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Tag Archives: Nathaniel Dorsky

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I have been coming to the Rotterdam festival since 1978, within a few years of its founding.  Way back then it was a small, very filmmaker friendly matter, set in a small building, cozy and comfortable, and a good place to meet other filmmakers in a close way.  I think back then I was here with Angel City, though I am not sure.  The city then was a drab and slightly depressing place, with ugly 50’s and 60’s architecture done on the cheap after the place had been flattened during WW2.  The grim winter weather didn’t help the impression given of a desolate urban realm.

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After that, once the Berlin festival – where I had been a “regular” from the 1977 to 1993 –  declined, in the mid-90’s, to accept digital work on an equal basis with celluloid film, I shifted and came rather regularly to Rotterdam, which had accepted electronic work without hesitation.  I recall a visit back then, and on arrival looking in the catalog to see which department they’d put my film – a digital feature that had cost me a few hundred dollars.  Looking in the avant-garde and whatever sections I did not find it, but then discovered it in the main program, which on the next page had some million plus dollar film.  I liked that attitude.

Over the years I returned – I don’t know how many times, but many – and watched as it grew into a major festival, yearly showing 300+ films, with new cinemas blossoming to accommodate it, and I worried it would lose its friendly manner.  It didn’t.   And I prized it as a festival that actually had an audience, a local one, which would come to any kind of film and usually provided a good house for them.  My screenings were always 2/3rds or more full, Q&A sessions were lively and intelligent.  It made coming to the festival seemingly worthwhile, even if I knew my work was not “marketable,” a matter which seemed increasingly to come into play as the years went by: they established the Cinemart, for filmmakers to make contacts with producers and buyers; they set up the Hub Bals fund (named after the festival’s founder) to help 3rd world filmmakers get on their feet; and it did what it could for those entering the business.  It was one of the best festivals I had been to for independent filmmakers.

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Last 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 festival scheduled some repeats.  We – Nick, Marcella and myself – had a great time.  And my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida, also drew good audiences and responses.   Three years ago.

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This time around has been a completely other story:  while a touch late in the festival, it immediately seemed  to me that there were far fewer people here – the professional kind and spectator kind – than in the past.  Inquiries with some regulars confirmed my sense of this.  And when it came screening time, at 7pm – a good hour – in a good cinema (Cinerama) I secured an audience of around 30 people, mostly older (my age, more or less, and understandably so as it is a film about/for my generation).  During the screening a handful walked out, only 3, younger, stayed for the Q&A.  Well, yes, it was by then a bit late for oldies, but not that late.  I would have liked some to stay so I could get an inkling about what older people see/think about the film.  No dice though.  The second screening at 10 pm drew 15 people, of which 7 left.   3 again stayed for a Q&A.   And, last day of festival, at an 11 am screening there were 10 people.

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What happened?  I accept I don’t make audience grabbers, or films that work commercially – I make no effort to do so, and accept my very much minority status.  And I know well the world of fashion and style is fickle and changing, and that by most measures I am now an ancient fart.     But…    I’d like to say it was towards the end of the festival, or have some simple explanation like that, but my off-the-cuff reading is something else.

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Entering the communal spaces of the festival I noted that nearly everyone younger was either working as staff for the festival or eager newer filmmakers.  Almost everyone else was older – the pro’s, the critics, and the audience.  Aside from a cohort of younger filmmakers, these festivals feel like geriatric conventions.  As my friend Mark Rappaport told me a few days ago, having come up a week before to install an exhibition of his film-based photo-collages, everyone of the old friends he met all said something that between-the-lines read, “Oh, you’re still alive!”   I think these festivals, along with the cinema in general, is in the midst of a profound social shift, expressed in myriad ways – from attention spans to hard fiscal matters to shifts in tastes and interests.  Younger people prefer video games, texting, whiling the time away on-line with one thing or another.  They seem hardly to notice the distortions of wrong screen ratios, or have a tolerance for slow pacing, or lack of plot-as-core function of a visual medium.  And, for the most part, whether with the specifics of film or art, or the broader matter of society and politics, most seem to have almost no grasp of history.  Of course there are exceptions – even a cluster of a seeming counter-movement of those who do acquaint themselves with history, see meditative work, whether Benning or Dorsky and others, as a palliative to the frenetic pace of the times (though I observe that some of those young friends of mine seem avid users of Facebook and other fragmenting social media.)

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Over the decades I’ve noticed, as have others, that the cinema seems to go through local cultural waves – rising, collapsing, rotting inside in one place, while refreshed in another:  the focus of creative interesting work seemed to culturally shift like some kind of social Rorschach test.  Italy in the postwar period to the mid-60’s; France a touch later; then Germany and elsewhere, and in a spotty manner many other places in a handful of individual filmmakers.  These days in various Asian settings and South America.  (The same phenomenon could be seen in other arts, high and low – whether painting, music, theater.)  My impression is that the cinema is limping to a kind of death, its myriad avenues explored and exhausted, and then in the embrace of pure commerce, delivered a mode of a Mafia kiss.  To paraphrase Ingmar Bergman’s metaphor, it is like a snake-skin filled with maggots, producing movement giving the illusion of life in the throws of death.

Which, in some ways, is appropriate.  Though some few persist, for example, mosaics are not exactly the state-of-visual arts, nor in reality is oil painting.  Mediums technologically arise, are worked, and then are replaced by newer ones.   And both human and broader biological records show the same is true for any culture.

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My grimmer sense is that the cinema is a diversion from the rising avalanche of far more serious matters confronting our species, and in some highly oblique manner, the larger turning-away signals a kind of recognition, for better and worse.  The cultural reality of people buried in their electronic toys – texting, playing a video game, watching some lame TV or movie – which one can see on any subway from Seoul to New Delhi to Paris to New York, all betrays a profound disconnect, a desperate collective effort to be distracted from the obvious calamity we are already immersed in and which we do not want to see or acknowledge.  The old cinema, Hollywood’s dream factory, and all its off-shoots of “serious” work, still holds a mode of internal coherence which represents a negative challenge.  Better in these times, ironically, the short bursts of Twitter, of utterly fragmented habits, which render the world into a fractal and unreadable social cubism – seeing everything simultaneously from all possible angles which leads not to enlightenment, but total obfuscation.  The better to hide and evade the tsunami of the future, which is writing itself ever more clearly and requires ever more frenetic modes of avoidance.  And in which, in our desperate lunge to outrun it, we hasten its arrival with the very tools and toys we use.

The last time I was here in Rotterdam, I spotted Raul Ruiz wandering the area reserved for the professionals, his face betraying that death was nearing him.  He was alone, walking as if lost, among people who in the movie-biz manner all knew him, and he looked for all the world to me as if he was wondering what the hell he’d done with his life, making films, one after another, as if trying to outrun his own death.  He died a few months later, I suspect feeling empty as one of his convoluted films which tended to be formalist exercises absent any real content, much beloved by film critics if few others.

Perhaps it is a good thing that cinema is dying or dead.

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On a more pragmatic level I did manage to see a few films:

Til Madness do us Part – a four hour documentary by Wang Bin, showing the daily life inside an insane asylum in a poorer area of China.   As the inmates are, the spectator is trapped in a closed courtyard, endlessly circling, entering barren and squalid rooms where 4 or more share the space and sometimes the same beds.  The doctors are harsh, delivering up the daily doses of drugs to pacify the inmates; there are those clearly off-the-beam, and others who seem not so crazed, though living in this setting would tax the most sane.  Never boring, the film catches the viewer in a cross-fire of thoughts: sometimes events seem almost orchestrated, sometimes the inmates seem wise to the game and appear to be “acting” for the camera.  One feels a voyeur, violating the space, complicit with the filmmaker.  At the conclusion some suspicions are obliquely answered as title cards indicate that those committed range from violent criminals who have murdered someone, some committed by family, some for “extreme religious belief” (it is the area of China adjacent muslim regions) or political problems.

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Japon – apparently a re-cut of the Reygadas film of some years back.  I have never seen one of his films. I took an hour of this one and left both a bit bored; annoyed with the aesthetics (extreme wide-screen, scruffy DV or some other relatively low-res medium which seemed counter to the wide-screen and landscape images); and I figured where it was headed – sex and gore.  It didn’t warrant the hour I gave it, and certainly not another.

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Bella Vista – shot in and around Missoula, Montana, a first film from Vera Brunner-sung.  An interesting and good, though flawed film, but worthy and good for taking a shot at skipping conventional modes and instead using a rich mosaic approach with the thinnest narrative thread.  Long shots, no explanations, but it held together well despite the minor problems.  Much more interesting  than the numerous American indies who imagine a “hip” sit-com in old-fashioned movie/tv cinematic syntax is worth doing.

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And I think I saw another but it must have left no impression since I can’t recall just what.  Or did I even see another one?

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Yesterday I had the deep pleasure of visiting Nathaniel Dorsky, at his place, to have a nice talk – he’d just recovered his legs from jet lag after a wonderful two week journey in Spain where he had 6 or so in-person screenings, set up by some young people there despite the ‘austerity’ program cutting into everything.  He had a great time, he says, and for that I’m really happy.  And then I got to see two of his newer films, made since I went to his retrospective screenings in Rotterdam 3 years ago.  Sadly didn’t have time to see the other two he did since.  Of the two I saw, they both are wonderful, and while being Nathaniel’s, and so sharing deep commonalities, both quite different from one another.   One, August and after, is a dark work, nodding to the deaths of some friends of Nathaniel’s, seen early in the film, among them George Kuchar, seen withered and gaunt.  The imagery is dense and lush but tuned to the range of a Fuji stock, and clearly to the tonalities in his mind’s eye.  His perceptions and use of camera/stock/eye/movement are honed to perfection, with images so rich and mysterious, layer on layer compacted in a single image – with no EFX, just that of an extremely acute vision – and edited with a near-mystical sense of cadence and rhythm.  I was overwhelmed, and talking a bit afterwards with him about it afterwards, it was with wet eyes – the kind which only the deepest art can evoke.    The other film, April, is equally astute in all aspects, though it is more, in the literal sense, “mundane” – to say, “of this world,” and in turn has a softer psychological impact.  He described it as a kind of recovery, re-joining the world following a dark passage of sadness which he took with his friends.

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I’ll try to write more on these films later, and hopefully return to see the others I have missed, and if the fates allow, see, once again, all his films to take a stab at a bit of serious writing about them.  Meantime thank you so much, Nathaniel – work of this kind, at this level, capable of slipping so deeply inside, is genuinely rare.

Nathaniel has some screenings coming up shortly and I will post here when I have the dates.  See below for listing of screenings in Cambridge Mass. and Seattle.

Meantime, in quite another world see this.

And while I am at it, before I skip out the door to head south to LA, a notice for some screenings of my own:

March 14, USC, 7 PM,   900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007 Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, located in the lobby of the George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, screening Over Here, LA premiere

In period March 15-20th, I’ll be in Ann Arbor at University of Michigan doing classroom things, and a public screening of Over Here.

March 24, Film Forum, Sunday, March 24, 2013, 7:30 pm,  Parable, Los Angeles premiere.

RYAN GRAIN FACE AwideRyan Harper Gray in Over Here

And lastly, the Jeonju Film Festival has invited The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima and I will be attending the festival April 29 – May 3.

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  • Six in-person film shows this spring including two premieres of Nathaniel Dorsky’s new film, Song

    Nathaniel Dorsky will have two film shows on Easter weekend at the Harvard Film Archive, the second of which will be part of a keynote address at a conference titled Imaging the Ineffable: Representations and Reality in Religion and Film.

    On Friday evening, March 29th at 7pm at the Harvard Film Archive, Carpenter Center for the Arts, Harvard University, Nathaniel will present three of his films: The Return, August and After, and April.

    On Saturday afternoon at 4:30pm, as part of the graduate student conference, Imaging the Ineffable: Representations and Reality in Religion and Film, Nathaniel will present three of his films, Threnody, Alaya,  and Compline.  He will be co-presenting and in conversation with Dr. Charles Hallisey Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard Divinity School. This event is open to the public, admission is free, but pre-registration is required to attend this single event within the weekend conference.

    Link for more information and registration: http://mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/imaging-ineffable

    The Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, Washington will present two film shows hosted by Nathaniel Dorsky on Wednesday, April 10th and on Thursday, April 11th, both starting at 8pm.

    On Wednesday, Nathaniel will show his quartet of films: Sarabande, Compline, Aubade, and Winter.

    On Thursday, Nathaniel will show three more recent films: The Return, August and After, and April.

    Link for more information:

    http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/series/2606

Nathaniel Dorsky, photograph by Jerome Hiler

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Nathaniel Dorsky will be screening his work at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, come June 10, 17 and 24.  As his work is only shown in 16mm, and is unavailable in any digital format, I encourage anyone within range of the Bay Area to get over and see his shows.  He’ll be showing some very new films, which, alas, I have not yet been able to see.  Wish I’d be there.  For more on and from Nathaniel see this, and this and this.  Or this.

The last few years have been a bit busy for Nathaniel, with long-deserved screenings finally coming his way.  In the bombast of the market-oriented culture in which we live, including of course the film world, Nick’s work offers an oasis of quietude and beauty which is rather rare in these times.  If you can make it to one of his screenings you will be richly rewarded, and as well perhaps have your thoughts of what makes cinema be challenged.

Afterimage: Three Nights with Nathaniel Dorsky

June 10, 2012 – June 24, 2012

“There is the world that we see, and then there is the world that artists like Mr. Dorsky see and generously share.”—Manohla Dargis, New York Times

Filmmakers who create non-narrative cinema often link their work to other arts, drawing on musical rhythms, a painterly style, or poetic phrasings. They may explore film-specific properties, creating a cinema of surprise and originality. Local filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’s unique, exhilarating 16mm films relish in the possibilities of image making—to borrow his concept, they obey cinema’s own materiality. Or, as Paul Arthur observed, “A formalist with a brimming, elegiac soul, Dorsky will gently rock your attitude toward cinematic landscape. His world is a sublime mystery measured by patience and unmatched visual insight.”

In his beautiful, compact book, Devotional Cinema, Dorsky discusses, “shots and cuts,” and elucidates how, working together, images and edits can “unite the viewer to what is seen.” Dorsky’s films are purposefully silent, projected at the slower speed of silent cinema; nothing distracts from our being in the moment of seeing. He often carries his camera, a 16mm Bolex, with him; his imagery is of the everyday world, both city life and nature. Yet, his shots are often mysterious, ambiguous, equally “about” what he sees as how he sees it. A store window is a collage of objects and reflections. The focus on a tree overflowing with blossoms shifts, and becomes a swirl of abstract colors. Thus we move from one shot to the next, continually reawakening to the poetry of the visuals. As Dorsky’s titles—Threnody, Compline, Pastourelle—suggest, his films are songs, poems, prayers, dances, expressing his devotion to the world and to cinema.

As part of our ongoing series Afterimage: Filmmakers and Critics in Conversation, we are delighted that Nathaniel Dorsky will be joined by renowned curator Mark McElhatten to discuss his films following the screening on Sunday, June 10. McElhatten has been programming films and videos since 1977; he is founder and co-programmer of the annual Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival, and founder of the Walking Picture Palace and the upcoming festival Cinema Atlantis. He has been film archivist for Martin Scorsese since 1998.

Read Manohla Dargis’s April 13, 2012 New York Times article on Dorsky.

Learn more about Nathaniel Dorsky at collectedonlinesongsaboutnathanieldorsky.posterous.com

Kathy Geritz, Film Curator

Sunday, June 10, 2012
7:30 p.m. Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films
Nathaniel Dorsky (U.S., 2010–12). Nathaniel Dorsky and critic/curator Mark McElhatten in conversation. Dorsky’s unique films can be seen as songs, poems, prayers, or dances, expressing his devotion to the world and to cinema. Tonight we present his most recent film, August and After, as well as The Return and Pastourelle. (62 mins)

Sunday, June 17, 2012
7:30 p.m. Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: The Quartet
Nathaniel Dorsky (U.S., 2008–10). Nathaniel Dorsky in person. Dorsky’s imagery is of the everyday world, both city life and nature. Yet his shots are often mysterious and ambiguous, equally “about” what he sees as how he sees it. Tonight’s screening features the quartet Sarabande, Compline, Aubade, and Winter. (67 mins)

Sunday, June 24, 2012
7:30 p.m. Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Devotional Songs
Nathaniel Dorsky (U.S., 2002–06). Nathaniel Dorsky in person. Dorsky’s films continually reawaken us to the poetry of visuals, as can be seen in Song and Solitude, Threnody, and The Visitation. (64 mins)

This presentation is part of our ongoing series Afterimage: Filmmakers and Critics in Conversation, which is made possible by generous funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association® and the continued support of the BAM/PFA Trustees.

Belatedly, from Aberdeen WA., (birthplace of Curt Cobain) I add this lovely review:

Rites of passage: San Francisco Bay Guardian

 by Max Goldberg

It’s commonly said of Nathaniel Dorsky’s films that they are beautiful beyond words. Which is true as far as it goes, but then the same could be said of many poems and they are words. What’s clear is that Dorsky is absorbed with a classical fulfillment of form, and as such his films do better with poetics than interpretation (he has himself supplied a fine entry point with his slim volume Devotional Cinema). Poetics in this context means respecting the mystery and proceeding gingerly with gesture, metaphor, and detail. No one ever says of a Dorsky film, “I liked it the more I thought about it.” Conversely, watching a second or third time one marvels to find the beauty springing to life with the same force, subtler and lovelier now for this trick of renewal. No one ever says of a sunset, “I’ve seen this one before.”

A three-part retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive beginning June 10 retraces the last decade of Dorsky’s work. The Return (2011) and August and After (2012) receive local premieres this weekend, accompanied by the delicate Pastourelle (2010). June 17 brings his “Quartet,” to my mind a signal achievement of the young century. The series concludes June 24 with three earlier films confirming Dorsky’s mastery of an open (sometimes called polyvalent) form of montage: Song and Solitude (2006), Threnody (2004), and The Visitation (2002). How fitting that these films should be spaced out over consecutive days of rest! They will be shown on 16mm because that is what they are (last I checked the museums still show the Old Masters in paint).

It’s our good fortune to share a city with Dorsky: opportunities to see the films with him as a guide come a little more frequently, and the phenomena that supply his visual repertoire are that much more familiar. Here are the blossoms, the Chinatown lanterns, the drifting Muni trains, the ocean skies, and the seasons as we only dare to see them in deepest reverie.

Dorsky began making movies under the influence of people like Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, filmmakers who strove for an intrinsic cinematic language (while the auteurists chiseled out an essential cinema, they sought cinema’s essence). After relocating to San Francisco in 1971, he reemerged with Hours for Jerome (1980-1982), a dense exercise in spiritual autobiography culled from pastoral years in New Jersey. The films began arriving with greater regularity after Triste (1998) and continue apace even after the desertion of his beloved Kodachrome.

The silence of Dorsky’s films is lush, providing intoxicating accompaniment to the slowed projection of 18 frames per second which dips the photographic action just out of the flow of representation. The crescendos that surge past the finish of his films invariably leave me surprised that I haven’t been listening to music, as the black of the theater seems clarified in the same way silence is after an expressive composition. Pushing the analogy further, the relationship between movement and stillness in his films is akin to that of sound and rest in music, the two leaved together as intonation. We really need a new word to describe the juddering movement of branches and buds that punctuate Dorsky’s films. “Quiver” is close, but it doesn’t capture the spring in the frame, like dancers on a stage.

A couple of months ago, Dorsky showed something called Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Reel 1) at Lincoln Center: Song and Solitude-era footage in the chronological order in which it was shot. The material had a completely distinct character viewed this way. Dorsky talked of it as a journal. The loose form made it easier to relate to his eye being grasped by something in the world, and yet one missed the justice of the cuts.

If pressed for a defining quality of these films, I would say rightness —each shot developing to its fullness, tuned to what comes before and after. The fact that this formal refinement is itself the focus of the films creates a suspension of time which, after all, is a basic condition of paradise. Certainly the films are colored by experience, as August and After for instance is clearly marked by grief, yet this is never what they are “about.” Trust is placed in the self-expression of the film stock — its luster and dusk.

Dorsky’s films will reintroduce you to what branches make of the sky and how the grass gladdens when the sun reappears from its shade. I think this is what people are talking about when they say the films remind them of childhood. “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full/hands;/How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any/more than he./I guess it must the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful/green stuff woven.” We could choose many lines of verse to say the same, but Whitman’s will do. There is something mystical in Dorsky’s slightly ajar illuminations of worldly objects and features. And yet so too is there something altogether sensible and almost courtly in their formal arrangements. The shots of dogs make us chuckle because we’re in a position to recognize our own recognition, all too human.

On first viewing The Return struck me as a deeply melancholy work, its darkly reflecting surfaces and doublings bearing the impression of lost sleep. August and After, on the other hand, is more immediate in its effect and a superior example of how Dorsky’s style can serve distinct emotional structures (threnody here). Tender impressions taken near the end of George Kuchar’s life, the filmmaker surrounded by family and friends, are framed in the light of long afternoons. Everything that follows is touched by these pictures of intimacy: two workers sliding down a skyscraper, a distant glass door sweeping a ray of light across a café, agitated steps into bramble. A rhythmic montage focuses on packages and fruits carried down the street, the actual things transfigured into pure color. When the film’s ship finally sails, it does so with such grace as to say love without saying.

Amos Vogel, 1921-2012

Amos Vogel died this past week, signalling perhaps the end of an era in which film existed as something other than a pure financial product.  Amos, whom I met a few times and recall visiting in his Village apartment in the middle of NYU, was an early and ardent champion of film as an art, a provocation, something to stir the soul and mind, and not merely a transitory means to slip X bucks from your wallet.   Long ago, he set up Cinema 16, a distribution and exhibition system for the propagation of art/underground/avant garde.  Later he started the New York Film Festival, which he directed until 1968.   A political radical, he had no qualms in describing himself as an anarchist, and in openly supporting very “left” views.

In his book, “FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART” he cited among many others, my own film,  “Canyon.”   In doing so he made clear that his idea of  “subversive” included the sublime.

His death comes at a time when the commercialization of everything in the name of  “the Market Economy” has bludgeoned the kind of cinema he supported into a near-death coma.   I imagine he looked at the “independent” cinema which in its various guises and labels of the last few decades, as a sad denouement for the kinds of work he dreamed of, a sign that indeed the insidious forces at work in “the Market Economy” reduced most young filmmakers to imagining that a modest shift in television sit-com formulas constitutes “creativity.”

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The Hunger Games

As if to demonstrate the mental corruption of  Hollywood’s landscape, the makers of the BO smash The Hunger Games, which as of this week has grossed 366 million dollars domestically, released for their promotional picture, the above item.   A modestly careful look at this image shows that while archery apparently plays a major role in the film, no one could be bothered to figure out how to actually shoot an arrow:  aside from holding the arrow rather far from the near-center point on the string which is technically “correct”  one must also wonder by what gravitational magic the arrow manages to hold itself on the wrong side of the actress’ hand.  Perhaps Photoshop?  Or she has an extra finger that grows from the backside of her hand?   Truth being the last pursuit of those who control Hollywood, I imagine we will never get an answer.

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From Nathaniel Dorsky’s “Compline

While lamenting the near-collapse of the kinds of cinema which Amos Vogel supported, I do note that a recent screening of works by my friend Nathaniel Dorsky at the Redcat Cinema in Los Angeles, elicited this item in the New York Times.   [For other thoughts on and from Nathaniel, see his “letters” in my other blog.]

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Tornado alley

I am presently in Stanberry Missouri, population 1,240 or so, here to help my friend Blake Eckard shoot a new film – I’m doing camera for him (with my equipment) and about 10 days ago he also asked me to act in it, so I will be playing Burl Enright, drunkard red-neck dad, who, if things stick to plan, will get killed by his no-good sons by the end of the film.    I hope I can do a reasonable job of it – in front of and behind the camera.

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The Market Economy, aka, Titanic