Some viewers will see the beauty of the photography in the individual
shots of Nathaniel Dorsky’s most recent film, Variations (1998).
Certainly there are many individual shots that are quite pleasing to the
eye—from a long shot of delicately glittering water, to a close-up of translucent
textured leaves, to a mid-shot of a precariously elevated traffic signal
moving gently in the wind. The more profound aspect of the work, however,
is in the way each shot relates to the next, the previous, and the whole.
A facile reading of this film is that it is a series of comely, well-composed
fragments. Indeed, fragmentation is all but expected in experimental cinema.
But the wondrous thing about Dorsky’s Variations is how it is neither
simply fragmentary nor simply structured. This may sound like a contradiction
because it is one, and that is part of Dorsky’s point as a filmmaker. This
is the basis of a new cinematic paradigm in which fragmentation is not equated
with psychological anomie and alienation, long an artistic archetype in
Indeed, the inspiration for the editing of this film seems to have come from Eastern poetry, long known for its penchant for contradictoriness. In Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture, 1 the author R.H. Blythe describes some of the characteristics of the state of mind of the Haiku poet: in addition to contradictoriness, there is selflessness, loneliness, grateful acceptance, wordlessness, non-intellectuality, humor, freedom, non-morality, simplicity, materiality, love, and courage. These qualities are highly evident in Variations, which appears to have been created in the very state of mind of the Haiku poet that Blythe describes. But in addition to the beauty of the individual images Dorsky presents—both an ancient and a modern beauty, both Eastern and Western, that celebrates both the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa— Dorsky’s subtle editing is responsible for conveying this poetic spirit.
While comparisons between Variations and certain
kinds of poetry seem natural, there is, of course, a cinematic context
from which this work emerges. One could make an interesting comparison
between Dorsky’s Variations and Peter Kubelka’s films, for example,
which are often cited as examples of masterful editing. In films like
Schwechater (1958), Kubelka creates montage through rhythmic, percussive
hits, which seem much more violent than Dorsky’s cuts. While both films
involve disconnected images, the sense of Kubelka as an auteur,
and as an ego is much more present in this work than in Dorsky’s. In
Variations we have less the sense that Dorsky is controlling the film
as auteur ; rather, he is allowing the shots themselves to construct
the film with his help, as their consort but not their master. Dorsky is
present in his absence of ego—another seeming contradiction. By not bending
the different shots into a shape by sheer force of will, he is communing
with the shots and finding out what they themselves are suggesting. For example,
in a recent interview he described the method by which he ended Variations
. Dorsky arranged a tree at the end of a series of images. After trying
different possibilities, he noticed that no other shot would work after
this one, and in this way he realized that it must be the last shot. Similarly,
he began Variations with a shot that was impossible to place after
another shot. The shot is of a man. This almost intuitive style of editing
contributes to how Variations is as strangely artless as it is
startlingly vivid. Cuts that are without pomp and circumstance reveal moments
of intense seeing. In this work, fragmentation as an expression of alienation
does not exist; we have instead another aesthetic form emerging, one that
affirms and celebrates difference .
The traditional way to organize different ideas into
a cohesive whole is to make specific examples support one central claim.
Thus, in this seemingly agreeable structure there is actually a hierarchy
implied between the abstract statement and the material that supports it.
In contrast to this, Variations’ specific images are arranged not
to be subsumed by a main intellectual statement, and thus projects an integrity
not often part of traditional rhetoric. For example, most shots in this
film contain one subject that is not repeated. It could, then, be tempting
to conceptualize a formal scheme in which each shot must contain a different
subject—the kind of predictable pattern that Dorsky calls “the conceptual
approach found in many structuralist films. However, in Variations
, there are three consecutive, very similar shots containing virtually
the same gesture of foam moving in from shallow water to a smooth sandy
shore. This is one example of how Dorsky’s film resists a simple intellectual
As in many other experimental works, loneliness is an important aesthetic mood in Variations. Indeed, the title Triste (1996), Dorsky’s most recent previous work, may refer more directly to this feeling. Nonetheless, if we look at a progression in Dorsky’s cinema, from Pneuma (a film whose images are non-images, merely mesmerizing emulsions at various degrees of magnification) and Alaya (an unbelievably riveting film in which sand is revealed in much the same way), and then Triste and Variations (where a variety of different images from the world reveal themselves to presence), we can see movement from a more inward, private gaze to a more outward public one. All of these works convey loneliness in a sense, but the kind of loneliness in Variations seems different and more complicated. Once again, the Zen mind provides some context: in Zen loneliness refers to the “interpenetration of all things,” the opposite of the Western idea of loneliness as isolation. And in Variations , somehow, despite the rapidly changing subjects, which we are accustomed to creating alienation, there is an almost inexplicable sense of faith conveyed that all of these different parts represent the same whole. We begin to pick up visual patterns such as the direction of the wind across different shots, the re-emergence of common subjects, such as insects, fabric textures, written language, water. As a result, the relationship between the individual shots and their connection to a wholeness in the film suggests both separation and universality, concepts most of us have trouble integrating.
Variations shows us glimpses of the world through
an infinite eye. We see the forms of the world in their beautiful material
immediacy: a cigarette on the floor, the brightness of white geese in the
water, a shadowy chess board, a dog intently waiting for its owner with
an expression of pure desire. But beyond the immediacy, the abstract poetic
connections between shots suggests commonality of form—everything has a
form—and in this sense all things are united. But we can and do still enjoy
the pleasure of the visual differences, a pleasure that is, in turn, enhanced
by the existence of similarity. Our act of seeing and our realization of
a playful interchange between similarity and difference seems more vital
to our viewing of Variations than the notion of either self-expression
or personal projection. And yet, in contrast to this point, we still have
a sense of Dorsky as a filmmaker; we can recognize Dorsky’s work as distinct
from others. Watching Pneuma , Variations, and Alaya
in succession, we find that the internal rhythms are similar, regardless
of what is on screen. Indeed, like many artists, Dorsky conveys a sense of
his films working together as an overall emerging oeuvre.
There is wordlessness to Variations. The film is silent, yes, but, more importantly, it is not readily or completely translatable into verbal experience. Stan Brakhage 3 is often cited for his argument that perception can be understood apart from cognition. He argues that this direct perception, which is not caught in the net of concepts, could lead to more meaningful experiences of the world or even of art. The notion is relevant to Dorsky’s film: the essential nature of Variations is visual. In an era when the existence of “essence” or something “absolute” is usually met with suspicion (at best), Dorsky brings good name back to the notion of universality.
Variations is an example of avant-garde cinema in its
maturity. Most avant-garde cinema needs to defend itself—often quite aggressively—as
marginal to mainstream cinema. Often we find a celebration of this marginality
within the films. Using scratches, edge numbers, punch holes, and end
flares, for example, is the earmark, the veritable membership card, of
what is considered stylistically avant-garde. We can still see these effects
used in current art films as young filmmakers continue to defend their
marginalization. Many of these films gleefully destroy works from the dominant
cinema in irony-laden techniques that are often described as either nihilistic
or nostalgic. In contrast, in Variations Dorsky conveys the feeling
that he does not need to be “reactive to parental forces,” or, in other
vocabulary, to be caught in an Oedipal struggle with Hollywood. Of course,
a film like Variations is itself marginal anyway. Just about any
silent, 16mm, non-narrative film is marginal. However, Dorsky’s film expresses
no resentment about being so. It is marginal simply as one by-product of
its freedom and originality. In this way, his work is not avant-garde in
the common sense. In Variations Dorsky shows other filmmakers a way
for the avant-garde cinema—a relatively young artistic project, yet one
that seems to have aged all-too-rapidly—to be viable in the next century.
During a decade in which rebellion and sub-culture have been commodified
and mass marketed to such a degree that so-called alternative culture is
hegemonic, works in the non-hegemonic, experimental tradition must also change.
If the Avant Garde is wrapped up in certain unchangeable, emblematic trappings,
then there is probably no reason for it to continue. In fact, perhaps the
main difference between Variations and most other avant-garde films
is that one is not waiting for it to be over. The film is utterly absorbing
from beginning to end.
Variations is a healthy film spiritually, absent of neurosis, anxiety, cleverness, dogma, or competitiveness. Three years ago in an interview, Dorsky articulated his search for “a revolutionary film language which is completely open, anarchistic, sort of a utopian montage, in that there is no axe to grind except the human heart of mystery.” 4 Indeed, Variations speaks this courageous language.