Tuesday, March 22, 2011

THE DISPOSABLE & THE DISCONTINUOUS: An Evening Class Conversation With Nathaniel Dorsky

At the San Francisco Cinematheque screening of the restored print of Nathaniel Dorsky's Hours For Jerome, Part 1&2 (1980–82), Dorsky attempted to describe what it was like for him in his early 20s when he arrived in New York in the 1960s. "It's impossible to comprehend now," he said, "how straight the world was when I was in my 20s." Young people have frequently asked him why the beat poets and Jack Kerouac's On the Road had such a powerful influence on his generation but it's impossible for them to know what it was like back then; how tight it was. "If you had a moustache, it was considered radical," he remembered. His audience chuckled. "No, seriously!" he stressed. The media, especially, was extremely tight. There were just certain forms of how media was done.

So it was extraordinary for Dorsky to arrive in New York in the 1960s where someone like Marie Menken was doing handheld camerawork and Stan Brakhage was declaring a language in which everything that was
wrong became the language of the film: jumpcuts, out-of-focus, everything that was out of bounds. [It's equally extraordinary to me today realizing that the character of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was based on Marie Menken, a friend of Albee's.]

Within the context of that uptight and straight climate, which was clearly inspiring a certain creative rebellion, I asked Dorsky what he was going for with the discontinuity in his films? In the incongruent placement of images against each other and their unexpected dialogue with each other? And not only that, but the visceral rhythms of his editing; a pulse you can almost put your finger on, but not quite? Richard Suchenski had already observed that an important aspect of Dorsky's films was the way in which objects were "decontextualized and sometimes unmoored from their surroundings, allowing connections to develop which resonate not only between shots but also across the films as a whole, encouraging more active forms of awareness." I admitted I was intrigued by this notion of awareness arising from the discontinuous and asked him if he could describe the aesthetic that was motivating him to do that? Or what he hoped his audiences would feel from his films?

Dorksy recalled that as an adolescent he had become very enamored of
haiku poetry, which he came upon in the mid to late '50s. "In haiku poetry," he said, "you basically set up two lines of related imagery and then with the third you break the surface; but, you don't break it violently, you don't break it cynically. You break it in a way that the poem opens and becomes whole." There was something about the structure of that haiku break with which Dorsky was very taken. One day he was sitting in his high school class reading haiku while the class was going on and he experienced an epiphany. He looked up from his book and the poem he was reading and saw the teacher teaching, saw the other students whispering and passing notes, and knew without a doubt that the experience was deeply real. It's as if the moment opened up to him. That open and real moment inspired a desire in him to use cinema to do that: to open onto the real.

Naturally, such an approach was perceived as rebellious to the uptight atmosphere of American culture at the time. But at the same time it was part and parcel of being young. "You really think you have to elbow your way out of restriction," Dorsky explained, enacting himself shoving his way through and past using his elbows. It's only when you're older that you realize all that youthful exertion binds you to what you're reacting against and that it's not essential to your art. Though, perhaps, it's essential to youth?

Cross-published on Twitch.