Nathaniel Dorsky's Secret World

Michael Fox December 5, 2006

The poetry sections of bookstores continue to attract browsers, especially around Valentine’s Day, but poetry in cinema is an alien concept to American moviegoers and most critics. Gus Van Sant’s melancholic haze of “Last Days,” Terrence Malick’s noodling in “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” and perhaps David Gordon Green’s perambulating rhythms in “George Washington” are essentially the extent of the poetic sensibility on view in multiplexes in recent years. Avant-garde cinema, of course, not narrative film, is the realm of artists moved to convey an experience rather than tell a story, and evoke a sensation rather than whipsaw an emotion. San Francisco master Nathaniel Dorsky, who’s been hand-crafting elegant explorations of the urban world for four decades, is one of a handful of experimental filmmakers whose completion of a new work is major news. His latest shard of genius, “Song and Solitude,” is a twilight sojourn to a secret world much like our own, rendered with profound patience and a hint of wistfulness.

“Song and Solitude” begins with the reflection of clouds in water, and contains an abundance of shadowy, haunting shots of foliage and birds. The movements of people can often be discerned, but never their faces. It’s as if Dorsky is cataloguing the intersection of human beings and the natural world, and our oblivious coexistence. The eye through which we see the images in “Song and Solitude” is not that of a moralist, misanthrope, or environmentalist, however, but of an empathetic observer who is part of the terrarium yet sufficiently removed from the landscape to see it clearly. Dorsky glides through that delicate space with a jeweler’s eye, creating a lushly inviting atmosphere of beautiful mystery.

It may be useful to know that Dorsky was abetted and inspired by a dear friend, Susan Vigil, in the last year of her life. It is tempting to interpret “Song and Solitude,” with its pervading sense of gloaming, and its recurring flashes of gold and green, as an elegiac statement of longing informed by the dwindling of a loved one’s days on earth. But Dorsky is the farthest thing from a sentimentalist, and his compositions are not dipped in amber with some artist-imposed meaning, but vibrate with the pulse and pace of life. “Song and Solitude” is the most graceful poem imaginable, tender yet unblinking, and effortlessly reveals a world that was somehow out of sight until Dorsky showed it to us. And it’s just 18 minutes.

Nathaniel Dorsky introduces “Song and Solitude” and two earlier films, “Threnody” and “The Visitation,” in a S.F. Cinematheque show Sunday, Dec. 10 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The 7:30 show sold out so quickly that a 9:30 screening has been added.

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