Triste 19m Nathaniel Dorsky
17 Reasons Why 19m
Words of Mercury 25m Jerome Hiler
Before any celluloid was actually projected, a New York Film Festival staff member gave a brief introductory statement to the first series of films by Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler that was deceptively pragmatic: “the filmmakers have requested exactly one minute of darkness between each of these short films.” This was my introduction, better yet my “fair warning,” to these two experimental film artists whose breathtakingly gorgeous work constantly crosses the line between the familiar and the totally abstract. I’d like to hope that their induction alongside the likes of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Maya Deren in the canon of great filmmakers of the avant-garde will be inevitable in part thanks to this, one of the centerpiece retrospective series of this year’s New York Film Festival. Most graciously, this series finds the complete works of Dorsky and Hiler screening in the medium which unquestionably brings them to living, breathing life: 16mm film. The conundrum thus far of their careers is that the medium which makes their movies so incredible, which in fact makes them what they are, is also what makes them almost impossible to see unless one is lucky enough to get to attend a retrospective such as this. Dorsky and Hiler, knowing that they must sacrifice long-standing recognition for the sake of their films themselves, refuse to distribute their work in any form other than 16mm.
They’re able to do this, as well as make requests for minute-long stretches of darkness among other unconventional practices of contemporary movie showmanship, because it is completely worth it–as I came to understand within a few minutes of watching their films. Those minute-long interludes of pitch darkness proved remarkably effective not only as crucial space to quickly pause and reflect, but also as a kind of palette cleansing or prep time, so to speak, for the next film. In that minute of total absence of anything (other than the snoring of the person sent into a deep state of subconsciousness right behind me), we were made ready for the structural and aesthetic differences of what was to follow. Anything could happen. Each short film stood on its own; no governing link existed between them other than the overarching artistic methods unique to their makers.
Dorsky and Hiler know the value of absence, of dark space—the film artist’s equivalent of the painter’s blank canvas, or the writer’s blank page. Dorsky’s short, “17 Reasons Why” (1989), which begins with a penetratingly green film countdown, consists of 17 segments of images each with its own faded color motif split into four quadrants (Dorsky uses unsplit regular 8mm film which results in four 8mm frames composing a full 16mm frame). These quick montages of often indiscernible images, challenging the viewer to find some correlation or degree of separation between them, are separated by about 10 seconds of dark silence. The outcome of these interim breathing spaces was something akin to watching a fireworks show. A quick succession of bright images—a brief pause—another explosive succession—a brief pause—and so on. I found myself craning my neck upwards, staring wide-eyed, my mouth agape. I was hypnotized.
The process of consuming art is, in many respects, fundamentally different from creating art. Or at least, the experience of going to a theater to see a film may lead one to believe that. If you’ve ever seen production stills from any movie, whether it is a blockbuster or a tiny independent film, the effect can be jarring. There’s a distinct demarcation between what’s being filmed and the crew doing the filming; behind a quiet shot of a character perhaps sitting on a porch lies a veritable army of crew, cameras, and equipment. So when you see a film on a large screen, the director is hoping you immerse yourself in the diegesis, yet there’s a lingering sense of artifice in the whole thing. The director is in a much different position than the spectator.
The films of Nathaniel Dorsky, by contrast, succeed in closing the rift that exists between filmmaker and filmgoer. Most of the films in Dorsky’s oeuvre are silent, and all exist solely on 16mm film. These qualities appear strange, as if Dorsky is resisting the flow of technical progress, yet these two seemingly incidental aspects of his films foster in the audience a connection to the film and filmmaker that’s peculiar to Dorsky. You have to go to a theater to see it, and you have a direct relationship to the image on screen. (Concerns about use of sound distracting from the action on screen go back to the advent of sound on film, a historical concern Mr. Dorsky seems to share.)
And what’s on the screen is breathtaking. The films aren’t formally structured to lead to a concrete argument; rather, the focus is the content of the image on the screen. The footage feels incidental, as if Dorsky walked outside with some intention other than filming, but couldn’t help but record something. As someone who spent most of their summer filming grass and trees and water, this type of filmmaking is meditative and relaxed. Especially in this type of experimental film, one records on an emotional and aesthetic level, focusing on composition of shots in the spur of the moment, and adding any intellectual structure later. By almost eliminating any intellectual montage and opting for a film devoted more to the emotive qualities of the shots, Dorsky manages to blur the lines between artist and spectator. In other words, for Dorsky there is no diegesis, and there’s no inherent difference between him and the person sitting in the theater. Behind Dorsky’s films, there is no crew or equipment: it’s just one guy. And in watching these films, this exact quality is apparent. It feels as if Dorsky is showing you what he filmed or what he was feeling, not as a director to a viewer, but as one friend to another.
February 17m Nathaniel Dorsky
I understand the value of experimental film. I can respect Nathaniel Dorsky for his work and for his place in cinema. I can even understand, from a safe distance, why his work is interesting–but I really did not enjoy these shorts. Maybe my tastes in film are rather conventional, but when I go to the movies I want to be entertained. I want to be challenged and touched and forced to confront my own flaws and prejudices too—but through it all I don’t want to feel like I’m suffering to make it to the credits.
Above all, I think I would rather have been Dorsky making these films than the spectator watching them. As someone who spends so much of his daily life trying to catch tiny moments, I completely understand why Dorsky—from the light dancing off windows and flowers swaying in the wind—was compelled to capture those moments too. And as Hunter describes in his review, Dorsky made these shorts without a crew. It was just him with a camera, stumbling upon moments he wanted to record. In that sense, I would have been in heaven making these shorts. And in that same sense, I am like Dorsky every day. In fact, in this age of cameras everywhere, many of us can be.
Like many others, I love stumbling upon moments and hitting record, either as inspiration for future work, as practice of the craft, or as moments I just want to keep. I wouldn’t think to screen an hour and a half of such footage without sound and with minute long breaks in complete darkness. I feel like that would be elevating work that is not worthy nor complete. This kind of undue elevation seems to track along lines of genre—and Dorsky undoubtedly fits into the broad genre we call “experimental.”
Labelling a work as “experimental” is far too often used as convenient explanation for a work’s shortcomings. If the shots go on too long, if the lighting is bad, etc. it can all be written off and is even celebrated as a challenge to convention. Film has always been a medium where audiences are encouraged to project their feelings onto the screen—but in film deemed “experimental” especially, every choice becomes enchanted with the power to mean more than it really does. Experimental film is distinct from the parallel “experiments” of other art forms in that the audience is forced to consume the work in the way the artist intended. With an experimental sculpture, for example, we can choose how long we spend with it, what angles we view it from, and so forth. In this case, however, we had to endure the minute long breaks in dark silence and watch the footage in the order and for the duration that Dorsky intended. I think in the case of film–because the medium gives the artist so much control over the viewing experience—the audience assumes that each choice has a meaning. Whether true or not, the audience assumes Dorsky must have a reason for the minute long breaks, the long takes, the order of the shots and what their juxtaposition implies. Thus, with that dynamic built into the viewing experience and the knowledge that Dorsky is a renowned “experimental” filmmaker, it is easy as an audience member to project meaning onto the screen and his shorts. Not only easy, but necessary: the man’s hallowed reputation all but communicates to skeptics that “If you didn’t like it, you didn’t get it.”
This kind of discursive ballyhoo surrounding the term “experimental” is interesting to discuss, but I don’t care to sit there in the dark while it plays out on screen. Most of the series felt like being forced to sit through a series of nature shots strung together for a fan-made music video, these “natural” motifs repeated so often in the first few shorts that by the time I had survived enough to reach the short entitled “February,” it was almost as brutal as getting through the month itself.
In 2012, P. Adams Sitney interviewed Jerome Hiler as part of that year’s Whitney Biennial. A large subject of their conversation was the influence of music on Hiler’s work and that of his partner, Nathaniel Dorsky. While Hiler’s experiences with music (he was once a music copyist; he has made a film about the Louisville Orchestra) have seeped into his smooth pans and use of double exposure, Dorsky’s work is most striking for its lack of musicality. In his films, each individual shot distracts away from the whole, their gem-like beauty and shifts in exposure undermining any broad structural conceit. One can read his use of images both from nature and the urban environment as a sort of juxtaposition. His works would no doubt be experienced as a collision if they were accompanied with a synchronized soundtrack, the wind through the budding cherry blossoms running into and up against the traffic outside a restaurant.
But Dorsky’s silence is leveling. He sees all parts of his world as visual material, and while other people figure prominently in many of his compositions, his is a social cinema, not a political one. In the work of others, it would make sense to explore the implications of a cut from a field of wildflowers to a perfume ad in the distant background, reflected through glass. Here, though, such discussions would be frustrating more than illuminating, mostly because the infrequency of such obviously linear and logical construction would weaken Dorsky’s more consistent interests. Taffeta, ornaments, denim and mirrors make Dorsky some kind of Douglas Sirk of the avant-garde film world, and just as Sirk’s melodramas work best when the Brechtian elements keep you from getting involved, Dorsky’s films sing when you stop following them cut to cut. I would love to see what he would do with Trump’s hair.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.