Flood of Images: Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler at the New York Film Festival
The New York Film Festival’s Projections series is an often-overlooked selection of the finest in recent experimental and avant-garde film. Spread over 11 programs, this year’s subjects ranged from documentary to magical realism, from fades to found footage. Aggressive editing techniques and sound collage offered some new and provocative investigations, yet it was the modest program of two seasoned filmmakers — Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler — that beamed with the liveliest verve and curiosity. Partners in love and art for over 50 years, they have earned a following of poets, philosophers and artists steeped in as much affection as respect for “Nick and Jerry.” Like their legendary at-home screenings, this was a show-and-tell of gentle, beautiful things.
The program included three short films — Dorsky’s Autumn and The Dreamer, and Hiler’s Bagatelle II (all works 2016) — each imbued with the pair’s characteristically playful and patient observations of natural and interior life. Autumn, however, stood out as Mr. Dorsky’s most transient tapestry to date, and a significant interpretation of haiku — the pure poetic form that first seized him as a youth. Shot in 2015, during the last months in that year, as California’s drought continued, the film is dedicated to all autumns and ruminates on its essence through nature, using short shots of the California countryside. Inconceivably crisp and luminous, the 16 mm film is 26 minutes long and silent, complimented by the tick-tock of the projector. Dorsky’s films do without narrative structure, allowing the images to speak directly. By such standards, Autumn is verbose.
The film opens slowly, burying us eye-deep in foliage before clearing a space for Dorsky’s found treasures: broad-eared rhododendron and butterfly bushes, wayfaring between islands of light, fade in and out of a blackness that comes to linger within an organic, oneiric, day-for-night tone. Everything seems steeped in twilight — the violet hour, the day’s autumn — where partitions blur and something slips. Flora is constant, becoming a verdant ether, occasionally contrasted by the slick hide of a building, but we are always quickly pulled back under the brush. Each image, dyed in oscuro, is kernelled and then connected by a constant flow of gaze. Vegetation, despite its thirst, pulsates and vacillates throughout while, against reason, bushes blush green. Dorsky is reflective, more mirror than director; his subjects, once pinned to celluloid, are egalitarian: the darkening bough, a sun freckled path, light smeared like jelly across a window, an ache for life.
Such is the poetry of Dorsky, and his interest in haiku has long been shared among filmmakers. In the 1929 essay “Beyond the Shot,” Sergei Eisenstein precisely correlated the natures of montage and haiku. In both practices, it is the copulation of forms to create a “representation of something that cannot be graphically represented.” He offers the Japanese lexicon as example: the combination of water and eye mean to weep, knife and heart mean sorrow. Such laconicism describes haiku as much as Dorsky’s art; to see his film is to see master poet Matsuo Bashō’s 17 syllables glowing at the edge of winter:
Autumn moonlight —
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
A self-proclaimed hunter of the Zen occurrence, of satori (the sudden enlightenment), Dorsky applies a number of poetic rules to the film, allowing his images to move us as consistently as Bashō’s cranes, cuckoos and moons. Vital to haiku are kigo (“season words”) — such as cicada, typhoon or grapes — that connote the time of year. Autumn is pregnant with the kigo-laden images of its namesake: rain slick streets, coy ochre moons, hexagonal light and tawny leaves glide down, across and over the screen. This is not simply a rummaging of diaphanous delicacies, however. Cutting is as essential to haiku as montage, and each cut is precise. Cutting works like a punctuation mark, and for Dorsky like a door. Throwing the juxtaposition into revelatory light, it links us to a new dimension — the moment of satori.
Such delightful turns happen throughout the film; seasoned and cut with care, Dorsky’s images become incarnations of linked verse. In one observation, light-tickled water meets a crush of velvet black reeds; the pair, now joined, transforms into an ominous sea urchin. Midway through Autumn, some late afternoon light falls yellow on the nubby back of an armchair or sofa. It glows, beginning to resemble a wheat field, but a crossfade exposes a dark landscape of whirling gears beneath: upholstery and infrastructure combine to reveal parallel universes of leisure and grind, flesh and mechanism. This all quickly falls away again, yet you can still taste a type of yellow, decidedly post-harvest.
In material as much as purpose, both film and haiku are attempts to bottle the moment of revelation, the fleeting experience. Indeed, the haiku is traditionally printed, like celluloid, as a single vertical line. Their kinship culminates towards the end of Autumn, the frame lingering on a voluptuous bit of vegetation. As Dorsky pushes and pulls us in and out by his signature dark fade, we move through a hypnagogic and hesitant collapse (or arising), towards a new vision: constellations of inestimably starry flora. In its final syllable, the film negotiates heaven and Earth: the Milky Way in milk thistle.