The Place is the Film

Nathaniel Dorsky’s films were mentioned a few times in the last class. As I had the chance to see them recently and thought about their relation to our discussions, I decided to write up my impressions and share them here. Dorsky came to The New School a few weeks ago for a Doc Talk event. There was a screening of three of his recent films: Compline (2009), Aubade (2010), The Return (2011),  followed by a discussion with him.

His films are silent and consist of shots of objects, bodies, light, movement, colors, sometimes quite abstract sometimes more identifiable. As there is no “plot” in the sequences it is not really possible to describe what happens in the film. In fact the only thing I can describe is what happened to me while watching the film. Furthermore it became apparent in the discussion after the screening that the viewers experience is the only “story” that Dorsky himself is aiming for with his films.

The first thing I remember asking myself during the screening was “Where am I? What is this place that I’m in?”. I was trying to make coherent sense of it, trying to understand what I was shown. It took me a while to give up the search for a story. Even in the broadest sense – to give up the need for continuity and clear associations and to realize that in his works “the place is the film” (Dorsky in MacDonald 2006: 87, original emphasis). I saw it as a highly aesthetic world, but a world where everything cannot be immediately recognized. It was not the aesthetics of the everyday, rather of a rare moment I have lost myself in, observing something “too closely” or for “too long”. For a moment I even thought of it as an aesthetic that is not primarily for human beings. Because humans are often too noisy, too fast, too anxious to see the world in a way it was captured in the film. Also it seemed that for the same reason one sees very few shots of human bodies in Dorsky’s films. I realized that I had to be very much present to enter this world. After the screening Dorsky said that when the viewers understand that the films are actually about themselves and nothing external to them, that is when they start to see the films. When the viewer stops searching for the story that is being told, then she can actually start to see the film as a purely visual experience. Dorsky’s films are not references to something external, but about the exact moment when in his words “the camera touches the world” and he invites the viewer into this experience.

Explaining his journey to film making Dorsky shared his discovery of haiku. This is the art form that he felt came the closest to his deepest life experiences and to the way he wanted to express himself in film. The logic of haiku is close to his logic in editing – first there is a description of something and then the next line (shot) breaks down what was established and a third (shot) line makes a connection again, but with something completely new. It is interesting to note that Tarkovsky also talks about the comparison of haiku and film. In his understanding the real poetry in film resembles the poetry of haiku, through the act of pure observation. “What attracts me in haiku is its observation of life – pure, subtle, one with its subject.” (Tarkovsky 2008: 66).

This approach to film resonates with Deleuze’s discussion of the development beyond movement-image and towards pure optical-sound image (Deleuze: 2007). The meaning of a situation does not emerge from a purposeful action but from the pure description (in case of haiku) or pure observation (in case of film). For me this is an experience that Dorsky establishes with his editing – whenever there starts to be a clear association or a continuity developing, he breaks it to bring the viewer back to the pure optical-sound image, to the pure observation. However he is not working towards total chaos but creates an echo that would weave the piece together: “I started to learn relationships and you realize that if you put two shots together that were similar that wouldn’t work. Because the mind would start to find conceptions, parallels between the two things – this red shirt and this red flower: the idea is red. But if you took them and you moved them – if you find the right distance, just like a spark. Let’s say there is two shots between them. When this red came on, and then two shots after that, this red came on, it would echo. It’s not a conception idea.”(Dorsky: 2011)

 Somewhere in the last third of The Return there is a shot of two pairs of feminine hands “conversing” by a coffee table in bright sunlight. It is a prominent moment in the film because we suddenly see human movements that haven’t occurred previously in the film. However by that point the film has taken the viewer so deeply into the experience of the light, colors and movements that the sight of the gesturing hands is completely altered. Their movement becomes a movement in itself, without an explanation, without the desire to hear the accompanying voices, to know what the conversation is about. Because it is about the movement.

Piibe Kolka


Deleuze, Gilles. 2007. Cinema 2. The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Continuum: London

Dorsky, Nathaniel. 2011. “Forest Roads. Conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky” in “Lumière” June 4, 2011. Interview by Francisco Algarín Navarro and Félix García de Villegas Rey.

MacDonald, Scott. 2006. “Nathaniel Dorsky (and Jerome Hiler),” in A Critical Cinema 5. Berkeley: University of California Press

Tarkovsky, Andrey. 2008 Sculpting in Time. Trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair University of Texas Press: Austin


2 Responses to “The Place is the Film”

  1. immanentterrain2 Says:

    I have also had the pleasure of seeing some of Nathaniel Dorsky’s work. If you have not already read his book, Devotional Cinema, it is a wonderful read. His films certainly give the impression of displacing one’s sense of place, giving full attention to the image. One of the first things that struck me was the detail of the image in his films—an attention to clarity. Dorsky often emphasizes the material quality of his films, by acknowledging the finite existence of the film stock—letting the films degrade, scratch and deteriorate with each run through the projector. It has always been a curiosity to consider the ways that this “imperfection,” which increases with each view, allows a different experience of the film. It is simultaneously out of the filmmaker’s control and yet a necessary result of watching a projected image. Does it change the experience of watching the film? If so, in what ways do the scratches, etc. add to the implicit image? These questions are meant to be somewhat rhetorical; however, it is interesting to think about the space and context of when and where a film is viewed. There is a distinct pleasure in seeing a film, stumbling upon it—taking a risk of seeing something that you don’t know anything about, and having it resonate so elegantly. Dorsky’s films seem to be an interesting meditation of Deleuze’s concept of the virtual/ actual where the incredible detail in his films establishes a different perspective for not only the minute, but the overlooked and the underappreciated.


  2. immanentterrain2 Says:

    I’m glad that someone wrote about Nathaniel Dorsky. I really enjoy his films because they give me room to think, to let my mind wander without worrying about making connections and identifying everything that I see on the screen. Up until this year, I hadn’t really thought much about place as narrative. This semester I made the wise choice to take “The Cinematic Place” with Deanna Kamiel and found myself thinking about film in new ways. Through this class, I’ve discovered filmmakers that I hadn’t previously known about such as Peter Hutton, Dick Rogers, and Jem Cohen. In our syllabus for the class, she quotes Peter Hutton who says, “The movement of light is the core phenomenon of the moving image. It’s interesting that this initial manifestation of cinema was completely eclipsed by other concerns.” All films must take place somewhere but more often than not, the place is overlooked. It becomes a background for the “true” narrative. I find it interesting when a filmmaker takes interest in what we often overlook and forces us to see (making the ordinary seem extraordinary). Peter Hutton’s “Study of a River” (1997) is ridiculously gorgeous:

    Also, here is an excerpt from another one of his films, “Lodz Symphony” (1993):

    His use of black & white reversal film is great because it abstracts the image and makes it seem sculptural, almost.

    It’s interesting to me that Peter Hutton doesn’t use sound, only shoots in black & white, and commits to a single shot. Instead of bombarding our senses, Hutton strips things down and gives viewers a reprieve from the overload that we’re used to experiencing when watching films. Also, because of the limitations that he places on himself, it’s much easier for him to make films; all he needs is a camera, film, and an image that compels him (something that is particularly appealing for a poor grad student who wants to make films).

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