Sunday, August 30, 2009


With the calendar for the San Francisco Cinematheque Fall program officially announced, I’m reminded of the great job Executive Director Jonathan Marlow has done in breathing life into the institution and how he has singlehandedly trained my focus towards experimental cinema. I’ll get back from the Toronto International just in time to catch the San Francisco Cinematheque’s season opener: José Antonio Sistiaga’s rarely-screened ere erera baleibu icik subua aruaren. In the months following, I look forward to programs on Tom Chomont, Robert Beavers, Chick Strand, and the Kuchar Brothers. Anticipating same has likewise reminded me of my favorite event of San Francisco Cinematheque’s last season: Nathaniel Dorsky speaking on his most recent films Song & Solitude, Sarabande and Winter.

On the Toxicity of Cinema

Film is such a wonderful way to directly relate with an audience. Its use as a vehicle for transmitting wisdom is so strong and so unused, and sort of deeply toxic as a whole. If you think of how toxic cinema is, then—like anything that has great potential for purity—it has an equal potential for poison. It’s our responsibility to use it wisely.

On Editing

I try to make the films work. I’m not being facetious. I collect footage over a period of maybe half a year. I assume that—because I’ve collected it—that there’s some kind of unifying factor. Then I just begin. I say, “This is where I’m beginning” and then I let the film echo out on its own. I let the film echo its own reality. On Winter, I edited for probably a month; but, that’s not a fair way to [state] it because, while I’m shooting, I’m eliminating stuff I don’t like. So in a way it’s maybe a year process; but, then the actual editing might take a month to six weeks.

On Having Opinions About Films

You know how we’re all socialized? Where you have to be most socialized is with film opinions. There’s no way to lose a friend more easily. I’m serious. When someone takes something from a film and you don’t have their experience, they wonder if you can be their friend. So normally if someone asks me if I’ve seen a film, I’ve learned to say, “I hear it’s good.” That’s the safest thing to do because you never know. But then I thought, “If I write a book [Devotional Cinema], I can actually say what I really feel.”

On Winter in San Francisco

I’ve shown Winter about nine times this Autumn and I always have to explain what a San Francisco winter is like. Here, winter has nothing to do with sleigh riding. It’s a whole other thing. I thought, “Nobody’s really made a film about our winter.” It’s a slow dissolve from Autumn into Spring. The first year that I saw the sycamore trees holding onto their brown leaves at the same time that the plum blossoms were coming out in the first week of February, I thought, “What is this mess?” It took me 20 years to like it.

On Not Knowing When A Film Will Work

In my apartment where I live in the Richmond there are two boys above me who are in the San Francisco ballet. I would see them on stage and, you know, everyone’s envious of people in ballet; I am. I’d see them in those great outfits under those powerful spotlights. Then an hour later, I’d see them down by the garbage cans taking out their garbage. I asked one of them, “How does that feel to dance?” He said, “Well, frankly, when I dance well it feels great. When I haven’t danced well, it feels terrible.” It’s the same kind of feeling making films. It’s wonderful to share them with an audience when they’re well-projected. It’s the same thing with putting on a CD. When you put on a CD or a record and it’s a good night, the music really works that night. It’s the same thing with film. If you have a program, you never know which films will be magical that night.

On Shooting in B&W vs. Color

When I first started, the first few 16mm films I made when I was 17 or 18 or 19 were black and white. At 18, I made a film in B&W and got an honorable mention in the Kodak teenage movie contest and the generous present from Eastman Kodak was two rolls of 8mm Kodachrome. Can you believe it? But there are many films I make where there are black and white images in them. Winter has one black and white image. All the films you’re seeing tonight were shot in Kodachrome, which no longer exists. I just finished my last roll of Kodachrome shooting for this next film I’m making. This is a very particular experience of seeing Kodachrome made through internegative and I got very fascinated—I know the film seems quite dark—with the darker end of Kodachrome. Every film has a scale. From the middle on down is where I felt the soul was in Kodachrome. I’m fascinated with this lower end of Kodachrome; the spirit of it. If I only had any kind of funding, I’d have a chance to make something that comes from a color negative, which would be a whole other palette. I’m always changing mediums. It’s a response to a whole other area of the visual world. I’m looking forward to that. Kodachrome doesn’t represent things well. You have to turn it into something. A color negative has greater representationality.

On Shooting Outdoors

Eighty percent of my films are shot within walking distance of my front door. I love freedom deeply and to me freedom is being able to walk out your front door, not get in an automobile, and just walk. It sounds so simple but it means a great deal to me. It’s kind of like when you bring a dog to the beach and you unclip it and it goes wild. That’s how I feel. I’m unclipped. I can just wander. The simplicity of freedom is wonderful.

On Developing the Skill
to Translate Reality Onto Film

The skill you develop as a filmmaker is translated onto the screen. So how do you make the screen something as vital as the world that you see? Many many filmmakers in the mediocre realm take pictures of things that they see but their films are reductive of reality. So the thing is how can you take the screen and ignite it and have it have the same kind of original sense of what you’re filming? As a filmmaker, you start to understand things that are translatable, especially about film stock. Kodachrome has a terrible regular blue sky and it has terrible whites and other things like that. So you move away from that towards what it can do. Your skill as a maker is that you begin to know what is translatable. Sometimes I see something and I approach it with my camera and I don’t push the button because I realize I can’t translate it.

On Shooting At the Twilight Hour

Even the most traditional Hollywood filmmakers, someone like John Ford for example, would shoot early in the morning and in the afternoon and would take three or fours off during the middle of the day for obvious reasons, especially as he was a great outdoor photographer and shadows were important for him. It’s not so much the time of day as the kind of day. I have a very bad reaction to days with a high white sky. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t even like to go outside. I don’t like to shoot when the sky is white.

On the Difference Between Painting, Photography and Filmmaking

A painter can re-examine the same thing 10 times and can even hang his paintings in the same room. Somehow it works. Somehow you have the freedom. Film doesn’t quite work the same. Maybe I’m being overly defensive. I’m more inspired by painters than photographers. Still photography is almost more different from filmmaking than painting. Painting is closer to filmmaking than still photography.

On What Advice He Can Offer

Advice? Enjoy yourself! The great experimental filmmaker George Kuchar said to me once, “Look, if you’re going to spend your own money to make your own films, you might as well have a great time.” Honestly, what I find—being a stubborn kind of individualist—is that when people have the freedom to make anything they can make, when they have the funding, they make something so socialized. There seems to be a great fear in this day and age of touching your own originality. Maybe it’s the obsession with schooling where everything is based on third or fourth generation instead of someone touching on their original sense of presence. I would encourage that: trust your original sense of presence.

On the Importance of Finishing Films

What I find is that any idea that I have doesn’t help me. I’m not bright enough in a certain way to think out a film. Also, I don’t like school. I’m not a school type person. The idea of thinking up a film and then filling it in is like going to school. Instead of getting a B+, I’ll get all these Cs. It’s like filling in a coloring book. I’d rather not. It doesn’t help me to think. I try to, believe me. I’ll go, “What would be a great idea for the next film? What would be a title?” I’m endlessly like this. It doesn’t do any good. For the next film all I can do is begin. I used to try to think out, “Okay, what is this going to be? It’s got to be different; everybody’s sick of what I’m doing.” But what I realized is that—every time you begin—it’s like Heraclitus: you’re not who you were. You’re always beginning from a new place. Especially if you finish the film. You want advice? Finish what you do. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. Every time you finish something, you go through a small rite of passage and you’re really different, every time. Don’t not finish something because it’s not perfect. Finish it. I had a lot of trouble finishing films when I was young because I would keep changing them. There was one film that took me 10-12 years to finish.

On What Makes An Artist Who They Are

If you’ve seen my early films, you’d probably think I haven’t evolved at all. It’s kind of embarrassing. Isn’t it odd how we all are who we are? You go to a museum and you say, “There’s a Corot. There’s a Cezanne.” Why? Why is everyone who they are? It’s such an odd thing.

On Making the Screen Become Alive

Because my films don’t have characters, and because the screen isn’t a stage and my films are not in the third person where people have problems that they resolve or not, the screen itself is the character. In a sense, my films are really for the audience. You’re the center of the film. You’ve probably noticed that? The films are for you. They’re about you. Therefore, you have to become fully present. I was taught very early that it’s important that the whole screen itself become alive. The plasticity of the screen. The screen isn’t just a dead window or a dead hole into a view. The screen itself can blossom. An alive screen is probably the most wonderful thing. Have you even seen the black and white films of Antonioni? Just look at those films!

On Projecting Footage During the Work Process

I project all the time. One thing I can’t share with an audience—which is frustrating—is what it’s like to see this stuff in its original Kodachrome projected in my home before I cut it down. I cannot make an editing decision on any of my films without projecting it on a screen.

On Silence and Sound in Film

The first three films I made when I was 20-21 were sound films and at the time (1963-64) being in the American avant-garde was a wonderful period of time. Avant-garde films were never shown in universities. They were sometimes shown in museums, though you’d probably have to go to a midnight show. There were several avant-garde filmmakers who were working without sound and I fell in love with it. At first I didn’t like it. It was difficult. It was like having sugar in your coffee and then not having sugar. But then I grew to like it because there’s something profound about using one sense. Using two senses is good for theatre. Obviously, I love sound films with characters—though silent films also have characters—but, it seems sound is best for character films where the screen is a stage. But my own take is that—though there are some films within the avant-garde canon that are sound films and are some of my favorites—on a whole, sound doesn’t work in avant-garde films. First of all, 16mm sound is terrible—seriously, the quality of it—and, I don’t know, there’s just something about the simplicity of the silence. It allows you to articulate. Everyone’s making sound films so they don’t need any more. I make my living as an editor so I work with sound films all the time and I’ve worked on some very nice sound films so I know how to work with sound.

On His Next Project

All I can say is that I had the privilege of teaching on the East Coast all Autumn, so I shot. I hadn’t shot a film on the East Coast since my early twenties. I have a film now that may be one in two sections: the East Coast and the West Coast. It just happened because I shot in both places but the vibration is so different that I thought, “I don’t want to mix them. It’s so intriguing how different they are.” It may not turn out that way but it’s some kind of film in two sections. I need a title. My friend Diane tells me she has a whole box of titles, which for a small fee….

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