Friday, April 6, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 3: Avraham

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Avraham supplied by SFFILM
Avraham (USA: Nathaniel Dorsky, 2014)
playing: 6:00 tonight at SFMOMA as part of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award presentation, and at 5:45 Sunday April 15 at BAMPFA.

Avraham is, like all of Nathaniel Dorsky's recent films, an extraordinary beautiful silent 16mm film intended to be projected at 18 frames per second (rather than the 24 fps standard cemented in the early sound-film era), which he calls "sacred speed" and considers "gentler" than the faster pace most of us are accustomed to viewing films at. As Jeremy Polacek writes, Dorsky's films "hover on the rim of recognition, not quite perceptible, because knowing would somehow be less." Unlike his other works, however, Avraham was named before it was filmed, making it a break from the filmmaker's prior work in that it directly and explicitly dialogues with Dorsky's Jewish heritage.

I have a particular interest in the way films exist as records of the world around us, and I've spent a good deal of time and energy investigating how the great tradition of experimental filmmakers in my hometown (most notably, in partnership with my friend Brecht Andersch, Christopher Maclaine, but I've also worked on the pychogeographic implications of films by San Francisco-based artists like Bruce Baillie, James Broughton, ruth weiss, Sidney Peterson, Curt McDowell, etc.) So it's tempting, knowing that Mr. Dorsky is a resident of my childhood neighborhood of the Richmond District, to attempt to identify the places and objects, the store windows and sidewalks, that his camera captures in his films. I have learned to resist this temptation, however, for several reasons. First, watching his purely cinematic films in this way feels very much at cross-purposes to their intentions and to the calming, meditational magic that they can work on the viewer when their rhythms and explosions of nurturing light and beauty are understood not as representation but as structures of images unto themselves. Second, trying to identify these images and place them in the world outside the film, is almost always impossible, even for someone familiar with the streets he is shooting in. I'm convinced that Dorsky knows exactly how long to hold a shot so that it can cut to another one just a moment before recognition can register, and almost always chooses to use this knowledge.

I say "almost always" because of shots like the one shown above, from Avraham, is an exception, as I recall. I saw Avraham one and three quarter times (long story; short version: the projector belt broke the first time through) back in November 2015, and I recall being shocked by the camera's attention to this magnificent tree that I was able to recognize as the one growing out of Mallard Lake in Golden Gate Park. Even the majority of viewers of Avraham who don't recognize the tree as deeply as Golden Gate Park frequenters might, I suspect if I ask anyone who'd seen the film if they remember that tree, they'll know exactly what I'm talking about. I got a distinct sense that Dorsky wanted us to see it with a different set of eyes than we see most of the things in his films, which is why he allowed it to risk a representational quality that earlier films I've seen generally don't flirt with. Though I haven't seen some of the works Dorsky has filmed in the interim -- I've seen Intimations but not Autumn or The Dreamer, which is why I'm pleased that all three join Avraham in tonight's program -- at least the first two of the seven films in Dorsky's geographically-themed (and named) Arboretum Cycle, Elohim and Abaton seem to me to continue this representational risk, and I don't think it's pure coincidence that a) the first of these films, like Avraham, has a Hebrew word as its title (the second is Greek) or that b) Mallard Lake is less than a mile from Golden Gate Park's Arboretum.

As you can see, I'm very happy with the SFFILM decision to give their POV Award to Dorsky. I'm a fan, and we have many mutual friends. I can't wait to see these 16mm prints in the refurbished SFMOMA space, which in its prior incarnation was often singled out by Dorsky as a particular favorite place to show his work. He's already announced that on June 14th he'll be back to screen at SFMOMA, this time with the Arboretum Cycle, the seven films shot and edited since he completed the four screening tonight. Moreover, while the POV Award annually goes to moving image artists working in various modes, from documentary to animated short to video art and gallery-style installation, to my mind (and according to an SFFILM press release) Dorsky is the first pure "experimental filmmaker" to have gotten the award since Pat O'Neill did fifteen years ago.

SFFILM61 Day 3
Other festival options: Tonight the new-for-2018 SFFILM festival venue Creativity Theatre hosts the first SFFILM screening of Amy Scott's documentary Hal, about the director of one of the 1970s' most remarkable streak of American narrative features, running from The Landlord through Being There & including shot-in-Northern California classics Harold And Maude (entirely local) and Bound For Glory (partly shot in Isleton & Stockton). Tonight also marks the first SFFILM screenings of Edouard Deluc's Gaugin: Voyage to Tahiti (early in his career Dorsky received an Emmy for his photography for a documentary on Gaugin, incidentally) and Paul Schrader's First Reformed, both at the Victoria. Schrader is expected to attend his film.

Non-SFFILM option: Palo Alto's all-35mm gem (which I've seen the main subject of this blog post attend on several occasions) the Stanford Theatre begins its new April-June calendar, this one focused mostly on thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock and others. Tonight's (as well as tomorrow's and Sunday's) double-bill is the George Cukor-directed 1944 version of Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury, along with the 1943 Best Picture Oscar winner Casablanca. I've never really thought of Casablanca as a thriller before but it does seem to share some DNA with films like Ministry of Fear and Notorious, both of which come later in the Stanford season.

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