Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 34, October 2004







Daniel Barnett


A Deceptively Slender Volume:

Dorsky's _Devotional Cinema_



Nathaniel Dorsky

_Devotional Cinema_

Berkeley, California: Tuumba Press, 2003

ISBN 1-931157-05-07

52 pp.


The text of _Devotional Cinema_ by Nathaniel Dorsky, as published by Tuumba Press, is the elaboration and distillation of a series of lectures presented initially on March 30, 2001 as part of Princeton University's Conference on Religion and Cinema, and was developed in lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Originally published in 2003 in _The Hidden God: Film and Faith_ (edited by Mary Lee Bandy and Antonio Monda) by The Museum of Modern Art, the Tuumba Press version's elegant 52 page volume was designed by Dorsky, Ree Katrak, and the poet Lyn Hejinian. It was edited and prepared for print by Nick Hoff. Considered as an object, it has the same lucid, quiet power as Dorsky's films.


Avant-garde film of the sixties, with its attention to the surface of the screen and the plastic nature of the medium, opened Dorsky to a language of visual space unique to film. His reverence for the power of images, arranged *for themselves*, prior to any narrative content they might impart, is the basis for the appreciation in this book. In his filmmaking this reverence is expressed through delicacy of detail, nuanced light and color, and even the physical possibilities and limitations of the medium itself. These are the values which permeate his work and serve the clear quiet sense of transcendence that images, by themselves, can produce.


In this monograph Dorsky treats *the word* with the same care as he treats *the image* in his films. The result is a text far more comprehensive, subtle, and deep than its physical size would suggest. It's also an extremely simple and compelling read. Carefully felt rather than closely reasoned, its exposition of a distinct and illuminating ontology lies closer to the revelations of art and religion than philosophy. But the perspective it describes is one that's had enormous impact on the development of the plastic art of film in the past 40 years, and its content may well resonate more fully with some students of this peculiar elevating potential of film, than theories designed with philosophy's more stringent needs in mind.


Dorsky begins by describing an observation he made early on about the concordance between his experience of film and his *metabolism*, a term he uses somewhat idiosyncratically. This observation remains at the root of his filmmaking practice after more than 30 years, and shapes his use of the term *devotional*, which as he describes it:


'need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form. Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation. When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world. It is alive as a devotional form.' (16)


He then proceeds to fill in the details of this concordance between self and the experience of cinema, as well as the various internal balances a film must fulfill in order for it to achieve a devotional quality for him.


His metabolic baseline is utterly simple. It lies between our existential condition and our general assessment of our beings in the post-film experience. Speaking of life, he says: 'We are part of our experience and yet we can see through it. We can see though it, yet we are not free from it. We are both appreciators and victims of material existence.' (16-17) To illuminate, he describes his response to Rossellini's _Voyage To Italy_ which he says: 'searches for authenticity with unguarded nakedness . . . The actual fabric of Rossellini's film, the rightness and invisibility of its form is deeply disarming.' (19)


It is in this kind of honest vulnerability that Dorsky finds his sense of balance and what he calls health. For him art (and for certain reasons especially film), when practiced with clarity and immediacy, has the power to mirror and realign our metabolism toward health. Art practiced without these qualities will make us sick -- in ways we may, or may not, notice. For Dorsky it is consciousness (if not self-consciousness) of the material nature of the medium that is the prime requisite for what he calls the *alchemical* transformation toward health to take place in us. He says:


'For Alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter. If this union is not present, if the film's literalness is so overwhelming, so illustrative, that it obliterates the medium it is composed of, then one is seduced into a dream state of absorption that, though effective on that level, lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation. Such a film denies its totality. It denies the fact of what it is actually made of.' (22)


For Dorsky, and for many other avant-garde filmmakers of his generation, this is an absolutely fundamental idea. You might think of it as the difference between a seduction into escapism and a fully aware absorption in the moment. The artists of that generation also thought of working a medium to its natural fullness, a fullness described and delimited by darkness and light. Cinema's essence as short pulses of light overwhelming darkness, stands for our relationship to the illusion of a seamless field of experience. As he puts it: 'Many people take vision as a given and don't realize that they are actually seeing.' (24) With the illusion of continuous light on the screen as an analogue for our experience of continuity in life, a filmmaker can strike a balance.


He says: 'This balance point unveils the transparency of our earthly experience. We are afloat . . . It is within this balance that profound cinema takes place' (26). Then he describes several axes on which balance needs to be achieved -- between the seer and the seen, that tension between author and subject matter; imbalances among vision, language, and concept, and why he asserts the dominance of vision; the balance between theme and image -- by which I take him to mean a kind of honesty and alignment of visual style, as well as a subservience of not only literary to visual form, but of all thought contained to the material and mechanical actualities of the medium. And when he discusses intermittence, the dominant mechanical fundamental of cinema, he once again evokes the analogy between cinema and consciousness:


'On a visceral level, the intermittent quality of film is close to the way we experience the world. We don't experience a solid continuum of existence. Sometimes we are here and sometimes not, suspended in some kind of rapid-fire illusion . . . On close examination even our vision seems to be intermittent, which explains why, in films, pans often feel artificial or forced. This stems from the fact that one never pans in real life . . . Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being . . . It is as basic as life and death, existence and non-existence' (28).


Another aspect he ascribes to intermittence, and its role in creating balance, relates to his thoughts on montage, and reflects his predisposition (another hallmark of the mid-century avant-garde) toward elliptical cutting. He ties the requirement for adequate breathing space in the mind of the viewer (the relationship between cross-cutting and the normal fragmentation of our consciousness) to his view of film as consisting ultimately of just shots and cuts: 'Shots and cuts are the two elemental opposites that enable film to transform itself. Shots are the accommodation, the connection, the empathy, the view of the subject matter we see on the screen. The cuts are the clarity that continually reawakens the view.' (42)


One could say that Dorsky's own films are the apotheosis of this conception. They are all silent, projected at silent-film speed, and without exception consist entirely of a progression of subtle visual tableaux, leading from one to another across transitions as poignant, carefully timed, and significant as the images they separate. Their formal energy is informed by a mind deeply absorbed in the immediacies of painting, poetry, ballet, and music.


His analysis of cinematic time is equally simple, but he draws on examples from Egyptian votive sculpture, medieval stained glass, and two films by Carl Dreyer, to illustrate the presence in cinema of relative time (passage from beginning to end) and absolute time (continuous sense of nowness), and their need for balance in achieving devotional stature. Once again the background for his distinction is a predisposition of the sixties: some degree of preference for work which evolves organically out of the rush the artist gets from on-the-spot decision-making, and the viewer from on-the-spot discovery, over work executed to fulfill a preordained concept. He says:


'When the absolute and temporal are unified, film becomes a narrative of nowness and reveals things for what they are rather than as surrogates for some predetermined concept. It is the fear of direct contact with the uncontrollable present that motivates the flight into concept. The filmmaker seeks the safety net of an idea, or something to accomplish that is already known. If we do relinquish control, we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along . . . Everything is expressing itself as what it is. Everything is alive and talking to us.' (35)


He uses the term *self-symbol* to describe the corresponding 'existence potential' to absolute time's 'action potential'. He says: 'If a film fails to take advantage of the self-existing magic of things, if it uses objects merely to mean something, it has thrown away one of its great possibilities. When we take an object and make it mean something, what we are doing, in a subtle, or not so subtle way, is confirming ourselves.' (36) To illustrate his idea of self-symbol he draws on works by Ozu, including his first sound film _The Only Son_ (1936), and Antonioni, including _Story of a Love Affair (1950) and _La Notte_ (1960).


His summary thought is a succinct recapitulation: 'the more film expresses itself in a manner intrinsic to its own true nature, the more it can reveal for us' (48).


Since there really are no *arguments* presented in _Devotional Cinema_, there really is nothing to critique. One is invited to ponder and reflect along with Dorsky about conditions which are undeniable, though rarely recognized. There are comments here and there which might be disputed by recent findings in psychology, but these disputes will have missed the point of the book. The actual development and organization of thought in this monograph has a fluid feeling which, as I attempted to synopsize the content for review, made me need to (but not want to) present his ideas in a very slightly different order than he did. He uses his discussion of the fundamental nature of shots and cuts as a summary, where it has perhaps more conceptual impact, but I felt it was important for understanding the relationship between *intermittence* and his sense of *montage*, and so I moved it up in the synopsis.


If I have any criticism it is that the book leaves one with a sense of suspension. With so much of the basis for these lectures being both personal and subjective, there is a slight sense of anticlimax as one turns the last page, and maybe wishes for something else . . . perhaps to see his films? These lectures, began, after all as a kind of introduction to his films, which are his most extensive work. Also I must add that his summary comment -- 'the more film expresses itself in a manner intrinsic to its own true nature, the more it can reveal for us' -- is a belief I have personally held for perhaps as long as he, and brought this to my reading of the book, so, except for the warmth, tenderness, and lucidity of the writing, it is difficult for me to know how an unbeliever would respond. Such is the obviously personal nature of *devotion*.


San Rafael, California, USA



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Daniel Barnett, 'A Deceptively Slender Volume: Dorsky's _Devotional Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 34, October 2004 <>.














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