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Tonino De Bernardi

Gray and cold outside, inside the festival center the atmosphere seems to me a bit more subdued, less people, than my last visit here I think 4 years ago. For myself I’ve decided to see only a few films, those of some friends, and another one or two.  Along with showing my own.

The first film I went to was Tonino De Bernardi’s newest, Butterfly L’Attesa (Butterfly Waiting).  It is a typical Tonino film, magical, too long, repetitive, and finally, as “art” it doesn’t work. Occasionally he’ll luck out and his way of being works as a way to make a film which works as art; more often it falters and fails.  It is not possible to describe his work in words, or what works or doesn’t work.  Essentially he makes carefully orchestrated home-movies of a kind, often with his family playing roles, or friends, though sometimes it might be a famous actress or actor: such are Tonino’s charms.  His camera, and sometimes his orchestration of his characters is lyrical, in movement, intimate and personal. His love of his characters is transparent and joyous.   In this case he filmed in his country place north of Torino, using Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as his thematic base.  The surroundings are woodlands, fields with farmers gathering hay.  We see actors, almost frozen rigid, in postures, as the essential aria of the opera is repeated, sung by a woman who is clearly a trained opera singer, sometimes in sync, sometimes seeming to lip-sync.  A ship’s officer arrives in white naval suit and hat, walking improbably through the wood. Later another man arrives.  They stare into the face of the young woman protagonist, love presumably animating the unanimated faces.  This gesture is repeated again and again.  In walking candle-lit cadences the protagonists walk through a house, a knife appears (and appears and appears.)  The essence of the Puccini drama is visually outlined, repeatedly: women, sailor, knife, impending suicide.   Juxtaposed to this are sequences of farmers doing their work – cutting and bailing hay, doing their job.

Tonino’s family and friends watch the spectacle in a back yard, they applaud, they talk.  One pointedly says, as if it would cure the matter, “Give Tonino some good wine.”  Motifs arrive, are repeated and repeated, and while I was utterly caught in the first 30 minutes, slowly the energy and charm dissipated and became irritating.  In the latter part a family excursion to the beach is tossed in, perhaps vaguely related to our ship captain, but really just some further home-movie material, of daughter and children, and again, repeated to the point of aggravation.

Tonino is a charming 73 year old child whom everyone loves, and who in turn inoculates himself against the criticism he needs as an artist.  What he needs is to give his editor (he can’t operate a computer editing system) gentle instructions, and then leave them to apply the axe in his absence.  Butterfly runs about 90 minutes; if it were cut down to 45-60 it would be a lovely, charming and perhaps very good film.  But Tonino loves everyone and everything, especially his own shots.  He is unable cut one of them, and so variations on the same shot are repeated, once, twice, three, 7 times – not to establish a rhythmic musical quality (which in part is managed) but solely because Tonino can’t stand to cut out one of his shots (he shoots himself).  Lacking the self-discipline and capacity to sort out, to discard, his films stumble into a kind of narcissistic trance from which only occasionally do they survive.  Of course he is so sweet and disarming, no one will say so.  Instead they silently leave, and a cluster of people more taken by the man than the films, stay to watch his always odd, charming, child-like post-screening philosophy lessons.

I’d like to twist his arm, ask him to give the footage to Marcella, and sit back and let her make it into the really wonderful film it could be – if only one could take a knife to it and excise all the redundant needless shots and make a film rather than a lingering sequence of orchestrated home-film material that it’s maker can’t bring himself to mutilate in the interests of make a work of art, rather than a mirror of himself.  But, as a friend of Tonino’s, I know this is not possible.  He would rather be himself and have his work reflect this than suffer the pains of making it into art.

Nathaniel Dorsky with Karel Frabritius self-portrait

The next films we saw were a selection of Nathaniel Dorsky’s shorts, a program which included two newer films I hadn’t seen, and several I’d seen 5 years ago in a little arts gallery in Portland, Oregon.  Before the screening I’d met with Nathaniel, who was deliriously happy with the projection and facilities:  a small cinema of 100 or so seats, the screen crisply defined, a rich black place (only one lit green exit sign in the back of the room), and an excellent, properly bright 16mm projector running at silent speed, and real silence.  One could not fault the place technically.

The first program I attended was sold out and Marcella and I were snuck in by the organizer of the program, Erwin van t’ Hart, sitting in the last row along with Nathaniel.  He introduced each film with a little technical information and background, charmingly and briefly.  The projector ran, the title faded in and out, and then the screen filled with Nathaniel’s elusive and luminous images, enveloped in a deepening silence, draped often in darkness, barely perceptible, or illuminated with rich, saturated deep color surrounded with profound shadows.  Dense foliage, 3 and 4 layers deep, toying with the eye with sometimes gentle and discreet camera movements, sometimes with swift and firmly controlled aggressive movements. The back of a person, the sunlight piercing deeply shadowed pockets to illuminate a zipper or colored shirt or object.  Often the fore or background is very far out of focus, and sometimes an entire image is.  The camera traces down or up the stem of a plant, or some other linear guideline – a sliver of light let through by some structure, an architectural form, often diagonal.    The camera sits still, the spatial ground compressed with some degree of telephoto, capturing a furtive, shadow-bound hand reading a book, or writing.  The cumulative imagery is in a way claustrophobic, close, near suffocating in its intensity, and making monumental the most ordinary of life’s busynesses.  Layers of imagery are captured in a single shot, reflections in glass or water, but beyond that layer yet another and another.  Images so rich and intense, and often so abstract, that it is often difficult to discern just what they are images of, or how they are constructed.  The orientation of the camera is often sharply tilted, though often almost impossible to notice in the density of what is before and interpreted by the camera eye. Often the shots are so complex one would suspect some kind of double, multiple exposure were involved, and yet in the same instant there is an honesty and conviction in them that deletes this easier option: no, Nathaniel’s eye is so exquisitely tuned to his world, which is also our world, that he sees these things that we fail to see it.  It is his gift to us to so illuminate the realm of his world – a world largely confined to his neighborhood in San Francisco, the Sunset, a place of middling middle-class homes, shopping streets and the nearby Golden Gate Park and its greenhouses.  Occasionally this world branches out further in the City, to the beach and the dazzling Pacific, or even here and there to other places.  Out of this mundane world, he extracts heaven and earth in a luminous cinematic language all his own.

The cadence of Nathaniel’s editing is swift, with one image cascading after the next, sometimes in abrupt shifts of movement arriving at a hard stop, or a surprising cut to a stop; sometimes a dance of the camera over slanted lines, fences or a textural background; often the interplay between such a visual grid and another (or still another) layer behind it, building to a rich concerto in depth, a combination of rhythms, the relations between texture/grid/image combining into a mysterious whole, grounded by the mundane and elevated to the ethereal.  As his titles often imply, this is in effect visual music, of a particularly rich and complex kind.  It lacks the clear over-arching structure of a pop song, where the start, middle and resolution are transparently obvious.  Instead his work operates in a much more demanding realm, more Milton Babbit, where the structure is more intricate and indirect, in Nathaniel’s case with visual resonances bouncing around not just from one shot to the next, but reverberating 2 or 3 shots away, and then cumulatively, gathering together in a near imperceptible unity.  The end result, for those attuned to it, is what he aims for:  a meditative state, in which being open, as he is, to a sense of wonder in the face of the world, infuses us spiritually. As he describes it, a “devotional cinema” which serves as a mode of prayer.

The films are filled with truncated gestures or movements, as if depriving us of even a momentary narrative closure.  Dorsky’s editing seems almost a strategy of denial of the comforts of our expectations of cinema, done the better to pry the eyes and soul to another rhythm and aim.  Rather than offer the comfort of a resolution, he repeatedly offers an enigmatic image, a moment of stasis ruptured with a gesture, a sequence of visual chords cut abruptly – one after another, a repeated process of giving and snatching away, guiding us to a more open sensibility for the world he shows – even in images that in another context might seem unduly saccharine: flowers in blossom, a duck paddling in a pond, a cat or dog, almost a catalog of fatal genre cliches of cuteness, though in his hands these transcend their inherent dangers and through a mix of careful observation, mottled light, sure camera movement, and most importantly, context, they instead become harbingers of observation.  We look upon the world, no different than does the cat or dog, and we look upon this with the same unconscious amazement: this flower exists!  this cloth or object exists!  these hands exist!  While visually not at all similar, Dorsky’s eye seems to assert in a manner akin to Cezanne, that a thing exists, it has a certain specific quality: it is an apple, it is a lemon.  It is a hand or the nape of a neck.  Like Cezanne, while utterly attentive to light and its transiency, Dorsky’s images declaim assertively, “this is.”  This is an apple, this is a lemon, this is a tree.  Rather than the comfortable narrative arch arriving at a satisfying resolution, Dorsky instead offers and takes away, seemingly willfully disrupting our expectations and trained behaviors and replaces them instead with a sequence of privileged moments which cumulatively echo with one another, and as in a mosaic, combine each distinct and separate facet to produce a cinematic unity which has foregone the usual devices of narrative, sound, music, and the other stitching with which we usually are confronted by the cinema to hold our attentions.

As one young woman said in a Q and A session, partly correctly and partly drastically incorrectly, she felt like it was filmmaking by a 5 year old.  To which I wanted to respond that yes, it is the sensitive sense of wonder of a child, in which each earthly phenomenon is a kind of miracle, but it required a 68 year old man’s lifetime of hard work to be able to capture that with a highly conscious, disciplined and technically exacting cinematic capacity which, alas, 5 year old’s don’t have, and 99.9999% of whom will never acquire, be it in cinema or some other endeavor.

Life usually disabuses us of a sense of wonder early on, and, as far as being able to express this wonder later, as with any creative art, one is fated to it.  Nathaniel has offered up his life to salvage this, in a world which is mostly disinterested and even contemptuous of such work that is not aimed at securing money – our culture’s standard measure of value – but of something far more elusive, unmeasurable, and valuable.  It is, in our world, necessarily a cinema for a slim minority which has not been wholly seduced by the distractions and hurly-burly of our consumerist world.

While watching his work I was recurrently reminded of photography of the 1920’s and 30’s – many things from which Nathaniel’s vision clearly learned, but then turned into his own.  The oblique angles, use of shadow to form a frame or multiple frames, the reflective surfaces and distortions caused by them can be found in Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Moholy Nagy and many others.  Dorsky has pushed these further, making of them a dense cinematic intaglio in which they cumulatively enrich one another, image after image flooding the retina and mind with the most exquisite of visions which paradoxically, with its intensity, serves through its excitement at the world to induce a quietude and prayerful sense of the miraculous.  The world, thus seen, is miraculous, as is our privilege of being in it, however briefly.

It is a pleasure to note that Nathaniel was given a Tiger Beat award (3000 Euros in cold cash) and his retrospective here has thus far drawn a request to do the same in Madrid and northwest Spain, and an apparent interest in Japan.  Also the Nederlands Archive wants to buy a print of one film and I suspect when it’s all over there will be a lot more of useful value for him.  A long time coming, he deserves it all and more.  I confess a vicarious deep pleasure in seeing the belated acknowledgment.  He has worked in the shadow of the academically defined avant garde for far too long.

Bless you Nathaniel for your persistence, your patience, and your capacity as an artist who shows us all what the spirit of a person can really do, and what art can really be.

[March 8, 2011: here’s a little video portrait Marcella made of Nathaniel shooting and talking while on a little trip with us in the Netherlands.]

[March 14, 2011: new interview and article on Nathaniel.]

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the good details — lavish, lush, intelligent here — on film grammar — the ones on good films derailed by indulgence in repetition, on camera angles, appropriateness of camera lingering, other flourishes into obvious artiness.

    Some nice bits of humanity suffuses all.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] [For post-festival comments on my own film see this, and for comments on Nathaniel's screenings, see this.] […]

  2. By Really Coming to Terms | cinemaelectronica on 02 Feb 2014 at 11:38 am

    […] time I was here, 3 years ago, I attended Nathaniel Dorsky’s retrospective and saw him sell out a 100 seat theater five nights in a row with different programs, and the […]

  3. By Auguri & So Long 2016 | Jon Jost's Weblog on 27 Dec 2016 at 5:03 pm

    […] other oblique pleasure is that Nathanial Dorsky in the last year and more has been trotting around the globe for screenings of his work.  In […]

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