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From “The Return” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)

Manohla Dargis has written a stop-in-your-tracks kind of piece about the filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky in the Sunday Times. His rhapsodic appreciation of a body of work completely captured me even though I have never had the oppoortunity to see any of Dorsky’s films. (His book, Devotional Cinema, is now on order so there will be more about that here at some later date.)

These excerpts speak to more than Dorsky’s work, clearly:

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Although the narratively conditioned brain may attempt to piece together a story from these images (once upon a time in winter there was a tree), Mr. Dorsky’s work requires a different kind of engagement. These are films created for contemplation, and they both invite and resist interpretation.

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Although Mr. Dorsky gestures in certain interpretive directions…he never forces you down this or that path. Then again, what can the image of eye-poppingly purple flowers mean? “Interpretation,” as Susan Sontag memorably wrote “is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” A few pages later in the same essay, “Against Interpretation,” she extols transparence in art (and criticism), writing that it “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” Art, as Sontag persuasively argued, doesn’t stand for something else but is itself a thing, and while Mr. Dorsky’s films can inspire explanatory reveries, they are also beautiful objects.

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“If we do relinquish control,” Mr. Dorsky wrote in his short 2003 book “Devotional Cinema,” “we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of the poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us.”

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Thoreau said that “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” There’s a similar imperative, an urgency, about being in the here and the now in Mr. Dorsky’s work, even if the world in his films is of his own making. (Thoreau wrote that it was “necessary to see objects by moonlight — as well as sunlight — to get a complete notion of them,” which nicely fits Mr. Dorsky’s duskier imagery.)


A scene from “Sarabande” (Photo: Nathaniel Dorsky)


Anselm Kiefer in the documentary, “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” (Photo: Alive Mind Cinema)

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Rubble is the future. Because everything that is passes. There is a wonderful chapter in Isaiah that says: grass will grow over your cities…Isaiah sees the city and the different layers over it, the grass, and then another city, the grass and then another city again.

–Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of Neversmorgasbored

Sophie Fiennes‘ film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, features German artist Anselm Kiefer during a time when he was living and working near Barjac, France before moving to Paris. Kiefer purchased land that was once a silk factory and together with a band of swarthy assistants began constructing and deconstructing a landscape that is “a monument to the human will to self-annihilation and a rehearsal for the apocalypse” in the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis.

From Dargis’ review:

Mr. Kiefer and his team burrowed into the earth, dug tunnels, constructed an amphitheater, painted (and threw dust and broken glass on) canvases and kiln-fired lead sculptures that look like books, turning the sprawl into a massive atelier he called La Ribaute…The movie offers the only chance that most of us will probably have to visit what he left behind, this strange, eerie Kieferland.

Kieferland IS a world quite different from my own. For anyone who is a maker and has seen any of Kiefer’s massive works—usually distressed into altered states that are visually stunning while also overwhelming—the how did he do it? question is always in the back of my mind. I have the same query when I approach the work of many of our most epic (grandiose?) art stars (“startists” like “starchitects”?) including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Matthew Barney.

So yes, my maker’s curiosity would keep me in a seat at the ICA for several hours while Fienne’s camera wanders this oddly cinematic, unsettling landscape. She pans for 20 minutes before we encounter any of the humans who have created this under and above ground complex of grottos and postindustrial pavilions. And when we finally do see Kiefer and his assistants at work, the camera keeps its distance, neither invading nor engaging with anyone. The musical score is heavy and ominous, mostly music composed by György Ligeti and insistently dark.

The film is ekphrastic and as much about Fiennes’ sensibilities as it is about Kiefer’s. While I usually admire the ambient and the nonlinear, I wanted a better view into the nuts and bolts of Kiefer’s genius for fabrication. While I was surprised and oddly delighted to see Kiefer pouring molten lead by hand from a pre-industrial cauldron or watch him break pane after pane of glass wearing sandals and shorts, the glimpses into his process were few.

And encounters with his philosophical foundations as well as his personal life are kept to a minimum. At one moment in the film two young boys wander past the camera, but no reference is made to them.

From Dargis’ review again:

The boys, like so much in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” are never addressed by Ms. Fiennes, perhaps because to do so might force her to employ banal documentary strategies, like identifying people. Instead she tosses in some introductory text and sets her camera loose. And because she won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.

Well put.

The film did disrupt and provoke an ongoing struggle for me that also plagues most makers I know: The issue of large vs small in artistic expression. Epic vs lyric. Grandiose vs intimate. So I was bemused by a recent email declaration from my wise friend Harvey Roy Greenberg: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room'”.

To be discussed further in a future post.

“The world of fashion. I’m interested in the world, not in fashion! But, maybe I was too quick to put down fashion. Why not look at it without prejudice? Why not examine it like any other industry, like the movies for example?”

I resonate with these words from Wim Wenders’ unforgettable film, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes In the late 1980s Wenders was given a challenge by the Centre Georges Pompidou to explore the world of fashion, particularly as it pertained to Paris. In the course of his unexpected exploration into a world very foreign to him, Wenders constructed a cinematic bricolage that comingled two cities, Paris and Toyko, particularly as seen through the extraordinary life and work of Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. It is a visually mesmerizing film and one that I never imagined at the onset would become one of my favorites.

But what Wenders finds in his exploration of a world that could be easily dismissed by “serious” artists as superficial and elitist is extraordinary examples of creative brilliance, iniight and those flashes of genius that rise above the limitations of any particular category. In one scene in the film, Wenders lets the camera run while Yamamoto sits in silence on the floor of his studio, kneeling in front of one of his creations. He is thinking/feeling a connection with the way the fabric falls on the model’s body. It is a pure Zen-like moment—simple, focused, at one-ness. The intensity of Yamamoto’s presence in that sequence has never left me, and I have called up that image of him thousands of times since I first viewed it in the film 20 years ago.

Another treasure from the world of fashion: Valentino: The Last Emperor, by Matt Tyrnauer. Like Wenders’ film, this is a cinematic mille-feuille: deliciously layered, with pleasure to be found within every one.

For starters: The clothes. It is impossible for anyone who is visual to not be left breathless. Valentino’s Yamamoto moment happens early in the film as he approaches the final ornamentation of an exquisite fluted white gown that becomes a touchstone throughout the rest of the film. When Valentino is commemorated for his 45 years of work, an immense wall of sample gowns is assembled inside the Ara Pacis (which I have written about in an earlier post). It is a wall of utter spectacularness. I am still reeling from the eye candy of it all.

Then there is the relationship between Valentino and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti. The texture of their interaction is intricate, complex and fascinating. Giammetti comes across as the grounding rod that can steady Valentino’s emotional swings, particularly in dealing with his pre-show jitters. I’ve never seen a partnership quite like theirs—one that has been a day-to-day relationship for nearly 45 years—and that allows the energy to ebb and flow through connection, disagreements, business matters, personal issues, artistic/creative explorations. According to many industry observers, Giammetti is the secret to Valentino’s success, something Valentino (uncharacteristically) acknowledges when he accepts the Legion d’Honneur.

While the film is set in a world full of people who I find easy to dismiss as the idle (and fatuous) jet set—countesses, princesses and celebrities—the film is full of real moments that can belong to anyone. I loved every minute of it.