Devotional Cinema

Film as practice

Nathaniel Dorsky

The word "devotion" need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form. Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation. When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world. It is alive as a devotional form.

Time is the substance that, when handled properly, opens the door to the possibility of devotion. It is one of the most potent tools film has, yet few films connect profoundly with the plasticity of time and use the nature of time in their structure.

There are two basic types of time in filmmaking. The first could be called relative time, which is how any film progresses from the first shot to the last. The qualities of relative time are both subtle and dramatic: every river has white water followed by deep, translucent pools, then swirling currents, stagnant backwaters with mosquitoes, places where foam and sludge pile up. There are spectacular, frothy waterfalls and flat little rippling areas glistening in sunlight. A complete emotional range exists in our experience of relative time, and a film must respect these qualities.

At the same time, inspired filmmaking includes the presence of another type of time: what might be called absolute time, or nowness. Every moment of time exists in the context of nowness, the eternal now. Experiencing the relationship of nowness to relative time is akin to walking on a treadmill: the nowness is your presence, while relative time passes under your feet. Nowness in cinema deeply respects the nowness in an audience.

For film to have a devotional quality, both absolute and relative time must be active and present—not only present but functioning simultaneously and invigorating one another. Transformative film rests in the present and respects the delicate details of its own unfolding. How is this small miracle achieved? How do we manifest nowness in the ongoing context of the relative? It is not unlike having a heartfelt discussion with a friend. You hear what your friend says, and you respond from a place you may never have responded from before. You hear your friend again, you wait a second, and there’s an actual moment of connection, a moment of genuine exploration that touches upon things never quite touched on before. That’s when heart, intelligence, instinct, and awareness all come together. Reality opens and responds to itself.

When the absolute and relative are unified, film becomes a narrative of nowness and reveals things for what they are rather than as surrogates for some predetermined concept. It is the fear of direct contact with the uncontrollable present that motivates the flight into concept. The filmmaker seeks the safety net of an idea, or something to accomplish what is already known.

If we do relinquish control, we suddenly see a hidden world, one that has existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of this poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us. Everything is expressing itself as what it is. Everything is alive and talking to us.

Nathaniel Dorsky is a filmmaker whose works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Le Centre Pompidou in Paris, and other archives. From Devotional Cinema, © 2003 by Nathaniel Dorsky. Reprinted with permission of Tuumba Press, www.spdbooks.org.

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