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Love’s Refrain : Love’s Tri-frain

Tina Rotenberg

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East

In Nathaniel Dorsky’s films, foregrounded objects act as a screen through which we see another object, e.g. a blue sky is seen through a tracery of branches. There is a layering of images which hide, interact, and open up to new images. The organic and technological intersect seamlessly.

Sometimes the camera focuses on a face, frequently a face looking at something (or someone?) else. When the camera singles out a face, most notably poet Philip Whalen’s face in an uncharacteristically extended series of shots, it registers the small shifts in expression, undiluted or uninterrupted by any other images. Whalen’s face is not transparent, though, by the end of the “movement,” it does appear transcendent. It is not a means of seeing beyond it to something else. It speaks for itself, unwaveringly, uninterrupted and impermeable.

The continual shifting of images in Dorsky’s films does not appear unplanned. There is a logic to the progression, and yet that logic escapes us. We just feel it is right. At the same time, certain images remain unrecognizable, even abstract, bringing out the emphasis on texture, shape, color, etc. of all the images; both those that can be identified and those that elude recognition.

Although the images are continually presented and then disappear, the viewer does not lose sight of the presentation of each “picture.”  In the “gallery” of Dorsky’s images, it is very hard to lose sight of any of them. Each one arrests the eye, commands attention, so the viewer is given an incredible palate of visual realities. It is a gift indeed–to focus and not lose that focus again and again for a period of twenty odd minutes. Neither do the images dissolve and escape our mind’s eye when the film is completed. They linger, like traces of a dream or a particularly compelling vision.

The viewer is offered a new way of perceiving the world. Objects, faces, animals, nature, train stations are no longer isolated. Rather, they are related to other objects of perception. They become porous, transparent, the avenues for seeing multiple scenes.

Dorsky’s most recent film, Love’s Refrain, moves a step further in the complexity of this phenomenon. No longer do we see the juxtaposition of two images or the transparency of one object revealing another object through it. Now there are at least three lenses through which we progress to see multiple images. Mirrorlike surfaces multiply images by reflecting one object through which we see another. But reflections are not the only device used to accomplish this feat. The world itself, as selected through his camera, presents a constant tripling of visual images.

The multiplication of images in Love’s Refrain is integral to the whole film. There is not a discrete set of shots that illustrate this phenomenon. It is as though the shot of light reflected on fluttering white birds that cast shadows on moving water, or shadows overlaid on feet walking seen through a mesh net are linked to other shots that overlap continuously through repeated somewhat abstracted patterns throughout the film. The object may change; the pattern overlaying it, through which we see things, only changes minimally. We recognize a pattern or a color scheme which occurs over and over again, yet we can’t quite identify it. It’s just there, usually shifting and moving, unnamable, and yet arresting because it is so extraordinarily beautiful. Sometimes the pattern is perforated to reveal something else (e.g., a cross-hatched pattern created by what eventually reveals itself to be a sun hat covering a face); but sometimes it remains unknowable, infusing the entire film with a kind of subtle mystery, as we are confronted by shapes we know, that, at the same time, resist our knowing them.

This defamiliarization of the natural, human, and mechanical world is abetted by what appears to be the constant perforation of images: a triangular light pattern becomes opaque as it crosses the window of a car through which the sky is seen. What Dorsky unravels is a remarkably complex and yet utterly clear and deliberate perception of the visible world. He invites the viewer, or gives the viewer the option, of seeing objects, faces, nature, clothing as he does–as pristine–through open unflinching eyes. His process of “making strange” his visual panorama lures us into looking sustainedly and hard at something that is both “caught” (arrested) and moving, lifting us out of that moment of unabashed vision to the next shot.

The visual world never resolves itself in Love’s Refrain into a single simple set of images. His “tripling” effect does not occur at isolated moments–it permeates the film, challenging the viewer to go beyond a static, limited view of visual possibilities. It is as though we were in the proverbial hall of mirrors; but one image is not repeated ad infinitum. Rather, it leads to another image of a scene or face which miraculously appears adjacent to or through the first image. Dorsky has the skill and quickness of perception to capture these constantly associated pictures. What we see seems unlimited, opened up, freed from the disappearance of vision from our experience. Watching his films, we can no longer “walk down the street” and see nothing, or just notice one thing.

The experience of making films is, in his words, more like participating in “a suspended mobile than hewing a static sculpture.” He conceives of the act of seeing his films “not as an objectivication of the world through certain images, but as the blending of the viewer’s mind–the darkness in the skull–with the darkness of the theater….There is a union between the luminosity of the world and the luminosity of the screen.” As he puts it, poetically, “phenomena are resting on one’s darkness, one’s mysterious vastness.” Dorsky’s work counters conceptual isolation: he keeps opening avenues for vision, keeps trying to divine perception as a complete experience, not an objective act. He seems determined to discover the secret behind the image, and the viewer’s participation in that discovery.

These films are silent. Images proliferate; vision is vastly enriched, as we enter a field of images that are related, multiplying, and constantly joining. Images are no longer opaque, static. We see through them. This proliferation is so opposed to ordinary visual experience–distracted by noises, one’s own and noises outside, isolated in disparate, unrelated views. The silence that pervades this “gallery” allows us to see the world in a fresh, undistracted manner where things relate. The world is bodied forth unhindered, thunderously beautiful, and heightened to a pitch of visual appetite that appeases our hunger for a rich new apprehension of life in all its myriad astonishments.

look at these things which are pictures and glow in front of you, which are you in
your head, looking, there in the alphabet of light which is and will be,

and look at these things in the extension of the silence from flat of light and array
of the stars and the stairs in the head and ceiling and sky, great spaces, pinpoints.

and the eyes of the cat see. and the eyes of the heads see the cat, and the
cat has a thousand miles in his head, black, and the stars. and necessity is loving, and

the world comes around and alone and not. as seen. and love's refrain is
being. the lilt of the reel and the tilted heads, considering bright eyes.

– Larry Kearney

Tina Rotenberg, poet and artist, lives in Berkeley, California, where she founded and directs Visual Arts/Language Arts, a project for kids in the public schools.  Recent writings appear in Apex of the M, and Sulfur.

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this article was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East