Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 35, October 2004







Glen W. Norton


Searching for Balanced Vision:

Dorsky's _Devotional Cinema_



Nathaniel Dorsky

_Devotional Cinema_

Berkeley, California: Tuumba Press, 2003

ISBN 1-931157-05-7

52 pp.


Nathaniel Dorsky has been an avant-garde filmmaker for at least 40 years. As such, he brings a disarming freshness to academic writing about cinema. His is a true passion for film and for filmmaking that shines throughout this short text. _Devotional Cinema_ was originally a talk given at Princeton during a Film and Religion Conference in March 2001. It was then published as an essay in _The Hidden God: Film and Faith_, edited by Mary Lee Bandy and Antonio Monda (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003). Why it was published on its own I have no idea, and I will not speculate. The book is only 52 pages long, with the actual essay text beginning on page 15. Yet what it lacks in length it makes up for in insight. There is much food for thought in this brief essay.


Dorsky's essay announces the existence of a devotional cinema. Dorsky is careful not to define devotion in a narrow, religious sense; rather, devotion 'is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation' (16). This 'given situation' is what Dorsky also calls our 'formal situation', i.e. our material existence, which nonetheless can be 'seen through', questioned, pondered. We are such beings -- beings condemned to materiality -- that can question our own status *as* beings. Though put rather awkwardly, what Dorsky describes as the 'absolute presence of our situation' (17) is our being-in-the-world, that existential situation other phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have struggled with. Phenomenologists know that each of us must start afresh in describing the immediate givenness of our being-in-the-world. Dorsky also understands this -- yet the brevity of his text does assume some 'working' knowledge of the phenomenological tradition. Nonetheless, our formal situation is the ground from which Dorsky builds his case for the transformative powers of a devotional cinema.


Dorsky begins with a description of what he calls the 'post-film experience'. When we leave the darkened theatre, familiar things are de-familiarized. The experience can be odd, strange, even disturbing. Yet it can also be incredibly uplifting, bringing us into contact with others in new ways. This is the power of cinema to affect us. For Dorsky, the nature of cinema can produce either health or ill-health in its viewer, and there seems little room inbetween. This power to affect us somatically is not a metaphor for Dorsky, it is an actuality. He is talking about metabolic stuff here -- he goes so far as to claim that cinema can actually 'mirror and realign our metabolism' (22).


Dorsky uses the example of seeing Rossellini's _Voyage to Italy_ to illustrate what he means by a cinema which promotes 'health'. In the elevator after the screening, he noticed how 'everybody was unusually available to everybody else' (20) -- a stark contrast to how strangers usually act in elevators. The power of the film had allowed these complete strangers to become vulnerable to each other. It is this openness, this availability to others, which Dorsky proclaims is indicative of health. Ill-health is the embarrassment or alienation one feels after seeing a film. These 'affects' are not due to any narrative or intellectual content within the film itself -- in fact, Dorsky calls _Voyage to Italy_ 'upsetting' (19), the filmmaking being 'primitive yet graceful, extremely intelligent but without vanity or polish' (19-20). What makes the experience healthy is that the film takes itself as its own subject. There is a synergy of form and content; form is content, and vice versa. There is an alchemic power to cinema which can become the seat of a healing process. The prerequisite form of the health-producing film 'must include the expression of its own materiality [which] must be in union with its subject matter' (22). Dorsky illustrates this through a comparison to other art-forms which are as much about the material as the subject: think of ancient cave paintings, Egyptian sculpture, 12th century stained glass windows -- each brings a materiality to its devotion, a materiality in complete harmony with its 'subject'. For a devotional cinema to exist, then, it 'must obey its own materiality' (23).


The materiality of cinema, says Dorsky, is a perfect metaphor for the materiality of vision itself. In the cinema, we sit in a dark room and watch light. So too is our skull 'dark', and out from it we see. 'We rest in darkness and experience vision', Dorsky says (24). The question is badly put here, falling back onto a 'darkness' grounded in a somatic explanation of experience (where exactly is this 'me' who rests in darkness?), but it is still the right question. It is a question of where vision takes place -- is it all 'out there' or all 'in our heads'? To put it more decisively: 'Is everything mind or is everything not mind' (25)? It is the same problem Merleau-Ponty delineates in his discussion of idealism and positivism in the preface to his _Phenomenology of Perception_. Like Dorsky, Merleau-Ponty claims that the truth is somewhere in between, in the balance of our immediate experience. In the immediacy of our formal situation, perception, not cognition, is primary. When its devotional aspects are respected, film has the ability to replicate this everyday balance of vision, where my vision of the world is in and thus part of the world as well.


Non-devotional cinema, however, conforms to one of the ideal extremes of vision. Classical narrative film accepts world as a given; film is just there to capture it. Ideological criticism has done much to unmask this form of cinema. At the other extreme is the totalizing vision of the filmmaker, to whom all meaning is subordinated. One sees this in many self-indulgent avant-garde works. Devotional film, however, accepts the primacy of vision and yet allows for cognition -- what Dorsky calls, in an illuminating turn of phrase, 'the ornament of language' (27) -- within this space. Non-devotional film deals with concepts first; it is subservient to a theme or an idea or a script. This elevating of cognition over the primacy of vision 'violates the primordial strength of what cinema has to offer' (27).


Our primacy of vision is also mirrored in cinema by its tendency toward intermittence. We all know that projected film is not a solid mass but instead oscillates between light and dark. So too is our experience of the world an oscillation between the seen and the unseen. Thus, for Dorsky, the nature of montage should respect this intermittence, and not fill in too many narrative gaps. In a Bazinian turn, he believes that allowing for intermittence 'activates the viewer's mind' (29) and thus brings cinema into a closer relationship with our everyday experience. A film which does not respect this intermittence performs upon us 'an act of rudeness' (29).


The notion of intermittence is related to the 'time' of the film. Dorsky delineates two main 'types' of temporality in cinema. The first is the relative time of the film, its time of progression, which mirrors the emotional range of the whole of our lives. This is, however, an objectified notion of time, one abstracted from the second time delineated by Dorsky, the time of absolute nowness. For Dorsky, 'pure nowness transcends the passage of time' (31). The opening of a 'nowness' within the relative progression of time is what one might describe as 'lived time'. Devotional cinema must honour both relative time and the time of 'now'. Within its flow, a devotional film must allow for the 'unguarded sense of present' that is 'nowness' (35).


The balance of relative time and nowness is best brought out by the self-symbol. Devotional cinema allows things to be seen as they are rather than simply confirming the predetermined meaning that we call the 'content' of cinema. Dorsky compares this freshness with seeing one's hand anew, beyond concept or foreknowledge. Yasujiro Ozu is the master of the self-symbol, letting things be what they are. In _The Only Son_ (1936) a simple hat thrown onto a tatami mat becomes a devotional object:


'There's something about this hat: the idea of a young man who has a job that requires him to wear it, and that this hat is what it has all come down to. In that sense it is symbolic. But at the same time, the hat itself is seen as empty of meaning. It rests in pure mystery and poignancy. A marriage of self-symbol and narrative necessity occurs.' (38)


It is this marriage which in devotional cinema is mirrored in the viewing experience, where the screen itself becomes its own self-symbol alongside the literal narrative meaning it conveys. The filmmaker who respects and lets the screen be what it is -- i.e. a rectangle of light -- has glimpsed it as a devotional object. It is clear then that Dorsky is using the term 'object' here not in an 'objective' sense, but in Husserl's sense of the noematic, as the outward-tending pole of experience. This object is not there to be mastered by a subject but is instead part of an immediate worldly and thus mysterious presence. It is akin to still life painting in cinema, which at each moment captures the power of its 'nowness' afresh. And since we are of this nowness, since we *are* in fact this nowness, we are an intrinsic part not only of the experience but of making meaning out of the experience. Devotional cinema is not an immovable, stable object for our perusal and appropriation, for we are already *of* it.


Balance too must be respected in the shots and the cuts, which Dorsky calls the 'elemental opposites' of cinema (42). First, the shot must express both the seer and the seen. It must respect vision as the meeting ground of ourselves and the world. Cuts are divided by Dorsky into dream-like connectivity -- i.e. cuts which convey a poetic, even eerie sense -- and cuts which convey the inevitable literal meaning of logical narrative progression. Neither should dominate, but there is a hierarchy to be respected in devotional cinema: first, the visual aspects of the shot itself, then the poetic element of the cut. Only when these two aspects shepherd the logical 'meaning' of the narrative can devotional cinema arise.


There is some confusion here by Dorsky as to who does the 'seeing' in devotional film -- the filmmaker or the viewer. Dorsky is a filmmaker, thus he writes primarily from the point of view of a filmmaker. Yet holding to a romantic notion of artistic practice, with the filmmaker as the prime motivator of experience, does little to explicate *my* viewing experience. What's more, one could level critical judgment against the primacy given to vision by Dorsky, a criticism brought against many phenomenologists. Dorsky's is a phenomenology which relegates non-visual sensory elements of the film experience to an afterthought.


Another trap which Dorsky's essay falls into involves its more prescriptive elements. Over the years there have been relatively few texts which attempt to describe, explain, and even deconstruct the devotional aspects of the cinematic viewing experience. This experience goes by other names; for instance, 'transcendence' has much currency in academic literature. Paul Schrader gave us a formula for such an experience in his _Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer_ (New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1988): the everyday moving through disparity toward a stasis which does not resolve but transcends. Of course, formulas have nothing to do with describing experience -- they tend to conveniently ignore the predisposition of the viewer in order to map out 'an effect of the text'. Dorsky comes precariously close at times to this sort of prescriptive, formulaic deduction, where it is explained to us that the devotional experience 'will' or 'should' follow from such-and-such a use of the shot, the cut, the 'proper' use of time. Yet when they work, his descriptive examples nonetheless bring us within the sphere of the devotional object. At times they are vague, even infuriating in their brevity, but Dorsky is always genuine in his attempt to recapture the experience. It is Dorsky's descriptions which keep his essay from merely speculating, or worse, theorizing about what is at bottom a singular, personal, and devotional viewing experience. As such, this short book gives little in the way of film 'analysis', since the point is not to theorize upon the 'meaning' of such-and-such a film, but upon the cinematic viewing experience itself.


Dorsky claims cinema has an essence. When this essence is respected, a healthy synergy in the viewing experience arises. He calls this experience devotional. To postmodern ears this may sound like blasphemy -- one does not 'experience' a text but read it, deconstruct it. Yet cinema, like the world around me, is not an object or text to be read. In fact it is not separate from me at all, but remains the outer pole of my experience. When respected, devotional cinema reveals itself as an illuminating and thus truthful opening of our world.


York University

Toronto, Canada



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Glen W. Norton, 'Searching for Balanced Vision: Dorsky's _Devotional Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 35, October 2004 <>.











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