Still from Monody in The Arboretum Cycle (Courtesy of the artist Nathaniel Dorsky)

By Hyemin Kim

In recent decades, there’s been growing attention to territorially marginal land(scape) and inhabitants therein in documentary filmmaking practice responding to acutely arising awareness of ecology of preserved or autochthonous habitats in ways of pursuing sustainable and ethical ways of living together. Various filmmakers – such as Zhao Liang, Basma Alsharif, Sky Hopinka, and Malena Szlam, to name a few – of ethnic, religious, and geographical minorities have joined this line of attentive training by attempting to intractably complicate their defense of earth and land against planetary uncovering, destruction, and waste under the sway of global capital and technology. Accordingly, film criticism and scholarship also have resumed to name and discuss those works as “landscape films” while crossing them with a possibility of “eco-cinema,” a coterie of films that scholar Scott MacDonald elucidated in his essay “towards eco-cinema” (2004) which calls for transformation of spectatorship towards care for ecological places and their endurance and passage. Despite an elusive stance that Nathaniel Dorsky takes in relationship with this important flourish of, perhaps namely, “eco-landscape” cinema, The Arboretum Cycle (2017) whose seven chapters – ElohimAbatonCodaOdeSeptemberMonody, and Epilogue – tenebrously illuminate the four seasons of an arboretum located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park also serves a symbiotic practice of giving our silent attention to woody presence and their phases of life in ethereal time of cinema by implementing light and its variations – the most beloved subject and method central to Dorsky’s cinema. Indeed, the three days screenings of the work Cycle at Anthology Film Archives in New York from May 11 to 13 in 2018 offered an intimate experience of symbiosis that light sculpts and texturizes in time of cinema, by mediation of a shadow box of Bolex as well as a darkened theater, across the visual presence of trees and the audience.

It’s duly questionable that Cycle is a documentary on trees as much as Dorsky, a defender of imaginative and sensorial cinema following Brakhage’s legacy, rejects the taxonomic ideas of objects to film and screen. Yet, Cycle’s luminous engagement in the reality of trees is something lyrically terrestrial, which also circles celestial sensation and imagination of the real. A silent visualization of seasonal shades and nebulous dwellings of trees through the crystalline experimentation of light that refracts and evaporates in the Bolex attempts to suggest plants’ primordial sensation and earthly presence responding to elemental force of soil, dust, wind, water, sky, and sunshine in the heavenly time of the arboretum. Despite Dorsky’s description of Cycle’s place as the portrait of the arboretum in Golden Gate Park which he takes a walk to from his apartment, the film presents a phantom of “arboretum” which he created with the breath-like modulating exposure of light coming into the aperture/eye of his Bolex camera. Instead of anthropomorphic representation of the objectified actuality of plants, Cycle is after a psychic experience which bridges the senses of the audience and the plants viscerally and psychologically in continuation of the ideal of mutual breath and health in his book Devotional Cinema (2003). In addition, polyvalent montage that he meticulously employs throughout the film texturizes this ideal by offering the unnarrated associations of dream-images of so many different trees – perhaps thousands – in the mind of the audience. As in Love’s refrain (2001), and most closely Threnody (2004) amongst many others, Dosrky’s operation of polyvalence in Cycle continues to allow multiplications of small, subliminal tales or stanzas to reverberate depending on quiet desire and wonder of the audience encountering open patterns of the images. The polyvalence helps Cycle subconsciously stay afloat and diffusive beneath the pressure of object-oriented narrativity constructed by identificatory illustrations of things emerging on-screen.

The seven chapters of The Arboretum Cycle are filmed and edited from early February to December in the year of 2017 reflecting the seasonal change of light and colors of trees and leaves. First, in Elohim, which refers to a name of God in Hebrew bible, the images of the shadowy front and brighter background abound. In it, as if trees were awaiting spring sunlight to arrive with many unsaid different and divine dreams of anticipation, Dorsky adds layers within each shot only by variously adjusting degrees of underexposure over time in the camera – yet without superimposition editing. In Abaton, spring finally arrives in the arboretum, and the dawning moments of spring emerge like flowering plants floating on textural surface of watery bush which is from time to time overexposed in gently turning white. Alongside it, the film captures the gust of the air that waves boughs and leaves of trees unpredictably and musically – which perhaps contributes to the oblivion of observative positions for the rest of Cycle on the side of the audience. The following chapters Coda and Ode display more evaporative and buoyant states of trees and leaves that Dorsky learned from John Ashbery’s poetry, which resists certainty of shapes and meanings of things as in blissful spring and summer. In September, light feels denser and darker – and there’re a few strange moments where dispersed edges of plants seem to lambently emerge from a vast night sky like distant nebula concealing ambiguous astrological prophecy.  In Monody, drier – and golden, and sometimes ashen blue – mesh of trees captivates the eyes of the audience. Similarly to the mood of one of its literary references – Electra’s Monody of mourning by Euripides –, the surface of the chapter melancholically fuses the images of dying yet still graceful trees with slower and sparser turns of shots than the previous chapters. Finally, Epilogue palimpsestically receives echo from every preceding chapter and ends the fuses of mood and memory over the tenderly flickering trees – like involuntary repetition of awakening and sleeping in a phase nearing and entering wintry hibernating months or perhaps the death at lightless night.

Throughout the Cycle, even if it’s filmed in the day, there’s recurring confusion of temporality of night and day as if the film would suggest thousands of interstitial holes of ordinary time and open a dream-zone of feelings with pulsating trees by letting the self or even the position of the spectators go. This, along with silent speed (18 fps) screening of it through a 16mm print projector that Dorsky nearly ritualistically insists on, conditions this cinema of Cycle as a love song that the audience primordially listen to despite – and properly speaking, thanks to – its solemn silence, resembling trees and their life of seasons saying no words. Whereas Dorsky, a thoughtful host, subtly employs literary signs and titles that would tint the film with allegorical connotations enough to attract the audience to this cinema, the true beauty and vibrancy of this Cycle is in listening to this love song that trees sing with their full presence of birth, growth, wound, and resilience, and transience in their most indestructible language that Dorsky’s cinema transpires with crystalline experimentation of light. Light is a most elemental language for this cinema of Cycle in ways of evoking the unheard song and life of other species – in this case, trees — that sustain and encircle the world in a most intimately benevolent sense.