The short films of Nathaniel Dorsky: better than Avatar

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"Viewing a film has tremendous mystical implications," Nathaniel Dorsky writes in his 2003 lecture-cum-monograph Devotional Cinema. "It can be, at its best, a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable. This respect for the ineffable is an essential aspect of devotion."

That's as good an introduction as any to Dorsky's own work, and a relief, as his are precisely the sort of ephemeral, experimental short subjects for which attempts at written elucidation seem -- well, if not futile, then certainly at risk of disrespecting the ineffable. And maybe that's all you really need to know before going to see the San Francisco artist demonstrate his secular visual liturgy in four installments at the Pacific Film Archive this evening.

Introspective is a word that occurs a lot in conversations about Dorsky, and so it should given his films' solitude-reinforcing silence, but what about his way, too, of looking so intently out at the world, and at its abundance? What about his prioritization of peripheral mysteries?

By so mindfully observing the undulations of natural and manmade textures that inspire and apparently surround him, Dorsky somehow achieves translucence and opacity at the same time. It's weird, and beautiful. Sometimes there is the feeling of allowing your eyes to relax their focus, and the enthralling new way of seeing that results. Often there is a feeling of closeness to what's being seen. It can be intimate.

"If a film fails to take advantage of the self-existing magic of things, if it uses objects merely to mean something," he writes, "it has thrown away one of its great possibilities."


This must at least partly explain how all those blossom blasts and gleaming water beads and cloud-smudged celestial objects, so alertly enshrined in the matte hues of a now-extinct film stock, could still seem so vital and so much truer than, for instance, anything you'll see in Avatar.

Dorsky showed a couple of these films, Sarabande and Winter, at SFMOMA at around this time last year. Discussing them afterward, he described, among other things, the San Francisco winter, an "odd, long dissolve between autumn and spring" that took him 20 years to like and presumably at least one more to make a 22-minute movie about. So that's devotion.

As its title suggests, Compline, one of this evening's two premieres, could be said to be seeking a kind of closure. But it's no surprise that for Dorsky, closure can be an opening. The other premiere is called Aubade, and he only finished it just recently.

"An aubade," Dorsky reminds us, "is a poem or morning song evoking the first rays of the sun at daybreak. Often, it includes the atmosphere of lovers parting. This film is my first venture into shooting in color negative after having spent a lifetime shooting Kodachrome. In some sense, it is a new beginning for me."

Four by Nathaniel Dorsky, with the filmmaker in person, Tuesday February 23, 2010, 7:30pm at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For more information, visit