What the World Is: Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler

Words Of Mercury, Jerome Hiler
May 9th 2024

Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler first laid eyes on each other at the premiere of Ingreen, Dorsky’s first film, at the Washington Square Gallery in August of 1964, though whether they actually met that night or the next day is a subject on which the two disagree. In any case, they were soon sharing their lives: Smoking a joint by the Egyptian Obelisk some Thursday evening (“like kids going behind the barn,” says Dorsky) before wandering the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. At a Midtown deli, after a lecture by Slavko Vorkapich, taking the other’s side in a heated debate with fellow attendees. Bringing their cameras on day trips to the countryside and playing back the results on an apartment wall, sometimes combining their images in superimposition or placing them side by side (“a sort of tenement version of Cinerama,” says Hiler).

In the late 1960s, they spent a few years in a rented house on Lake Owassa, in northwest New Jersey, and in 1971 they moved to San Francisco, where they still live. After a long period of depressive dormancy, Dorsky dispensed with the mythopoeia he had inherited from Stan Brakhage and began to work in a polyvalent montage mode, endeavoring to make “a film where the actual movement through the film was the reality… blossom[ing] in itself, out of itself,” with no pretense of dramatic necessity. This turn was inspired in part by a reel of film Hiler had given to him as a gift years before in New York, titled Fool’s Spring (1966), which Dorsky calls “a total revelation,” after which “the world of cinema had turned inside out.” In the years when Dorsky could hardly stand to use his camera, he collected long-expired film stock from camera shops and developed it without exposing an image; that footage became Pneuma (1983), which he considers his first purely polyvalent film, though the sensibility is far more evident in Triste (1996), a film made of “scraps of previously failed efforts,” and it has reached its apotheosis in Variations (1998), when he began working more intuitively with the camera as an extension of his body.

Hiler, for his part, continued shooting and assembling films for home viewing but did not seek distribution, hardly exhibiting publicly until 1997, when Gladly Given was included in the New York Film Festival. Since 2011, he has produced seven films, some of them culling material from throughout his many decades of private activity. He works in a similar mode as his partner, though with strikingly different results. The technique of superimposition, which Dorsky has long abandoned, remains central for Hiler, giving the sense of opposing centers of gravity. Hiler is less concerned with the cut than Dorsky is, more fluid in his evocation of symphonic phrases, though all of this work is silent. His vivid colors, often detached from recognizable forms, recall the consecrated light of stained glass, a medium in which he has also worked, though he also makes extensive use of black-and-white stock and sometimes scratches directly onto the emulsion of the film. Many of Hiler’s images are denatured, even otherworldly, though the eye is clearly human, discerning; in Dorsky’s films, we could be nowhere but Earth, and yet we see it as a visitor might, with limitless capacity for awe.

As Dorsky and Hiler prepared for a massive retrospective of their work at the Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives, we talked about railfan YouTube videos, religion, respectfully avoiding the other’s subject material, and whether their films belong in a theater at all. We began by admiring Dorsky’s large collection of telegraph pole insulators, lining the windowsills behind the couch where he sat, which trigger memories of riding the railroads, or lying in the backseat of your parents’ car, “going some distant places,” as Hiler put it.

Hours for Jerome Part 1. 1966–70/1982. USA. Directed by Nathaniel Dorsky Courtesy of Nathaniel Dorsky.
Hours for Jerome Part 1 (Nathaniel Dorsky, 1966–70/1982)

Maxwell Paparella: I’ve wondered about this attraction to transit in both of your films. Often when the camera’s moving, it's because we're on a train or a bus.

Jerome Hiler: Well, I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, a few blocks from the Jamaica Station. So we had trains constantly going by. When I was thirteen, I got a subway map, and after a year or so I had ridden on every subway line there was. I would cross them off when I did them.

Nathaniel Dorsky: I was gonna ask Maxwell if he's ever seen the railfan videos on YouTube.

MP: The people who chase down specific trains that they want to see?

Dorsky: Oh, there's all sorts of types. But there’s one guy we love very much. He's a very good cameraman. Let's say you woke up at four in the morning, and you're anxious. Turn on your laptop, right? You can ride from Virginia to Providence, Rhode Island, looking out the window of a train. There are all these homemade filmmakers now.

JH: Yeah, this guy is called Retired Railfan Horn Guy, because he's fascinated with horns.

ND: Diesel horns.

JH: He'll be doing a suburban transit outside of Philadelphia, and the horn will go off and he'll say, “Oh, that horn has a Canadian accent to it.” And so, he can analyze where a horn was manufactured. People have these little obsessions. Where they come from, that's the mystery.

ND: Though cinema and trains are sort of handmaidens. Linear forms that move.

JH: I just saw The Lady Vanishes [1938], Hitchcock's film. The most interesting part is on a train, and he makes good use of that.

ND: The sound is very good, isn't it? The clickety-clack?

JH: Oh, for clickety-clack it’s Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express [1932]. It's always telegraphing under the dialogue. It's fascinating.

ND: You gonna write about clickety-clack?

MP: Well, it's funny. The last time I saw your films, Nathaniel, I was in one of the basement theaters at MoMA, here in New York. And you can hear the subway in that theater. So we were watching these wonderful silent films, but every five minutes or so the room was filled with the deep subterranean rumbling of a train passing behind the screen.

ND: Does it ruin the films?

MP: It didn’t for me.

ND: Now we have something else to worry about.

MP: Are you looking forward to these screenings at MoMA and Anthology?

JH: It's always sort of a trial to see your films amongst strangers. When you're working on them, you're alone. You're viewing them later on, you're alone. And you get into that kind of narcissistic bubble of your own films. And sometimes you'll share that with a friend. You'll say, “Come over and look at this film.” And the film will look completely different. And you're going, “Oh, I have to get rid of that. And that's too long.” It's that magic presence of another pair of eyes. But that's multiplied and compounded endlessly in a public screening. I'm usually sort of twisting and turning, kind of “When is this thing going to end?” frame of mind.

On the other hand, all of a sudden, I'll just sort of give in and enjoy the fact that there it is, it's up on the big screen, looking better than I've ever seen it. My films don't suffer from being blown up. So it's always a mixed bag. And especially returning to New York, where I come from. Because of our early days in New York, where people would raise hell at these screenings in the early ’60s. Nobody wanted to be fooled by this new, possible junk that's being offered to them. So everybody went in there with a very suspicious point of view. And there were always a lot of boos and people shouting “Focus!” when it was deliberately out of focus, and so forth and so on. So I have that audience always in my mind when I'm working. These detractors from 1963 are still in my mind.

MP: But they're not in the theaters anymore, I think. Right?

JH: No, it’s way too accepted today. I mean, today you could do anything. It's gone too far, as far as being accepted.

MP: You both typically work in the short form, making films of around 20, 25 minutes. But of course, they're most often presented in feature-length programs.

ND: Which is a problem. One difficult thing with the short form is that—let’s say you had a book of a poet you liked very much. There’s many poems, usually, in a book. Let's say if you opened the book, you had to, by law, read three poems. You could never just read one poem. So there's a little bit of that kind of problem. I think the problem is that we're taking a poetic form and making a film show form. The film show is more for a theatrical sensibility, and not quite so much for the poetic.

JH: All of this is a problem, because these films maybe don't belong in a theater. And that's always been a point of discussion. Do they belong in a room full of rows of people trying to be quiet for a silent film? It's a little bit awkward. We inherited that physical idea from the commercial cinema. I don't think it's the best way for them to be seen. This is more like looking at paintings. But the thing is, it's not like looking at paintings, because you can come and go with a painting at your own pace. This is durational, and you have to sit there for the whole thing. I think it's hard for people to make the leap into the different way that you relate to this. And coming into a theater and sitting down doesn't help.

MP: Do you ever think about more of an expanded cinema setting?

ND: Well, I don't know. I only see my films in an auditorium with people once or twice a year, maybe. Most of the time it’s in my apartment. A few hundred years ago, you might have a clavichord or some instrument which is appropriate for intimate listening. And the same goes at home with a 16mm projector. When the film is over, you don't have to sit there for 30 seconds and then the next film begins. You might stop for a while and talk. Yes, all the time I think about “How can this be nicer?”

There’s the weekend at MoMA. Then the next weekend are the three Anthology shows. And on the whole what they feature is films that you wouldn’t show in a theater, publicly, you’d only show to friends in an apartment. They’re all being shown as camera-original Kodachrome. You know, Kodachrome is so beautiful, but when you reproduce it it becomes less than it is. And there’s this one film called Ossuary [1995 - 2005]. It’s made from ten years of outtakes from the Kodachrome films. And Jerry’s showing an older film he’s reworked as a work in progress, with splices. So in a way it’s almost like a home screening.

MP: I was interested to learn that when you first knew each other in New York, in the mid- and late ’60s, you were screening your films for each other in one or the other’s apartment, and even combining them sometimes, with two projectors running at once. Do you still do that?

JH: As a matter of fact, I'm looking forward to the MoMA shows because they mix our two films together [in the same programs]. I was saying to Nathaniel, “This is like the old days,” mixing our films together. Because there are those people who say, “I don't want to see you two mixed together. I want to see one or the other.” But no, we used to mix it up more, and that continued somewhat in San Francisco. But then Nathaniel got his own studio, so we don't we didn't have two setups in the same apartment. You'd hear rewinds going in the other room. So from that point on, I would say, there was less of that kind of thing. We would show on the same programs, but we wouldn't be showing with two projectors, like we used to, on the same screen.

ND: I still very often just have friends over to look at films. I think initially one becomes interested in making films because it's some way of connecting with society, either a society of just a friend, or a slightly larger society. It's a way of connecting. And so I very much like to have someone over and show them films, or show them footage that isn't edited yet. And there's always weed, and all that. It's still the most enjoyable. Anyone who has had the experience of sitting in my apartment and seeing the films without any distracting audience noises, they can't go back to the public situation once I’ve had a private screening. So I don't know quite what to do about that.

Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2008)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2008)

MP: In one sense, most screenings now are private screenings, actually. Most people are watching what they watch at home, alone, or maybe with one or two other people.

ND: That’s true.

MP: But not everyone has a 16mm projector, and you don’t circulate your films digitally.

ND: Jerry and I talk about the 16mm. Part of it is, it's our childhood. I started making films when I was ten. I basically have the same equipment: rewinds, a viewer, a splicer, and a projector. It’s basically the same things as when we were kids. It has a hobby quality. And sitting at an editing table with rewinds and film is pleasurable: to splice it, to look at it in the viewer. It's like a hobby that you enjoy the materials of. I don't know if we're taking some stand, a celluloidial stand, as much as it's just what we grew up with. You know, and the world has changed, but we're the same. It isn't like we're being rebellious.

JH: Also, there's a world of difference between how a film looks and the light that comes from a projector and how a video looks and the light that comes from a video projector. In a mixed program, if you happen to have started with the 16mm film [and then switched to video], it's almost blinding, it's almost an assault, to suddenly [see] the very sharp edge of the screen instead of that soft thing. Film is a softer image. It's more pointillistic. It's more impressionistic. The light is a softer light. It's more welcome into your eyes, into your body. You welcome it as you watch it. The other comes up and it's like—

ND: It’s a little more medicinal. Like you’re in the operating room. Also, with 16mm you have two sets of weave going on: you have the weave going in the gate of the camera. The image isn't locked in, it’s slightly moving left to right. So you have the weave of the photographed film. And then you project that, and you superimpose that weave over the weave of your projector. The projector has a slight weave. So there's this whole double weave going on, which is almost like the pulse, or the warmth, as opposed to a corpse. A corpse is neater. But the 16mm has a little bit of blood going through its veins. It's a little bit more alive, I think.

MP: I wanted to ask about your working habits. Do you go out to shoot together, or is it more time alone?

ND: I think there’s more time alone. Wouldn’t you say, Jer?

JH: Yes, certainly. We're usually trying not to step on each other's toes. We live in the same city. We live the same life together. We are sort of self-expressive filmmakers.

ND: We use the same instrument.

JH: We use the same instruments. So, we are trying to give each other some kind of territory so that when you see it on the screen, it's not two versions of the same thing.

MP: Is it ever the case that you're looking through your viewfinder and what you see is more the other person's image, somehow?

ND: Well, I take those kind of shots where I say, “Oh, this is me trying to be Jerry.” And it doesn't feel genuine in a certain way. I mean, eventually, of course, it infiltrates you on a deeper, basic level. And still I’m very aware of it.

JH: San Francisco is a small town. And Nathaniel has made a lot of films in San Francisco. So when I walk around the city with my camera, I'll see something really fascinating. I'll put the camera up and say, “Oh, Nick was here.” That happens so much. So then I decided, “Okay, I'm going to be getting in my car and getting out of town.” So I made Words of Mercury [2011, pictured at top], Marginalia [2016], Ruling Star [2019], all out of town, around in the Bay Area. Then I developed a vestibular migraine. I became very dizzy, and I couldn't even look at a screen. I couldn't look through the camera. I couldn't do anything. The only thing I could do was read, for a year or so. And it coincided with the pandemic, which I found very convenient, because I could no longer go and have dinner with people and so forth. So now came a new film that I'm showing, which is called Careless Passage [2024], where I couldn't get in my car and go someplace. I had to shoot it in town. But now I have my life somewhat back, I can drive around. Next time I'll probably be going out of town. I miss that, going out. I like going to the country, which is nearby here.

ND: Do you know what fennel is? Especially in California, it's a wild weed. It’s yellow and has a very licorice smell to it. And Jerry has shot a lot of fennel. And so we used to have a joke. “You have fennel, I have something else.” When I was in 8th grade, which was different than it is now, in public school, we learned that the Pope divided the world between Spain and Portugal. And they always had a map of the globe with a line, which had to sometimes wiggle around islands in the Pacific, dividing the world in half, and half of the world was given to each of these countries.

JH: You’re likening that to us?

ND: Yeah, well you had fennel. I would never shoot fennel. And then Jerry has become preoccupied with superimpositions, and I would not shoot a superimposition. So I think there's some conscious attempt, I think it’s a sane balance between it being not restrictive, but at the same time respectful, not causing unnecessary duplications.

JH: And plenty of similarities, as well. I mean, we are similar. That can’t be denied, because we share so many things.

ND: We do. That’s something. Just as two people, we share a tremendous amount. I think we counted 22 things. [Laughs.]

MP: Do you think of your films as diaries in any sense?

ND: I never think of them as diary-like. I think of them as experiential. I don't think of it as a diary. But I think of my films as who I am and what interests me at that moment and what in the world I come upon. It's this mixture of who I am and what the world is.

JH: I don't know who came up with that word, diaristic, but I don't think it's particularly a great word. Diaries are private things, and so it's a sort of looking-down thing. Like, do we really have to look at this, because maybe this was just meant for somebody's private viewing.

ND: I think the word diary is a way of saying first-person instead of saying third-person. With third-person, there’s some subtle sense of theater, of the film being theater, where the bottom of the screen is gravity, and there's people moving in the landscape, and so forth, where the diary is more first person. In 1999—I’m talking about the Pope a lot. I’m going to get reprimanded. In 1999, I misheard on the radio that the Pope declared 1999 as a holy year. He actually declared the year 2000 as a holy year. I thought it was ’99. I thought, “That’s impressive. It's not a corny thing like 2000, this year where everyone's afraid their computer’s gonna unravel and all that. We need 1999 to be a holy year.” So I decided I'm going to shoot at least one shot every day of 1999. This is the closest I came to a diary film. There'd be days you would never think of shooting: the light was terrible, or you felt you weren't up to it, you didn't feel like it, but still there’s this obligation to take a shot. That was very interesting, because I shot some wonderful footage that I wouldn't normally have shot. But then when I went to edit the film [Arbor Vitae, 2000], I didn’t go on with that concept, like it's gotta be one shot for each day. I just abandoned the initial concept. In other words, I accepted the collection that came from that, but I didn't think I would try to depict that.

MP: Since we're talking about the Pope… Jerome, you're interested in stained glass: It appears in a lot of your films. You’re also a stained-glass artist. You have the slide lecture piece [Cinema Before 1300, 2023]. And Nathaniel, you've written about the “devotional cinema,” you've talked about the screen as an altarpiece. I'd be very curious to hear about the role religion has played in your lives.

JH: Well, I grew up as a Catholic. I didn't believe anymore in God, as it were, from the time I was 18. A friend convinced me for all sorts of reasons. And I broke down, I cried. It was as if I lost a father. So I've been living a life without that kind of someone-upstairs thing. But at least in my neighborhood, which was a Catholic neighborhood—I went to a Catholic school—it's your family. You know, you might not agree with all the people in your family or like all your relatives, but they are your family. So even as I grow up, and get old, and like what I hear coming from the church less every day, I still go into churches. Catholicism is what I call an architectural religion. It's very concerned with buildings.

So it's just something that I grew up with: it's in my blood, it's in my bones, and it's still there, but it's not, as it were, theologically relevant. I like science, and I like Buddhism. And we are basically Buddhists from the ’70s on: meditation, studying, going to retreats fairly frequently. And by being a dharmic person, you can open up more and more and make peace, further peace, with your old religion. You can enjoy going into the church. I had little miracles take place while I was in church, and so forth and so on. It just means I don't know what to believe. I'm just completely open. I just think this whole thing is a miracle. How just from floating gasses in space that we can trace it back, how all of this developed. And my recent films, both Ruling Star [2019] and Careless Passage, have to do with my feelings about the origin of consciousness, how the heck that happened.

ND: You know, there's another level to this. This is slightly childish, but in the ’50s—this is mostly based on Hollywood films—I had deep Catholic envy. Montgomery Clift, you know, I Confess (1953). The Leo McCarey movies. I grew up with Catholic envy. Jerry grew up with Jewish envy. How many times did you see The Ten Commandments (1956)?

JH: When it came out, I saw it 12 times.

ND: His mother suspected there was an orgy in the film, that's why he was going.

JH: My mother always suspected some kind of evil reason for my wanting to do things.

MP: A good Catholic mother.

JH: I mean, just the other day, I had this curious feeling, like I want to become a nun.

ND: Well, that’s because you saw those outfits.

JH: I live across the street from a Carmelite convent. And they're the most cloistered and shut away of all the orders. They're famous for that. But now and then, they have to come out and go to the medical center across the street. And the other day, we crossed the street and two of them were rushing across. And they were even shocked that I nodded at them, because they were being seen. They had these nice outfits on. And there's a beautiful convent. And there's another beautiful church across the street. And I live up here, it's at the top of the hill with all these Catholic buildings around me, strangely enough. And yeah, I just had that feeling like, “Oh, give it all up. Wouldn't you want to just join the convent and become a Carmelite?”

Illuminated Hours: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler runs May 9-16 at the Museum of Modern Art and May 17-19 at Anthology Film Archives. The author would like to acknowledge Sam Weinberg for the generous loan of research materials for this piece.