Conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky (II)

Songs under the waning moon

by Francisco Algarín Navarro and Félix García de Villegas

Arbor Vitae (Nathaniel Dorsky, 1999-2000)

In the beginning of Arboe Vitae (1999-2000), we think we are seeing the top of the trees, the sky, and a big fog or clouds moving very quickly, and then we discover that you are filming their reflection on the water. Why do you constantly try to find this ambiguity in relation to natural elements?

It’s true, that was twisted. But then in that shots I think things had this release of the green, and at a certain point you don’t know if the leaves are moving or the camera is moving. That's a slight release. And then it cuts to very dark thing. I love that kind of cut: when you psyche is beginning to fill with luminosity and all of a sudden, the remembrance of a shadow. This is an example both physical and psychological. When the films are good, we always find those levels, those different layers.

In your films the camera setting determines, in some way, the plasticity, but it also operates a certain estrangement in relation to what we are seeing: the difficulty to recognize what we are seeing, the reflections and the layers, with  curtains, blinds, and all kind of overimpressions. Where does this purpose come from? From observation?

Yes, in my films there are frequently many layers... There is the other subject of the layer shots: they seem to be direct metaphors for states of mind; you are all seeing me, I’m seeing you; so there is one layer. And then, there is another layer which has to do with what each of you has, with your emotional history, with your emotional landscape. And then there is always a kind of surface tension between inside and outside. So I think good shots have the internal world, the surface tension like the surface of a pond of water, and then what you see through that.

In the first I made when I was 20, Ingreen, I used the motive –I didn’t realize this till later– of focusing and unfocusing into the mosquito screen. And then, at a certain point, actually in the film the character has a sexual orgasm, and I go up to the screen and then I focus through: so there is this kind of release from the containment. And I realised that right from the beginning I was very interested in coming up to the surface where your psyche maybe holds a territory. And then all of a sudden it dissolves into union. So I think a lot of cinema metaphorically has to do with using layers to express the holding pattern of the psyche and your own identity. And then at some point you release through that, because it seems to me that the mind does that: it releases; and then there is fear; and then you re-stablish the wall. So I think that films in a way are exercising the fear establishing the territory, releasing the territory.

In great traditional cinematography there are always three layers: foreground, middle ground and background. If you look at the greatest filmmakers, there is always as in music they use the word counterpoint: there can be a base line, a vocal line, etc. In good cinematography there is something about the “three”, and there is some kind of magical combination of foreground, middle ground and background.

If you look at paintings from the great period of the middle of XV century (a very great time for painting, between the Medieval and the Renaissance), I try to think of paintings which are in the Prado...

Is that something you find in Velázquez too?

I'm thinking in a period before that... Painters from Belgium, Italy or Northern Europe like Memling... In that period, it wasn’t a flat world but it wasn’t the showing off of perspective: there is some kind of balance point. I like that period’s paintings very much. In good cinematography or paintings there is always something magical about three. If you look at filmmakers who are really great, you realize that there are always three layers going on.

A good example for that could be the final shot in Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948), when we see John Wayne...

Yes, yes, it's true. Ford always has those layers of activity. I think that he made so many silent movies in his youth, 20-minute movies... and then when he made Straight Shooting he was so smart, he was only 23. And he was already getting it, it was all starting to happen. The textures, for example. And I know by myself that, if there are 5 or 6 filmmakers that influenced me, Ford is one of the key ones.  And people say: “how are your films like Ford’s?” And I would say that one thing that Ford discovers is to shoot toward the light source. Most of filmmakers shoot with the light; Ford shot against the light. And when you shoot against the light in a way it’s cosmic; you stand in the dark. If you look at any exterior shot in a Ford film, the shadows are coming toward the camera. The shadows are coming towards you. And you have that tension. If you see his first movies, he is discovering that: at some shot, he turns the camera towards the light. And I think the cameramen used to complain because it is more difficult to get the exposure, how do you get the exposure of the area that is in the shadow. You have to flat light a little bit (obviously in a feature you have reflectors and you can kick light back towards you feel in). But still there is that tension. Ford is very strong with layers of activity. Ford understood the cosmic thing. Films are visions, and that vision is cosmic. Other filmmakers may not know that and they just take pictures of a drama. But Ford understood the act of seeing things itself was cosmic. Do you know the black and white films of Antonioni?


Cronaca di un amore (1950), his first feature, for example...  First he made some documentary shots. They are great.

Gente del Po (1947), for instance.

That was the first. And then it ends very suddenly because I think he lost some of the negative during the war. And then, the one of street cleaners in Rome, N. U. [Nettezza urbana] (1948). It's great, it's very layered. And there's one with a suicide, Tentata de suicido (1949), and the other one about superstition, Superstizione (1949). But anyway if you can get a  good DVD of this first film Cronaca di un amore, just watch that film, just watch the camera attitude and what happens in it. That anyone can make a first feature film of that quality is just outstanding. And in terms of layers. Also later in time people make a big deal about the 360 degree shot that Godard did in Weekend (1967), but it's not profound and it's not subtle, it's no big deal. But there's a scene where they are planning the murder in Cronica di un amore: he shoots someone in a car, and the whole planning scene is this 360 degree shot, it starts with the car coming up the road. You wouldn't know it, it's so amazing you cannot even realize that it's happening. That film is... just watch the film, the camera attitude, the way it is with people in a room, it caresses people. That's an outstanding film. It's very modest, just like a detective story. First you say, “oh, why do you recommend this film?” It seems kind of ordinary for a while. Then slowly... it changes. That's a great film to watch for the eye.

How much time do you spend on the process of meditation, observation, location of the place from which you will shoot? Do you usually film spontaneously? Do you usually take the camera with you or these so complex and meticulous takes are a part of a long process of study (climates, movement, cadence, etc.)?

The only time I come back to something, it's if I didn't have my camera with me. When I see something. You always learn that you can never come back, it's never the same. The light is different, the wind is different, something is different. Sometimes you can. There are things in my films that I tried three or four times. The first time I realize it's potentially very interesting, but I didn't get it. Then I go back two or three times. But most of the time, it's something that spontaneously happened at the moment. I'm angry with myself, I didn't bring my Bolex with me on this trip. I thought: I've never been to Spain, there is going to be no time. And in Madrid it's true, there are so many museums, I'm crazy with the paintings there, every day.  There are four museums with the more outstanding collection of painting. I think it's the best city of the world, that I have ever been to, for painting. But then I came here, to Galicia, and all of a sudden this light is just like San Francisco light. It's the cool sea air, the hot sun, and with all the water the light has this certain kind of quality. And yesterday I was walking around and I said: “why didn't I bring the camera!”. I know that after this interview I have three days now and I could just walk around with my camera. I got a little lazy, I said “oh, I'm not going to bring it”, because it's heavy and on the plane you have to carry it in your backpack. Usually in the films 90% of the stuff happens spontaneously and I would only come back, as I said, if I didn't have my camera with me. I am always happy I have my camera with me, because someone could ask you to go to have coffee one morning, and you go “oh, no, I have to work” but then you say “allright”, and you are sitting... That is what happens in one of the shots in Pastourelle (2010) , in which we see this hand. Who asked me about it? The interviews are piling up. You have these fingers coming forward.

Yes, we remember the fingers, and the light that comes around them from the shadows.

And you don't know at first if they're legs. It's erotic, but it's not specific, it's flesh. That was someone who wanted to have coffee one morning, and I was resisting, I said “no, I have to do my work”. But then I thought, “wait a minute”, it's a bad attitude, just go with your camera! And then also this hand is on the table and the light was coming through some kind of...I don't know what it was. And it ended up being a  important image in the film.

I think with the kind of filmmaking I'm doing now it's important to always be open to circumstance, you don't know where the magic will happen. You can go with your camera with a very pretty spot and come back with no footage. You can go to Paris for two weeks with the camera and not get any footage. And then you are waiting at some place in the airport, and there's this little thing, and then it comes the magic.

About the light and the color: you said to Scott MacDonald in his interview that, in Pneuma (1977-1983), there was no manipulation or any other kind of manual process, but just a certain kind of expired film that you sent to the lab slightly over-exposed. In other cases and other films, how much these effects depend of the camera functions, the type of film, the exhibition or the shutter?

What actually happens is: you see something which it's interesting. There is a certain tension in the light, it sorts of attract your psyche, just like when you are walking down the street and you find someone attractive. Before you can think about it, you are looking. It could be a shape...

It could be a block.

Yes, exactly, or a block. All of a sudden there is something before the concept - the animal part of your mind. You know how you mind knows things before you do. Your mind is smarter than you are, and as you grow older you realize that more and more. Your mind knows and you are the last person to know. Sometimes your mind waits ten years for you to know, the mind already knew.

So you see something, some kind of tension in the light – looking at here, these shadows from the palm trees... something like that just attracts you. The point is: let's say you see some kind of tension which attracts you, but then you look at it through the camera and it may not translate into something, our skills don’t fit there. Sometimes I look through the camera for a minute and never push the button. Because when you are looking in here you are waiting for it to translate but then you realize you can't – It was nice in the real world but you can't get the frame. It was a thing I learned from Hitchcock, he said: “the only thing that counts in a film it's the frame”. It doesn't matter where: the only reality is the frame. I remember reading an interview when I was in my twenties and it really stroke me. The frame is the only thing.

We have the impression that, sometimes, when you film the streets, you are looking for a way of abstraction inside and outside the frame, the detail to the fragment.

Sometimes you can't turn the frame into something. But sometimes you are attracted to something and you look at it and it's kind of “dead” in the camera. And then you let it grow from there. Some shots of my films work like that... I start to shoot something and then I start to tilt. There is some kind of tension, it's not a corny tension. Sometimes it's corny when the gravity and the bottom of the screen is the same thing. Sometimes it's very strong, like with Ford: the earth and the gravity is very important. So sometimes in the shot the gravity is where the profoundness comes from. Other times, the gravity in relationship to the shot is corny, it keeps the shot from taking off into a more state of mind. So then I start to get it, I move the camera, sometimes you are all the way upside down, you are three quarters to the way upside down before all of a sudden the frame becomes magic, because it takes a while to realize the frame is the only reality, so then the frame becomes magic and you take the shot like that. But if it's magical you don't now what you are doing... if you know you are doing that thing it's not magical. Then it is just one kind of reality... So I think in my films, when people don't understand things it's sometimes because you are looking at something almost upside down. But it feels full, it doesn't feel like upside down because then it would be a concept, because then it would be a concept “oh, that's an upside-down shot”. It just feels like something.

Shooting of Imitation to Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)


The use of color is very important in your cinema. That reminds us of Douglas Sirk and Hitchcock films - the way they use the color, which comes back in your films as reminiscence. In fact, not only the color, it's also light's movement and some motifs (flowers, curtains, windows, etc.) All these elements come back in your cinema in abstract compositions. Do these filmmakers play an important role in your work?

Have you ever seen the film Sirk made in Germany before he came to Hollywood? Schlußakkord (1936). It means “Final Accord”. The only print I have ever seen is at the British Film Institute. It's really great to see him do not a Hollywood film, but a European type of film. It's about a symphony conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic. It's fabulous, it is really extraordinary. Because it is not a Hollywood syntax, it's a different feel. He did three or four, there's one he did in Australia, called To Distant Shores. But Schlußakkord takes place in New York and Berlin at the same time: there is a conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and there's two music lovers who listen in New York on the radio to the Berlin Philharmonic. And then believe it or not their lives become part of one another through a child that they adopt. It's extraordinary.

But anyway, I know that Hitchcock’s sense of color is amazing. You know Vertigo, of course: James Stewart is in brown and Madeleine is in green, that kind of green. The part of Vertigo I feel identified with a lot is when he follows her into the graveyard in the mission Dolores, and she's going to see Carlota Valdes' grave, and he's following her... There's a section of that film, about ten minutes long, which is one of the most outstanding moments of cinema. There's a start when he's watching her coming out of her house, and following her driving. He's going to the museum, watching her looking at the painting then following her and going to the graveyard. There the shots are so beautiful. Hitchcock's main syntax is point of view: the person looking and what they see. So it's a very primordial cinema, because it has to do with someone seeing something. It's about seeing things. So there's this area in that graveyard where there are these flowers... Hitchcock keeps reversing the angles and the things that are in the foreground become the background in another shot. And of course, the musical score of that part is... there is no better musical score. Can you imagine Vertigo without that score?

It's impossible.

Have you ever seen the film that Nicholas Ray did, On Dangerous Ground (1952)?

Yes, sure.

Oh, you guys are extraordinary! Because that's a great score, a Bernard Hermann score. It's a score that works like a sketch for North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), just the music. It's a extraordinary score. Every once in a while now people are having festivals based on Bernard Hermann's film scores. Do you know that he did the music for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)? It's very interesting, but see On Dangerous ground from that point of view, it's great. I think it really influenced the New Wave, in that sense of going out into the country, out into the snow: I think it affected Le Beau Serge (Claude Chabrol, 1958), and also of course Tirez sur le pianiste (François Truffaut, 1960). I think that film really influenced the New Wave, but beyond that the score is so gorgeous.

Anyway, we were talking about color. I think that, in my own work, the articulation of color is extremely important. I don't know of any other filmmaker (I don’t want to be selfish, I'm just talking objectively) in whose work the progression of color is really articulated. I mean of course you have people like Hitchcock, and so forth, where it is designed and every color is carefully thought(if Marnie has a yellow pocketbook, everything is thought about very carefully, like a painting). It's a visual medium. That's one of the reasons I can't go to the movies so much anymore, modern movies  I don't enjoy them, they are not interested in the way anything looks. And most modern movies are very monotone, they are brown, they are all brown or they have that famous back-lit blue smokey scene. But no one cares what clothes anyone is wearing, they are not visually gratifying. And they are not lit well. There this other weird thing about them: I think there is something about taking actors and putting them in a real situation but not being aware of the color of the real situation. I know very few filmmakers worried about that... There are some French filmmaker who take care about that... I’m thinking about a filmmaker, he was in the New Wave, but I'm having a big blank... He's such a famous French filmmaker, his films always end up with murder, and he gets bored...

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)


That's right, Chabrol. Chabrol is like a kid. When we were kids we used to play sports, you know, after school, but at a certain point, we just go into chaos. You'd be playing an organized game but then it would always end with everyone just jumping. Chabrol is like that: he's very disciplined and then with about twenty minutes to go, he just says “Fuck it, I'm going to start machine-gunning every character! Oh, I'll just have everyone kill everyone”. But I think that at the same time he's very good with the color articulation and with the framing. Not all the time. Do you know who's great in color? I don't know if you have seen Higanbana (Equinox Flower, 1958).


Yes. Higanbana and also Akibiyori (Late Autumn, 1960), that's the most amazing one. When he does a close-up exchange, shot/counter-shot, the two shots are gorgeous together. There might be a woman in Western clothes with a plaid and then the woman in a kimono with... But he's the only person - even Hitchcock doesn't do this – who's aware of the counter-shots: the colors are going to be very interesting on the counter-shots.

Another important thing is that he never shot over the shoulder of the characters. Because everything is related frontally so that you as the audience are receiving everything. He never wanted you to be outside, with his point of view you are never outside looking to other people talking to each other. Most of the filmmakers want to go outside the situation, he never went to outside.

In his cinema we always find two things at the same time: you, as the audience, receiving the information directly, and the drama working – both at the same time. In Devotional Cinema (2003) I talked about a sequence in Hitori musuko (Her only son, 1936) where they go out and they look at the sky. So it's working as the drama but the audience is receiving the direct information from the screen. A character looks up at the sky and the screen pops to the sky: you feel the presence of that space in heaven. It isn't like you are just watching them have a literary experience: you are participating in a primal way, visually, with the same experience as the characters. It's both at the same time. No one talks about Ozu as being a great color filmmaker because there's only maybe four...

We can remember Higanbana, Akibiyori, Ohayo (Good morning, 1959), Kohayagawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer), Sanma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962)...

Samna no aji is one of my favorites, where the father is unhappy because he can't buy the golf clubs. Regarding what we are talking about, specially in Akibiyori, which has all those double layers, there are two marriages which have to happen... No one talks about him as being a great color filmmaker, but I don't know of anyone that made a greater color articulate feature than Akibiyori. It would be nice to put together small series of great color films. Maybe like Marnie (1964), I think it's very beautiful as color. Vertigo, Late Autumn... it's very interesting. On the other hand Antonioni fell apart with color, he lost it. I think he didn't made the transition...

Yasujiro Ozu shooting Samma no aji (1962)


Don’t you like Il deserto rosso (1964)?

Il deserto rosso was his second color movie. He did one other short film in colour, I tre volti (1965), which never got finished. A producer put up the money for it if his wife was in it. It's an unfinished film, I've only seen it in very thorough retrospectives, it's never shown but it's great. It's about twenty minutes long and it's about a woman from the Middle East, a movie star who wants to get a job in Cinecittà. That’s actually true, because she’s the producer's wife... Both stories are happening at the same time. That's amazing, I've only seen it once, it is only shown in really complete retrospectives. The archive has to work hard to find it.

You said that the shot is "the energy encompassing". What do you mean by “energy”?

We discussed before about the progression of the colors in my films, with the greens and the pink, in Arbor Vitae. It's very interesting when the colors echo back. You'll see things that may look very obvious now, because I was learning. When you'll see Variations tonight, you'll understand. There is a little child sleeping, and then it cuts to something else and then it cuts with someone handing out in the streets, someone handing a paper out, and those shots are linked by the red. I was just learning that echo, how you can have a color go away for two shots and then return to that color. There are people who might make a nice color film but there's not that many people that can actually do that., shots and cuts articulating color in the films.

How do you begin to arrange or to join this material when it’s time to begin the editing? Could you tell us a little about how do you organize the filmed material? Do you normally take notes about what there is in each reel? Do you memorize the material?  Do you make or draw some type of scheme, graphic or drawing at the moment of filming? Or do you film without thinking very much about the structure and after seeing the material?

When I was first making films, I had very elaborate notebooks, I would write all the shots that had red in them, for example. But these are all ways to avoid actually making the movie. When you are young you should have a log of every shot, but now I do zero writing. Zero. It's all just the actual... After shooting, I get back ten rolls of film. I use to look at them once. I immediately take out the twelve shots I want to use, and put the other away. Maybe I check it later, to see if I made a mistake. But at this point everything is very “actual”, I don't write anything down. When you first start you write everything down because you didn't really have the confidence. It's like our translator at the show: last night he suddenly got the confidence and he didn't have to write it down, he could just listen and say it in Spanish. But that's just like learning to ride a bicycle. All of a sudden you've got the confidence, you don't need the extra wheels. I still had that when I was a kid, I had these extra wheels. But I don't write down anymore.

And sometimes these dismissed shots come back to your film, from one film to another? Sometimes we see, for example, a tree that seems familiar to us – we think we have already seen it.

Usually I don't use them. Did you see the same bush? There's this one bush I filmed more than once. It became a star! Near my house, in San Francisco, there is the Arboretum, a botanical garden, with all the plants from around the world. It's a very nice place to go with the camera. But there's this one bush, in English we call it buckwheat. I was in Vienna and they had it there too, but I forgot the German word. It's a kind of flower that isn't grasses or weed. Anyway, there is a plant there: to look at the plant is not so attractive, but it photographs really well. Sometimes, on the contrary, a very attractive plant is boring to photograph, because you are just shooting it because it's attractive. If people is too good-looking in a movie it could be distracting sometimes. But that's a whole other topic.

I think, as I said, that I work like a painter: there are things you return to and then at a certain point you realize you'd better rather not do it. Having this retrospective in Rotterdam and here, you start to see the films a lot and there are certain things... sometimes you say “I'm going to move away from that”. But sure if a painter do the same kind of «exercises», no one would question it: if you saw eight paintings by Braque or by Picasso and they had a guitar in them, you would accept it as exploring again that “language”.

In filmmaking sometimes people are less tolerant. But then, of course, some of my films are necessarily made to be seen in a set. Last night I liked that set of four, Sarabande (2008), Compline, Aubade (2010) y Winter (2007). In the Museum of Modern Art in New York they wrote in the contract: “We only show these four in that order”. Eventually, probably after I'm dead, and if the films continue to have value –I have no idea, you never know if what you are doing has value beyond the moment– Then let's say there is something like Bluray or better, and let's say someone publish them. Then you can have the privilege, you don't have to go to a film show and see four of three of them. You could just look at one, and that would be wonderful. Bruce Conner had a retrospective show of all of his artwork in San Francisco. He's mostly a graphic artist, and he created three rooms where only one film played in each of those rooms. You know the film Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1976)? So there's one room that had this film, and another room had A movie (1958). Have you seen that movie?

Yes, of course.

It's really strong. Anyway, there's only one film in one room and it was very interesting to be at someone's show where you'd have these works on the wall, and then you'd go into one room, and then it would be not a DVD or a Bluray, but a 16mm projection of just that one work. It was interesting to see a film not in the context of a film show, but just in the context of that film in that room. It changed the whole relation, it was very startling to be able to go into a room... 5:10 to Dreamland is five minutes and ten seconds, that's where the title comes from, so to go in and just see this thing that's five minutes and ten seconds, as an artwork, complete, was very different than if you saw three films as a set in the auditorium. So sometimes I think “Well, these films have to be shown altogether, although the format is not really convincing to me. Because if there's a poet you like, you don't want to read four poems necessarily, you read one poem and that's fine. You don't have to read another poem! That's what happens at a film show.

We would like to come back to the idea of estrangement that comes from the position of the camera. In Threnody (2003-2004), among others, we see some kind of rock but we can't identify it clearly. That difficulty comes, in some way, from the vertical axis and its possible inversion. And in relation to the cut and the interaction between the shots, would not be this polyvalent editing a series of links between shots with the same energy that resonate in a discontinuous way? How do you begin to arrange or to join this material when it’s time to begin the editing?

In Threnody, the one for Stan Brakhage, there is a rock... Some dirt...

We think we have seen that effect in two of your movies.

The same rock? In Threnody it appears twice, because there's a light... The sun is moving, it was a natural thing. I had breakfast every morning at a friend's house. The film was shot during the winter. I noticed that there was a wedge of light by the time we finished breakfast. So I set the camera on the tripod and shot first when it was wide. And then, because my camera only go for thirty seconds, I waited for the wedge to narrow... So there's an interesting problem in the editing: how do you return to a shot and have that feel right? Very delicate. I think there is three shots in between the return. There's the shot, and then three things, and the return. If there are two things, it would feel like... If there's one, that would feel like A-B-A.

In spite of that, sometimes I like to break my rules. Like in Winter: there's someone holding a piece of paper in the end, then it cuts to something else and returns to that. Someone asked me about that –I was so happy, though I forgot where it was–: “Why did you break your own rule? You went A-B-A”. It's because at that point there is a few films like Triste (1978-1976) where I go A-B-A, in a way it breaks the openness. When you go A-B-A, there's a reference point that it's not floating. But in some of my films I break my syntax right before the final arch.

Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2008)


If the shot is the energy encompassing, and each shot have a different energy, what would be the cut? The movement of one energy to another? How do shots interact between themselves in the cut? Like a clash?

In Winter, for example, there is a hand holding a paper, and the next shot is this plum blossoms from a tree reflected in a window, then it goes back to the hand. So what I want is to break they syntax, but then there are maybe four or five shots to the end after that, so it breaks and then it arches off the break. So there's a number of films... If you watch Variations you'll see that the syntax breaks with the sequence with rain on it, at night on a car window. The syntax breaks but then it arches off that. And we are going to see Pneuma, which it's interesting: at a certain point the syntax breaks, there's this long sequence with blue and that's the beginning of the final arch. In Alaya, all the sand falling down, it breaks and then it arches... I've just noticed that with my work: rather than float all the way to the end, there's something about breaking it and then arching off the break.  Some of them flow all the way to end, but some of them – maybe it's because the length of them – they call for collapse. I don't know, it feels organic. And then arch off the collapse.

Pneuma(Nathaniel Dorsky, 1977-1983)


It would be something like a coda.

Yes, a coda. In Triste there's an angel, shot in black and white negative. We see the angel statue and then it goes down to this purple piece of paper in the weeds, shot with very outdated old film stock that it's kind of magenta purple, and then it cuts back to the angel. A friend of mine got mad he said: “that was a return, you are not allowed to return B-A-B-A”. I said: “But I wanted to include in all the language also the breaking at one point”. I think it has to happen at the right point, it can't happen early. It has to happen when the film feels kind of right, when you are sort of full of the way it is, and then break it. Tonight we are going to see Love's Refrain. In it there is a famous poet from the Beat Generation, Philip Whalen, who was in his deathbed. He was a character in most of Kerouac's books. He was in a hospice, and you'll see the syntax breaks with him. And I think one of my best codas is coming off of him. The steps the film takes make everything go from him to something that's zero homo, it's shocking, it builds itself out. I think it's one of my best codas.

I'll talk about Mark McElhatten, a programmer from the Rotterdam Festival and also he does Views from the Avant-Garde in the New York Film Festival. Also he has a day job he works for Martin Scorsese, he takes care of his own private film collections, all the prints. It is a full-time job, the restoration and all those things... Anyway he said to me there are people who don't like my films and people who like my films, and both don't understand the editing at all. They like them or dislike because the pictures are attractive. You can decide it if you like or not like it because of that. But he says in both cases... the people who don't like the film – he knows they don't see the editing. They literally don't understand, at the moment of the cut, the release. And he says also the people who like them, he can tell they don't know. So what I think it's intriguing is that what the films are... they are right in front of you, yet it's possible not to see them. So I find that intriguing. Because, for instance, there can be a composer that you don't really relate to and then suddenly, you relate to them. And all the stuff that was right in front of you that you never heard... or you heard, but you never actually participate in it, suddenly you get it. This can happen with the painters: there can be a painter that you didn't like for ten years, one day you walk into a museum... You know that kind of thing. So I think it's an intriguing thing. That something is right in front of you but you can't see it. And Stan Brakhage used to say that there's no verbal shortcut, there's no way you can make someone... You know, you can have an art appreciation but I don't know... that moment when something you don't hear, suddenly you hear it.

Do you think you can learn it?

You come upon it. I think you have to be just ready.

So it would be an epiphany.

Yes. I know myself, at a certain point, had it with Mozart. I liked Mozart but there was a moment of realizing how profound it is. At first you might like it as a decorative thing, “it's not so profound but it's pretty”. And then all of a sudden something else happens, and you enter into it. And I know with my own films you have to enter into the shot. If you don't enter into it, then when it cuts you don't feel what happens. If you are staying outside the film, you are watching the pictures: “these are pretty pictures one following the other”. But if you enter it, you are holding them and then it releases and then... it's giving into something.

You might suddenly find a rhythm, when you are watching the film, or reading the poem... and you go until the end.

Yes, there are some books you start ten times. And at one time you pick up and just go.

A detail shot, in your films, can be the portrait of an ashtray or a flower. In Alaya, a grain of sand is like the part took for the whole thing: a grain of sand for the entire universe or for the starry sky. How do you think about this in your work, the question of big and small and, the variations of the scales?

I guess you know Rilke, the German poet. Did you read this Max Goldberg article? It's beautiful: «To see the world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hands / and eternity in an hour».1

What do you think of the relationship of your work with other filmmakers such as James Benning or Peter Hutton? We don't know if you feel that you are from the same generation as them.

They were saying that there is this tremendous interest for them in Spain. P. Adams Sitney declared a certain generation of people, but now the people somehow know that already, and they are interested in Peter Hutton, myself... I wrote to Peter [Hutton] last night to say he should come here. Because they want him to come here. So I wrote him: “they want you here”.

If every film (except one of the parts of Hours for Jerome) is projected at 18 frames for second, why in some takes, during the projection, we can perceive with more intensity the blinking that in others?

The projector that was in Madrid and in here, I think it is Italian. It has a certain shutter structure so when it goes to 18 frames it has a slight interruption. Some projectors can go to 18 and it's seamless, and some show a subtle interruption when you slow them down... It has to do with the two or the three blades of the shutter: this one has the two blades, so when you slow it down there is that slight interruption. But sometimes there are shots were that feel more obvious.

I must say that, in San Francisco during the summertime, the fog comes in from the ocean and it stops right above where I live. It's blue and then there's fog. It keeps coming in but it keeps disappearing. And sometimes the sun is right at that point so there can be a long period especially in the summer months in San Francisco where the light is like that. And that has become something I use a lot: I am not doing that with the lens. And sometimes when that's happening you feel it, and the projection somehow exaggerates it. There may be times... with my camera you can slow it down to 12 frames or 8 frames a second. So sometimes you want a longer period.

Song and Solitude (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2006)


We would like to know, concerning the shot we see in the finished film, which is the raw material - edited material ratio. Sometimes we see a 30-second shot which you may have filmed during a longer period.

The shot itself can only be let's say thirty seconds on the screen, but if you slow it down you can get actually maybe a minute in that thirty seconds, so if you are shooting a slow transition or something, like that, I can use that device... Somethimes I shot down in the water like that; the water is completely still but the sun is moving on the surface... even in Threnody I think there's a shot of the sun coming out.

Exactly, that is the kind of effect we are talking about.

In Love's refrain, around the third or fourth shot, it's the same thing: I shot down on water with the sun slowly coming down, but you don't know it's water, I always forget, you think you could be up in a tree, you don't know if it's down or up.

About those reflections, or the superimpositions: do you always respect the filmed material? Did you ever introduce in the editing any optical effect or photographic trick to obtain all these layers, reflections, approaches, out of focus and overprinting or is everything found in the reality, in front of the camera?

It's purely the photography. Earlier, I have one film which we're not showing in these series it has no images, it's only processing. I processed all myself, in very strange ways. It has no images. A chemical bath very hot and the next chemical ice cold, so the emulsion gets... There is a period when I was younger... like everyone, you want to experiment with the actual material of the film. But there's something about the films I'm making now where if you went to manipulate the surface it would be a different language: it has to do with accepting photography as a kind of reality, rather than questioning. At a certain point in the avant-garde you had to question photography, therefore you did everything to make the film very material. But I think in the 70's and 80's there were so many experiments with the materiality of film, everything was tried. A lot of it doesn't hold up, it's interesting as an experiment and it was fun to do, but it doesn't necessarily hold up as something artistic over the years. It's very interesting what things last, and what things don't. A lot of times in all art forms there can be works that are very revolutionary at the time and cause a huge steering stimulating people but they themselves don't hold up in time as artistic. But they were so significant causing a change that they remain in art history, but they may not actually be artistic, really. I was wondering about certain things, I was wondering whether Warhol would hold up. Was this, really, something just of this moment? Of course Warhol has a different quality, he has great things. But with anyone who is popular right now, you always wonder: is this going to hold up...? In certain ways you don't know what's going to hold up, it's so strange. And then there is this story of the composer Igor Stravinsky where he was attacked from both sides: he was attacked for being unlikeable for the modernism and he was also attacked for being old-fashioned. For instance, when he premiered the opera The Rake's Progress in Venice, which was done in a kind of neoclassical style, he got such criticism from people who accused him of not being modern, such mean things were said about the opera, that he actually went out and vomited on the sidewalk. And then he changed the style, he started to do twelve-tone music after that because he was so devastated... But now, you pull let's say seventy years away and The Rake's Progress is a standard and loved piece of music in the opera repertoire. Its position in society at that moment... sometimes you can only see things in terms of its reaction to the moment and time. But then everything else fell away, and then it took its place as being great. Brakhage used to say, on his own words: “only time will tell if this is art”, about his own work.

Sometimes I try to examine why do things last, and usually it's because they are actually structured. If they are coherent, it doesn't matter if they are old-fashioned or not. I think about that a lot. Probably already, even though you are young, in your lifetime there have probably been things that made a big splash and then they've already disappeared, I don't know if you are too young for that to have happened yet.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

All these things are related to your perspective on cinema, and we think it's important that you explained to us how do you direct your efforts in Princeton's courses.

I was teaching there, a seminar, and it was a really good class and we had twelve sessions, twelve films. It was an interesting course, it was called “The Nature of Cinematic Presence” and the first half was called “The Character as Space”: we saw Diary of a Country Priest, we saw an Ozu, we saw two Antonionis, we saw Rosellini's Voyage to Italy. Then the second half was called “Space as character” so there it started with Dreyer's Joan of Arc, because in that film no one is in the same space, every character is in his own... So then I went from that and worked in the avant-garde, we showed The Hart of London by Jack Chambers, Brakhage's Prelude... So then at the end, I wanted to show – because almost every film I showed was a film from around the 50's. But it was a great period, but then I wanted to show them Apichatpong, I wanted to show Syndromes and a Century in 35mm.

Don't you think there are some things from Threnody in it?

Yes, yes. I feel like Apichatpong's a cousin, but I don't know him... I have friends who are friends of his, he even stays with a friend in San Francisco. Every time I go to a film festival I say: “I am dying for him to see one of my films”. I think he would be interested, because I think we are cousins in some way. So I wanted to show Syndromes and a Century for some obvious reasons: one, to show them a film by someone closer to their age, also to show someone making a narrative who was exposed to the American avant-garde, so it was a full circle. P. Adams had never seen an Apichatpong film, friends of his told him he would not like Apichatpong. I said “P. Adams but...” and he said “I'm not going to like it, you know. People told me I am not going to like it.” I said “Well, you should see Syndromes and a Century, we can have a 35mm print”. So he came and he sat through it. The next day I had lunch with him in the cafeteria. I sit down, I take my food off the tray... and he says: “Why in God's name did you show that film to these students?”. Syndromes and a Century is a really interesting movie, I thought maybe that has to do with machismo because Apichatpong is kind of soft, and he liked more patriarchal films,  authority. He is crazy about films like that, we were talking about Tarkovski, he's crazy about him. I said: “But he's awful!” and he said: “Yes, he's awful, but at a certain point, I was looking at those films, and I realized everything that was awful about them was what made them great...” Suddenly it all flipped over and everything that seemed pretentious, all of a sudden flipped for him. But then we were all very excited with most of the films: Rossellini, Bresson...

Do you often teach, as a professor?

No,  for me it was a gift.

Murder Psalm (Stan Brakhage, 1980)


1. Actually this poem was written by William Blake: To see a World in a Grain of Sand.


A Coruña, June 4th 2011
Interview by: Francisco Algarín Navarro and Félix García de Villegas Rey
with the collaboration of: Miguel Blanco and Marcos Ortega,
English transcription by Miguel García
(with the collaboration of José Luis Torrelavega)
and edited by Francisco Algarín Navarro and Nathaniel Dorsky by email
(Sevilla- Barcelona- San Francisco / Toronto, June –January 2011-2012).