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Page from ECLOGUES: Letters and Correspondence by Nathaniel Dorsky

Page from ECLOGUES: Letters and Correspondence by Nathaniel Dorsky 

Slow Reading
By Haden Guest
July 2021

It was easy to miss the publication earlier this year of experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky's second book, a volume of photo­graphs entitled Eclogues: Letters and Correspondence. Printed privately by Dorsky as a gift for friends, Eclogues was self-distributed by its author, by hand and mail, as though it was itself one of the eponymous letters. A smaller printing was simultaneously made available as a limited edition, for sale through his New York gallery. Although almost wordless --save its title, dedication, and colophon pages-- Eclogues' unnumbered sequence of images speak revealingly to central ideas of Dorsky's filmmaking. In many ways it is also a fitting work of art for this time of plague.

Those who know and admire Dorsky's 16mm films will recognize a profound "correspondence" between Eclogues and his cinema, beginning with the title, whose obscure meaning-- a reference to Virgil's Bucolics-- recalls the elusive single words often used to evocatively name his films. Dorsky's precise arrangement of photographs deepens the dialogue between book and cinema by engaging principals of montage explored both in his lyrical films and influential first book, Devotional Cinema. In Dorsky's films, montage imparts the gently exact passage from one image to the next with a distinctly musical rhythm while giving each of his visually striking, often mysterious images a vividly fleeting screen presence and poignancy.

One of the lasting fascinations of Dorsky's films is, in fact, how every shot is granted an integral autonomy before seamlessly giving way to the image that follows. In the final section of Devotional Cinema Dorsky speaks of his approach to montage: "a cut has to work on a visual level, in terms of shape, texture, color, movement, and weight. Somehow the shift from one shot to the next has to create a visual freshness for the psyche."

Eclogues is guided by a similarly close attention to the visual qualities revealed across its series of 157 photographs, each individually centered on a single page with all but one-- the single-image coda that ends the book-- paired with another on a facing page. Throughout Eclogues, Dorsky charges his images with something akin to the energy and "visual freshness" extolled in Devotional Cinema through subtle parallels and tensions that spark poetic, at times playful, resonances between them, whether on opposite or sequential pages. Multiple readings reveal a network of correspondences--graphic matches, recurring faces, places, and compositions--that give the book a rhythmic structure. At times the act of turning pages and looking from one photograph to another imbues the still images with an almost cinematic movement and power.

I cherish an especially dynamic pairing of photographs found midway through Eclogues, both taken in an airplane. On the left page is a close-up of a woman's hands holding the back of her chair in a stretch position, her fingers unknowingly about to touch a pair of hands appearing on the small head-rest monitor just below, also in close-up and outstretched in what seems to be a religious ceremony. On the right page is a view from an airplane window of its silver wing cutting through a cloud-filled sky. Pointing in opposite directions, the wing and supplicant hands elegantly echo the outward movement of a book being opened, or a bird taking flight, a poetic symmetry strengthened by the graphic resemblance of the hands reaching across the miniature movie screen to the airplane wing. This image of hands making simultaneous gestures of grace and repose recalls the sensuous black-and-white still from Dorsky's 1998 film Variations used on the cover of the three American editions to date of Devotional Cinema, a close-up of open, anonymous hands on a sunlit table that has always seemed to me an homage to Robert Bresson, a filmmaker notably cited in the book.

For me, these paired images of hands and wing have yet another meaning: the memory of receiving them several years ago in an email from Dorsky, shortly after we presented programs of his films together in Europe, first in Vienna, and then Lisbon. At the time I understood the outstretched hands to be applauding, as if Dorsky was recognizing the happy success of the shows while thanking me for supporting his work. Screening 16mm has become an increasingly difficult feat, but the shows were well-attended and well-received, despite technical issues in Lisbon--"with a wing and a prayer," goes the outdated saying (and film title) Dorsky the dedicated cinephile seemed to be citing in a playful rebus. Seen today, the photographs conjure up other feelings: of nostalgia for a time when international travel and film festivals were not only easily possible, but were also even taken for granted.

Dorsky and others have often described his editing strategy by evoking the term "polyvalent montage," credited to his friend and fellow member of the San Francisco avant-garde, filmmaker Warren Sonbert, and used to evoke an open, poetic relation between images. If Eclogues embraces a form of polyvalent montage, it does so not only formally--in terms of subject, colour, texture, and composition-- but also by allowing the photos to retain the private meanings known to those who once received them as intimate correspondences. Indeed, all the images in Eclogues were taken by Dorsky with an iPhone and sent via email to friends and colleagues. Recovered from the unceasing torrent of instant messages and instant replies expected, they are now given a second, analogue life in a book whose numberless pages are meant to be turned at an unhurried pace by a reader able to gradually discover the symmetries and mysteries uniting them. In a brief statement about Eclogues, Dorsky likens it to a prayer book read by "a monk with a prayer book walking in a cloister in contemplation," evoking the same, slower-paced meditative vision fostered by his films.

A literal form of slow cinema before that term became fashionable, Dorsky's films are meant to be projected at the now non­standard speed of 18fps last commonly used in the silent era, a slower intermittence that allows the movement within and between the photochemical images to take on a distinct, breathing rhythm. Without narrative or sound to guide the viewer, Dorsky's films are meant free the mind to wander within their images’ multiple layers and interconnections, reawakening the promise of cinema made most convincingly in its earliest years to renew human vision’s capacity to behold the wondrous in the everyday. In Dorsky's films vivid cinematographic life is thus given to human and natural expression: animated hands, wind-bent branches, multifarious reflections. In Eclogues Dorsky draws from the same cinematic wisdom to invite a mode of slow reading able to transform instant photographs into devotional images that unfold according to the reader’s individual vision, memories, and desire.

Earlier in his career, Dorsky explored the connection between book and cinema in what is still his longest stand-alone film to date, Hours for Jerome (1982), whose title references the book of hours, a form of Christian prayer book that flourished in the Middle Ages and whose prized examples are filled with lavish, hand-painted illustrations designed for contemplation. An expanded diary film made over the years 1967-70 that Dorsky and his partner, fellow filmmaker Jerome Hiler, spent in rural New Jersey in retreat from New York City, Hours for Jerome chronicles everyday and extraordinary moments of their shared lives, structured into lyrically immersive passages that capture the intimacy and emotions of temps perdu. (During the same time and under the same conditions, Hiler shot what would become a complementary and very slowly assembled diary film, In the Stone House, which was only finished in 2012.) Both artists shared their work selectively, screening the latest versions of their works in progress at regular intervals only to friends. In this post-privacy age it might be hard to imagine that an artist, let alone a filmmaker at the height of their powers, would choose not to exhibit their work publicly but rather reserve it solely for a close circle of friends; and to use film, moreover, as a vehicle of close friendship. Yet this was Dorsky and Hiler's gesture and commitment, a stance that placed them on the periphery of the 16mm experimental film movement's heyday.

During this same time the two filmmakers collaborated on an unexpected and little-known work, an industrial film commissioned by New Jersey's Sussex County Area Reference Library, whose local branch Dorsky and Hiler frequented first as patrons, then eventually as projectionists and programmers for the library's 16mm screenings. Completed in 1970, the succinctly named film, Library, offers an affectionate portrait of the New Jersey library system that details its numerous roles and facilities. A collaboration with their friends Tony Conrad and his wife actress Beverly Grant, who contributed, respectively, its minimalist score and voiceover narration, Library is a charmingly didactic promotional film that reveals its avant-garde roots in two stylized flourishes: an accelerated tracking shot past the stacks of the State Library in Trenton that playfully cites Alain Resnais' Toute la memoire du monde (1956). and a time-lapse sequence of a 16mm print of Nosferatu (1922) being projected within the library. While Library expresses a sincere appreciation for the eponymous institution, its most heartfelt sequences are dedicated to the books themselves, a clear affection revealed by the co-directors' original title rejected by the library board, Books for All. The film thus ends with two matched sequences: an elderly woman reading in a library, followed by a touchingly romantic scene of a young man perched on a windswept hillside intently reading a book before a verdant, rolling landscape. Over the footage of the woman reader, Grant’s final narration declares: “Reading imparts a deeper interest and sensitivity to living. There is nothing in our daily experience that cannot be made more meaningful through reading.”

Although seemingly a minor footnote to Dorsky and Hiler's respective careers, Library's paean to the book and to reading presages Eclogues and Dorsky's desire therein to recover the book as devotional object and portal to a private transformational journey. Library is also a direct complement to both filmmakers' contemporary diary films and an extension of their somewhat idealized vision of daily life in rural New Jersey. More importantly, the film gives revealing expression to the close correspondence uniting Dorsky and Hiler's work, and their shared dedication to an ideal of art as a form of spiritual experience and devotion. The close dialogue between the two artists is further underscored by Hiler's current project, Cinema Before 1300. Like Eclogues, Hiler's illustrated lecture uses his own photographs to look back to the sacred art of the Middle Ages, now to explore the history of medieval stained glass by considering its image-making technology as a form of pre-cinema. Like Devotional Cinema, Hiler's project began first as a lecture at Princeton, courtesy of an invitation by P. Adams Sitney, before being revised and expanded in 2015 for a Harvard Film Archive presentation.

Eclogues gently affirms the interconnectedness or correspondence between Dorsky and Hiler's shared lives and vision of cinema in another way: through the repeated appearance of Hiler as a leitmotif. The 13 images of Hiler--one in the almost complete darkness of a movie-theatre balcony as a screening begins--gives an almost musical structure to the book, a repetition that recalls the title of one of Dorsky's great films Love's Refrain (2001). That film itself features a memorable portrait image of Hiler, seen in extreme close-up looking towards a stained glass window reflected in one lens of his glasses. It is telling and moving that the still ongoing cycle of Dorsky's film making that began with Hours for Jerome continues to humbly acknowledge its devotion and dedication to his partner. In this way the simple dedication shared by Dorsky's two books echoes the one contained in that film's title: for Jerome.

Another pair of images in Eclogues strikes me. On the right, Jerome Hiler sits again in a balcony, now of a church, reading what seems to be the program for a concert about to begin below. On the left is an aerial view of downtown Chicago that, looking across the two images, matches Hiler's vision as if he in his perch is floating or flying above the city. A gentle exaltation of the artist as sacred visionary, this pairof images validates the amorous and intimate heart of the devotional art to which Dorsky and Hiler have dedicated themselves.

There are other photographs in Eclogues I would like to speak of. in particular a sequence towards the end of the book where Dorsky uses a screen to sustain a play of surface and depth and explore a sig­nature mode of image-making found throughout his late films. Yet this is ultimately a book that, like Dorsky's films, needs to be expe­rienced in its entirety and as a live, embodied "event": an immer­sive act of slow reading. By restoring to its reader the tactile joy of the book as object brought to life by the simple turning of the page. Eclogues reminds us of the deeper histories and traditions that con­tinue to nourish and sustain cinema. In this way Dorsky also reminds us during this time when most cannot watch films in a theatre, that cinematic vision and mystery does not depend upon cinema alone.

A limited edition of Eclogues is available for sale through the Peter Blum Gallery. A second augmented edition is rumoured. Both the preservation of Library and an expanded, updated version of Cinema Before 1300 will be available on the Harvard Film Archive website in Spring 2021.

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