Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Devotional Cinema

Nathaniel Dorsky

Tuumba Press ($10)

by Christopher Luna

Filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky's Devotional Cinema, which is based on a lecture he delivered to Princeton's March 2001 Conference on Religion and Cinema, is a beautiful celebration of cinema as a form of religion, a "metaphor…for our being." The author persuasively illuminates the formal elements that contribute to film's ability to address/reflect questions regarding our very existence. Dorsky first discovered "a concordance between film and our human metabolism" when, at the age of nine, he left a movie theater after spending more than six hours in the darkness to find that his perception had been irreversibly changed:

Quite suddenly, the normal things that were my usual reference points, everything that had been familiar to me in my hometown, all its archetypes and icons, became eerie and questionable. I felt alien and estranged…. Eventually I got home, and it even seemed odd that I was in my house. I was feeling this quite strongly and was trying my best to recover from the giant hole that had opened in the middle of my head.

Dorsky made a practice of observing the changes exhibited by himself and other audience members after films. As he "began to become more sensitive to these post-film experiences and the qualities in a film that might produce either health or ill health," Dorsky realized that this power arose from film's "ability to mirror and realign our metabolism."

An alchemy takes place when the form of a work "include[s] the expression of its own materiality," a transmutation that is evident in cave paintings, Egyptian sculpture, 12th-century French stained glass and stone engraving, and the music of Bach and Mozart. According to Dorsky, watching a film "has tremendous mystical implications; it can be, at its best, a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable. This respect for the ineffable is an essential aspect of devotion." Cinema can achieve a "transcendental balance" in the successful union of "the internalized medieval and externalized Renaissance ways of seeing." The relationship between shots and cuts is also crucial to this balance. Dorsky sees a parallel between "our visual experience in daily life" and the intermittence of light and dark as film runs through a camera or projector at 24-frames-per-second. Though we do not experience the world as a "solid continuum," learning to accept the "poles of existence and nonexistence" ultimately "suffuses the 'solid' world with luminosity."

Devotional cinema captures the present moment (what Dorsky terms "nowness"), acknowledging the simultaneity of "absolute and relative time." Dorsky defines "devotion" as "the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation." Just as devotion increases in relation to our openness and "willingness to touch the depths of our own being," film can facilitate revelation when it "expresses itself in a manner intrinsic to its own true nature." Ideally the cinema may even "serve as a corrective mirror that realigns our psyches and opens us up to appreciation and humility." This slim but eloquent book will touch the hearts of readers who approach film as an art form, one which has rarely exhibited the fullness of its vast potential as the one medium which incorporates all other disciplines.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents