Screening & Interview with Jerome Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky, May 2021, Leeds, U.K.
Hosted by Will Rose
May 21 2021
WR The screening of your work in Leeds will be outdoors in a field at Meanwood Valley Urban Farm. It will be dark of course, but the films will be set against the backdrop of the city and accompanied by the sound of the outdoor environment. I’m interested in how these local conditions might affect your work. What do you think about this, and have you ever screened your work outdoors?
ND When Jerome and I were in our early twenties we would leave New York City for a summer evening at my parents’ house where there was a backyard bordering a forest. We would have outdoor screenings using two projectors and enjoy the superimposed images and their many chance occurrences. San Francisco does not have windless warm evenings and the summer nights are particularly cold, so the inspiration to do this type of screening does not come naturally. But this summer, with the Covid crises restricting our social and screening lives, we had two screenings for six people each on the backyard patio of filmmaker Scott Stark. We were all dressed for a winter sleigh ride and masked with distance between seating. I showed three films I had made so far during the lockdown, one of which, Temple Sleep, you will see this evening. What was particularly lovely were the swaying tree shadows on the screen from the surrounding window lights going off and on. The film felt like it was floating within a larger cinema.
JH Of course, silent films are extremely vulnerable to ambiance, yet there are always margins, and some are larger or smaller so it’s impossible to predict what is too distracting or not. Every screening is a law unto itself. No two are alike – even when there’s an immediate repeat screening. When I send my films out to be rented, they’re like children old enough to be on their own. I wish them luck. That’s about all I can do. Back in 1964 I roomed with Gregory Markopoulos and we were always trying to find some spacious outdoor setting for a night time screening. It never came about, but I feel now that I saw the beginning of an idea that eventually led to his Temenos events in Greece.
WR You have each largely kept your personal filmmaking practice separate from your ‘day jobs’ (Jerome as a carpenter and documentary director, Nathaniel as a film editor) – to what extent did/does your daily work influence or affect the films you make, and vice versa?
ND As an editor one has to be very strict sometimes with a client for their own good … you witness the naked self-deceptions … so when you are working on your own film you almost laugh when this dialogue takes place all within yourself … you see the importance of not deceiving yourself … you see the way you fib to yourself …
JH It has been some time since I worked as a carpenter. The work was all-engrossing and I hardly had a chance to have my films affect that particular work. However, the money I made certainly allowed me to make films. When I was young, I admired the filmmakers who had day jobs that supported their work. I also worked on documentary films and there it was a case of my personal films influencing my documentary style.
WR Your work is very much concerned with the act of filming in the moment – an idea which also seems to extend to the way you would like your films to be experienced. I’m curious about the role history and memory play into this presentness. When you film somewhere, is the history of that place important to you? And are your own memories of that place important to the way you respond to it in the moment with your camera?
ND For me it is the presences and dissonances of light that guide my camera into the world. Generally I am not trying to evoke a place, but in the film Temple Sleep I shifted in that direction; in this case seeing a series of fly casting practice pools as the flooded ruin of an ancient temple of the past.
JH I generally wander at random. Driving in my car – particularly in places that I don’t know, hoping to get lost. I will react to a location. I don’t set out to make a statement, rather I learn and am tutored by the film as it develops. My film has more to say to me in the long run than the reverse. All art works seem to be self-portraits.
WR I understand that you often show your work to friends in private salon screenings. Until relatively recently this was the only situation that Jerome’s work would be presented in. Can you tell me more about these private screenings? And when you make your work, is it is useful to have a particular viewer (someone you know) in mind?
JH Now that I’m shown publicly, I’m often asked why I “withheld” my work. But, as far as I was concerned, I was sharing my work as much as I could. Living in San Francisco, I was ensconced in such a vibrant and busy film scene with many visiting filmmakers coming through and showing their work. There were many impromptu screenings at different people’s homes. For my part, I would create tailor-made “films” from my camera original to suit the person or people who were attending that night. Then, I would dismantle the reel and re-purpose material for another occasion. This process of using original film resulted in much loss over the years. But, as for making a finished film, I had not found a voice and my attempts, I feared, might be pretentious. Suddenly, I was asked to be in a film show and I quickly finished a film in progress. In this way, I had found my very casual voice.
WR You have been life-partners since the mid-1960s and make films principally for each other. Can you tell me more about how your work converges and diverges?
ND Jerome taught me half the things that I know. His earliest filmmaking awakened me to the open glories of self-symbol montage, that a film is something in itself! Jerome is a bit more the painter and I, a bit more the poet.
WR During the pandemic I have increasingly had the urge to be somewhere that I don’t recognise. I was fascinated to find out that your work is almost entirely filmed within a very small radius of your home in San Francisco. Why is this the case?
ND This is an exaggeration … although it is true that many of my films are shot in walking distance from my apartment. But I would often in normal times go downtown with my camera in a car, park and walk around in a variety of neighbourhoods and environments. I could no longer shoot street or human scenes as if the Covid was not happening.
The real issue is that when you travel and shoot footage the footage is seldom as good as something you shot that you are very familiar with. When it’s familiar you have to work harder to make it touch something in the psyche … but a new place is all awe and seduction of the new but the footage one might take there is often not really so interesting as cinema. I have some travel films I’ve made on Kodachrome and have occasionally shown them in my apartment and once publicly at Anthology Film Archives. They looked gorgeous with the original camera Kodachrome going through the projector – now that is a heart stopper.
WR You both have a close affinity to poetry and have found ways to create an equivalent sensation using the medium of film. Nathaniel, I showed your work in Leeds a few years ago in the presence of a very wonderful local poet. Without any prior knowledge, he appreciated it instantly as the filmic equivalent of a poem. Is there some intrinsic essence you can identify which makes film poetic?
ND When film can create for the viewer feelings and intuitions, associations and discoveries, things that cannot be directly said, then it has poetic qualities. Not the false poetry of sentimental narrative, but the sharp present alert quality of light and the screen.
JH I think my films are more akin to music than poetry. Some musicians can tell me what tempos and dance forms my works employ. My subject matter is so truly personal that I doubt anyone else could follow a “narrative.” Though, I have heard a viewer’s re-telling of my film that was both true and sidesplittingly hilarious. You might wonder, “Do I have no regard for my viewer?” Actually, I hope that there is always something for the mind of the viewer to engage with along with the feeling that what you see and feel is, indeed, the heart of the film. The film is really yours. I remember, over so many years, tedious post-film discussions where a viewer stated their reaction and asked the filmmaker, “Was that intentional?” My answer would be: If that’s what you saw, yes, it was.
WR The way light, weather and vegetation are measures of seasonal change is important in almost all your work. How do the seasons play a role in structuring the way you make films?
ND Like poets for many thousands of years, the change of seasons stirs the soul, awakening primordial feelings of birth, death and desire and the need to “sing” of such things.
WR The pandemic has put a temporary stop to public screenings of work that necessitates film projection. This screening of your work in Leeds is a gentle re-connection with a type of art that has been in hibernation. What has been your response to the last year? Have you worried for the future of your art form?
ND I just kept on shooting and vaguely wondering what damage the Covid crises would have on handmade films in public arenas. Luckily my film lab was allowed to stay open as an essential business … I could not agree more … and Eastman stayed open for purchasing raw stock. I found it very difficult to make a film during this crises – though I ended up making six … many quite short as the world had become smaller. I spent weeks at various places in Golden Gate park, a half block from my apartment. After three weeks or so ideas for making films in those locations took place and manifested. It was hard photographing things with this ominous lurking presence, but I found a way by relating to the oppression and trying to make films that were a purification for the impending claustrophobia.
JH This is a very good question. The issue of impermanence has arisen most powerfully this past year. I find myself at an advanced age. I read complaints that my films are impossible to see outside of the larger venues in film capitals. My attention, as usual, has been on the making of films and not at all on their exhibition. I have never felt that video was akin to film. For me, it did not present itself as a substitute. I am considering, very seriously, transferring my films to a digital format. I do dislike the light of digital projectors, but I have to face the fact that loyalty to my first love is taking too large a toll on my work’s appearance on any screen at all.
. Temenos is the name filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos gave to a remote outdoor screening site in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Markopoulos spent the last decade of his life working on Eniaios, an epic, 80-hour film cycle created exclusively for projection at this site. The next presentation screening will take place there in summer 2022. See: www.thetemenos.org
3 Films by Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler | Outdoor Screening, Fri, 21 May 2021, Leeds, U.K.