The illuminated room

Silent songs in the devotional cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky

It would be revealing, if not revelatory, to ask Nathaniel Dorsky to name his favorite times of the day in which to film — if asked to comment on seasons in San Francisco, one senses he could likely break down the differences in quality of light from hour to hour. This assertion is probably presumptuous, but a single shot in Dorsky's Sarabande (2008) — of a woman and child and a glass door — prompts it. Just one of many of Dorsky's moving pictures that pierces through its sheer clarity — a kind of beauty that hurts and heals — the shot is brighter than most of Dorsky's daylit visions. It has a downtown light that is different from that of the avenues and garden paths where some of his recent work resides.

As Dorsky inspires some of the most open-mindedly and -heartedly conversant writing on film today, perhaps it's time to claim him as a San Francisco filmmaker, acknowledging that while such a tag suits him, his films strip away such restrictive labels. In an excellent preliminary response to Sarabande and Winter (2008), the critic Michael Sicinski referred to the latter as a corollary to the "sharp, biting cold" of San Francisco winters, a description that makes me want to replace sharp and biting with wet and lingering, while adding bone-deep for good measure. Somehow, Winter makes these qualities revivifying.

Winter is bejeweled by rain — its splendor is an earthy, non-campy variant of the bedazzled visions of gay filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, James Bidgood, and Jack Smith. I'll switch to a confessional voice and admit that, in comparison to Michigan's windy and below-freezing baptisms, I find San Francisco winters tortuous to endure. They've played host to my worst depressions. To behold and then remember a film devoted to them — Dorsky's brief note: "San Francisco's winter is a season unto itself. Fleeting, rain-soaked, verdant, a brief period of shadows and renewal" — is to receive a gift.

Shadowplay and reflection are the essence of cinema, and Dorsky makes cinema from their occurrence within daily life. Dorsky's films are elemental. One can posit them as a manmade form of photosynthesis — just as sunlight passes through leaves and makes them semi-transparent (a process that attracts Dorsky's gaze), so light passes through celluloid so it can become something on the screen. A passage in Song and Solitude (2005-06) looks up at the moon in the night sky, and what a star — the greatest movie star? — it is.

Dorsky's films are silent. They are also songs, an inference present in Sarabande's title and the name this week's San Francisco Cinematheque program, introduced by Bill Berkson. "Dark and stately is the warm, graceful tenderness of the Sarabande," writes Dorsky in his brief description of that film. Yet faster and livelier is Dorsky's editing there, so that — as Sicinski perceptively notes — the singular montage he (and perhaps the late Warren Sonbert, in a brotherly way) developed undergoes a transformation, and certain images recur or echo in a musical or Apichatpong-like manner. The first time I saw Winter and Sarabande I had a terrible headache, and by their conclusion, I felt better than "normal," so it was funny to reread Dorsky's book Devotional Cinema (2003–05) recently and see him relate a similar experience about attending a Mozart opera. These films are more than cinematic Tylenol, though. Composed from a singular point of view, they're ravishing — on a human, rather than crushingly panoramic, scale.

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