Festival Honorees

Mindful Viewing as Transcendent Experience: The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky

By Steve Polta

The SFFILM Festival will present the 2018 Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award to Nathaniel Dorsky Friday April 6, 6:00 pm at SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater. Find out more about the public Festival program here.

"Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between the two." —Thomas Merton, Love and Living 

"Silence has many dimensions..."

In his lifetime of filmmaking, Nathaniel Dorsky's personal introspection and spiritual engagement with the infinite modalities of light and the tactilities of the visual world find concrete expressive form on 16mm emulsion, thanks to the artist's unabashed lifelong romance with the medium. Marrying this subtle visuality to a unique and profoundly patient sense of cinematic montage, Dorsky's work posits a humane form of filmmaking radically at odds with contemporary culture's obsessions with speed, communication, discourse, celebrity and personality, and embodies an articulately refined personal aesthetic unequaled in the canons of cinema.  

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky do not assert. They do not argue. They do not address issues, tell stories, or engage with the realms of language. The films of Nathaniel Dosky are not "about" and they do not participate in "communication." Instead, in forgoing the concerns of social or political engagement, storytelling, description, argument and assertion, Dorsky's films exist as pure visual/temporal offerings and are presented to viewers as opportunities for direct sensual engagement.  

Dorsky's films, without a doubt, are reflective of the artist's life in the physical world. The films' imagery is of the world and is clearly the work of a man navigating and assessing the world of objects, people, spaces, and light. While sharply focused and clearly rendered photographic subjects do appear (and seem to affirm physical reality in their resolute solidity), Dorsky's films are just as significantly concerned with the ephemerality of existence and of the permeable boundaries between matter and energy. Autumn (2016), the most recent film in SFFILM's tribute program, expresses this most clearly as it explores abstraction, darkness, atmosphere, and reflection. As if to present a counter example of this tension between solidity and luminous immateriality, Avraham (2014) strikingly features an extended consideration of a majestic tree which manifests as something of an earth-bound spiritual anchor for that otherwise quite boundless film. As they explore the world, Dorsky's films also embody reserve and distance, textural abstraction from the real, and a recurrence of visual abstraction-created through manipulation of focus, exposure, or composition-and an virtuosic aptitude for imagery of layered reflections and shadow-all of which suggest a questioning of the reliability of surfaces and appearances, a suggestion of spiritual energies just beyond the bounds of perception. By composing films for projection at the film speed of 18 frames-per-second (a speed which Dorsky terms "sacred speed"), Dorsky places his films literally at the flickering threshold of visual dissolution, incorporating the darkness between film frames (the mechanical foundation for all cinematic motion) as central to the physiological experience of the works, with the lushness and serene sentient presence of the films balanced on the edge of oblivion.  

Crucially, Dorsky's films take place in silence, each shot in each film presented as a purely visual encounter, modulated only by preceding and succeeding shots and the affective accumulation of viewer experience and recall. Dorsky's films in fact seem to generate their own varietals of silence through their glowing luminosities, their darknesses, and the visual rhythms and the associative juxtapositions of his sensitive montage. In these silences, the screen at times seems to come alive with an engorged richness of color and fluctuations in light itself—as it is modulated by clouds, the effect of weather on objects, or by the filmmakers' own control of camera exposure—becomes at times disassociated from depicted objects. The screen itself becomes (as Dorsky has termed it) a variable energy field with its luminous silence suggestive of an abiding spiritual presence. Being films which are occasions for silence, Dorsky films are invitations to experience a tenuous, tentative, and delicate world beyond the pale of objects and meanings, invitations for viewers to be reminded of their solitude and to be assured in their humanity by these generative silences.  

Again—the films of Nathaniel Dorsky do not depict. They do not describe, narrate, or tell. They are never calls to action or causes for alarm. Rather they present an attitude on being the world, an attitude of reserve and remove, of contemplative distance. They express an interiority and at times seem to be looking out from a darkened disembodied sensitivity. Perhaps as metaphor for both filmmaker and viewer, the series of portraits in Intimations (2015), taken in public spaces, depict individuals in isolation, seemingly in thought, and seemingly suspended in the grace of their solitude.

"...to create a film form which has all the qualities of being human." Nathaniel Dorsky

Indeed the entire body of Dorsky's work serves as a poignant metaphor for embodied sensitivity, a metaphor for the miracle of being alive. Like the best and most timeless of art, Dorsky's films-in their generosity, silence, and patience-address viewers in their deepest humanity, in their solitude, vulnerability, and depth. Opening spaces for tenderness and introspection, affirming our capacities as mysterious empathetic beings, the films of Nathaniel Dorsky are occasions for regeneration of our human faculties and sensitivities.  

"If we do relinquish control, we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of the poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us."Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema. Tuumba Press, 2003. Note that the title of this essay also is derived from this text.

Steve Polta extends gratitude to Julian Mithra, Diana Sánchez, and Canyon Cinema for relevant support and insights. Polta is a filmmaker, occasional writer, occasional historian, and former taxi driver, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the Archivist and Artistic Director of San Francisco Cinematheque and the curator of the annual CROSSROADS film festival.