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Serious Mothlight
For Stan Brakhage (1933-2003)

Nicole Brenez & Adrian Martin

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  Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1970), Stan Brakhage addressed himself directly to the sun and the stars. He lived, worked, thought within the essentialness of myth or the muthos – within poetry as the restorer of truth’s foundations. But what is truth for Brakhage? It is a more exact, more expansive relationship to the phenomenal world. For him, the resemblance characteristic of conventional cinematic recording was only a tiny strip on the whole spectrum of exactness. His work as a filmmaker consisted of exploring, inventing and revealing other frequencies of possible imagery. From simple abstraction to the visual critique of familiar imagery, Brakhage enlarged the frame of cinematic figurativity like no other artist has ever done.  



1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver: Arden Press, 1983), pp. 24-25.

  Just as a certain tradition (the John Cage tradition) of contemporary experimental music invites and then demands an ongoing sophistication of one’s capacity to hear structures, relations, the dancing, shifting formations of sonic material, Brakhage’s films propose a tutoring of the eye, a rapturous attentiveness to the tiniest visual fluctuations and effects. There is doubtless a spiritual dimension intended as part of these exercises for the soul: Jonas Mekas ranks Brakhage’s influence with that of ‘some religious leaders’ in his effort to change people’s ‘sensibilities and certain feelings and emotions’. (1)  


  Adding to the thick, experiential mystery of these long-developed offerings is a somewhat cryptic, Symbolist aspect. Brakhage often limited his verbal explanation of the films to citations of lines or stanzas from poems by writers including Charles Olson and Ronald Johnson. As in the writing of Kris Hemensley, Frank Lovece or Louis Zukofsky, the visual text we ultimately see on screen is a dense, camouflaged, teasing, highly elaborated play of allusions and responses to, echoes and transformations of, this invisible source material which the filmmaker keeps close to his heart and to the vibrations of his caméra-stylo.  




2. Experimenta programme note (Melbourne), 1990.

  Brakhage made epics, series, and also very small works, such as Blossom – Gift/Favor (1993). Perhaps only forty-five seconds in length, this is an exquisite flowering (Brakhage’s word) of carefully layered colours and shapes. It works with blocks of re-photographed textures and materials, and the swift, eye-defying mobility of these blocks frame by frame, in the manner of his Dante Quartet series (1987). Again absolutely impossible to describe in its dense materiality and fleeting affect, it recalls to mind Marcus Bergner’s remark about certain ultra-short ‘pieces of intense poetic and imaginative force’ in experimental film that bring home ‘the significance of brief gestures in a world where mass media has already imposed its rules of concision and constriction’. (2)  

3. Cf. Stan Brakhage, Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980 (New Paltz: Documentext, 1982), pp. 69-77.


  Brakhage was a poet of his medium, an artisan attentive to the plastic possibilities offered by cinema as a tool. He produced brilliant texts on editing, on Super 8 as the supreme form of cinema, on the different properties of celluloid. And who else could have come up with an ode to sprocket holes? (3) One of his remarks opens up his aesthetic horizon: Brakhage found the infinity symbol printed on camera lenses ridiculous. Infinity, for him, was not some kind of quantitative asymptote, a straining towards an endlessly deferred, far-away point whose vertigo we are spared by mathematics. Brakhage’s infinity designates the ever-close sum of sensory experiences offered here and now by any phenomena whatsoever – even the most modest, like the flight of a moth in the night (Mothlight, 1963).  


4. Brakhage, p. 19.

  This is the infinity of our ‘optical adventures’. The cinema’s vocation is not to record appearances, but to deploy the powers of analogy. Analogy with what? Not the world as more or less tamed by our intellect, but the world as apprehended by the totality of our psychic apparatus, beginning from the most obscure and mysterious zones: perception, sensation, apperception, intuition, imagination, dream. In 1964 he wrote: ‘An artist MUST act on dream instruction (day AND night dream structures conditioning all his being) for continuance of his art’. (4) The only infinite is desire; in this realm Brakhage illuminated – in words but above all in images – what he called the ‘optical unconscious’.  


  Few articles on a Brakhage film – at least in Anglo-Saxon culture – fail to be an account of the difficulty inherent in writing about the object at hand. His is truly an oeuvre which (to borrow a phrase from Raymond Bellour) ‘pushes language into check’. Attempts by fans to evoke what they actually see on the screen quickly turn into breathless inventories of objects – trees, flowers, shade, light, a bird, a balloon – before stopping dead altogether and issuing a pronouncement on the sheer beauty of the film. At this point avant-garde film criticism resembles a cheap TV commercial: words cannot possibly describe this amazing movie – just go see it! Yet, insofar as all celebratory film talk indeed boils down to such an injunction, mute and helpless before the monumental visuality of this medium, these are exactly the words I would use in recommending a work such as A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea (1991). Brakhage made seriously beautiful films.  


5. J. Hoberman, ‘A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea’, Village Voice (9 February 1993), p. 53. Reprinted (slightly modified) in Hoberman, The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), p. 244.

  On an early ‘90s episode of the TV program The Extraordinary, a UFO expert was wheeled on to explain away the strange shapes registered by the camera from the night sky on a reel of domestic video tape. ‘The camera was pushed so far beyond its capacity,’ he cheerfully explained, ‘that it ended up filming its own optics.’ This account is not a bad description of some of the things that appear to be going on in Brakhage's films. Jim Hoberman noted the presence of ‘a lifetime of polished techniques – prisms, diffusion lenses, sudden camera movements, percussive shifts in exposure, oversaturated colours, tricks of scale’. (5) As he first adumbrated in his 1963 book Metaphors of Vision, Brakhage is engaged in his own kind of guerrilla war against all the constraints of ‘Renaissance vision’ that have become institutionalised in the very design of cameras and lenses, not to mention the more elaborate defenses of conservative mise en scène, and his vigorous assaults are directed in the cause of freeing up seeing and confounding all the old subject/object, perceiver/perceived distinctions.  


  The optical unconscious is not a matter of irrationality or decorative psychedelia. Brakhage’s ambition was closest to the global project announced by Sergei Eisenstein: to place images within the workings of thought, in the foldings and unfoldings of its strata, its volumetrics, its complexity. In the course of this psychic investigation, both filmmakers – Eisenstein in Ivan the Terrible (1946), Brakhage in his frescoes Dog Star Man (1961-4) and Scenes From Under Childhood (1967-70) – sought to ‘plunge into the maternal womb’, revisited as the sensory source of affects. But, whereas Eisenstein worked primarily on syntactical and symbolic levels, Brakhage worked on a plastic level, without the slightest trace of narrativity (beyond his earliest psychodrama films). Colour, textures, kinetics, optical and sometimes sonic rhythms (he’d studied with Edgar Varèse and John Cage) deploy their own descriptive powers, to the point where cinema, in a truly sublime gesture, breaches all our spiritual limits and shows itself capable of arousing sensations, visions and hitherto unknown thoughts. Anyone who hasn’t seen the feature length A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea, a dazzling visual poem on landscape, knows as little about the grandeur and beauty that cinema is capable of as a music buff who ignores the existence of Bach.  


  Brakhage was, for at least twenty-five years, an immensely controversial, divisive figure in experimental film culture. In his last decade this storm well and truly subsided, but we should not forget the terms of this fraught engagement. Seen as the insidiously powerful godhead of a Romantic tradition in the American avant-garde going back to the ‘40s, Brakhage's films and his authorial aura were targeted, post-‘60s, by successive waves of the radical avant-garde (structuralist, leftist, feminist, punk). For his part, Brakhage was happy to return the provocation (‘I have no intention of treating anyone as a colleague,’ he once declared).  

6. Peter Wollen, ‘Letters’, Framework no. 18 (1982), p. 58; cf. also ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’ in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 92-104; and ‘The Avant-Gardes: Europe and America’, Framework no. 14 (Spring 1981), pp. 9-10.

7. Rosenbaum, Film: the Front Line 1983, p. 47; Fred Camper, ‘Film: The Front Line’, Millennium no. 14/15 (Fall-Winter 1984/5), p. 52.

  When in mid-‘70s Britain Peter Wollen wrote a manifesto marking a polemical separation between the ‘two avant-gardes’, he had in mind a rearguard American branch led by Brakhage (and championed by such critics as P. Adams Sitney), and a progressive European tradition held high by Straub & Huillet, Godard, Makavejev. (In a memorably heated exchange of the early '80s, Wollen wrote: ‘However reluctantly, I'm ready to grant Brakhage his place in history. When will Sitney do the same for Godard?’) (6) In his book Film: The Front Line, Jonathan Rosenbaum launched a more direct ideological attack against Brakhage's unholy influence, his ‘reactionary political stance’, and the ‘familial, patriarchal, and phallocratic side of his work’. (To which Fred Camper, long-time critical supporter of Brakhage, asked: ‘Are all three of those qualities supposed to be bad, or only the last two, or only one?’) (7)  



8. Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line, p. 122.

  For Rosenbaum at that time (he has since been kinder to the artist’s achievement), Brakhage's films grandly epitomised a ‘metaphysical conceit underlying the whole American avant-garde Romantic tradition … which reduces the universe to a list of male possessions: This is my wife, my child, my gun, my dog, my camera, my house, my car, my summer vacation, my life’. Where Rosenbaum attributes the tendency of Brakhage's work to stand ‘outside all history and ideology’ to this ‘unproblematical embrace of The Essential Verities’, (8) Wollen locates the problem more within a certain in-grown purism which he describes as ontological – an obsession with 'film as film' reduced to the tiniest particles of light, grain and flicker, which works to shut out any attention to the materialist referents of social representation.  


  Abstraction is a scary, slippery thing, especially to rational, theoretical minds of a particular persuasion. Above all other cinematic strategies that foreground the action of form, it is abstraction which really ‘pushes language into check’. Yet so much of the discourse that goes on in independent film culture grasps for clear, nameable, detachable referents – and values those films, filmmakers and film movements (‘political cinema’, ‘queer cinema’, ‘the essay-film’, just to name a few) which put such referents firmly in the dominant position over any 'decadent' concern with form in its intricate, intractable materiality.  

9. Cf. Constance Penley, ‘The Avant-Garde and its Imaginary’, Camera Obscura no. 2 (Fall 1977), pp. 3-33, for a classic statement of this position in relation to avant-garde cinema in general.




  For sceptics writing at different times between the late ‘60s and the ‘90s, the reflex distaste for Brakhage's work had a psychoanalytically informed aspect. Apparently Stan the Man was not only sexist and purist, but his films – especially in their silence, numinosity and abstraction – are locked up solely in the realm of the Imaginary. (9) And it was taken for granted that there was no passage into or out of the Symbolic in his films: no language, no inscription, no psychic contradiction, no scar of the social, no drama of identity. But many of Brakhage’s films are, in fact, in constant processual movement between the poles of abstraction and representation. While Brakhage has always been impelled to evoke a state of bliss resembling innocence – ‘Eden before Adam got around to naming the animals’, in Dwight MacDonald’s phrase – his films also dramatise, in their way, the violent passage from this utopian Imaginary realm to a more fearsome Symbolic one. (It’s possible to sense here his affinity with Terrence Malick, whose films he greatly admired, alongside Tarkovsky and Scorsese.) One of his films is even called The Animals of Eden and After (1970), evoking an unexpected link between this intuitive artist whom some thought ‘un-theoretical’ and the perverse conceptualist Alain Robbe-Grillet whose project Eden and After began that same year.  



10. Brakhage, pp. 104-6.

  In the course of his exploration of visual frequencies, Brakhage engaged with other aesthetic conceptions. He devoted seminars and magnificent texts to other filmmakers, collected in two volumes, Film Biographies (1977) and Film at Wit’s End ([1989] on Maya Deren, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs). And he also encountered shared images, clichés, oppressive or unbearable images. This major dimension of his work is the least known. 23rd Psalm Branch (1966-7) for example, a meditation on the nature of war shot at the start of 1966, arose from Brakhage’s discovery of images of the Vietnam War broadcast on television, images he described as ‘hypnagogic’ (10): this is the film on guilt and anguish that Kathy (Lili Taylor) in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) would make if she was a filmmaker and not a doctoral student in philosophy.  





11. Brakhage, p. 193.

  In 1971, in his great ‘Foucauldian’ trilogy shot in Pittsburgh, Eyes, Deus Ex and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, he filmed the three institutions of bodily control: the police, the hospital and the morgue. It’s not a polemical project, but a matter of producing what he called ‘documents’: to show for once how a human being can gaze directly, with their own eyes, upon the sites where our crucial experiences – of illness, crime, death, law – are framed, regulated and symbolised. To deal with these dominant motifs of modern iconography – the cop, the corpse, the sick patient – Brakhage resorts to an organic mode of filming: organic because indexed not on beliefs but on the physiological pulses of his heart and eyes. ‘This eye is a jelly, and it’s quivering continually, with our heartbeat, with our walking, with our breathing, with anything that happens, any movement we make. And what I did was to make an articulate dance with that possibility, with this lens.’ (11)  


  This trilogy, so simple and modest, suddenly established the human standard in relation to which all other treatments of the same images – however brilliant, violent or judicious they may be, however close to our avowed convictions and intellectual constructions – suddenly appear anecdotal and uselessly complicated.  


  Over and above all possible cultural contexts, the matter of the singular beauty of Brakhage’s work remains fiercely insistent. I do not hope to be able to meet this beauty head-on in writing, so I will record another TV memory that resonates with my fragmented experience of his career. At a major ‘90s exhibition of paintings by Auguste Renoir (‘Renoir’s Women’) a line-up of British art historians held forth on his art and its cultural context.  



12. Scott McQuire ‘Melbourne Film Festival’, Photofile no. 36 (August 1992) p.40

  One of these experts claimed that Renoir was involved in projecting images of women that would help outfit real women for the capitalist age of voracious feminine consumption. Another affirmed that his idyllic, pastoral images were fantasies complicit with the development of a ‘touristic gaze’ crucial to a burgeoning world economy. There was probably some interesting truth in these remarks. But how inadequate the words seemed, as they trailed over the top of the paintings themselves, so light and rich, so moving and intriguing. And how bankrupt the critical attitude which regards all carefully formed artistic expressions – the ‘complex translation of the seen and the felt to a series of visual marks on a flat surface’ (12) – as the mere epiphenomena of a social, historical system. Serious beauty surely demands more of us than this.  

13. Brakhage, p. 190.


  There was a precise origin for Brakhage’s political project: the regret that, to film the first man on the moon, NASA had sent astronauts but not an artist. (13) To film the moon, the sun, a war or the sea, to film light, sensation, the unconscious and everything for which there are no words – to film all this, it would be better in effect not to send a proud possessor but a wild, uncontrollable artist, one with universal aspirations. We’d have to send someone like William Blake. Or Friedrich Schiller. Or Stan Brakhage.  

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© Nicole Brenez, Adrian Martin and Rouge June 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the authors and editors of Rouge.
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