Sacred Speed – Nathaniel Dorsky – Interview
An Interview with Nathaniel Dorsky
That cinema can be a meditative practice might come as a surprise to most casual filmgoers and even to a good many cineastes. For a generation, film critics, scholars, and teachers have honored accomplished auteurs and debated the possibility of authorship; they have explored genre conventions; they have policed cinema in the name of more progressive gender, ethnic, class, and sexual politics; they have used a wide range of approaches developed in other disciplines to expose how cinema functions in modern culture–and they have ignored virtually all forms of cinema that reflect a meditative sensibility and offer the possibility of a more complex spiritual life. And yet, despite the relentless pop-cultural marketing of consumer goods and an accelerated lifestyle and the increasingly frenzied media overload, some audiences have come to appreciate forms of film experience that offer a respite, that transform the movie theater into something like a sacred space where we can, at least for a moment, ignore these pressures and more fully apprehend and appreciate the moment-to-moment incarnation of the perceptual world. Among the American filmmakers who exemplify this trend are Larry Gottheim, Peter Hutton, Leighton Pierce, and San Francisco-based Nathaniel Dorsky, who’s been making a variety of contributions to independent cinema since the mid-60s.
Dorsky arrived on the New York scene with a trilogy of short films–Ingreen (1964), A Fall Trip Home (1964), Summerwind (1965)–evocations of his childhood and adolescence in a New Jersey small town (Millburn). Most obviously in Ingreen, but to some extent in A Fall Trip Home, we see Dorsky–in a cinematic form that recalls the psychodramas of the 1940s and 1950s–coming to grips with the combined excitement and terror of gay desire. Unlike the defiant early landmarks of what we now call Queer Cinema–Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1948), Genet’s Un Chant d’amour (1952), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), etc.–Dorsky’s films reflect what must have been the more usual adolescent experience of confronting gay desire. And they opened the door for him to work on films by others–a job which earned him an Emmy in 1967 (for Gauguin in Tahiti: Search for Paradise), a reputation as a “film doctor” who can save ailing films, and just enough money to maintain a life and make his own work.
By the time of Summerwind, Dorsky had become fascinated with a new form of cinematic perception: an intense looking at the particulars of the physical world that, in the years that followed, would mature into a series of remarkable visual experiences, most notably Hours for Jerome, Parts 1 & 2 (1982), Pneuma (1983), Alaya (1987), Triste (1994), Variations (1998), and Arbor Vitae (2000). The visual sensibility of Dorsky’s mature films (all of which are silent; Dorsky asks that they be projected at 18 frames per second) is akin to Japanese haiku. Each of the individual images and image clusters of the Lake Owassa area of northern New Jersey and of Manhattan that together make up Hours for Jerome is like a prayer; indeed, Dorsky’s title references the medieval Books of Hours that provided Christians with the daily cycle of prayers and relevant illustrations (“illuminations”). “Jerome” is simultaneously a reference to Dorsky’s partner since the 1960s, filmmaker Jerome Hiler, and to Saint Jerome. While the Books of Hours focused on the daily prayer cycle, Hours for Jerome–like Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours (1850) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854)–explores the particulars of the seasonal cycle. Part 1 records spring through summer; Part 2, fall through winter. Along with Gottheim’s neglected Horizons (1973), Hours for Jerome is America’s most compelling cinematic paean to temperate-zone seasonality.
Both Pneuma and Alaya (“pneuma” means soul or divine inspiration; “alaya”–as in Himalaya–is a Sanskrit word used in Buddhism to refer to the primordial individuality that underlies our social selves) focus on particular forms of texture. Dorsky asks viewers to meditate–in Pneuma, on the film grain of a variety of disappearing film stocks he had collected in the 1970s, and in Alaya, on sand filmed in a variety of places and ways. By asking viewers not just to consume endless representations of “reality” but to focus on the essence, the “soul,” of cinematic representation, Dorsky transforms the textures of film stock and sand into emblems of the spirit: he breathes life into the “dust” of cinema.
Dorsky’s most recent films expand his exploration of what he sometimes calls “polyvalent” montage, a form of editing that means to redirect editing away from the dialectics that energized the Russian films of the 20s and also away from the narrative demands of pop cinema, toward a refinement of viewers’ ability to perceive the subtleties of particular images and the complex webbing of interconnections between them. Dorsky’s polyvalence means to place viewers into a cinematic present that cannot be reduced to verbal codes and analysis.
Dorsky lives in San Francisco. His newest film, Arbor Vitae, completes a second trilogy (Triste and Variations are parts 1 and 2). It was shot during 1999 and edited in 2000 and, according to Dorsky, “is haunted” by the end of the millennium.
SCOTT MACDONALD: The earliest films you list in the Canyon
Catalogue–Ingreen, A Fall Trip Home, and Summerwind–can’t be your first films. …
NATHANIEL DORSKY: They were the first films I made after I had taken a big bite out of experimental film in New York in, let’s say, 1961 to 1964–after seeing things like Chumlum [1964, Ron Rice], Meshes of the Afternoon [1943, Maya Deren], and Twice a Man [1963, Gregory Markopoulos]. I was at a very effective early silent screening of Twice a Man and at one of the famous showings of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures . And Stan Brakhage came and premiered Dog Star Man: Part I , which I think was the first time I saw one of his films.
I had started to make films when I was around ten or eleven with an 8mm camera. I was very influenced by the Disney “True Life Adventure” nature series, like Beaver Valley  and Nature’s Half Acre . They were the first time I saw, for instance, flowers growing in time-lapse. They were very photographic films, held together with music and narration. Both films went through the four seasons, and for some reason I was very taken with that.
As a kid, I was a big fan of John Ford. My parents took me on a trip across the country when I was in fourth or fifth grade. We stopped in Reno, and they went to gamble at a casino. There was a place where parents could leave kids while they gambled. And–I couldn’t believe this–not only were there free hamburgers and coke, all you wanted, they were showing free movies with a 16mm projector. I saw Stagecoach for the first time, and I remember being blown away. I loved Westerns, and there was so much tenderness and nobility in this one. It felt very adult to me. There was a pregnant woman. It was both feminine and masculine, like Ford is. When my parents came out of the casino, I said, “I just saw the best movie I ever saw.”
So if someone were to ask who were the main influences of my youth, I would have to say Disney, Ford, and Ozu, Antonioni, Brakhage, and Jerome Hiler–Jerry, my better half–maybe most of all. A strange collection. All my films are a little bit Disney-like and Ozu-like. There are lightweight attempts at Fordianism in Summerwind on a literal level; I’ve always been conscious of Ford’s sense of light (of shooting into the light, that is)–Ford’s sense of the sacredness and magic of gravity and luminosity.
Later, during that same childhood trip west, we were visiting some army buddies of my father’s in Santa Monica, and he let me take a shot with his 8mm camera. It was of him diving off the diving board and swimming across the pool. I still have it. The whole roll of my father’s stuff pans around Old Faithful and Grand Canyon–just the worst. And then all of a sudden there’s my shot. I guess I was so petrified that I was going to move the camera too fast (I’d been warned about this) that I took this very nicely composed shot that follows him diving in and swimming. It was my first shot. But it was very good!
To get back to your original question … Later, when I was 11, I used my father’s camera to make my first films. One is called A Bend in the River, which I realized later must have been named after the Anthony Mann film. My Bend in the River is a nature film, about the animals in my neighborhood–a turtle, and ducks. It has no formal pretensions and it isn’t a film that says, “You can see a budding genius here.”
So by the time I went to Antioch, I had some background and, for whatever reason, was ready to fall in love with film. I saw an older student with a Bolex, and the camera was a magical thing. You know. Everyone has that feeling when they see a movie camera. It represents some sort of alchemical power.
During that period, I made three films in black-and-white. The first one was under a tutorial–a work montage of the new college swimming pool being built. I had been seeing the Russians–Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Vertov–at the cine club at Antioch. On a mundane level, that stuff is easy to emulate. I did two films like that. Then I did a send-up of Last Year at Marienbad , called Next Year at Marienbad. I still have it. I saw it lately and was surprised that some of the blocking was very beautiful. Some of it was sophomoric.
One of the things that strikes me about Ingreen is the way it energizes the history of psychodrama. The early classics of psychodrama are accomplished and interesting, but often visually grim. Ingreen seems visually celebratory of the arrival of sensuality, even as it reveals its psychic traumas. There is a struggle, but it’s not a grim struggle. The color balances the fear of gay desire, the way Anger’s humor in Fireworks balances his fear.
You know, my actual feeling at the time was the opposite. It was plain old middle-class terror. I mean, my being gay was something I had known about since I was seven or eight. You know you’re sort of like everyone else … but not entirely. I wish I could say that I was a courageous anarchist who didn’t believe in any of the surrounding societal values and made his stand. But it’s odd enough that I made the film. I guess the up side of those painful feelings is that they drive you to make a visually powerful and sensual film.
To my knowledge, no one has ever shown Ingreen in a gay festival. Actually, I don’t like to show my films in that context. It’s not my cinema orientation to identify myself that way.
The only single-layered shot in Ingreen, which is full of multiple superimposition, is, I think, the boy running across the field and kneeling in front of his father. You can read it as the Boy becoming a Man, giving up the pleasures of boyhood to achieve manhood. You can also read it as a boy being terrified about how his father will feel about the reality of the boy’s desire.
I’m almost begging, “Please like me,” in the simplest language.
My father died about a year after I made Ingreen. Later, my mother asked me, “So what did that shot mean?” I couldn’t answer her. I realized then that that film was both extremely conscious and extremely unconscious. In a certain way I’m embarrassed by its playing out of the early 60s’ gay psychological stereotype of a close mother and distant father. But in a certain way that was also true for me. It wasn’t really until much much later in life that I relaxed a little about being gay. Finally you figure you might as well enjoy your life, scary as that might be, and endure the difficulties.
That autumn I made A Fall Trip Home over a period of three months. I did Summerwind the next summer. I made all three films really fast.
When I spent time with the trilogy, it struck me that Ingreen is about sensuality, about your personal recognition of how wonderful (and scary) it is to be a sensual being. A Fall Trip Home focuses more on your growing awareness that you are also a social being. And Summerwind seems about a growing aesthetic consciousness.
There’s another thing: In the middle of making Summerwind, my oldest friend, Mark Birnbaum (now a video-maker) opened up his hand, and there was a sugar cube with acid, and he said, “We’re going to the woods today.” I said, “OK.” That morning I was in New Jersey, but at the end of that day, it was no longer New Jersey. I don’t know where I was.
The forest primeval?
The primeval forest, yes! And I was Bambi! In the end, that film was trying to capture my new Bambi consciousness.
On a technical level I knew that I’d made two films based on superimposition and I was trying to struggle out of that. As soon as I finished Summerwind, I started shooting the material that later became Hours for Jerome, which I didn’t edit for 15 years.
How did you come to make it?
Just after I moved out here, I went through the worst psychological period of my life. My father had died (I’m an only child); I had moved in with Jerry, and by doing so, I had distanced myself from my mother. My mother and I had very complex ties, so this separation, at the same time that she was in need, ripped me apart. Nothing was clear. And moving to California was very disorienting for me. All of a sudden, coming out to this place with these weird rubbery trees, and strange seasons … The move to San Francisco forced a closure of my filming in the Northeast, where I had been recording imagery since my childhood. So the point is, for the first eight years of the 1970s, I was in a very bad state, and not able to edit. I had so much self-hatred.
In 1978 a friend from New York, the poet Larry Fagin, came to visit. And I said, “Oh, you’ve never seen the footage I shot when Jerry and I lived out in Lake Owassa.” It was in cans covered with dust: rolls of the original Kodachrome II, which was so beautiful. We took the film out, strung it up, had a toke, and spent the evening looking at it, and we thought, “Oh my God! There’s a film there!” Larry was very supportive at that time. Finally, I could see the footage and realized I could work with it, and wanted to work with it.
At what point did the process of putting this piece together and creating this structure take on a sense of an illustrated ritual around the year and get connected in your mind with the medieval Books of Hours?
We were living out in the country when I recorded that imagery. I think I was in the same balance with the landscape as someone who was working on a Book of Hours. I’ve always loved the Books of Hours … the idea of luminous contemplation. Nature, often with cities in the distance. In terms of the number of people in the world, that seems like a nice time. Like a certain period of Chinese painting, where you have a sense of human society as a harmonious element in a larger order. Things have become much more grotesque in modern times.
When you were editing Hours for Jerome, was the process largely putting things up against each other, trying connections out?
In that film, because there were four seasons, I cut each season separately. In order to keep myself fresh, I’d work on one season for about a week, put it away, and come upon another season that I hadn’t worked on in three weeks. A structure was developed within each season. When I attached the seasons, some work had to be done with the points where they connected. Everyone says, “Oh, that film has such nice color.” That’s partly Kodachrome II and a very good reversal print stock … neither exists today. But it’s also because the images are very carefully placed. Each move had to have visual freshness along with a poetic poignancy, not only in terms of color, but in other ways. I would put something next to something else, and if it didn’t feel additive, adventurous, and also at the same time poetic in some way, I wouldn’t go with it.
Some of the editing in Hours for Jerome had been done during the period when I was shooting it. Like those jump cuts of Jerry making coffee at night, with the moon; and the shots of Fourteenth Street in the rain intercut with black-and-white television. I was trying to get at collisions of flint and stone, to create sparks, trying to collide things, rather aggressively, and produce some new kind of space and luminosity. These passages are also a reflection of my spirit at that time: I was getting more and more depressed, and as a result I didn’t have any tenderness toward the footage. The only way out was through aggression. This isn’t unlike many young filmmakers, who are very pained in their twenties. Of course, the audience may now read these moments only as beauty.
Warren [Sonbert] pushed me to go all the way with my editing. He thought Hours for Jerome was too descriptive. But there was something about that footage that made me feel obligated about its sense of place. When you go into what I sometimes call polyvalent editing, as Warren usually did, and as I do from Pneuma through Variations and Arbor Vitae, the place is the film. Another, better term for this kind of editing might be “autogenous montage.” “Autogeny” means self-generating.
But in Hours for Jerome I had to respect place. And I had to respect the seasons. However, even though Hours is organized into seasons and into clusters or stanzas (or whatever you want to call them), I did try to get resonances between the stanzas, and to have synaptic relationships between different parts of the film. That film allowed me to discover how to place things so that they would resonate later. Remember the shot taken under the El in Queens? It’s preceded by a Ferris wheel in the rain and by a black-and-white cat drinking water. But right before that is the sequence of Fourteenth Street in the rain, intercut with a black-and-white TV. The TV has this rippling motion that is echoed by the light coming through the El tracks three stanzas later. I knew if I took the El and moved it five sequences further on, nothing happened; and I knew if I moved it one sequence closer to the TV/Fourteenth Street sequence, it felt like some corny Russian parallel editing, like when Vertov, in The Man with a Movie Camera , cuts between a woman washing her face and someone hosing down a street. I don’t like parallel editing. Vertov was trying every possible syntax, and simple parallel editing is one of the possibilities, but in general it’s too one-dimensional for me. I want complex resonances, not simple parallels that can be easily verbalized. Of course, other sections of Man with a Movie Camera are the genius birthplaces of polyvalence.
I was very conscious of going to black at the end of each stanza. Many times there is an afterimage, either physical or psychological, during that black, and at times I begin a new stanza with something that resonates tonally with the afterimage resting in the black. An obvious one might be that after all the strobes on the autumn trees, your eyes go to blue because there has been so much red-orange on the screen. Afterimage is always the reverse, color-wise. And then, out of that blue, pops in that white and red rooster. There are others I really love. After you see the panoramic autumn landscapes with the pixilated cloud shadows, I fade to black, then come up on Jerry’s brown shoe–a huge difference in scale.
Triste begins with a series of shots that sets the stage for a wide range of resonances. The first imagery is branches moving. Then there’s someone writing a letter in close-up: we see the lines of written text. Then a hose laid over itself, echoing the overlay of the branches. And then you’re in a car, and telephone poles flick by in a way that subtly echoes the motion in the previous shot …
Stan [Brakhage] said something very good about Triste: “The shots never have a vanishing point.” And I had never thought of it in those terms, but it’s true. I’m crazy about the period of painting that begins in the early 1400s just before the invention of vanishing points–Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Hans Memling, Roger van der Weyden. … When I go to Europe, I always make sure to see those paintings because it’s a point where depicting the world as itself was considered sacred. There was the beginning of perspective, but perspective hadn’t become the egotistical thing it became later on.
I’m interested in the magical point between the self-denying sense of the earthly life and an overly worldly sense of things, between a period of anti-ego and the later era of “Look, I’M doing PERSPECTIVE!” ego. It’s a point when the marriage of the seer and the seen, the whole thing, is considered and is the sacred.
That kind of painting influenced Triste and Variations. I said to Stan, “I hope every image is both a piece of something, of light energy, and at the same time, an icon: you see what it is.” But it’s neither purely light energy, nor purely icon. My cutting is an attempt to create resonance without solidifying concept, so that I don’t produce mental linkages that can be reduced to language, which is the filmmaking nightmare now. The films I work on to earn money–or 95 percent of them–use images to illustrate language. I do it for money, but it’s painful.
The more I looked at Pneuma and Alaya, the more I wondered if they weren’t the same film, done in two different ways: with sand, and with film grain. When you made Alaya, did you have Pneuma in mind? Were they conceived as a pair?
Pneuma was made first. Both came from the desire to express the same thing, but in different ways. The same is true of Triste and Variations. Pneuma and Alaya are about a minute different in length. Both have to do with what they call in painting “all-over”–the films articulate through a succession of all-over. And there are other specific parallels: the relationship of close-up, extreme close-up, and long shot is one. And about three minutes from the end, each has a cadenza. In Alaya, it’s the time when the sand really starts to collapse; in Pneuma, it’s the long blue section.
Anyway, both films are exploring the same thing. I collected the material for Pneuma during the years after shooting the footage for Hours for Jerome. I was in L.A. working on exploitation features. I was lost and depressed. I had no desire to use fresh beautiful stock. I remember I started a roll and couldn’t get up the interest to finish shooting it, so I just ran it out of my camera and sent it to the lab, and the only wonderful part was the part I hadn’t shot. Then I began to collect really outdated film. I said, “All right, I’m not shooting anything–I don’t like the world enough anymore–so I’ll just collect this stuff.” It was the twilight of all these reversal emulsions–Gevaert, Fuji, Ilford, Kodachrome II, Dynachrome. There are about 20 different emulsions in Pneuma.
For whatever reason, working with the grain and color of these film stocks answered my inner needs at that point. What I saw when I just developed the unexposed film stocks felt like an internal world. Somehow, it was healing. I collected that material and then, after I cut Hours for Jerome, I found that my energy was back and began to have a little faith in myself. I examined all the stocks and made Pneuma. Collecting the material came out of expressing a certain kind of vacantness, but then I think the film turned into something not vacant at all.
There’s a halo around the screen if you see Pneuma projected really well. Nothing mystical–I just mean the imagery appears to surround the edge of the screen. Sometimes the imagery seems out in front of the screen, sometimes it seems right on the surface; and sometimes the screen is a window. After a while, you don’t even know where the screen is anymore. The pleasure of that film is to relax and see the screen and its surroundings.
Alaya is a little bit like that also. When I made Alaya, I was coming to actually want to photograph something. I was visiting some friends on Cape Cod and just took a few shots of blowing sand. You know: This is intriguing to me–click. And here, I live ten minutes from the ocean, where every springtime, there’s all this wind blowing the sand. So the subject was right in front of me.
When I was trying to finish Alaya, I realized I had to collect some very dark shots to give the film the kind of muscle it needed to go forward. I started to shoot very old color and black-and-white stocks, sometimes underexposing the black-and-white. There are many times in Alaya where a shot is 60-percent film grain and 40-percent sand. And there are times when the grain of the sand and the grain of the film–the two graces, or natural entities, of this work–touch each other in an amazing way.
Did you tint any of the imagery? Sometimes we’ll see a particular texture of grain in black-and-white and then, later on, the same texture tinted a color.
It was just the various film stocks. When those 60s film stocks got old, some went blue–like ER. A stock called MS always went a little bit greenish. I worked very hard on the prints so that I had a palette of blue, yellow, green, tan, and black-and-white. Sometimes you can’t really tell when it is black-and-white. What was thrilling for me is that I knew (as I did when I edited Hours for Jerome) that I was working with synapses that went back underneath a few shots and came through. As I placed the shots in Alaya, I knew that a shot would work because of the effect of the two or three previous shots.
How did you do the microscopic shots?
Well, embarrassingly enough, some of that imagery was shot on a home-made “sound stage.” There are three times when I shot very close. The first time–the material that looks like jewels–was shot on a windy day in the dunes on Cape Cod with extension tubes, which allow you to focus closer and closer. Then there’s an orange sequence that I shot later, on the beach here in San Francisco, at sunset. I had to get my camera cleaned about three times. The third time I was in my cellar: I put sand in a baking tray, used my vacuum cleaner (an Electrolux that can blow) to make “wind,” set the camera on the tripod, and used two photo floods very close to get depth of field. I needed a great depth of field, because when you use that many extension tubes, you might not be able to keep a single grain of sand in focus from front to back. So I had to use a lot of light to get it up around F8. The lens was so hot, I couldn’t touch it.
It’s a stunning film.
I think it’s a very body film. Alaya is certainly a safer film to show an audience then Pneuma, which is quite dicey unless there’s great projection, or great love of film itself.
Critics have sometimes complained about my work–especially Pneuma. But my work is indefensible. If someone feels Pneuma doesn’t work, there’s nothing I can say. How can I disagree? I was trying something and to what degree it’s successful or not depends on your willingness to go along with it. If you do, I think it can be very beautiful; but if it just seems unrelenting in its monomaniacalness, what can I say–I can’t argue with your experience of the film.
By Variations, I was better at making my method apparent–well, not better at it like a pro; you never get better at it, but you do develop. I began to understand how to make a montage that opens up. A shot can’t relate directly to the previous shot, because if it’s too similar or too parallel, then there’s a literal meaning, a reductive connection. If the shots don’t connect at all, then it’s nihilism. It’s easy to do nihilism in film, you just put things together that are very different, so that the imagery is not solidifying around meaning. At a certain point that kind of filmmaking wears you out.
I want successive images to be disparate and connected, and I want each shot to link back to earlier shots. They say that grandchildren are actually more like their grandparents than their parents. My method feels something like that: I want each shot to continue to play a role, after the next shot, and the next, has passed. In Variations I really started to understand my method. At first I could only do it by chance, but slowly I realized how to make this kind of movie, and what its rules are. Each shot must break the film open and at the same time resonate with previous material. The connection can be as simple as the return of a certain red or of a particular pattern. Sometimes it’s the iconography. There are various levels where your mind can make connections.
To me, there’s a real progression from Pneuma to Alaya to Triste to Variations. Pneuma is pre-image. Alaya is image, but it’s working with the same principles. Since it’s always the same basic imagery, at a certain point you get tired of saying “sand” and you move into some other realm–either it becomes pure energy, or states of mind–or else you just can’t stand the film.
In Triste, I’m trying the same thing, but with multiple subject matter. With multiple subject matter the chances of success are greater, but so are the chances of failure. As in life, the more you take on and do successfully, the more full your life is. The down side for me is the danger of falling into language-based meaning. Triste is also shot on old film stocks; it has this incredible palette of strange colors. Variations is mostly Kodachrome 25, and it’s much more about layers and passion. So in a way, Variations takes a further risk: instead of being monastically withdrawn, quiet, and looking at the world as a quiet loner, the way Triste does, Variations expresses more love for the world. The change is not something I consciously tried to do; it’s something that’s happening as I grow –organically, the way a tree would grow. I’ve never been able to just turn films out. Making a film has always come from a spiritual need.
Would you say your commitment to silent film is a function of this spiritual need then?
Recently I showed Triste, Alaya, and Variations, and was very moved because I knew each of those films had taken five years or more of work and a lot of pain, and there they were on the screen, beautifully projected, and I remember thinking, “This is almost as gratifying as going to a good Western! The silence is palpable and strong.” A silent filmmaker can take an audience someplace deep.
I realize silence produces another experience. At a certain point, I came to feel that the silent film is monastic. It’s not a Saturday night movie; it’s not worldly. It’s more a sabbath movie–a chance to be alone and quiet and to come up against what cinema can offer: the screen becoming something, and then becoming something else. When that experience becomes full for you (for me silence was definitely an acquired taste), then why not use silence? It’s cheap. And, you know, I don’t really have any ideas for sound. I have enough to work with without sound. I’m a very slow maker, and I like an audience to have some time to be quiet in this busy, noisy world.
You’re one of the few filmmakers who still, at least on the cans of your films, asks that the films be shown at 18 frames a second, what we used to call “silent speed.” In the last generation or two of standard 16mm projectors, it’s no longer possible to do 18 frames per second. How do you feel about your films being shown at 24 frames per second?
Peter Hurwitz and I call 18 frames a second “sacred speed,” as opposed to “secular speed.” Films that are cut for exhibition at sacred speed need that pacing. If you see The Passion of Saint Joan at 24 frames a second, the heart of it never opens. I mean you’ll see something graphic going on there, but if you see it at 18, the heart opens, because of the way the rhythms were designed. When my films are shown at the wrong speed, their hearts never open. I choose where to cut from one shot to the next according to when each shot has reached the moment of ripeness. If that ripeness doesn’t happen (and it’s a matter of just a second), and you go on to the next shot, it’s like eating too fast. There’s no chance of the next moment being profound, because the previous moment didn’t ripen.
Eighteen frames per second, sacred speed, is also closer to the threshold of solidity. Films originally changed to 24 frames a second because of the soundtracks, but 24 also made the image more solid. I like working on the edge of solidity. I like that 18 keeps films closer to the threshold of intermittence. When the projector goes at silent speed, it’s more calming on my psyche, more ethereal. The noise of 24 actually gives me anxiety. In any case, I might as well do what I want. The audience is so small now, that I might as well make myself happy. The few places that want to show my films can show them well. The good places–Yann Beauvais’s Light Cone in Paris, the San Francisco Cinematheque–still have the option. The Pacific Film Archive [in Berkeley] can do any increment between 12 and 24 frames a second.
When did you begin to do commercial editing?
Around 1963, when I was in New York. I was very lucky: I had a cousin in the film industry. This was a time before there were a lot of filmmakers. Now they’re pouring out of the universities, and everyone’s looking for a subject to make their film about. I didn’t have formal training. For three years, starting when I was 19, I had a job as the projectionist for this course at the New School called “Films as a Social Comment,” taught by Joseph Goldberg. He showed the canon of that period: everything from the Lumieres to Ford, Clair, Hawks, Dreyer, Rossellini. For three years, starting when I was 19, I learned a tremendous amount. He was a wonderful teacher.
Anyway, two well-to-do women, twins, wanted to make a film about painters. They asked Goldberg if he could recommend anyone, and he recommended me. I had just made Ingreen and A Fall Trip Home; they saw them and hired me. I was young and handsome, and I’m sure I was a pleasure to have around.., they were maybe 40 years old. So we made a film for children about Leger, Chagall, Rousseau, and Gauguin [Where Time Is a River, 1966, directed by Gay Mathaei]. We got to go into museums after hours, and into wealthy people’s homes to shoot their paintings. I did each painter in a different way: Rousseau, I did like Ingreen –superimpositions of leaves and tigers; I did Leger in a very cute Eisenstein way.
Later, I was hired by Bob Young and Michael Roemer (the guys who had made Nothing But a Man ) to help shoot and edit a four-film series based on Rudolph Arnheim’s writing. Michael Housman, the successful producer, was my helping hand. I didn’t do very good work for them. I did win an Emmy for the photography on another film about Gauguin for CBS [Gauguin in Tahiti: Search for Paradise, 1967, directed by Martin Carr], which I felt ridiculous about because they just told me what they wanted and I did it.
I tried to work on features in L.A., but it made me sick. The level of anxiety, and the struggle for money … after a year I realized it just wasn’t me. I came back here to San Francisco, and a friend of mine, Richard Lerner, who had shot The Cheerleaders, was making a film about Jack Kerouac [What Happened to Kerouac, 1985]. I convinced him to let me shoot the footage to illustrate the audio tapes of Kerouac reading his poems. A thankless chore, because the words are so beautiful that the last thing you want is someone showing images over them. But some of the sequences are somewhat successful. Because of that job, I’ve continued to work here in the Bay Area, where we have a big conclave of documentary filmmakers because of the Film Arts Foundation. A lot of films which end up on “POV” come from here, including three or four I doctored this season.
There are films I edit for two or three months and feel they’ve got a little bit of my hand in them. A recent example is Owsley Brown’s Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles [1998; Dorsky edited the film, supplied the imagery of Paris and Oaxaca, and did some visual music directly on the celluloid]. But in other cases, I just come in for two weeks and help people when they’re stuck. I have a reputation–even a little mythology–as a film doctor, because I’ve come in and “saved” people’s films.
The people who make the films I doctor tend to be absorbed in the sincerity of their subject matter. But they don’t have a sense of structure. They haven’t seen all of Ozu’s films three times. They haven’t seen every Antonioni, Rossellini, and Ford film that’s available, three times. I have this kind of depth. I’ve seen every Minnelli film in 35mm. I’ve seen every Sirk film in 35mm (including the stuff he made in Germany, like Schlussakkord [Final Accord, 1936]). I’ve got it all deep in me, really deep in me. During the last ten years Edith Kramer [director of the Pacific Film Archive] has been showing Borzage’s silent films. They’re extraordinary. They not only have deep humanity and passion, a male and female side, but Borzage’s stories are expressed as the plasticity of cinema. They’re my favorite new films now, in a certain way–my favorite films that until recently I hadn’t seen! Except maybe for Jacques Becker’s–my god, what a great filmmaker he is!
Knowing film history gives one a sense of clarity about film structure, because you’ve seen just about every move that can be made, and you’ve seen how good those moves can be. Actually, as I’m sure you can tell, I’m a very traditional filmmaker.
I’ve also been looking at avant-garde film for over 35 years. It’s impossible to keep up with Stan [Brakhage], but I’d say I’ve seen just about everything of his, except what he’s finished in the past year. And so many other films. I love Jack Chambers’ Hart of London ; Rudy Burckhardt’s street films: Up and Down the Waterfront , The Climate of New York , Under Brooklyn Bridge , Eastside Summer ; Stan’s A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea ; Dan Barnett’s White Heart; and, of course, the free footage of Jerry Hiler. Also, I love the ballet of George Balanchine and the novels of Henry James.
I make a living. I’ll work intensely for maybe three weeks, and then I don’t work for six weeks. I stay poor, but I stay me. It does take you a while to untangle your mind from those jobs before you can go back into your own film. You need walks, drugs … because your mind is oriented around the most decadent thing, which is using the visual world to illustrate a word-based information system. To me that’s hell. I’m good at it though.
You said something before we started taping that I think is very important: that without the film industry there could be no avant-garde film, since we’re dependent on the equipment and film stock that’s manufactured for the industry. We avant-garde film makers are like poignant weeds growing up in the cracks of the sidewalk. We would not exist, if it were not for the ecosystem that supports emulsions and projectors.
Right. You can’t be monastic without a world to leave. You can’t be pure in comparison to nothing.
Scott MacDonald is working on the fourth volume of his Critical Cinema series of interviews with independent filmmakers (University of California Press), and his new book, The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Films About Place, is due out this fall. He teaches film history at Bard College.
Thanks to Nathaniel Dorsky for providing photos.
COPYRIGHT 2001 University of California Press
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