Luxuriating in a Poet's Movies

By Dargis, Manohla | International Herald Tribune, April 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Luxuriating in a Poet's Movies


Dargis, Manohla, International Herald Tribune


Nathaniel Dorsky makes short, silent experimental films that feature flowers, bursts of sunlight and shifting pools of shadow instead of characters, plots and stories.

Nathaniel Dorsky has been making work of rare and sometimes startling beauty for decades. If you haven't heard of him, it's because he makes short, silent experimental films that feature brightly colored flowers, bursts of sunlight and shifting pools of shadow instead of characters, plots and stories. Mostly he remains unknown because his work is relegated to that ghetto known as American avant-garde cinema.

But now a program of his work is being shown at Redcat, an exhibition space in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Mr. Dorsky, who talks about his work in accessible, charming fashion, is scheduled to appear in person. Another program of his work will be at the UCLA Film & Television Archive on Friday.

Watching Mr. Dorsky's films is a joy. Explaining why they can have such a profound effect on you, however, can present something of a challenge, partly because the films can't be reduced to the old boy-meets-girl or any other kind of plot synopsis.This means you may watch them once or twice, perhaps while scribbling notes (and diagrams) in the dark, and then try to consider what you saw.

The 18-minute "Compline" from 2009 opens with glistening bare tree branches that create vertical slashes across the image. What follows initially appears random -- pulses of yellow light, flashes of green leaves -- but from the vertical lines of purple flowers in one shot and what look like parallel threads of yarn in another, it becomes clear that choices have been made here.

Although the narratively conditioned brain may attempt to piece together a story from these images -- once upon a time in winter there was a tree -- Mr. Dorsky's work requires a different kind of engagement. These are films created for contemplation, and they both invite and resist interpretation. Consider Mr. Dorsky's fondness for windows that, because of the light, camera angle and his manipulations, turn into mirrors and prisms. In a single image of a restaurant window it's possible at once to see the interior of the empty space with its set tables, the gleaming glass and the street scene reflected in it, a multiplicity that has a material, concrete aspect (this is a restaurant without patrons) and also room for lyricism (this is a restaurant yearning for patrons).

Because the films are silent and don't come with explanatory on- screen text, you can luxuriate in the visual complexity of the images. You may, amid all this loveliness, worry about what it all means. Although Mr. Dorsky gestures in certain interpretive directions, notably with his titles -- "Compline" is the name of the final prayer of the day in the Roman Catholic Church -- he never forces you down this or that path.

Then again, what can the image of eye-poppingly purple flowers mean? "Interpretation," as Susan Sontag memorably wrote "is the revenge of the intellect upon art." A few pages later in the same essay, "Against Interpretation," she extols transparence in art (and criticism), writing that it "means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are."

Art, as Sontag persuasively argued, doesn't stand for something else but is itself a thing, and while Mr. Dorsky's films can inspire explanatory reveries, they are also beautiful objects. His 2009 "Sarabande" -- the name of a slow dance in triple time -- opens with what looks like the sun or a bright moon shining behind a tangle of dark, bare tree branches and what may be mesh fencing. The shot lasts for about 30 seconds, during which a black blot (a cloud?) moves left, bringing more light into the frame. What follows in the next 14 or so minutes are gently hovering, sometimes layered and obliquely angled images of windows and reflections, as well as more flowers and trees. The film ends with the sun dipping (or rising) behind trees that stretches across the frame. …

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