Love’s Refrain : Love’s Tri-frain
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
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
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,
and the eyes of the cat see. and the eyes of the heads see the cat, and
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
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
of the M, and