Rites of passage

Three consecutive Sundays of Nathaniel Dorsky's resplendent films at the Pacific Film Archive

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Experimental bliss: Nathaniel Dorsky's 2011 The Return

arts@sfbg.com

FILM It's commonly said of Nathaniel Dorsky's films that they are beautiful beyond words. Which is true as far as it goes, but then the same could be said of many poems and they are words. What's clear is that Dorsky is absorbed with a classical fulfillment of form, and as such his films do better with poetics than interpretation (he has himself supplied a fine entry point with his slim volume Devotional Cinema). Poetics in this context means respecting the mystery and proceeding gingerly with gesture, metaphor, and detail. No one ever says of a Dorsky film, "I liked it the more I thought about it." Conversely, watching a second or third time one marvels to find the beauty springing to life with the same force, subtler and lovelier now for this trick of renewal. No one ever says of a sunset, "I've seen this one before."

A three-part retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive beginning June 10 retraces the last decade of Dorsky's work. The Return (2011) and August and After (2012) receive local premieres this weekend, accompanied by the delicate Pastourelle (2010). June 17 brings his "Quartet," to my mind a signal achievement of the young century. The series concludes June 24 with three earlier films confirming Dorsky's mastery of an open (sometimes called polyvalent) form of montage: Song and Solitude (2006), Threnody (2004), and The Visitation (2002). How fitting that these films should be spaced out over consecutive days of rest! They will be shown on 16mm because that is what they are (last I checked the museums still show the Old Masters in paint).

It's our good fortune to share a city with Dorsky: opportunities to see the films with him as a guide come a little more frequently, and the phenomena that supply his visual repertoire are that much more familiar. Here are the blossoms, the Chinatown lanterns, the drifting Muni trains, the ocean skies, and the seasons as we only dare to see them in deepest reverie.

Dorsky began making movies under the influence of people like Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, filmmakers who strove for an intrinsic cinematic language (while the auteurists chiseled out an essential cinema, they sought cinema's essence). After relocating to San Francisco in 1971, he reemerged with Hours for Jerome (1980-1982), a dense exercise in spiritual autobiography culled from pastoral years in New Jersey. The films began arriving with greater regularity after Triste (1998) and continue apace even after the desertion of his beloved Kodachrome.

The silence of Dorsky's films is lush, providing intoxicating accompaniment to the slowed projection of 18 frames per second which dips the photographic action just out of the flow of representation. The crescendos that surge past the finish of his films invariably leave me surprised that I haven't been listening to music, as the black of the theater seems clarified in the same way silence is after an expressive composition. Pushing the analogy further, the relationship between movement and stillness in his films is akin to that of sound and rest in music, the two leaved together as intonation. We really need a new word to describe the juddering movement of branches and buds that punctuate Dorsky's films. "Quiver" is close, but it doesn't capture the spring in the frame, like dancers on a stage.

A couple of months ago, Dorsky showed something called Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Reel 1) at Lincoln Center: Song and Solitude-era footage in the chronological order in which it was shot. The material had a completely distinct character viewed this way. Dorsky talked of it as a journal. The loose form made it easier to relate to his eye being grasped by something in the world, and yet one missed the justice of the cuts.

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