This year I’ve become enchanted by Devotional Cinema, a small book by experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. Dorsky has spent his life thinking about the relationship between religion and cinema – not where religion is necessarily the subject of a film, but as he explains, “where film itself is the spirit or experience of religion.”
As I often do when reading the work of a kindred spirit, I find myself inserting the word “painting” or visual art where he refers to film. Dorsky discusses the two kinds of time that are central to a film’s materiality. The first is relative time—the way a story moves from the opening shot to the last frame and all the dramatic movements in between. Think of it as linear time.
The second kind of time is as absolute time or nowness. As Dorsky explains:
For film to have a devotional quality, it must accomplish the difficult task of balancing these two kinds of time. Dorsky points to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc as an example of a film that strikes such a balance. Dreyer’s emphasis on point of view and skillful editing of montages, brings us directly into a compassionate presence with Joan’s suffering even as we move through the relative time of her story.
I remember seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc many years ago at the Paramount Theater in Oakland where the 200-member UC Berkeley Alumni chorus and a 22-piece orchestra performed an oratorio written by Richard Einhorn as accompaniment to the film. Once the film started, I could not for the life of me figure out where the chorus was standing. There wasn’t any room for them in the orchestra pit. Nonetheless, their voices felt all encompassing and integral to my experience of the film. It wasn’t until after we reached the climatic final scene of the movie that I realized that some 200 members of the chorus had been sitting with us the entire time. Choral members had been seated in various rows of the theater, singing beside us, behind us, in front of us as we sat together in the dark while the film’s light flickered overhead. When I rose to add my applause to the standing ovation I felt that deep sense of relative time mixed with a commanding sense of the now.