I’m in Norway for the Norwegian Short Film Festival in the storybook holiday town of Grimstad. White wood houses, boat trips, fresh shrimp and a diverse selection of films, many of the Norwegian films straight out of film school with very big budgets (jealous).
And then there’s the light. When one is in it, it feels sharp and bright, it privileges the national color blue. For many hours this light approaches silver.
Does the quality of light change a culture? I think it must, although I don’t know how to quantify.
I heard today that within a year all Norwegian cinemas, from the largest stadium theater to the tiny traveling cinemas which operates briefly during the summer will no longer project from film, making Norway the first country to go completely digital. It is a move heavily motivated and partially funded by Hollywood. This relationship with Hollywood is long established – Norway is frequently used by the American film industry as a test country for films before they are distributed to the rest of Europe. (Two facts about the film industry here: most of the film funding comes from the government and the first Norwegian film school opened in 1997.) Hollywood’s promise to Norwegian theaters – that the new, very expensive digital projection technology that will be installed will hold steady for 10 years (and if there’s a bridge you want to buy I know of one available in Brooklyn).
There’s a big part of me (my back, my hands, my brain, my left leg) that doesn’t like (hates) to see things change. Digital projection has improved and as a long-time video user who only uses film intermittently I’m not going to argue that film is ‘better.’ It is different – and the end of film means one less tool, one less texture, a range of colors no longer available. The filmmaker Tom Kalin, who shoots exquisite S8 images, reminded me of this recently, speaking of the end of Kodachrome. I recently sent Tom the last few rolls of Kodachrome I’d been saving in my freezer.
Digital projection will certainly hasten the end of film, which is currently dying out film stock by film stock. It is interesting to think back to Wim Wender’s film from 1976, shot in glorious b&w 35mm – about a guy who fixes 35mm projectors. It is an ode to the end of neighborhood cinemas. Here’s a fragment of the film from YouTube (the moving image is dead, long live the moving image)
Wender’s film leads me to a still relevant question – what will digital projection mean for the truly independent (no budget, non-traditional, marginal) moving image producers and small neighborhood cinemas? For producers, there may be a lowering of the bar, digital projection eliminating the need for hugely expensive 35mm prints. Neighborhood cinemas may or may not fair so well, they certainly won’t be able to ante up for a 2 or a 4k projector.
The people I talked to here are not at all optimistic – they’re predicting cinemas that are connected via satellite to a central server – a mainline to mainstream Hollywood. But if this mainline consists only in movies that audiences don’t want to see (as in much of what Hollywood is producing right now) the industry and the cinemas may be best served by keeping access open.
Format finally doesn’t matter. Access does. Making images that represent, capture, poke prod these new times forward with tiny sharp shards of light, this is what matters above all (and this is a very difficult thing to do in any medium).
Derrida writes in Of Grammatology that it is “a power proper to man, according to which he uses his organs in this way, and which if he lacked these, would lead him to use others to the same end.”
Robert Bresson, in his incisive sentences on sound states: if the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.
Nathaniel Dorsky, voluptuous provider for the eye, makes silent films. The silence isn’t an absence, as the soundtrack – the creaks, breathing, rumbling of the subway is provided by the audience and whatever space we, the audience, are inhabiting together. It is an intimate soundtrack, at times indiscrete.
The gaping difference between what can be seen and what can be said
The films are so purely visual as to be difficult or impossible to describe with language. Or at least I claim defeat after sitting here, time passing, fingers mute. I can describe a shot: a woman extricating a carriage from a storefront door, followed by two small blond children. I could say the low angled light picked out particular ever changing details and outlines, leaving others to fall off into abstraction or that there was an uncanny layering to the space or that this light was heartbreaking, in that in thirty seconds it would be gone, vanished. This description would not convey in any way what I saw or explain the effect that it had on me, as I found myself holding my breathe for the duration of the shot. Watching his films makes me want to go outside and look and shoot and try to see the way he does. Does this mean I want to steal something of his approach? Is there any such thing as stealing? Isn’t all this stuff we’re creating in dialogue?
Dorsky was invited to screen four recent films at the Museum of Modern Art last Monday in a program curated by Jytte Jensen that he described as almost a performance, in that it is so rare these days to project from 16mm film.
Dorsky didn’t talk about his films; he instead created a parallel stand up comedy routine on the precariousness of film and showing film, of movement, change and life. A question from the audience pointing to this disjunction: “Have you ever considered making a comedy?”
A question from Dorsky: “What do they call cameras these days?” (the word camera, coming from room or chamber, so evocative for both how it works and what it captures). Someone yells from the audience “phone”, laughter, then someone else arrives at the phrase Dorsky was looking for: “image capturing device.” Image. Capturing. Device (is the image capturing the device?)
Dorsky posits that the screening may mark the end of Kodachrome, the film stock that he has been shooting since he was ten. ‘Aubade’ was shot on a new stock called Vision, a word that comes out of his mouth with some difficulty. The color range of Kodachrome so specific – irreplaceable and evocative in the way only childhood memories can be; this marks the start of a new relationship. He says he approached the new stock as one would a new lover you aren’t used to, that you don’t really know or trust or don’t quite know what to do with,
“‘I didn’t want to go too far too fast with it.”
I wonder if I have this sensual/sexual relationship to video. There’s a way I handle my camera once it is ‘mine’, the rough familiarity of its feel in my hand; I don’t like it when it’s new, it feels clumsy, I feel clumsy. I like it when I can forget, when the subconscious takes over – when it’s an interaction between this boxy object and my eye, I use it as a facilitator, enabler and protection, allowing me to be intent on looking at what’s moving about in front of me, out of my control. I could say, hackneyed or not, it’s like a dance where the music and physicality allows my brain to function in a different way that’s less calculated. But now I’m getting off topic.
I try again to describe Nathaniel Dorsky’s films: small revelations, light, sensuality, mysteries, layers, light, sensual, movement, movement, movement, light, dark, dark, light, dark. I’m getting nowhere.
“These films have nothing to do with language – not the title, not what I’m saying about them. They are what they are.” I’m off the hook. He talks about when he was young and life was like a Christmas tree filled with ornaments, and that each year, another one goes away – and that now must be a hard time to be young (is this true?).
I don’t remember the last question Nick Dorsky was asked, but I do remember the summing up:
“I want to make something beautiful
something of me on a very good day, of mine, the best of me.
I want to try to leave something behind that will be helpful.”