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NYFF08: Magic Lantern (“Sarabande,” Dorsky, 2008)

Above: Frames from Nathaniel Dorsky's 2008 film, Sarabande.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s 15-minute Sarabande starts at dawn and ends at dusk, and, as it took a second viewing to realize, alternates between nature and city image series a bit, perhaps, like songs might alternate melody (garden, flowers) with bridges and riffs (city). Nature would be the melody because only it is ever fully captured clearly, fixedly (like statues, but statues in the wind) and not always, while Dorsky’s cityscape, built from close-up shadows, shifting, instead of the usual sturdy skyscraper horizons, is glimpsed through car windows and other windows and lattice and spider shadow patterns, in constant flux and movement. After years of increasingly refined long-static-takes, in which the slightest quiver had to be searched out among still sand-and-gravel textures, here, even Dorsky’s camera moves, usually, it seems, in the gardens. Looking up and moving down a flower stalk as though the stalk grows to tower overhead, or as though Dorsky is stroking it firmly on the way down, the camera actually moves quite a bit—though if stately and controlled, still not quite able to gain full control, at least at first. Again like a song—a Ravel song—Dorsky will repeat images and movements, while cutting closer and moving further every time, as if to test a pattern, as if the first shot is a sketch for the second, as if simply to build intensity as the image seems to deepen with each reiteration. The effect, in any case, is that the camera seems to be trying to get a firmer grasp on an object that keeps slipping away; yet amidst such shadows and instability, Dorsky, renewing a technique Stan Brakhage used so differently, anchors—or punctures—the film with sudden perfectly stable, perfectly in-focus shots: shots of a baby carriage, a newspaper being read in the sunlight, leaves. And one of the last shots, as night hits: a wheat field (only a few of its stalks seen up close), haloed by some sort of golden twilight even though the sky looks a usual dark, dusky blue. (Murnau probably would have loved this all-American image, which captures the monumentality of City Girl’s endless grains by only studying a few.) Then it’s off to more shadowy riffs.
Carl Th. Dreyer prudently attested that every cut, that every object on-screen is felt when there are few; likewise, Dorsky pares his images down to mostly shadows and single rays of light, smudged out of focus, so that these small surges of color are fully felt against the dominating black, tiny flickers felt against the dominating movement. At first. Then, in a burst, Dorsky gives his images over to three nature shots of reds and blues and whites (the last a snowy mountain-side). Just as Sarabande builds in rhythm as it closes in on an image, it builds in color: while Dorsky’s once-masterpiece, Song and Solitude, also isolates and pin-points colors (with shadows) and on-camera movement (with the camera’s own stillness), Dorsky’s latest, Winter and Sarabande, go further by narrowing color to a spot or two and making the movement the camera’s own. Yet there are points in Sarabande where it feels as though Dorsky could simply turn the knob of the focus, and plane after plane would ripple into view. Whatever abstraction Dorsky gets, the image is always of a 3-D world—the real world as real as it gets—put in enough distance, from enough angles, in enough out-of-focus, that it appears made of rubber, hung wrong-side up, and so on. An initial viewing of Sarabande reveals it as a movie of wavering, fluctuations. Another shows it as a movie again and again returning to the same flowers, the same recognizable locations. The form is barely stable, but rigorous; the content rarely stable at all. Sarabande shows all the everyday sights as fleeting, all the tiny details of gardens as what are—in imagination? in reality?—steady pivot points to which we inevitably return.

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