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Nathaniel Dorsky, still from Temple Sleep, 2020

To The Lighthouse and Back: Mark McElhatten's Carte Blanche at MoMA
By Paul Attard
December 20, 2021

Evaluating Mark McElhatten’s recent Carte Blanche screening series at the Museum of Modern Art in terms of pure numbers wouldn’t necessarily be a wrongheaded approach. Eleven feature-length works, 41 shorts, and two excerpts from longer features were programmed in this exceptional series, which certainly lives up to the intensity of McElhatten’s esteemed reputation as a curator—but focusing on such data would be missing the overall point. The breadth of selected titles—which varied between established auteurs and eclectic avant-garde obscurities—feels like an afterthought in terms of the more interpersonal objectives the series sought to accomplish.

When McElhatten introduced any of the works, he forwent any (perceived or not) rigidly academic jargon and never attempted to reiterate history; instead, he characterized these titles in earnest terms, speaking to their base impact outside of any ostensibly needed analytical context. Their inclusions, on top of being comprehensive, also were deeply idiosyncratic, and at times personal; many of the makers represented here were mainstays of McElhatten’s Views from the Avant-Garde series, which he programmed with Gavin Smith for the New York Film Festival from 1997 until 2013. Nathaniel Dorsky, who had six works shown in the Carte Blanche, screened Triste (1996) at the first Views; Ernie Gehr, who showed five, would regularly have new works to exhibit. In this respect, having the opportunity to watch world premieres from two of our greatest living moving image artists should certainly be heralded.

Dorsky’s new cycle of vernal 16mm films—shot before (starting with Canticles in late 2019), during (Temple Sleep), and after COVID lockdowns—kicked off the entire series on an especially chilly autumnal night in New York, where the radiant warmth of his images felt more unmistakable than usual. The films, which were shot and edited in their presented order, follow a loose arc, one that first bears witness to a world rife with human activity (Canticles and Lamentations) before falling into primordial darkness. A shadowy, solomon image of a small child’s clasped hands haunts the ghostly Temple Sleep, which features a seemingly never-ending cascade of rippling casting pools at Golden Gate Park; the following work, Emanations, ends on a shimmering, neon-lit Ferris wheel at night, one which recalls the closing images from In the Stone House (2012) by Dorsky’s partner, Jerome Hiler. The final two pieces shown are predicated on a sense of internal awakening, of the tranquility that comes after the worst is over; the closing image from the last, of a steady stream shot from afar, is one of humble, meditative resolve—a simple shot set-up, but one that only a master like Dorsky could produce.

While each of Dorsky’s new films had its own merits, McElhatten implored audience members to consider what we were viewing as one large work in and of itself. In that sense, watching this collection felt more akin to long-form cinematic poetry, with their gentle editing rhythms unobtrusively moving from image to image, each revealing the transient beauty of the world around us with each polyvalent in-camera edit. In a possible act of divine intervention, the screening was moved to the Celeste Bartos Theater at the last minute due to a technical issue with the film projector at the Roy and Niuta Titus, affording the film a smaller, more intimate space, a choice that, while not intentional, felt entirely appropriate given the occasion. 

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