Seeing Fully

David Pacchioli
September 01, 1999

"Making a film is often thought of as largely a technical process, and of course it is," Dorn Hetzel says. "But every time I do it, I'm reminded that it's also something very close to a spiritual exercise. Each time, the process asks you if you are fully awake. Are you fully seeing? And of course each time you think you are; and then you find out, especially when you look at the rushes, how far short of the mark you've fallen, just how much you still miss, just how much you still haven't fully seen, or heard, or understood."

Hetzel, an associate professor of film at Penn State, recently faced this test of awareness yet again when he wrote and directed The Slow Fall of Light Through Time. This heavily atmospheric short film depicts a man's inner journey as he struggles for healing and self-understanding after losing the woman he loved. Subtitled A Koan, the film quietly explores a private pain that, like a Zen koan, defies thinking-through. "It requires you to live your way to a solution," Hetzel says.

Although it incorporates elements from his own experience, he notes, Slow Fall is a work of fiction. The concept emerged as he went back over his daybooks, daily notations he faithfully keeps of "those things that are given to me—that strike me or move me—in the course of a day. Words overheard in a conversation, a quality of light or shadow, faint music . . . Each of these things evokes a feeling, and that feeling may eventually lead to a story." In writing Slow Fall, he explains, "I was looking for moments that still had emotional resonance. That was the organizing principle—to pull those pieces together."

The result, he acknowledges, is "not as conventionally cinematic as my earlier films." Eschewing multiple angles and complicated effects, the camera dwells largely on a solitary man who, on the morning after a sleepless night in a remote cabin overlooking the northern California coast, attempts to compose a letter to the woman who has recently divorced him. The challenge of telling this story, Hetzel says, was to find ways to convey the changing consciousness of his character without relying on words.

"I was trying to find the visual equivalent of what's going on in his mind," he says, "a sort of internal landscape." To do so, he relied heavily on cinematographer, co-producer, and—not coincidentally, he says— his old friend, Tom Keiter. "Tom knows all the right questions to ask. He immediately understood what I was trying to express, and exactly how to reflect it back in the strongest visual terms."

The outer landscape, a remote, rocky coastline north of San Francisco, is an important component. "We waited each day for dawn, to shoot the fog and mist," Hetzel says. "That's the time when you can barely make out the outlines of things—you're not sure whether something is really there or not there. That was what felt right."

Another crucial element, he says, was the acting ability of the film's star, Penn State associate professor of theater Charles Dumas. "Charles is amazing. I finished writing the script the night before we shot, and left it on his doorstep. Somehow, by nine o'clock the next morning, he had really got inside the character. He was asking questions about the character's background that I hadn't even thought about."

Then, once shooting was finished, according to Keiter, "some fascinating things happened during the editing," which was done by Maura Shea, a lecturer in film at Penn State, and by undergraduate film student Jeff Greenberg.

"Making the film was sort of a series of happy accidents," Keiter says.

"We approached it as a sketch," Hetzel agrees, "and that looseness helped."

Evidently it did. Last October, Slow Fall was selected for showing at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco, whose attendees included such actors and directors as Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Helena Bonham-Carter (Howard's End), Gary Ross (Pleasantville), and Geoffrey Rush (Shakespeare in Love).

"This festival is not a 'scene,' like some of the others," Hetzel says. "It's for people who really know film. You see that when you show your film and then stand up afterward to take questions. The quality of the questions people had, the insights, were astonishing.

"You know, you're alone in a room writing for all those weeks," he muses. "Then you do the shooting—we did a half day here, and a couple of days out in California. Then you're back in a room for more weeks, to edit the thing. There's a period after you finish when you don't know what it is you've done, whether there's anything for anyone else there or not. So getting that reaction is really rewarding. And the best thing about it is that you can then put that appreciation, that energy, that—if we were on the West Coast I would say love—back directly into the process. That's what fuels the next one."

Dorn Hetzel, M.F.A., is associate professor of film and video in the College of Communications, 124 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0520; dxh11@psu.edu. Charles Dumas, M.A., J.D., is associate professor of theater arts in the College of Arts and Architecture. Maura E. Shea, M.S., is a lecturer in film and video. Tom Keiter is founder and president of Resource Communications Group Inc., State College, PA. Sound for the film was by Trace Brown, post-production by Joe and Carla Myers. The Slow Fall of Light Through Time premiered October 4, 1998 at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Mill Valley, California. Reported by Angie Bolton.

Last Updated September 01, 1999