Ari Spool talks to avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky about montage, humanism, and his childhood exploits in film.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s poetic silent films, created on fine grain color stock, approach earthly life with a compassionate heart. The four films of his I’ve seen—The Return, Aubade, Compline, and Alaya, each a roughly half-hour montage—all share this delicate texture and humanist feeling.
Dorsky edits together images of nature, light, and figures. His films have no narrative arc in the traditional sense. Rather, they are lingering scenes that when taken cumulatively have an emotional effect not unlike deep meditation: the shots can take you to unexpected places. Alaya, for instance, a Kodachrome ode to the beauty of sand, possesses some traditional-seeming shots of wind moving sand across dunes. But the sand has unexpected secrets—it moves aggressively over long distances, and softly under the tide, tiptoeing across its own surface. After the viewer has been thinking about these movements for a while, Dorsky integrates new actions. A beachy shelf collapses, and your breath stops. An extreme close-up reveals the personalities of different minuscule pieces of silica.
Dorsky’s contemplations of a life working in film are collected in his book Devotional Cinema, an adaptation of a lecture he originally gave at Princeton in 2001. It is a perfect companion to his work. Dorsky pays his bills by editing other people’s films, but he has been making his own since the stewpot of 1960s New York, where he messed around with such characters as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brahkage. His book describes the specific effect film has on the human conception of time, a feature that Dorsky manipulates by keeping his films silent, depriving the viewer of the meter of speech or music so that he may become completely absorbed in the image. He explains why films must be shown in dark rooms to maintain their special magic. Most of all, he exposes some of the wisdom that we can gain from film, even if we rarely get the opportunity to do so.
You can only see Dorsky’s films as they are screened. Luckily, he is premiering two films—April and August and After—at the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant Garde” program on October 6th and 7th. (They will be screened again at the London Film Festival on October 20th.) Both were created after a period of grief Dorsky experienced following the death of his friend George Kuchar. I spoke to Dorsky over video chat while he sat in his kitchen in San Francisco and I in my workspace in Queens, New York. He had challenged me, in advance of our appointment, to try and ask him completely new questions, different from any interview he’d done.
Ari Spool I did read almost everything I could possibly find. Every interview and so on—
Nathaniel Dorsky So you’re all set. Let’s hang up.
AS Yeah, right? I’ve got everything I need to know. (laughter) Not really. One thing I was looking for everywhere that I can’t find is this: I can’t seem to figure out why you chose film as your medium. It seems to me that music and sculpture and painting and photography are just as easily devotional media, just to reference your book title. So what attracted you initially to film, way back in the ’60s?
ND Even earlier. When I began film, it was very innocent. I started as a child. I loved movies, like any kid. Nowadays it’s not uncommon; let’s say you’re ten and you love movies, because of what you can do with your iPhone, and your computer and whatever, you can make movies. In fact, a friend of mine just went to a little festival of films made by ten-year-olds. She said it was so charming.
AS Oh, I’m sure.
ND But anyway, in the ’50s, everything was much more primitive. My uncle lent me an 8mm camera, and a friend of mine had his father’s 8mm camera. We started to make this nature film, about animals in the neighborhood. We set out lights, and put out seed, and shot the bluejays on a branch in the tree. It was wonderful. Somehow, whatever film it was as a kid . . . it ignites you. Like how a person might be ignited by mathematics. The same thing happened with film.
But there’s something I didn’t realize, something Freudian, about filmmaking. I mentioned this kind of intimate story to a group at a film screening, and the film critic P. Adams Sitney was there, and it made him raise his eyebrows, because he likes to find motivations and so forth. When I was in fifth grade—I’m an only child—my mother and father and I drove out to California to visit some WW II army friends of my father’s. On the way we were trying to be an American family in the spirit of the ’50s. There was that American optimism, and pride in American materialism following the war. So one of the things my family did was make home movies. I think we were trying our best to be an American family, even though we weren’t, not quite. And so we borrowed this 8mm camera, and all the way across the country, I always wanted to use it. My father was saying, “No, no, no. You have to be very steady with the camera.” He didn’t trust that I could take a good shot. He was taking all the shots.
Two things happened on that trip that have to do with movies. They must have been significant because I forget almost everything about my life, like everyone does, but I do remember these incidents.
There was a time we were in Yellowstone National Park. There was Old Faithful, the geyser which comes up every hour, and you have to wait. We arrived just as it was coming up, and I wanted my father to take movies of it. “Come on, take a shot, take a shot!” And we just missed it. So I said let’s wait around an hour and then we’ll take movies of the next one. I was already a line producer. You know, pushing, “We gotta get this shot!” (laughter) My dad, for some reason, went to reload the camera. And an 8mm is kind of made so that anyone can do it. The reels are aligned so that the spool holes will only fit a certain way.
But for some reason he couldn’t figure it out. I remember him getting kind of upset, so my mother and I went for a long walk, and we came back to the car and my father was still in the front seat and he hadn’t done it. As a kid you didn’t understand what was going on, but he was in some kind of depressive state. I always remember that incident of him not being able to reload the camera, to get it to work. And I was so anxious, because I was already a maniac line producer, we had to get this shot in 15 minutes! (laughter) I forgot about the incident and I only remembered it later in life. I didn’t think of it when my dad and my mom were alive, so I couldn’t ask them about it.
I know that Freud has a theory where children tend to complete their parents’ lives for them. Things that were incomplete for the parents, a child will often do. And I know that’s true of me. For instance, my dad had a job that he got during the Depression that became his life, but it wasn’t really the right job for him. It wasn’t a good use of his intellect and spirit, and so he felt in a way that he had wasted his life. For instance, when he was going to sell his business, he refused to let me go into his business. A lot of parents would want the son to go into their business, and a lot of sons would, maybe. But he said, “No, I wasted my life.” So I lived my life the opposite, and did only what I wanted, and lived near poverty level, and so forth. In terms of filmmaking, there’s the idea of completing something for the parent. In a way, I might have been trying to heal this trauma, or something.
What was funny was that, as I told you, my father wouldn’t let me use the camera on the entire trip. I remember we were in Santa Monica, and these people had a swimming pool in the backyard. My dad was going to take a dive into the swimming pool so I asked if I could take a shot with the camera. Finally! So I took the shot, and I was very careful because of all I’d been warned about. I have this roll of film now, and what’s humorous is that all my dad’s footage is totally chaotic! There’s footage of the Grand Canyon, and he’s panning around all over the place. Nothing made any sense. Then when you get to the shot of him diving, it’s immaculate! You couldn’t have taken a better shot. It was a good frame, and it followed him, and it was complete and smooth. I remember that was my first movie shot. That was my first victory.
Also, I think I was drawn to film because there was something quite marginal about it. Now, everyone’s cousin is a filmmaker: there are thousands, millions, they are like cockroaches. Everyone is a filmmaker. Back then it was kind of unusual. I was drawn to it because it wasn’t part of the regular world—not school, or reading even. Filmmaking was completely my own. It had real joy for me; there was just something I liked about it.
AS I don’t think it’s always a clear path like that. I think a lot of times, people fight their natural line, or natural allegiance, or because of necessity they end up having to do something, like your father. I’ve found recently that you can go back and look at your earliest memories, and you can isolate things. It’s easy to isolate moments that made you who you are, but maybe there are moments that could have made you a different person that you are choosing to ignore.
ND Like, if I had become a gardener or something, I would remember working in the garden with my mother, that sort of thing?
ND And then I would think, “I was always there.” Maybe you’re right. Oh well, you’ve dashed my hopes of order and understanding. I don’t think I’ve ever told that story about my father in an interview. I don’t know if it’s interesting on the page or not.
AS I think it is, because I was actually going to ask you about Freud. You provided a natural segue! (laughter) Nowadays, in this kind of cockroach filmmaking, I feel like some people are in [the film] business because they want to boss a lot of people around, or to be the boss of an experience for people. You walk into a theater and people are trying to curate your time there, and make you have particular feelings. They are trying to give you an idea. I don’t think your films do that; they don’t give you ideas, but bring you towards a certain emotion of your own creation. Do you think that you have had to erase any certain part of your ego to make films like this?
ND This is a very good question. Just to come to the last part, I think what you find in life is that you can’t erase your ego. It’s sort of like turning off an alarm. It’s part of the organic nature of being a human being: your mind solidifies around an ego. This is a complex subject. Having an ego is painful, because the ego can never completely get what it wants. The ego itself wants complete control, everything positive and mirroring itself; that’s what it’s struggling for all the time. Obviously it’s a struggle because the world doesn’t cooperate. To a certain point, the ego is a hallucination, and there’s nothing at the core of it, so it’s always desperately trying to be solid when it can’t.
So I think what I’ve done in my films—and I think this comes from a certain kind of cinematic wisdom and human wisdom—is realized that I can’t eradicate the ego. I can’t push it away, I can’t eradicate it, I can’t be antagonistic towards it, I can’t seduce it. But what you can do, in a certain way, is transform it, because the ego has tremendous energy from this struggle. You can take that energy and rather than wasting it on trying to confirm the ego, you can transform that energy into kind of a sublime thing. In filmmaking, most films are egoic. They are about ego, about triumph or failure. Or the film itself is about ego, it’s an attempt to completely control the viewer. It’s seductive to the audience, but not generous.
In my filmmaking I came upon the idea that if I began to arrange images in a certain way, it could transform the ego, instead of confirming it. In other words, if you put two shots together to create a solid concept—this is happening, characters getting out of a car and walking down the street, or someone sitting at a window looking—you construct a series of images in such a way that you nurture ego, but then disrupt it through the montage. When you cut to the next shot, there might be a reemergence of presence, but it wouldn’t be a daisy chain back to the previous image, so it wouldn’t solidify the ego. There might be a way of using montage to realize the wisdom of what cinema has to offer. Cinema has great, great wisdom, and it’s very seldom used as a wisdom medium. In a sense, you can nurture the heart in a montage, going from one thing to the next in a way that touches the heart’s intelligence. You can use the energy of the cinema to transform the viewer by letting the viewer rediscover themselves at each moment in the present.
AS The idea of the ego being present, but being separate from the film’s ability to touch the heart: you’re focusing on a different base of feeling in human nature.
ND This is something very unpopular in this day and age. It takes a tremendous amount of gentleness and tenderness to transform the ego. The ego is very frightened, and you have to treat it delicately, and let it slowly unravel itself. If you attack it, it comes back tougher, as you know.
AS If someone disagrees with you about something where you are wrong, you’ll still try and fight them—even if you can see the evidence that you are incorrect. That’s how people are.
ND This is true in life, especially in relationships. What hurts in relationships is the desire to win. Once you realize that you don’t have to win—in life, too—you will experience a tremendous relaxation. Someone could tell you that something’s wrong, like you never put your coffee cup away, some silly thing. You could, instead of fighting back, realize that you don’t have to win, you can smile a little, or laugh. It opens up space, and makes for a much more fertile sense of being and friendship.
AS Yeah. That couldn’t be more unpopular in the American ideal right now.
ND It’s quite scary! The country cannot talk to itself right now. It’s almost like the country is a family in a state of hostile divorce. Everything is fuel for ammunition, rather than a desire to make things better. The country is in a sad state. I guess it has something to do with how we can feel the empire dissolving. Everyone is scared and trying to grab for some piece of the pie. I think that’s what’s going on.
Getting back to your original question, sometimes I use this metaphor: If you thought of yourself, Ari or Nathaniel, as a cruise ship, and your public personality was all the activity on deck—the ballroom dancing, the shuffleboard, the Ari-oke. (laughter) (I’ve never been on a cruise but I imagine it’s safe to assume that these things occur.)—in the meantime down below there’s this engine room that’s driving the ship, which is noisy, dirty, greasy, hot. Sometimes I think of the ego as the engine room. It’s hot and dirty there. No fun. Kill or be killed. But that engine is part of your whole vehicle. If you use the engine properly, it can transform itself into something sublime.
An example might be, for instance, you might be very angry about something. That’s based on ego, because it’s you opposed to something else. Then, at a certain point, by being very gentle, you can see both points of view, and then see very accurately what the solution might be, outside the anger. You can see it and not be so fearful. That’s an example of being very gentle with the ego and seeing how the ego can transform into a kind of clarity.
AS That goes with what you were saying before: the ego doesn’t respond to brute force, it only responds to a gentle massage of the idea.
ND And another thing about your initial Freudian question. I was an only child, and I had this voice coming at me all the time, “Come inside!” and all that. So I’m the kind of person that’s a little bit shy of those voices. When I’m at a film, I’m very sensitive to someone pushing me around with their film. I think that also led me to want to make a film where I didn’t want to, as they say in Freudian psychology, identify with the aggressor. I was sensitive to not wanting to seduce people into my world, but actually offer them the world.
In my youth, in my early twenties, I loved pot—not that I don’t now—but I loved it and it was very important. I only attended college for a year, and [pot] was really my university in a way. I would smoke with friends and we would read poetry or religion, or listen to Mozart, or go up to the Metropolitan Museum and look at paintings. So I think as I fell in love with art, I began to realize the power of non-aggression. Art can allow you to make the discovery. You look at a Picasso, and you see it, and for fifteen minutes you continuously see it. You see new things in it. I loved the idea that you could present something and trust the viewer to participate and make the connections. It enlivens the viewer rather than just treating them as an object. That became very important to me. I would get so excited by making the discovery. So I thought, Maybe I can enable other people to make discoveries; that would be more joyful than putting them on my trip.
AS Are you peeking under stones and under rocks to find things for people that they might have missed?
ND Yeah, I think so. You mean the actual shots? I usually don’t think of it as, This is something they’ve missed, I’m going to show it to them. For me, it’s adventure. I’m not presenting something I already know. In film, in writing, or in anything, presenting something you already know can seem kind of canned. But if you present something that you discover, there’s life there. When I take a picture of something, I like to find a point when there’s true adventure in the viewfinder: I’ve never seen that before, what is it? There is also an evocation of emotional tenderness. It’s like finding little fairy zones, so to speak. Little places where something magical is happening.
AS I was describing to people, after I saw Alaya, how, “Yes, I just watched the most captivating thirty-minute silent film about sand.” Actually, I have no idea how long I was watching that film.
ND I think it’s 27 or 28 minutes long.
AS Oh, so I wasn’t far off! Time just seemed to expand. But yeah, I told people I watched this film, but it wasn’t really about sand, it was a description of this whole world where sand has every possible activity going on. The grains of sand each operating on their own personal adventures. So it makes sense to hear you say it like that, that you’re trying to find new worlds.
ND Yes. It’s like when you go to a city you’ve never been to, it’s so much fun. If you go to a country you’ve never been to, every detail is so alive. In a certain way, I strive for that kind of freshness of seeing things. Did you feel, at the end of Alaya, that the microcosm became the macrocosm? Did you sense that the sand had become stars near the end?
AS Yeah! You know which shot I particularly enjoyed? There were two that each repeated twice that I thought were great. The first is the extreme close-up on the grains of sand, where they are kind of dancing. You know it’s just the wind, but they look like people having conversations in fast forward. The other one was the shelves of sand collapsing. I remember being transfixed when that would happen on the beach as a child, but it was never green sand!
ND I think that has a real metaphor. They call it catastrophe theory. The sand would reach a point—let’s say it’s on a steep bank, and the surface is doing its sand thing—when all of a sudden the whole thing would collapse. I think it is similar to the human psyche. You can be in a holding pattern, doing all the stuff in that holding pattern, even for years. Then all of a sudden the whole thing, all the assumptions, can collapse. You’re bringing up a very important point.
The poet Charles Olsen has a famous essay called “The Human Universe.” He argues that in some ways everything in the world is comparable to everything in the mind. The way you saw the little grains of sand having their conflicts, or love affairs, or whatever, is no different than human experience. I live near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and I can walk to a huge arboretum, like the Bronx Botanical Gardens. There are hundreds and hundreds of plants from all over the world. It’s wild; it’s outdoors; it’s not in the greenhouse.
I walk around and realize that each plant has such an individual personality. Some are spiky and protected, others are vulnerable. There are the little blue wildflowers that are humble, but try so hard to be pretty and nice. Let’s say there are 84,000 aspects of human nature and personality: every one of them is represented by a plant. If you look at every plant, you say, “That plant is a little sad, but it’s hopeful,” or, “That one is kind of tough and holding its own.” Everything in the natural order is of the same material.
Everything in our mind is reflected in some aspect in the world. The visual components of those can be used to express humanism. Some people might say,“There aren’t enough people in your films.” Actually, I feel the films are very human. The real human in the films is the viewer. I couldn’t make a film work if I didn’t feel the visual aspect was as important as making it valid as human expression.
Ari Spool lives in Queens, NY, and was the managing editor of ’SUP Magazine and Impose Magazine before she entering the Riggio Program for Writing and Democracy at the New School for Public Engagement.