Songs of devotion

Nathaniel Dorsky finds alchemy in the dark during the light age

Accessible to anyone who might be interested in a deeper understanding of his or her own senses, Nathaniel Dorsky’s book, Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press), explores the physical properties we share with the film medium. Within the book, Dorsky draws upon films by Roberto Rossellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujuro Ozu, and others to illustrate his insights on filmic language. But if another person were capable of writing Devotional Cinema, he or she could just as effectively draw upon Dorsky’s films, which connect intrinsic facets of cinema to intrinsic truths about human experience.
Capable of discovering at least half a dozen fields of vision (or planes of existence, or worlds) within a single shot, Dorsky's films can fundamentally alter — and heighten — one’s own perception, and his editing skill, tapped by many local directors, is as fundamental to his work as his image making. Sam Mendes took American Beauty’s floating bag sequence from Dorsky’s Variations, which he read about during filming. (Dorsky has noted that the image isn’t a new one — and it isn’t necessarily the richest among his luminous, phantasmagoric visions.)
In conversation with filmmaker Michelle Silva of Canyon Cinema, Dorsky paraphrases the observation of his friend, anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a. Hakim Bey), that we’re trapped in a “light age” of meaningless information. “In the dark ages, there were little areas of light, where there might be alchemical investigations,” Dorsky says. “Now we have to find little areas of darkness.” This week brings an opportunity to explore those little areas, at a San Francisco Cinematheque program that will present Dorsky’s three most recent films, Song and Solitude, Threnody, and The Visitation, in alphabetical and reverse chronological order. (Intro by Johnny Ray Huston)
SFBG 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 affect the object that you're observing. Yet you seem to manage to do just that in your films — you don't disturb the environment.
NATHANIEL DORSKY 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.
SFBG My interpretation of your film Song and Solitude 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], 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.
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.