Illuminations

The visionary films of Stan Brakhage

Even in a world in which all human interrelations can be linked by six degrees of separation, the connection between Richard Donner's Superman (1978) and Stan Brakhage's The Text of Light (1974) would seem to strain the laws of geometrical coincidence.

Donner's film concerns the arrival on planet Earth of an extraterrestrial with superhuman powers, his assimilation into human culture and his adoption of a Christian morality. By contrast, Brakhage's film depicts the myriad confusions of light to be found refracted through a glass ashtray, painstakingly photographed one frame at a time.

It comes as little surprise that Brakhage's work has long been considered the very antithesis of the movie blockbuster. Brakhage, who died on 9 March 2003 at the age of 70, made films of glorious and daunting innovation. Narrative-free and often non-figurative they make few concessions to the viewer and even fewer to any idea of profit in anything other than a purely aesthetic sense. Yet such was Brakhage's mastery of film as a visual experience that Hollywood would often beg, steal and borrow from his low-budget/high-effort masterpieces for their high-budget/low-effort movies. In the case of Superman the filmmakers rented a copy of The Text of Light directly from Brakhage in order to try and replicate his ashtray's exquisite light effects in their portrayal of the superhero's ice castle and space crib.

Brakhage was typically delighted with the results. An avid film-goer, he had often tried to persuade a studio to allow him to make an epic based on Peter Paul Ruben's The Battle of the Amazons (1618-20). Yet his enjoyment of such films was closely circumscribed. 'Film', Brakhage declared in an interview with Jesse Walker, 'has the capacity to record the great art of acting, and that's its triumph across this whole century. But at the same time, curiously, that ability to record this other art to the exclusion of all else has been one of the most detrimental things to the evolution of film and what it might be, from my viewpoint.'

It is lazy to say that an artist created 'a whole new way of looking at the world'. For Brakhage, however, it was truer than most. The world's content was unimportant, but the way of looking at the world, mainly by ridding oneself of ingrained laws of perspective and compositional logic, was all-important. It was, as Gene Youngblood states in Expanded Cinema (1970), as if he was trying to represent 'the totality of consciousness, the reality continuum of the living present'.

Along with the first wave of American avant-garde filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Bruce Conner and Kenneth Anger, Brakhage sought to stretch to its limit the potential of film as a personal, poetic and physical medium. Indeed his influences were rooted in literature as much as film. Dog Star Man (1961-4) appeared as a document of primal Romanticism, the intersplicing of a mountain climb with solar flares, blood cells and scenes of domestic life, combined to present a portrait of man in both the micro and macro as a universal and yet distinctly earthbound being.

While The Text of Light demonstrated film's very essence - the influence of light on photographic emulsion - the four-minute-long Mothlight (1963), which Brakhage filmed by pasting moths on to clear film leader, seemed to bypass photography altogether. When projected, the flickering of the insects' wings on the screen gives the exquisite impression not only that the moths have suddenly become reincarnated, but also that the beam of light that projects their images has actually attracted them to itself.

In his eloquent treatise Metaphors on Vision (1963) Brakhage put forward the case that all visual stimuli - whether they be hallucinations, memory visions, daydreams or hypnagogic images (the visual phenomena produced between sleep and waking) - should be acknowledged and allowed to enter the realm of perception. Every element of perception should be displayed; none should be derogated.

Like a lepidopterist chasing a particularly beautiful yet ever-changing specimen, Brakhage accomplished his pursuit of pure vision through a variety of means. So important was his belief in the subjective nature of filming, the transformation of the hand into the eye, that he used to engage in callisthenics while holding his camera. Thus in the essay 'Film: Dance' (1982) he writes of how he would 'prepare my muscles and joints with the weight of the camera and the necessary postures of holding it so that I can carry the weight in the balance of these postures through my physiological reaction during picture-taking and to some meaningful act of edit'. The camera itself was transformed from recording device into participant, as precisely as the anthropomorphic camera that walks across the stage on its tripod in Dziga Vertov's classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Brakhage's quest would see him painting many of his later films by hand - with a different colour on each fingertip he would play the celluloid as if it were a piano. Interpolations (1992), which runs for some 12 minutes, is the longest hand-painted film he made (17,280 individually painted frames). For parts of The Dante Quartet (1987) he even worked on 65mm IMAX film. He burnt and stained the film strip, shooting out of focus to capture the essence of peripheral vision, blurring his films with fast swivel pans and spitting on the lens for 'impressionist' ends. In Christ Mass Sex Dance (1990) he used as many as seven superimpositions at once, and he was the first to use the interruptive flash-frame as a psychological effect in his film Cat's Cradle (1959), which sparks with mnemonic lightning.

Such is the dissolution of the corporeal into the visual that Brakhage's films occasionally seem to suggest that the organ of sight is ultimately the entire body. Brakhage would identify this extreme, almost inhuman ability of man to 'see', as the natural characteristic of both 'the artist and the saint'. Indeed, in an interview in 1973 with the filmmaker Hollis Frampton, he spoke of his own perceptions with something approaching both the enthusiasm and the weariness of the holy man: 'I see so many qualities of light, so many things that seem to be light but aren't anywhere categorized as such or spoken of as such or referred to by other people as such. I always have, and as I get older I see more and more. I see many qualities of light continually, every day constantly new ones and new aspects of old ones, that it's become a normal condition. At this time in my life it is the variety of the quality of light that I see, and live with daily, that removes me most from feeling I share sight with other people.'

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA. 

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003

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