, with one generation rebelling against the next one.
ND: Alignment might be the word. There’s some kind of alignment that I’m experiencing. This is based, as they might say in a Senate hearing, on anecdotal evidence, but then there’s a very small chance for people to see these films.
Within the avant-garde, there’s the virgin syndrome, which is that every showcase will only show a film that’s never been screened before. Everyone wants a virgin for their temple. A good avant-garde film is made to be seen ten, fifteen, twenty times. I might have seen a film by Stan [Brakhage] for the first time when I was 18, and gone on to see it seven or eight more times over the course of my life.
But within avant-garde cinema, because of the virgin syndrome, and because they only sacrifice virgins at the temple altar at this point, audiences rarely get to experience a film a number of times. Outside of that, there’s now this fad in the museum world of something called moving images, where these [video] makers are coming [from a background] of being sculptors or gallery artists. They’re extremely highly paid, and usually the stuff [they make] is quite amateurish and rather trashy.
For the past few years I’ve been thinking that the museums are becoming more like funhouses. When I was a kid there were still amusement parks, remnants of the 19th century. They’d have a funhouse with slanted floors and all sorts of distortions. Today, the museums feel more like that. There are no more amusement parks, and since amusement parks were mostly a working class kind of entertainment, it’s interesting that the middle class has taken over the role of attending amusement parks via the museums. The amusement park syndrome of the museum is not really nurturing or respectful. It’s catering based on their [museum’s] own nervousness about box office.
At the Tate Modern, someone even recently decided to design slides. There’s no trust that someone could walk into a room and have the space and time and quietness to make a discovery about themselves and about the world through their own investigation, rather than being fed everything through plasma screens and obnoxious soundtracks.
It’s funny how you call it a dark age. I have a friend named Peter Lamborn Wilson, a fairly well known anarchist writer who writes under the name Hakim Bey. He wrote the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone (Autonomedia). He’s said this isn’t the dark age, it’s the light age, where there’s so much information that it’s become meaningless. In the dark age, there were little areas of light where there might be alchemical investigations. Now, we have to find little areas of darkness.

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Cover of Hakim Bey's book T.A.Z.
MS: It’s true. I don’t know if you’ve read [Jean] Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication (Autonomedia), but he talks about that – that the overload of communication had made everything transparent and meaningless. As people air out their dirty laundry, there’s no mystery or private life. Being under surveillance has made everything transparent.
I want to talk to you about Song and Solitude. My interpretation is that it is like a silent odyssey through shadow words and the introverted psyche. There are several masks and layers of reality that you’ve collapsed into one. There’s a depth of field in many shots, and the different layers aren’t aware of themselves while you’re aware of all of them. Could you talk about your visual language in the new film, and your state of mind while making it?

ND: There are a number of things involved. One is that I’d made a film right before [Song and Solitude] that will also part of the upcoming Cinematheque show, called Threnody, which was an offering to Stan Brakhage after his death. In that film, I was trying to shoot images while I had a sense of Stan looking over his shoulder one last time while leaving the world, having one last glance at the fleeting phenomena of life. I tried to choose shots that were at a point between being in the world and not being in the world -- as if you were looking back at the world from not being in the world.
Song and Solitude I made along with a friend, Susan Vigil, who was in the last year of her life with ovarian cancer. [She’s] a person who was extremely important to the San Francisco avant-garde film community and helped support the San Francisco Cinematheque throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. She was a wonderful, wonderful friend. She came and looked at camera rolls every Friday when I’d get them back from the camera store. There was that atmosphere going on of being with someone so close who was also involved in a terminal illness. But also you might say that with Threnody the camera was placed somewhere back around the ears looking out of your head. In Song and Solitude I actually placed the camera in a sense behind my own head – for a feeling like looking through your own head out [at the world]. In Threnody, there were things about the film that had to do with beauty that I found distracting. I said, “This film still isn’t honest enough -- I want to make a film that really expresses what it’s like to be. What my being feels like.” That includes visions, but being also includes pain, sadness and so forth.
Most of my films are more about seeing, or about using seeing as a way to express being. This film [Song and Solitude] is a little bit more about being, where seeing is an aspect of the being. The world is sort of seen through the whole fabric of your own psyche as a foreground. Through that foreground exists the visual world, almost as a background.

MS: In your depiction of nature, the branches are being, and the water is being. But when people enter, their faces are obscured –
ND: In that particular film [Song and Solitude], yes.
The thing is, of course human nature is an aspect of nature – where else did it come from? It’s a human variation of nature, it has its own particular kind of rhythms. In the film, I was seeing if I could try to shoot what we normally call nature, which is a very questionable word that people use to substitute for something they don’t know anything about. They say, “This is what nature does,” rather than thinking they don’t know what they’re talking about. Nature is sort of a convenient word to cover a vast area of total mystery and lack of knowledge. We use the word nature to make everything seem familiar.
I did want to see if I could photograph things which you’d traditionally call nature and things you’d call human nature with the same primordial sense, to see the slight rub of what human nature is and what nature is, where they are similar and where they feel different. How is muscular movement different from wind? I wanted the film to rest in a very primordial place in its visual essence.

MS: I remember running into you last year when you might have been shooting Threnody. You were in Chinatown perched right over a parking meter and you had your camera hidden underneath you. You were so still I almost didn’t notice you – you were blending in with the background. I started thinking about the rules of quantum physics, and that it’s impossible to not effect the object that you’re observing. Yet you seem to manage to do just that in your films -- you don’t disturb the environment.
ND: Photographing people is a little like photographing birds. If you just walk up to them, all of the birds will fly away. But if you’ve ever gone into the woods and sat very still for half an hour, all the animals will come back and gather around you. You have to be part of the inanimate world, so the animate world can feel relaxed and come around. Also, you can find these little psychic backwaters on the street – there are places where the energy doesn’t quite flow and you can kind of tuck yourself [within those places]. It has to do with the angle of the light and so forth.
There’s that aspect, and there’s also the aspect that when I’m shooting I like to get as far as I can from some conceptual realm, into a pure realm of phenomena. Sometimes it’s fun to feel that we’re all kind of fish in a tank and when people walk by they’re like fish swimming by --

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Still from Nathaniel Dorsky's film Threnody

MS: You even have a fish tank shot in one of the recent films.
ND: Yes. If you start to see everyone as a fish, suddenly we’re all in the water swimming around. Sometimes you can relax and the camera can join in the atmosphere. What you’re trying to do with the camera is get some kind of primordial and truly adventurous view of the world. The worst thing in filmmaking or photography is trying to make a picture of something. When a movie is made of pictures of something, it’s so distant. There’s this whole conceptual interface. The idea is not to take pictures of something, but to allow the camera to become of the world and have the screen simultaneously become of the world and become a world.

MS: After the screening of your films the other day, Johnny [Huston] and I both walked to our homes and found we were paying new attention to things – things I normally would think were still were in fact moving. I didn’t think I’ve ever been able to take an [film] experience with me to that degree.
ND: Any good film that’s strongly made, that has some visual integrity, leaves a wonderful after-image. You begin to see the world as the film has seen the world. That’s one very nice thing about film – it can enrich a whole experience of seeing. I’ve had that experience from visually successful narrative film; afterward, you may be able to hear the nature of conversation between people in a way that is not to your habit, in a way that is fresh.

MS: I know it’s been distressing for many filmmakers to lose more camera stocks, and I was wondering how you’re adapting to using Color Negative now.
ND: I’m not yet shooting Color Negative. I’m still shooting with Kodachrome. When it became extinct, I’d bought enough to still have enough to make at least one or two new films. I still haven’t confronted the problem of shooting with Color Negative.
There’s a company in Los Angeles that is starting to make movie film out of a wonderful Fuji slide film called Velvia. It’s quite expensive, but I bought a couple of rolls just to see what it looks like.
In terms of my using Color Negative, it would be like a painter like switching from acrylics to watercolor. My films, like any art form, are very much determined by the technical aspect of the material. You have to obey the needs and the strengths of the medium you’re using, whether it’s pastels or charcoals or oils. If one would start to shoot [using] Color Negative, one would discover the adventure within it – for instance, Color Negative has beautiful subtle colors in shadow areas. It might capture delicate color variations within shadow that Kodachrome couldn’t comprehend.

MS: Lastly, I want to ask about the roles of silence and sound in your films. Do you prefer silent films?
ND: The first three films I made when I was 20 and 21 were sound films. They’re very nice films, I like them a lot. I don’t think they’re particularly great sound films, but they do have sound, and the sound is important to them. But a number of the films that I admired the most that were being shown in the avant-garde arena at the time were silent, and I began to respect the silence as more difficult but more rewarding.
The first time I saw a silent Brakhage film, it seemed quite odd. If you’re used to having sugar with your coffee and someone gives you coffee without sugar, you might find it strange. But you can also get used to it, so that when someone puts sugar in your coffee it seems sort of obnoxious.
I think it’s really a question of getting used to something. It’s an acquired taste, silence, definitely an acquired taste. But once acquired, it has many deep rewards. For one thing, a sound film is more like sharing a socialized event, where to me a silent film is more like sharing the purity of your aloneness with the purity of someone else’s aloneness. The audience has to work a little harder, of course, to participate -- everything isn’t just spoon-fed to them. But if they do work a little bit harder, they’re more than rewarded for that effort.

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