Last night, the REDCAT screened some works by avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky (who was in attendance), and my own pre-show experience set the tone. Hopping out of the downtown Los Angeles subway near dusk, I was only one of a handful of pedestrians walking up the steep hill on 1st Street; suddenly thousands of immigrants began pouring over the crest of the hill a few blocks away, parading joyously past me with flags waving in an endless stream of solidarity. It was an impressive moment, and not unlike the experience of watching a Dorsky film: a heretofore obscure or ignored reality captured my attention and awakened me to the present through its combination of nowness and progression, a spontaneous moment born from an ongoing truth.
Mainstream commentators first clued into Dorsky as Sam Mendes’ inspiration for the empty bag wafting in the wind in American Beauty, but Dorsky has been making films since the ’60s. According to CalArt’s Steve Anker, who emceed the screening, Jonas Mekas recently maintained that Dorsky’s early work counts among the best films produced in New York during their era.
In recent years, Dorsky has also received the spotlight with his essay “Devotional Cinema,” printed in MoMA’s The Hidden God collection and later published as a standalone booklet. In it, he writes: “The word ‘devotion,’ as I am using it, need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form. Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation. When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us up to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world.”
The REDCAT screened three films, all silent 16mm projections: the two-part “devotional songs,” The Visitation (2002) and Threnody… (2004), and one of four “cinematic songs,” Love’s Refrain (2000-2001). Each film was roughly twenty minutes in length, and featured largely stationary images of nature, sunsets, people and faces, windows and storefronts, all recorded within walking distances of Dorsky’s home. (Dorsky distrusts filming in unfamiliar places because he feels one can be “seduced by the newness of a place” and return with unspectacular footage.)
Each shot in the films suggests discovery, a momentary glance at something that existed before and will continue after the shot, and the lulling editing rhythms encourage contemplation. “Shots are the accommodation,” Dorsky writes in ‘Devotional Cinema,’ “the connection, the empathy, the view of the subject matter we see on the screen. The cuts are the clarity that continually reawakens the view.” Two shots in The Visitation are especially striking: a fish swimming in a tank before a storefront window, as if swimming in the open air, and a shadowy still life of a human hand.
Before each film, Dorsky spoke about his inspiration. He described Threnody… as “an offering to Stan Brakhage,” made after the two met for the last time five weeks before Brakhage’s death. Dorsky wanted his film to suggest “what it would be like for Stan to look out at the earth with one last glance.” He intended Love’s Refrain as a “spring dessert” after a three-year period of bitter convalescence following an auto accident. In addition to a string tangled up against a telephone pole, dancing erratically in the wind, the film boasts many varieties of reflections on glass doors, windows, and the surfaces of water. Dorsky is highly attuned to texture and light, and his images appear as complex interplays of line and tone.
“Devotional Cinema” largely concerns itself with the physiological aspects of movie watching. Dorsky refers to the “alchemy” by which cinema can induce feelings of accessibility and vulnerability. I couldn’t help noticing how the two individuals sitting closest to me who seemed the most uncomfortable or insensitive to silence (one perpetually rummaged through a snack bag; the other made loud sighs and began rhythmically scratching the stubble on his chin with his program notes until his companion asked him to stop) were the first to get up and leave the moment the screening ended. “Silence in cinema is undoubtedly an acquired taste,” Dorsky wrote in his notes, “but the freedom it unveils has many rich rewards.” Seeing his films projected in the REDCAT’s state-of-the-art facilities (how often do we get to see pristine 16mm prints these days?), I’m inclined to agree with him.