Magazine article Artforum International

Tone Poems: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Nathaniel Dorsky

Magazine article Artforum International

Tone Poems: P. Adams Sitney on the Films of Nathaniel Dorsky

Article excerpt

NATHANIEL DORSKY is now at the pinnacle of his powers and reputation as a filmmaker. But he took a long route to his current prominence in the American avant-garde cinema. He had an early start making films, as did most of his strongest peers from the generation who came to cinema in the 1960s. The first works he exhibited, Ingreen (1964), A Fall Trip Home (1964), and Summerwind (1965), established him as a creditable filmmaker at a time when many young aspirants were trying to launch careers. Most of them disappeared quickly and, by the late '60s, that seemed to have been Dorsky's fate as well.

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Within the large, unruly flock of filmmakers shepherded by Jonas Mekas in those years there were several coteries. Andy Warhol's was the most famous, of course, and the one that branded its adherents most indelibly. Another was led by Gregory Markopoulos, who generously championed the early work of Warren Sonbert, George Landow, and Robert Beavers (with whom Markopoulos lived in Europe from the late '60s until his death in 1992). Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, another filmmaker as well as an artisan of stained glass, who has been Dorsky's partner for more than forty years, were mentored by Markopoulos. In 1966 they moved from New York to rural Lake Owassa in New Jersey, where they stayed until relocating to San Francisco in 1971. From the time Dorsky left New York until 1982, he ceased to complete and release films, although he continued to shoot and to show his footage to gatherings of friends. This has always been Hiler's practice. He has rarely exhibited any of his work in public. Within the avant-garde film community, the private evenings of film appreciation hosted by Dorsky and Hiler attained cult status.

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Warren Sonbert was a major beneficiary of those screenings. When Dorsky finally edited, from 1980 to 1982, the material he had shot between 1966 and 1970 into Hours for Jerome, Sonbert wrote: "Hours for Jerome is simply the most beautifully photographed film that I've ever seen; for once the full achievements of what film can do cinematographically is ... achieved.... Here cinema enters the realm of the compassionate; capturing the eye and the mind, in ways unlike the predictable arena of the structural film." (1) By that time Sonbert himself had attained a major reputation within the field. His career parallels Dorsky's in inverse: After making apprentice films in the late '60s, he found his mature style and relentlessly sought venues of exhibition just as Dorsky was withdrawing from the public arena. Sonbert's style incorporated some of the principles Dorsky and Hiler had extolled and exemplified in their private screenings--most notably, an eschewing of the sound track. But unlike Stan Brakhage, who had loudly affirmed the superiority of silent film, Sonbert, Dorsky, and Hiler shared a deep appreciation for several Hollywood auteurs (Sirk, Hitchcock, Ford, and Minnelli) who influenced their compositions, tempi, and montage. In fact, it was this orientation that gave Sonbert, first, and Dorsky, later, sufficient distance to evade the overwhelming influence of Brakhage, for whom their respect and affection grew the more films they produced.

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By withdrawing for fifteen years, Dorsky sat out the most contentious period in the history of avant-garde film. Fierce aesthetic battles over the prominence of minimal forms ("structural film") and the status of video art were supplanted by even more acrimonious political disputes over sexism, imperialism, idealism, the importance of theory (especially French), and canon formation. Brakhage was the biggest and most battered target in these academic skirmishes. When Dorsky reemerged, there was a new audience, wary of the political factionalism, eager for the contemplative beauty and the cultic appreciation of cinematic genius he quietly preached. …

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