To open the space. Conversations with Jerome Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky

Jerome Hiler: The style of filmmaking that I would call “personal” unites the physical and psychic aspects of the maker. The musical aspect is a manifestation of the mind stream. This must be anchored to the ground by the physical, bodily presence. On these two legs, the film moves forward. I had occasional superimpositions in my early days as In the Stone House shows. In later times, this technique came to dominate and single-layer images diminished. Right now, I’m surprised to realize that the ratio of the two has reversed, as can be seen in Words of Mercury, where only a few instances of single-layer occur. The single-layer footage is related to the body. But, we must also remember the resemblance of the camera to the human head; in fact, it seems to be a mechanized model of the eye and brain. It’s wonderful to contemplate how light brings a model of the world into this capturing box and, after so many prestidigitations, it appears on a screen of some sort and enters the dark enclosures of the viewer’s skull to transform there in ways undreamt of by the photographer. This touches upon the idea of how cinema dances with the mystery of human consciousness.

When I shoot film, I look at the location and contemplate my relation to it. I want to find how I can dance with this space. This feeling seems like choreography rather than painting or music. The painterly part joins in as a partner and music comes from the dance rhythm or later in the editing room. These three aspects converge and give a heightened intensity to the subject. However, with superimposition, I don’t feel that sense of being in a particular place. The counter-layers undercut a sense of solidity and my consciousness pulls back to an inner world of mental ebb and flow. Superimpositions make their music in a theater further removed from a solid placement. This kind of filmmaking appeals to me in my later years. Perhaps, it represents the accumulated experiences of this life which appear more dream-like with each passing day. Shooting superimpositions as an individual, in an outdoor setting, requires memory, guesswork and spontaneity.

For me, the creative act doesn’t involve much thinking. It mostly involves encounter and response as an almost simultaneous event. It might be of interest to know that I always photograph with my left eye. It is said that the left is the feminine eye. Whether that is true or not, since childhood, I have always noticed a difference between the way my two eyes see. Nathaniel photographs with his right eye and he thinks this is the essential difference between us as filmmakers. He thinks my ocular disposition is the key to the bodily acceptance and free movement in my work.

I do seem to have a near-compulsion to pass through doors, windows and little openings. It’s quite spontaneous. It could be an erotic impulse. But my conscious feeling is about going through seemingly solid barriers and exploring either where that leads or the permeability of the obstacle. For instance, the stucco wall seen near the beginning of New Shores, I did want to know what was on the other side, so I sent my camera in to report for me.


Nathaniel Dorsky: I have recently seen my sound childhood trilogy; I was impressed at my color decisions even at that time. Ingreen of course with its deep bed of greens and warmer colors of flesh tones. A Fall Trip Home opens with much more sombre colors mixing dark blues and browns. Summerwind seems much less a color articulated film, but is still tasteful within its “narrative” functions. But it is not until a dozen or more years later, when editing Hours for Jerome, that the need for color articulation became an absolute necessity of expression. Hours for Jerome being a silent film, it needed color as a stronger visual element of expression. The intensity of the color rendered by Kodachrome II lead one further into this sensibility.

I began to notice that certain shots dominated by certain colors affected one another in terms of saturation and intensity at the point of the cut from one to the other. I also began to notice that within montage a shot’s color intensity was affected by not only the previous shot but by the grandparent shot (meaning two back from the cut that one was making). So there were two types of afterimage. The color image from the previous shot produced in the eye the opposite color that one had just been saturated with. For instance, green and purple were what are called additive color opposites. Each color left an afterimage of the other. The second type, a grandparent image (two back), deeply affected the compositional echo. A zigzag shape might recall in a deja vu-like fashion the zig zag shape in the images two before the cut I was making. Hours for Jerome is constructed on these two basic principles. It is one of the reasons it looks so colorful and also for the grandparent principle the diverse material holds together as a stream of consciousness rather than just a random progression of image meanings. Sometimes, in Hours for Jerome, the black leader separating sequences looks like another color. For example, after one of the parts in orange, it cuts to black and the black looks blue. That’s because your eyes go to the reverse. So when you make the cut, your eye makes the color very intense. In Pneuma, you can see that, at the moment of the cut the color is very intense and during the shot it comes calms down, as if your brain were reorganizing.

So when it became time to cut Pneuma after finishing Hours for Jerome I had honed the skills of afterimage which were essential for Pneuma to function as a vibrant progression of color fields. The grandparent principle was quite secondary in this case as all the “images” were of the same visual subject matter, both in terms of meaning, texture, and composition. In many of the cuts in Pneuma you come upon a shot and it appears particularly blue or red or whatever and then slowly during the long take that intensity fades and one thinks the color of the shot is fading, but actually it is the eye or the mind which is readjusting.

For a cut to work within the polyvalent style, there must be a gap or spark between images that re-awakens the mind. If there isn’t a gap between two shots then there is no enlivening, no participating by the viewer because all is already said and accomplished in a far too solid way. On the other extreme, if the gap between the connections is too far away then also no spark can occur. So in a polyvalent montage every shot affects every other shot; the drama of success or failure is both ephemeral but also extremely real, concrete and to the moment.

What I discovered and put into play a few years later was that my films had the most gravitas if built forward from the first shot, at the beginning. That way one always knew where one was in one’s decision making and one could feel or sense the arc of the film and what was needed. I learned to ignore the chance occurrences on the whole as so often these isolated moments failed to function within the momentum of the montage. Still, the element of “chance” and the genius it had to offer was a constant presence and I slowly learned to employ all these methods simultaneously. My films also began to take the risk of an overall theme or poetic mood while at the same time being in league with the openness and life-giving energy of the polyvalent. As I continued with this editing exploration I began to introduce many more long sequences of the same subject matter until I got to the point that the films were a balance of shot to shot polyvalence completely woven with longer sequences of place. This rather organic development seems truer to the nature of human consciousness and therefore truer to cinema.