Monday, May 02, 2005

Nathaniel Dorsky

Originally uploaded by .Kerri..

A still from Nathaniel Dorsky's film "Love's Refrian."

It was almost a year ago that Brenda I. first insisted I read Nathaniel Dorsky's book "Devotional Cinema." Originally given as a lecture, this is one of those rare texts that achieves great insight without becoming stilted by self-conscious, academic conditional gestures. Like a John Cage text, Dorsky illuminates abstractions (in this case, semiotics of film) with humane and pedestrian parallels. In talking about how a film should engage a viewer, a relationship that is an active one employing a necessary openness in meaning, Dorsky relates the dynamic to human interaction.

"Conversation can often be an exhausting exchange of self-confirming, predigested concepts with no real exploration: everything is already 'known' and is motivated by a need to maintain the status quo of oneself in relation to the other person. Nowness is tainted by the need to accomplish something, to stay in control."

In this section examining the function of time, the concept of "nowness" is proposed with many echoes of Gertrude Stein's notion of the "continuous present," that a work of art appreciates the real time of the individual's act of engagement since that process and interaction is integral to its experience of "meaning,"

It's clear why Dorsky's book was published by Lyn Hejinian's Tuumba Press as his ideas are very much in conversation with the avant-g poetics of the 1970's and beyond. For example, one can hear a lot of resonance with Charles Bernstein's essay "The Artifice of Absorption" in the following passage--

At the beginning of "Devotional Cinema" Dorsky defines the "alchemy" that is the prerequisite for devotional experience: "For alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter... [A film that is overwhelmingly literal and illustrative] obliterates the medium it is composed of...[and] lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation."

It's probably the Buddhism-informed lens through which Dorsky's thinking takes shape that I find most compelling. The pat spiritual experience that is typically ascribed to art-making put me on my guard as I considered Dorsky's thesis. My chum Ray calls it the wood jewelry syndrome- art or poetry that is intoxicated with a preconcieved idea of its own mystical powers, usually via subject matter instead of form, usually via tired and recognizable tropes. Dorsky's section on Intermittence strikes through all of that sludge and presents the most compelling connection of the spiritual experience and the medium of film understood by way of the visceral, bodily experience of viewing 24 still frames per second. This intermittence resembles the natural flickering of attention, and by extension, this vibration seems a fundamental human rhythm, or, if you like, the vibrational energy of all things (ala my crude understanding of string theory) (certainly ala Zen).


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