• Devotional Cinema

Devotional Cinema
by Nathaniel Dorsky

Tuumba Press, San Francisco, 2004
Soft cover, 52 pages
ISBN 1-931157-05-7

As a filmmaker, Nathaniel Dorsky constructs his sensory explorations of instants and object relations in fissile silence. As a writer, his words are correspondingly delicate. With a distinctly celebratory tone, Dorsky describes the transcendental character of film in his concise volume Devotional Cinema, which now available in a second, newly revised edition. Devotional Cinema maps the morphemics of film language and its phenomena. Dorsky examines not the illusionary experience of the spectator as voyeur, but the properties of true and consuming psychological incidents under the influence of film. He writes of a visceral and revelatory language unique to film, and snakes through its sticks and stones to determine how this language is most effectively spoken. Dorsky’s text reads equally as both an intellectual discourse and as an emotionally instinctive diary. His sense of cinema semiotics is deeply personal, but not obscure. In fact, he further greases his wheels by citing works of such commonly exalted directors such as Jean Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and even John Ford to illustrate his analysis of filmic seduction and metaphysics.

One of things that make this text so special among film theory writings is its untroubled, conversational attitude toward a difficult, sensitive area of discourse. In part, this flavor is due to the fact that the book originated out of a public lecture Dorsky gave at Princeton University in 1999. As a manuscript it maintains the informal lilt that the front cover photograph of Dorsky’s gesturing hands on a café tabletop implies. He addresses complex and occult aspects of film experience that are rarely given the weight and attention they deserve. Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has brought the book a lot of local attention, calling the book his “discovery” of 2004.

In the chapter on cinema shots and cuts, Dorsky refers us to the ending sequence of Godard’s Contempt. This film famously begins with the Andre Bazin quote that describes the experience of watching cinema as trading our gaze for a world more in harmony with what we desire to experience. The plot of Contempt fails to fulfill this promise, and for contrast it is important to point out that Dorsky is not very sympathetic to Bazin’s sentiments, either. Dorsky writes that when film is alive as a devotional form, it “subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality.” He defines “devotion” as “the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.” This formula is the opposite of Bazin’s thickening of our desires, which are usually deeply mired in temporal concerns and escaping reality. According to Dorsky, film should serve as a kind of escape from Houdini’s box, not an escape ladder to a voluptuous Rapunzel.

Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose unadorned filmic style Dorsky praises, once said, “We have to become capable of really giving the audience the impression that they’re watching reality through a keyhole.” With Dorsky, a keyhole is compromising. The proverbial door between the audience and the film’s “materiality” should be unlocked and propped open. Giotto’s picture plane should be rolled up like a pull-down projection screen, supposing that experiences with film are not projected, but internal. Dorsky’s criteria for a film to “respect reality” is hinged on his concept of spiritual balance, but one almost trips on the nagging sense that this spiritual principle is at odds with, or at least superior to, mere reality. For Dorsky however, who opens his book with the quote “all is grace,” spiritual purity and reality are really the same thing. He speaks of capable cinema being “metaphysically true” and extols its potential to restore balance to an unhealthy spirit.

“Less visionary cinema” is something that Dorsky describes as failing to balance properly between the external and internal. It is easy to take this concept for granted, but occassionally Dorsky’s ellaborations are too subjective. The transformational potential of any encounter with art belongs to the rapport between art and viewer, and not only in the credibility of one or the other. At one point Dorsky says, “There might be a film that had a very meaningful subject but was so inelegantly handled that it actually left one feeling unhealthy or alienated.” It is valid to consider the failure of a film to affect sophisticated viewers in a favorable way, but on an experential level, it also makes sense to qualify any film, however disappointing or inelegant, that systematically delivers the properties of cinema’s psychotropic chemistry. There are plenty of deeply emotional experiences that are unhinging to the psyche, and potentially quite malignant to the spirit. Even experiences that only consist of disgust count. Dorsky conceeds that a film may “succeed in being seductive and absorbing, but it may also leave one feeling shallow and used.” Distinguishing bad art from non-art is tricky, but Dorsky’s point is clear: Don’t eat the brown acid.

Dorsky asks, “what is it about the nature of film that can produce health, or ill health?” To some degree everyone has experienced exiting a theatre without fully recovering that feeling of “real world” familiarity and stability. Maybe this was not a complete disorientation with your visual and sonic environment, but it was a feeling of being slighlty unreal or surreal, the silver screen having embedded within your mind a kind of dream-like photoluminescence. Dorsky, in part, attributes this to a structural similarity between film and our physical metabolism. The potential of film to be a conduitive medium, a meditative medium, or a drug experience, is not just an effect of our ability to mystically ingest film. While simplistic, perhaps Bazin’s comment wasn’t entirely off base, and this phenomenon also involves the potential for consciousness to trade itself for what is directly aroused by film.

On this matter, Dorsky directs our attention to the darkness within which we view film, using this to describe the availability of the mind for conversion or occupation. The mind as a dim theatre or veritable VCR is something he relates to the process of sponging up different formats of vision through significant exposure to those dimensions and properties. “After spending an extended period of time in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres,” Dorsky offers as example, “one begins to see the world in that way.” This is not only true about things like cinema and stained glass, but relatively anything that you are capable of absorbing yourself in. What experience doesn’t have a saturation point where it will begin to inform all other experiences local to it, and even change the meaning of these experiences and objects without changing what they stand for?

The most compelling concept in Devotional Cinema is outlined in the chapter titled “Self-Symbol.” Here Dorsky writes of seeing things “freshly, without concept” and denigrates the use of formal, synthetic metaphor. Dorsky announces that cinema should take advantage of the “self-existing magic of things” and balance its use of incidental surroundings against a bare minimum of what the narrative dictates. His dismissal of narrative symbolism is almost immaterial around its edges. After all, symbols only function to the degree that the audience is willing, mentally saavy enough, or formulaically trained to interpret them. I do not think Dorsky is saying that symbolism in film ever could be rendered completely inert, because you cannot stop an audience from drawing conclusions. What he embraces is a poetry of things that do not automatically imply anything but themselves, and whose image presence in a film strip is not crafted for dialectic notice. This is very different than advocating the arbitrary. For something to truly be a “Self-Symbol,” however, it must remain neutrally peripheral to the intellect, and never intentionally or unintentionally attract superfluous definition. Curiosity must be preserved, not solved by the juxtaposition of props. Dorsky calls for the maintenance of an object’s innate “mystery.”

He criticizes a moment in Antonioni’s La Notte where narrative necessity loosens and forceful metaphor devours the “Self-Symbolism” of Lidia’s walk through the city. As Dorsky points out, her mental state is forced into a caricature of itself by a series of impersonal images and interactions, including a broken clock and an abandoned baby. This kind of creatively cheap, visual highlighting of narrative themes is gospel to mainstream cinema. Another example can be found easily even in a film Dorsky speaks quite highly of, Dreyer’s The Passsion of Joan of Arc. At the end of this film we are interrupted twice by condescending, fatuous correlations. When Joan is clutching the cross, waiting at the site which she will be burned alive, and pleading to the Lord for less suffering, we are jolted from our anxiety over this moment by a shot of a baby who spits out his mother’s nipple to stare (presumably back at Joan) with the intensity of a divine response. Given the straight forward nature of the rest of the film, this shot seems particularly odd, but not quite as wrenchingly cute as the corny symmetry presented to us next, in shots bouncing between the burning Joan and a crucifix engulfed in smoke.

Antonin Artaud would like what Dorsky has to say about “Self-Symbol.” Artaud, who incidentally played the part of the monk Massin in The Passion of Jean of Arc, emphasized the need for non-verbally intimate, instinctively radical production in film as well as in his notorious “Theatre of Cruelty.” Similarly to Dorsky, he theorized with a secular, spiritual vocabulary, often using words like “metaphysical” and “sacred.” In an essay titled Sorcery and Cinema, written circa 1928, he wrote, “...any image, even the slightest and most banal, is transfigured on the screen. The smallest detail and the most insignificant object take on the meaning and the life that pertains to each of them… one that tends to become ever more independent and to detach itself from the habitual meaning these objects have.”

In the chapter “Intermittence,” Dorsky addresses the flipbook inconstancy of film, contemplating the serialized images that imitate a picture in motion, or as he puts it, imitate “something solid.” Cleverly, he compares the refresh rate of human sight and human awareness to the clip structure of cinema. He uses the architecture of vacillation between something and nothing to describe attention. It is a reminder of E.H. Gombrich’s observation that attention is, by definition, selective. Dorsky uses the concept of intermittence to address cinematic storytelling convention, and the fact that movies tell time in jumps. He writes: “Its montage has to present a succession of visual events that are sparing enough, and at the same time poignant enough, to allow the viewer’s most basic sense to fill in the blanks.”

While shot and cut structures are described as “the two elemental opposites that allow film to transform itself,” Dorsky says that it is actually the element of time that provides for the real possibilty of devotion. He defines for us two distinct types of time. “Relative time,” he says, is the sequential velocity of moments, whereas “absolute time” is the individual “nowness” of each of those moments. Dorsky describes absolute time as having verticality, and relative time as having a horizontalness. Diagrammatically, these together, and entertainingly so, become the transom and upright of a cross (an ideogram of devotion, for those audience members out there who can’t help gravedigging for symbols). Dorsky says that a film must continually renew itself, with each new shot or new momentous “nowness” and with cuts that supply a “clarity that continually reawakens [the viewer].”

Dorsky distinguishes between “sequences that illustrate something rather than are something.” He practices what he preaches in his own films. But though one often gets the feeling that Dorsky is describing his own method of filmmaking in Devotional Cinema, he refrains from ever mentioning his own work. In fact, at public readings of his book he often will screen films, and to the disappointment his audience, they are never his own, preserving a necessary distance between Dorsky’s ideas and his individual execution of them.

The most notable changes in the second edition of Devotional Cinema are rewritten accounts of films by Yasujiro Ozu, of which new prints recently became available for screening, permitting the author to describe the works with increased clarity and subtlety. Additionally, some minor tinkering is present in other passages, improving the grace of the text, but not the content.

Dorsky’s new film Threnody, an elegy for the late filmmaker Stan Brakhage and the second of two so-named “Devotional Songs,” premiered at the reopening of MOMA in Manhattan. It was shown by the San Francisco Cinematheque on March 3rd to a sold out crowd. During the Q&A following the Cinematheque screening, Dorsky said that in his work he wants to “help film be itself.” He does, even within the symbol and conclusion ridden machinery of words in a book.


— Jordan Essoe is a writer and artist based in San Francisco.