Nathaniel Dorsky, while working as editor and consultant on mainstream films and documentaries, is an acclaimed experimental filmmaker in academic circles. After watching four of his recent efforts at a School of Visual Arts screening in the former Roundabout theater in Chelsea, I have to reject his approach.
Dorsky rejects cinematic conventions, storytelling of course, but even simple notions like composition, progression of shots (he quipped that every film has an opening & closing shot plus shots in the middle, typical of his "I know more than you" Greenaway style banter), focus and even sound. The four silent films, described as one theme (WINTER) and three variations (SARABANDE plus two titles not listed in IMDb: COMPLINE and AUBADE) ran over 10 minutes each at silent speed but were interminable and impenetrable.
I viewed hundreds of abstract and underground short films in the '60s, when they were in vogue and attracted a loyal fan base via midnight screenings (the Cinema 16 circuit). In recent decades there have been brief spurts of general interest in the form, notably in the spectacular feature-length films of Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio (most famously KOYAANISQATSI), which take abstraction to a higher level using the most advanced film techniques, even shooting in 65mm. But Dorsky, who started in the '60s with 8mm and quickly graduated to (until it was discontinued) Kodachrome for his work, gets low marks for technique. When he said: "I don't use a light meter, I am the light meter" I knew it was "The Emperor's New Clothes" time.
SARABANDE was the first of his movies I saw, and at first the issue with each shot is a typical "what am I looking at?". It reminded me of the often fun "stunt" films where microscopic photography or toying with focus challenges the viewer to identify the content of the frame. The greatest experimental film of this type was Willard Maas's classic GEOGRAPHY OF THE BODY, which typically has zero IMDb comments.
For Dorsky, the abstraction struck me as obfuscation. Obviously art students (and faculty) get a large charge out of his efforts, but just as he rejects cinema norms, I quickly rejected his decisions. He rejects framing, with nearly all shots intentionally too closeup. A human being is never shown in complete body shot, or even as a person, just a fragmentary object or glimpse of a form.
Obsession with nature means many a distorted "lens flare" shooting at the sun image as well as framing of passing clouds through layer after layer of branches. A sameness to all four films was generated by many, many closeups of plants and branches that represent almost a Dorsky fetish. I was reminded how such an image can have impact, as in the classic Peckinpah closeup of the burning insects at the beginning of THE WILD BUNCH. But Dorsky reduces such material to filler.
His layered approach ensures we are always looking through a morass of obscuring foreground material, making identification of frame contents difficult.
Lots of out of focus shots were a challenge to any projectionist, as well as the viewer. One gimmick is that sudden camera movement, which is quite jarring in tight closeup, starts in a flurry at the end of each film, signaling its conclusion.
A very occasional shot that is clear, sort of framed, and not hiding behind reflections or gauzy intermediary material, is jarring but banal.
Dorsky made one Hollywood movie, REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS (directed by somebody else, however), which seems to turn on many IMDb bottom feeders but I recall as strictly mediocre when I saw it at a drive-in in the '70s. I come away from his more serious work with the same "so what" (apologies to Miles Davis) reaction.
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