“A great cut,” says Nathaniel Dorsky, “brings forth the eerie, poetic order of things,” and his films are case studies in how to use film editing for just such effects. Eschewing narrative, and often even thematic coherence, Dorsky practices what he calls “polyvalent montage,” a style of film editing which focuses on strange and often-unexpected connections between disparate images. Dorsky traces this style as far back as Joseph Cornell’s 1936 short Rose Hobart, in which Cornell remixed the 1931 Hollywood film East of Borneo into a meditation on the strange presence of the lead actress, after whom he titled the film.
Given his predilection for the unexpected juxtaposition, one might take Dorsky for a surrealist, but his films forego surrealism’s insistence on violent confrontation; they don’t force their way into your unconscious; they creep in slowly, gradually accruing strange resonance—often, you don’t know just how uncanny the films are until long after they’ve finished.
Dorsky came of age in the 60s, the heyday of avant-garde film activity in New York. He produced a small body of work that got a fair amount of attention and subsequently dropped out of the public eye. For upwards of 14 years he didn’t publicly exhibit his films, preferring to screen unedited reels at home, for close friends. As film historian P. Adams Sitney noted recently in Art Forum, “Within the avant-garde film community, the private evenings of film appreciation hosted by Dorsky […] attained cult status.”
Dorsky returned to filmmaking in the 80s and by the 90s he had reached what one might call his mature style. He said for years he had dreamed of “an open form,” a style of composition and editing that would linger in the mind, every shot connecting in some way to the last but opening outward, introducing new forms and ideas. He found precedence for this kind of work in the poetry of John Ashbery, but he may well have had in mind Umberto Eco’s essay “The Poetics of the Open Work,” in which Eco says that the “open” work “sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society.”
Dorsky will be screening new work at MoMA tonight as part of the Modern Mondays series. Two of the pieces to be shown are from 2008, Sarabande and Winter. Like many of his recent films, both are portraits of San Francisco, where he lives and works. Because Dorsky takes his camera with him most everywhere, and shoots his immediate surroundings, the authorial voice in his cinema has a bit of the flâneur, but with less enmity that Baudelaire’s wanderer. One much talked about shot in Sarabande shows a man holding the door open for a woman with a stroller—it would perhaps be a trite image in the hands of someone less capable, but the shot, within the whole of Sarabande, takes on an astonishing beauty. Also screening will be Compline, from 2009, and the premiere of Aubade, his latest.