Interview with Nathaniel Dorsky
Previously unpublished interview
By Francisco Algarín Navarro, Miguel Armas, Miguel García and Félix García de Villegas Barcelona, February 2013
I'd like to continue talking about the idea of narrative and the polyvalent montage in your films. Yesterday we started talking about the idea of stanzas and the way you construct relations between a particular stanza and a particular shot, between a stanza and the following one, etc. I think there are much more possibilities of echoes and relations in Hours for Jerome than in your last films, which don't happen to include stanzas but rather more distant relations between the shots. Or maybe I should say: the "collisions" of Hours for Jerome have now disappeared and, instead of them, I find a new kind of echoes (in Love's Refrain or Arbor Vitae, for example).
The elements in Hours for Jerome were the stanzas, which are like little stories in themselves. For instance, the first time you see the apple trees, in the spring, with the blossoms intercut with the museum, actually in the cut-out part of Hours for Jerome's part one there is a scene in the summer shot in that same orchard... and then, in the fall you see the apples and at the very ending, in the winter, you see the snow melting, and a white dog, right before spring. I was thinking about these kinds of series. There are also street corners in New York that we see once in the summer, later we see them again in the winter night. Those kinds of repeats. I think it was all done by feel... for instance, when we have the scene of the black and white television intercut with the rainy day shoppers, that cuts to a Ferris wheel by the ocean, next to the ice skating, and you're coming down around, you never see the thing itself... so it cuts from the TV noise to the ocean, then it goes black, then there are some black and white shots of these cats fighting and then drinking water, then it goes black again, and finally you come underneath the elevated train with the stripes. So you have these stripes separated by two things, the Ferris wheel with the ocean (shot in Kodachrome) and then the cats in black and white (maybe Tri-X), and then you come up under this elevated train. I know as a fact that, for instance, if the cats weren't there, if I moved one of them closer, it would be too parallel, it wouldn't be exciting. I discovered that, if I'd put another thing there, you wouldn't feel it. So it's a real question to know how much after images are in the psyche, how faraway you have to be, and when I'm editing it becomes a real thing. It's not very different to when you're dressing in the morning and you say: "Oh, this blue sweater doesn't go with my shirt..." It's very basic, but you have to be sensitive to it.
There are some scenes in Hours for Jerome that made us think about some kind of narrative of the everyday life (a group of friends playing cards, a couple watching TV)... this kind of scenes are not present in your later films.
All the footage of Hours for Jerome came about because after Summerwind I wanted to try to make a silent film. I was extremely affected by Stan Brakhage and other people expressing themselves with the visual language. Of course, you know Stan made Anticipation of the night when he was 24 and it's a total act of courage to be able to do that. If you see Prelude to Dog Man Star, it's also extraordinary. I was doing a very primitive bang together of things when actually he would just have a few elements, because his sense of lyricism and experiment and the fact of bringing cinema into a very direct kind of expression of the human mind in a way... it's just amazing. I was kind of primitive. But during that period I was trying to shoot things that were quite cosmic to me, even if it's a corny word... but Brakhage was also like that, you know in Prelude when you see the creation of things, when things start coming out of the dark... he's a very interesting combination of being a 20^th^ century avant-garde artist and a 19^th^ century romantic. The poetry in his films is almost kind of 19^th^ century romantic thing, but the form is very 20^th^ century avant-garde, it's this kind of mixture. I think I was trying to find out if the images themselves could start being the story. There's always the underpinning of a story.
I tried to know if I'd be able to make something without a story, but where the shots started to form a story. When I was editing Hours for Jerome, I didn't have the courage, the skill or the experience to move it completely into a lyric form. I felt that the footage was very much trying to describe certain feelings, like the morning, or a moment in the afternoon, and I felt I had to respect the original intent. It's always a mistake in filmmaking to try to have a concept of what the film is, overwriting what the footage is and trying to force it. Maybe the thing could have been wilder, maybe even more beautiful. Warren Sonbert, with whom I shared a lot of moments shooting Hours for Jerome, who gave me a lot of nice clues of how beautifully shoot, expressed some reservation about the fact I didn't go further with the editing. I was like: "I don't know, I don't know if I'm ready to do that!"
It's true that some moments of Hours for Jerome made us think about some shots by Warren Sonbert, because of the way of capturing very intimate and direct moments...
You have to understand something. I met Warren in an earlier period than this. We used to show each other our footage all the time. So we affected each other. Warren was much more ambitious, he functioned better in the New York scene. When he was presenting his first films in the 60s, I was going through a long period of delay... Jerry [Jerome Hiler] was showing some rolls of film in his apartment, and then we'd see Warren's next movie in New York and it was very similar... but Jerry and me weren't showing anything... so the few people who watched Jerry's would go like: "It's very similar to Sonbert!" but for us, it was quite the reverse. So we were all affecting each other. For instance, when you see the cubists, everyone is painting guitars... because the fact that Warren was functioning better in the world, he took it into the world publicly, but it was became really harmful to our friendship at a certain point, and sometimes we thought: "We can't show Warren this, because he's going to show it up in his film..." One time, we went to the South and took some slides of the Monument Valley. Jerry said: "You shouldn't show them to Warren", and I was like: "Oh, c'mon, it's slides from our trip". So... in his next film, he goes and shoots the same thing... there's some kind of bad feeling about that.
The whole subject of polyvalence and the idea of making a film where the film would open up in itself was something we had all discussed. He took it in his own way, basically more using images to represent verbal ideas, like punch jokes having to do with the language meaning...
Do you think the editing method of Sonbert was very different from yours? I read that Sonbert used to make long lists where he noted everything he had filmed in each reel... do you also take notes?
No... when I was blocked, when I couldn't work for a long time, I made very careful notebooks, it's a good way of not working. Warren would be very proud when he would type out a list and show it to me. Then he would manifest the shots and put them together, and then he would look at it a few times and make some minor adjustments. That's because the through-line was a different through-line. It's interesting to talk about the through-lines of what has been called non-narrative films. Ok, I know there's not such a thing in a non-narrative film, the structure is less important... but somehow a lyric film always has a narrative. If we think about Stan Brakhage... in a way, he's a documentary filmmaker trying to express the way our mind associates things... in a way, he's depicting the mind. I remember talking with Warren about this idea of polyvalence, you know, basically: "Could you make a film that would exist only for its own itself?" I didn't really know Vertov at that time. And then, that section of The Man with a Movie Camera was the very first flowering of that. But I think for Warren the through-line had to do with irony and humor and rhythm. In a way, it was the fact of being driven by the filmmaker from the outside. Brakhage is also being driven from the outside, but he's trying to be loyal to the way mind manifests. Warren is more like trying to make a sculpture which has a lot of irony and juxtaposition and so forth. There's also a certain sense of the world and the people he's depicting.
What I was trying to do, what I came to eventually, I think in Triste and Variations, for example, was to see if I could make a film going forward for strictly visual reasons. That's the difference: it was really actual vision. When I cut into the next thing, the synapsis happens. The through-line is actual vision. Of course, you could say: wasn't Stan completely visual? Wasn't Warren completely visual? But there's something else when the actual connections happen because of vision. Between one shot and another one, something opens up, there's some kind of revelation. It really has to do with the thing itself. Not using the thing itself to represent an undercurrent... like Stan did sometimes, he had a sense of the poetic and the personal narrative, even if he also made the Arabic series or the Persian series, which were complete abstractions... P. Adams Sitney said he didn't care for those films; he likes the films where he feels some kind of poetic thing he can talk about or investigate. What I wanted to do is make the screen a mirror for the audience, so that the audiences could experience themselves fully, and then break that mirror into something else and by breaking it, it would actually break the surface of the person, so work with the people. The films are very much for the audience. It's a very delicate difference. I think what we were talking about the other night had to do with selfness... the irony when you make a film and you're not there, but the irony is that you're there. In a way, I think Stan's films are first person. But Warren's, even if he's controlling everything, it's third person. It's the world being put in the film. In my case, what I was trying to do is moving into that round between Heaven and Earth, with life seen as rotating in its own movement... I thought about it as a way to heal people and heal myself, because the thing that drives me to make films is the fact of wanting to heal my own pain. Putting the pain to work. I assume every human being has some pain... either you can push it away, destroy it, or you can also make a very dark film about your own pain, export the pain, trying to make money with the pain. That doesn't really help you. I wanted to take the pain and take cinema and use energy of the pain to cure, to liberate the pain. By liberating the pain, you are working to maintain yourself. All this has do to with the actual vision I was talking about before. The vision as the act of going from one thing to another. There are a lot of people who don't see the world directly. They see the world in a more complicated way or concept. I think the three films tonight have to do with that.
We'd like you to discuss the relationship between nature and city. In Hours for Jerome, you have a very interesting way of showing nature and city as very close spaces, escaping from the easy contrast we're used to.
If you think of this time in our lives, it's a moment in planet history which is unlike any other that we've known of, this borderline between what we call nature, a term I don't like, and human nature, they're right up against one another. There's always been an appreciation, let's say in Chinese paintings or poetry from the 1800s or 1900s, of man and nature. That was always a major motive and I've always loved that. There's always that sense of human nature and nature. Many human beings don't understand that humans are nature. When I grew up as a kid, we were just people, and then there was nature, and there were animals and plants... we didn't understand we were nature, we thought we were people, right? That may actually come from the Judeo-Christian idea of the creation... where everything is sketched-in and then people are created in the image of God, like something separated. It must have come from that story. It seems like that it isn't the actual story. It's very mystical. There's some desire from nature to become more complicated. Nature created what we are, and it became some kind of a risk, because it created some kind of a thing that had its own independence, to some degree, and it affected everything else. We're so successful and so dominant as a species that we're turning everything else into some mirror of ourselves. For me, that relationship is very much part of what's going on right now. In Hours for Jerome, when I shot the people, I wanted to know if I could get the feeling that they were also nature.
The footage of Hours for Jerome was shot from 1966 to 1970 but you finished the editing ten years after, over a two-year period ending in 1982. How did you start and organize this process of editing?
What happened was that I shot all the footage when I was living between New Jersey and New York, the country and the city, and there was a lot of footage. Then we moved to California. The only editing I did at that time was a lot of the collision editing, all those sequences. There was just a general sense of things: the orchard with the apple in autumn, then the river with the boat trip, or there might be visiting someone's apartment in New York... you know, this kind of organization. Then I moved and I didn't look at it for ten or eleven years. Once a friend from New York came over and we were looking at things in general and I thought it would be fun to look at that footage with him, since we knew each other from New York in the late 60s. We just began to look at it. We realized it was gorgeous and full of life; it was a very strange feeling, like some kind of dream. You have all these rusty cans in a shelf, then you open them and you see this... it's like a dream, we were like: "What?" I knew I should make a film.
First, I thought it would be a seasonal film, so I organized all the footage in different reels: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Then I worked on each season at a time. What I did was to work on spring for maybe a couple of weeks, then I'd put it away and I'd work on summer, then the same thing with autumn, and finally winter, and then go back to the spring footage and work on it some more time... I realized that footage was quite haunting to me, because I was going through a difficult time... I was trying too hard to be static, to cover over the pain. In a certain way the film didn't have enough tenderness and soul... the three films I had made in sound, they had a lot more of tenderness and soul, even if I was a little bit unhappy with them. Hours for Jerome was so crazy, I was almost afraid of the footage because it seemed that it came from the simplicity of my heart, from a simple attempt to show things... very sincere things, like when I took pictures of the boat on the river at night with the moon... I was very influenced by Van Gogh at that time. Each image was like a painting.
I started editing it and I didn't know how to introduce my need of spaciousness. Then I thought I would have to introduce the black leaders. The same happened to Jerry when he cut In the Stone House. He said: "I can't give it shape... I'll have to open it up with some black". It's a way to open up space. Like in a music composition, when you have a quiet space of five seconds. First I discovered that and then in the editing I slowly began to discover how I was going to relate to the polyvalence. The idea for the polyvalence came from a much earlier time, with my friends at the Poets House, reading John Ashbery while smoking hash, reading it very slowly... I think I was 22 and I had just finished Summerwind, that's when the idea came. I wondered if I could do that on film, going from one thing to the next, and I remembered talking about it with Jerry. The film would be just this movement. He said that wouldn't work... then it took me a while...
I started working in Hours for Jerome and in the meantime Warren Sonbert made Carriage Trade. Warren used to came up and visit us in the country, so we talked about these things. I liked his earlier films, and I told him: "I loved your relationship to music more than I like your montage". Have you seen his earlier films, like Where did our love go? I like them very much... at that time I was 22 or 23 and there are all the songs from my youth... I remember seeing his film Amphetamine, his NYU film project; it was very impressive and courageous at that time... people shooting up, same-sex people kissing, and all that... I loved those films, but then Warren tried to do something different with Carriage Trade. He showed to Jerry and me and I told him: "I think it's too long for that form, you can't be polyvalent for 45 minutes". After that he made some films about 25 minutes long. During that time, I began discovering the thing about synapsis, if you go forward you also have to echo back, move things... so I edited the four sections (spring, summer, autumn and winter) of Hours for Jerome and then I had to join them. That was a big drama. Warren said very generous things to me about the photography but he also asked: "Why did you take off?" I answered that I wasn't ready for the editing, I needed more space for that, I wasn't this machine gun of images... it was footage from an earlier time, so in a way it's looking back. A few months ago, a friend told me that it was interesting thing to see a film from the past which is already about the past. If you make a film about the past, and then you see it some years after and that becomes the past, it stays real in a way. All this has to do with the synapsis, which I began to understand with this film.
During those ten years, I was shooting several things but I wasn't editing or finishing anything, I was shooting Alaya, I was collecting shooting for Pneuma, I was shooting 17 reasons why... a bit later I made this other film that has rarely been shown, called Ariel, which is all hand processed, without images. Triste has a little bit of that, at the end, with a long section without images, so it was a way of looking back at that period. Warren was dying at that time, I had finished Alaya, Pneuma, 17 reasons why and Ariel, he saw them all and I was working on Triste when he was getting sick. It took me five years to edit Triste, because it was a real attempt to jump in the polyvalence as a pure form. I would get it to work and then it wouldn't work... so I cut it backward, I changed several things, I added some shots... I was going forth and backward, I was going mad... that film was made of all the shots of all these projects which I had never finished. For instance, I had a project to make a film all about grasses. The word "grain" in English can be like a "a field of grain", and also the sand grains, and then the film grain. So it was some kind of grain trilogy. But the grass didn't work. I tried a very 70s thing, I printed it on different stocks, but somehow the marriage between grass and avant-gardism didn't work... so there's a few shots of that in Triste. It took me five years and Warren died in the middle of making it.
By that time, after working in those outtakes to make Triste, I saw Brakhage's Riddle of Lumen, which he made in the early 70s. P. Adams Sitney told me it was made up of outtakes and I didn't know that. I felt it was an intended film, but no. I was very impressed. I don't think it was a very important film for Stan, because its underpinnings weren't biographical... it didn't actually have an underpinning. It was the film itself. About a week before I came to Spain, the PFA had a show that had Threnody and Riddle of Lumen on it. I couldn't go... I would have loved to see one of my films with Riddle of Lumen in the same show. After all the struggles with Triste, I began making Variations having learned how know what footage could work in the polyvalent montage. And a very important thing happened: my camera got stolen and I bought a new Bolex. I decided I only wanted to use the prime lenses with that one, because it was much more intimate... with the zoom lens, you're just holding the camera, and with the prime lenses you're just out here seeing the world at a very short, intimate distance. That was very important. After I finished Triste, I had a very bad accident... my head got very screwed up and it took me four or five years to recover. During that time, I began making Variations. I understood I had to make something that was more based on love, because that contusion made me feel like a child again. So you couldn't be an avant-garde filmmaker, you had to be a child filmmaker. Then I understood how to shoot for that kind of montage. Variations took about five years to shoot and to edit, and I was having big struggles at a certain point, I was speaking to Stan on the phone and telling him: "I don't think I can do it, Stan..." He liked Triste, and he said: "Nathaniel, you can't fail". He was always very strong and supportive.