Goings On

SFMOMA Presents Nathaniel Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle

Monody (2017), the sixth film in Nathaniel Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle

For well over half a century now, Nathaniel Dorsky has been making short silent films that turn the act of looking at light—reflected and refracted across the textures and surfaces of bustling cities, deep woods, or empty rooms—into an all but tactile experience. In an insightful piece for Film Comment, Max Nelson has written that “to watch nearly any Dorsky film is to be guided through a pattern of hushed, suspended, illuminated visions.”

The seventy-five-year-old filmmaker is still remarkably productive. Early last year, Dorsky began an open-ended project, working with 16 mm Eastman color negative film and shooting in the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park just a few blocks away from his studio. By the end of the year, having worked through all four seasons, he’d completed The Arboretum Cycle, which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will present tomorrow evening, projecting at “silent speed,” eighteen frames per second rather than the usual twenty-four. The program of seven films runs a total of just under two-and-a-half hours, and Dorsky will be there.

Writing for SFMOMA’s Open Space, Mac McGinnes advises newcomers to Dorsky’s work to “relax your eyes slightly and concentrate on the entire frame, allowing the shifts in focus and brightness to direct attention to different areas of the screen. Though the framing is stationary, the image is never static. As the focus undulates—almost like a breath—the subject matter morphs into unexpected shapes and surprising forms.”

When the Cycle screened in New York last month, Max Goldberg, writing for the Brooklyn Rail, called it “the least monumental of epics,” even though the title of the first film, Elohim, can refer in the Hebrew Bible to God or other gods. For Dorsky himself, the title denotes “divine beings, the energy of light as creation.” Goldberg adds that Dorsky has “often remarked on the sabbath quality of his films, but the Arboretum Cycle resonates especially strongly with the injunction to rest, to touch time immemorial.”

To delve deeper into the Cycle, turn to Phil Coldiron’s piece for the Notebook, which offers close readings—at times personal, even visceral—of all seven films. “It is astonishing to watch an artist, long a master of his craft, challenge himself to find new modes of articulation, as he has done here in building a new film grammar for himself from the ground up,” writes Coldiron. “Inversely, it is astonishing to see films of such formal vibrancy which radiate such wisdom regarding their scale as objects of art, as visions of the world.”

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