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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

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Slim Volumes is our series about very short books. Today we look at Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky. Published in 2003, 54 pages.

Shots and cuts need each other. They are cinema's primal handmaidens. The shots, as moments of luminous accommodation, ripen and expand and are popped like soap bubbles by the cut.
-- Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema

When experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky spoke last year at a screening in San Francisco, he described his mysterious form of filmmaking as a constant effort to prevent his work from "collapsing into meaning."

I love that. Narrative filmmakers work hard to tell stories visually, to make movies that have a literal meaning, even if that meaning is just a sequence of events in an action thriller: one man is stalking another and intends to shoot him. Or: that woman is annoyed by that child.

But half the work of constructing a film's meaning belongs to the viewers. By now, we all know how movies work. We know that two shots in succession fit together somehow. They're side-by-side because they're two views of the same building or two sides of a conversation. Even a bad film may meet the requirements of film grammar, the way a disaster-ridden wedding may still come off OK, if only because every attendee is a veteran of such events. The crowd propels things forward by supplying missing details, by collapsing the gaps into something that makes sense.

Many of Dorsky's non-narrative shorts are shot on the streets of San Francisco, but his goal isn't to create a travelogue or city symphony. San Francisco is just the raw material, so he constantly works against traditional cinematic language and against the viewer's natural tendency to see the object that his camera was pointed at instead of the color and shapes on the celluloid. His films aren't meaningless, but if they succeed it's because, rather than capturing a beautiful world, they undulate with a beauty of their own, one that reflects the world of the filmmaker but doesn't seek to contain it. A film that shows the Golden Gate Bridge may disappear when the bridge becomes the object of interest. Dorsky's films don't disappear; they appear.

Devotional Cinema, which grew out of a talk that Dorsky gave at Princeton in 2001, contains the ideas of someone who's thought about how and why films work, at a poetic-physical level. He considers not just experimental films but popular narrative films, too, and like his visual work, his text is crisp, spare, and gives me new ways to see movies.

The quality of light, as experienced in film, is intermittent. At sound speed there are twenty-four images a second, each about a fiftieth of a second in duration, alternating with an equivalent period of black. So the film we are watching is not actually a solid thing. It only appears to be solid.

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.

We sleep. We wake. We lose ourselves in thought. The traffic light turns green, popping the dream like a soap bubble. We reawaken to our surroundings. We turn our heads and see not a smooth pan but a series of jump cuts. "Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core."

3 Responses to “Slim Volumes: Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky”

  1. Thanks for posting about this, Rob. I like your description of his writing as "poetic-physical," Dorsky's essay/book seems especially perceptive to the biological way we respond to the rhythms of films; reading most critics, you might be tempted to think the only physiological responses to film humans possess is related to adrenaline.

    I really like your metaphor of the green light awakening. In a piece I wrote about Dorsky, I quote his comments on "the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden" and his comments on subverting our "absorption in the temporal." All this reminds me of another critical cliche, the word "meditative," which is sometimes a word for absorption but it's also a word used to describe Dorskys films, yet his writing makes it clear that he makes a distinction between them. Your comments and his remind me that immersion and absorption are not necessarily ideals in themselves, but like a form of captivity, can be restrictive rather than revealing. It's the art that takes us some place and then rearranges or awakens our perceptions that can be the most transforming.

  2. Robert DAVIS says:

    Hey, Doug. Thanks for linking to your piece. I remember reading it before I'd seen his films and made a mental note to catch up with him one day. Thanks.

    Dorsky has a similar traffic light metaphor in his book, although his example is when you drive without thinking, lost in thought.

    "Who was driving? How did I do that? I stopped at red lights. Where was I?" In other words, live is full of gaps. We try to make the whole thing seem continuous and solid, but it's actually more intermittent than we often want to admit.

    I often think about his idea of shots and cuts needing balance in a film. We need to be immersed, but we also need to be reawakened.

  3. Robert DAVIS says:

    Darren Hughes talked with Dorsky right after the Toronto screening of Winter and Sarabande, and the transcript at The Auteurs is a lot of fun to read.

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