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Triste, by Nathaniel Dorsky

Nathaniel Dorsky Retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

January 27th 28th 29th 30th 31st
Five shows in person and then the cycle will be repeated in a  slightly different order for five more days beginning on February 1st.  Approximate time for all shows: 4pm

Thursday, January 27th and repeated on Tuesday, February 1st
Titled: The Two Sides of Light

Love’s Refrain

FridayJanuary 28th and repeated on Wednesday, February 2nd
Titled: Songs of the Earth

A Fall Trip Home
Arbor Vitae

Saturday, January 29th and repeated on Saturday, February 5th
Titled: Songs of Another Time

Song and Solitude
The Visitation

Sunday, January 30th and repeated on Friday, February 4th
Titled: The Late Quartet


Monday, January 31st and repeated on Thursday, February 3rd,
Titled: The Hours and the Days

Hours for Jerome

Link for Rotterdam Festival

I met Nathaniel sometime in the mid-1980’s, when moving back to the Bay Area which I’d lived in during the late 1960’s and start of the 70’s. Back then he was already a fixture in the San Francisco film world, known for his films (17 Reasons Why, Alaya, Pneuma), but also for being a “film doctor.”   He was famed for his uncanny capacity to be able rescue a film, so that if someone shot a hopeless mess, he could give it a once over, find some editorial thread, and stitch it together, if not into gold, at least into something watchable, and if the stuff was there to do the trick, maybe more.  He was pretty busy at this trade.

I frankly don’t recall how we met – I assume some modest film event, but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is becoming his dealer – well, a kind of dealer. As a bottom-of-the-fiscal-barrel filmmaker I had a habit of buying up cheap, out-of-date, or otherwise odd or undesirable film stocks. When I had a weird emulsion, or old film carton and can, Nick would eagerly snap it up.  Or I gave it to him.  He was a kind of celluloid fetishist, enamored of the actual stuff – the celluloid base, the emulsion, the label, the can.  I was just a crude opportunist looking to save some money I didn’t have, and he was a lover of the stuff.  He tells me Triste was made of those rolls he got from me.  He would hand process stock, and in one of my own films he gave me a minute of outs of some beautiful hand-processed work, flashing blue.  Also some sections of outs from Alaya, sand shifting in the wind.  And he let himself be in that film, Rembrandt Laughing, a filmic valentine to one of the qualities that makes San Francisco such a pleasure.

Dorsky’s hand processed film, mangled on his living room rug

Frame grabs from Rembrandt Laughing

Along with himself as “actor,” and the blue, torn-emulsion film and the shifting grains of sand, he also became in a sense embodied in the film through his persona, which materialized in his scenes, in my use of his collection of sand, and in echoes that reverberate throughout the film of a certain sensibility which he is, and which I hope I faithfully reflected.   Nowadays thoughts of that film caste another tone as I am prompted to remember Jon A. English, the lead actor/musician, and composer for many of my films, who died 14 years ago.  And Roger Ruffin, in this film and 3 others of mine, who died this past year.  And as well thinking of the difficult time some others have had since then.  So it is a saving grace that I also have Nathaniel to think of, a glimmer of the serious joy which the film was about. Though we are very different souls, Nick and me, along some very fundamental places we share a deep kinship.

My life took me away from San Francisco, and a few years later, in Italy (a place Nick loves) the Pesaro Film Festival, (once a very lively and good one, perhaps still is), invited me to program some films for them.  One I chose was Nathaniel’s Alaya – 30 minutes of silence and sand.  For me it’s a gorgeous film, in its utter simplicity, its masterful editing, and I’ve seen it maybe 5 or 6 times.  One minute into it and I am in a meditative state, wandering in my home-grown kind of Buddhist thought.   Anyone who knows me at all knows how hard it is to get me to watch a film once, much less twice, and five times, well….!   However, programming it I thought it was likely a hard film for most viewers, and I suggested they place it last in line, lest people leave and miss the other films.  The screening was on a hot Italian summer day, the cinema had no air conditioning, and was packed.  It was like an oven.  The projector rolled and… and Nathaniel’s film was first despite my suggestion, and my thoughts went gray as I thought of the empty cinema to come.  Half an hour later though I was elated – almost no one left, and later, when the discussion time came, the film drew very positive comments.  I’d miscalculated something seriously – my trust in the audience?  my trust in Nathaniel’s artistry?  I learned a good lesson.

A dish of stones in Nathaniel’s apartment, shown in Rembrandt Laughing Frame grab, Alaya

The last time I saw Nathaniel was in Portland, Oregon, 5 years ago.  He was doing a screening for a small group, the Cinema Project.   The setting was a small art gallery, on the east side of the Willamette, and Nathaniel, as usual, was concerned with the projection – the color temperature, that the machine ran smoothly, at 18fps, focus.   He seemed a bit harried, and there wasn’t much chance to talk.  If I recall properly he, and a cluster from the screening, afterward went to a cafe, and Marcella and I joined, but it was a bit too much to actually have words.  Since then we’ve corresponded here and there, and I’ve watched with a warm pleasure as his work has found screenings around the world – in Paris, New York, London.  I’m trying to get him here to Korea, not only for the selfish reason to see his films, and to see him, but also he’s never been to Asia.  At least not physically.  He might like, and it would be good for his work to get seen in this part of the world.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”
Nathaniel Dorsky

PastourelleAubadeComplineSong and SolitudeThe VisitationLove’s Refrain Triste

As it turns out, one of my own films has been invited to Rotterdam as well so I’ll be able to catch up with Nick there, see the new films I haven’t and see some others again.   And if things work out, I suggested we go on the train to Den Haag for him to see the gorgeous View of Delft, and a few other Vermeers there at the Mauritshuis.   And if very lucky, perhaps the canals will be frozen and we can go ice-skating!

Nathaniel, photo by Jerome Hiler Threnody Variations

For further thoughts and reading see these:

Making Light of It

Art Forum article by P.F. Sitney (PDF, good pictures)

About Nathaniel Dorsky, website

Mubi interview

Scott McDonald interview

IndieWire, Dorsky and Brakhage talk

Review, Redcat screening, 2006

Review, Toronto 2010

Review of Devotional Cinema

Bowl of miso soup, Nathaniel’s feet, in Rembrandt Laughing

Nathaniel’s films are certainly not for everyone – in truth for a little minority of people who are open to a kind of rarified experience rather remote from the hurly-burly of our society, and most of the cinema it produces.  But if you’re of the inclination to enjoy, say, a Persian or Indian miniature, or marvel at the exquisite perfection of van Eyck’s “Als ich kann” or simply let the wonder of a flicker of light against a wall stun you, then his discreet and subtle work just might be your ticket.   So if at Rotterdam, or somewhere near, this is a rare chance to see this work.

Nathaniel skating, Alaya out-take, big bang: Rembrant Laughing

[Added March 8 2011: Marcella’s Video of Nathaniel on a little trip, talking and shooting.]

[March 14, 2011: new article and interview with Nathaniel.]




  1. Jon,
    Did you mention about a year ago that Dorsky had finally started using a high end hi-def cam of some sort? If correct, have you seen what he’s done?

    • No, that was Jim Benning, who has now made some stunning things in HD.

  2. Jon,

    While I know little to nothing of your topic, I would like to extend a hearty congratulations for your own film winding up in Rotterdam. It must be a wonderful feeling.

    • Well, I am afraid at the banged up age of 67, having made films since I was 19, it ain’t no thrill. Rather a long bus ride, cynically a paid ticket to far away, 4 nights hotel, a chance to see a few friends (people paintings buildings) another time, and in this case, making it nice, I’ll see Nick and his newer work. And a few other friends.

      Once it might have had a bit of business possibility attached, a sale to a TV or distrib, but that is long gone and I hold no delusions. Soon I’ll be writing something on festivals today.

  3. Hi Jon,
    Was looking for the Dorsky screening times on the net, and your blog was the first thing up in Google!
    Do you have dates for your screening too? I have a day job at the minute, but I’m looking to see if I can’t take a day or two off to come up to Rotterdam. Would be nice if I could time it to coincide with both your film and part of the Dorsky cycle.
    Happy New Year to you and Marcella,

    • I’ll post it in a few days, but here’s my schedule:
      01/28/2011 14:30 Cinerama 5
      01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7
      02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6
      Look to see you there. We’ll be in Paris 15-21; Amsterdam 21-28th.

      • Great! Looking forward:) Do you know any good inexpensive hotels in the festival area?

  4. Jon this is off-topic, and I apologize for that in advance.
    But I very much enjoy your comments on the New York Times website. You’re unfailingly thoughtful. Thank you for your wise words.

    • Thank you, though the format unfortunately requires a hair-trigger and haste, so there’s lots of typos, mangled syntax, and overly simplified “thought.” You h ave to quickly read the column, marshal your ideas at the same time, and spit them out as fast as you can – otherwise you’ll be stuck at #276 or something, and unread. I’m off on trip in a few days and I will take a break for 6 weeks… But thanks.

  5. Jon, thanks for the Dorsky quote and pics. Inspiring. It looks like I’m finally going to shoot something new this summer. It’s been a few years since I’ve done anything “theatrical” (i.e. scripted) but I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be editing on Sony Vegas but unlikely to be HD yet. Can’t afford a new camera. Good luck in Rotterdam.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. By Festivities in Rotterdam « cinemaelectronica on 09 Jan 2011 at 3:40 pm

    […] Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films.  See this. […]

  2. […] Jon Jost’s Weblog Thoughts and things JON’S SHORT BIO « Nathaniel Dorsky, in Retrospect […]

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