Stan Brakhage: Metaphors on Vision

Stan Brakhage
Metaphors on Vision
(Light Industry/Anthology Film Archives, 2017)

Courtesy Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry.

“I no longer sense ego as the greatest source for what can touch on the universal… First I had the sense of the center radiating out. Now I have become concerned with the rays. You follow?”

— Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision

Avant-garde cinema and modern poetry have long shared the same arable ground. Each measured by its own “feet,” they both move through montage—a technique as common to T.S. Eliot as to Eisenstein. Among the greatest of the kino-poets is Stan Brakhage. Despite his poor eyesight and poverty, the Missouri-born filmmaker pushed his art beyond the apparent, behind the eyelid and the shutter, and on into the “Impossibility of it all.” In a new edition of Brakhage’s philosophy of seeing, Metaphors on Vision, we are reminded of the artist’s seminal innovations—especially of his meter that set the very rhythm of American experimental film for future filmmakers.

Out-of-print since 1976, Metaphors on Vision has been republished by Light Industry and Anthology Film Archives. The full facsimile, in its original George Maciunas design, is paired with P. Adams Sitney’s corrected version of the text, as well as his exhaustive annotations and endnotes—a welcome supplement to Brakhage’s heavily referential, sometimes-anarchic style of writing. A co-founder of Anthology, leading historian of avant-garde cinema, and author of The Cinema of Poetry, Sitney was an early champion of Brakhage. Tracking the slightest variations in the text between versions of Metaphors (the difference between “ideo-toxic” and “idea-toxic,” for instance), Sitney relishes in dissecting Brakhage’s punctuation and puns. Thanks to such dogged scholarship, one finds Brakhage’s lavish hyphenation between things and thoughts as strategic as his use of splicing tape.

The opening prose of Metaphors, among the most quoted in film scholarship, clearly frames Brakhage’s central motivation as a filmmaker:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspec- tive, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered  in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green?” How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can the eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “be- ginning was the word.”

Courtesy Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry.

This devotion to phenomenological  vision seems a direct application of “Poetry Before Language,” poet Robert Duncan’s desire (expressed in an eponymous essay) to “describe Poetry as it was before words, or signs, before beauty, or eternity, or meaning, were.” Steeped in Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, fueled by the early influence of poets Charles Olson and Duncan, Brakhage is rooted in “the milieu of American poetry rather than in discussions of cinema in the fifties.” In the course of more than 350 mostly silent 8mm and 16mm films—from the cranberry heat of Cat’s Cradle (1959) to the Sisyphean epic Dog Man Star (1961–64) to his first extended “abstract” film Text of Light (1974)— he sought to render the immediacy of synesthetic sight by “cine-poems,” as he makes clear in his final 2003 interview. Indeed, Brakhage admired Pound’s Cantos, and employed similarly “ideogrammatic” montages to capture the abstract essence of hyper-subjective experience. By his innovative rapid montage, Brakhage was able to mimic the eye’s flittering movements, the capricious nature of one’s thoughts and dreams. His restless rhythm of looking, best demonstrated in the deluge of images that comprise Anticipation of the Night (1958), is meant to train and then liberate the viewer’s “untutored eye.”

Courtesy the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Anthology Film Archives.

Throughout Metaphors, Brakhage shares some of the intimate visions—the Cubist splintering of his wife’s elbow and arm, for instance—that influenced his unconventional methodology. His subjects were reassembled through “plastic cutting,” each part containing the essence of the whole. To achieve this, Brakhage had to free the camera from its mechanical rigidity—he would spit on the glass, push the focus, jostle the apparatus mercilessly. His film was subjected to temperature and twilight, over and under exposure, as he embraced “those marvelous taboo hours when the film labs will guarantee nothing.” These techniques, his “hatfulls of all the rabbits … breeding madly,” were used to film sex and autopsy, daydreams and nightmares, childbirth and Max the cat—all ilk of death, decay, and magic, each a poem of light. When Metaphors was first published, Brakhage had already begun his camera-less exploration of “closed- eye” vision—a world he found more aesthetically, even scientifically, interesting. The after-images, floaters, daydreams, and phosphenes that lingered behind Brakhage’s eyelids were scratched, painted or scored by fingernail, coal-tar dyes, and spit directly onto celluloid, rendering his film more canvas than chemical surface. Metaphors parallels his deepening interest in these more illusive forms of light; moving smoothly along in loose prose, the text fractures beautifully in “My Eye”:

My eye, then, sky-wards, relaxed, all cloudless, mind as non-reflective as possible, (where will I find the words to describe it), my wakeful awareness . . . non-blue, near gold of it, God in it, flakes of God-gold of it falling as if down from it into my eyes. In non-chicken-littleness, my eye opening out to it, now hedging wording it, mind’s eye narrowing down to it, destroying it. Imagine the headline: THE SKY ISN’T BLUE, discovered by— on—while—etc. Impossibility of all of it. I sky-hypno- tized, my eye involved without view, seeing thru the so-called color of it, discovering light, now sighting it down to “flakes,” “God-gold,” “falling,” “down.” Metaphors—feathers, snow, reign, all golden.  My best descriptive is still the negative—“non-blue.” Best sense of it—“discovering light.” Best sentence—“im- possibility of it all.”

Courtesy the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Anthology Film Archives.

In a collapse of mythopoeia and iconography, the stars get in his eyes. The sky is un-blued, chaos is gilded, and nothing is fixed. From this point forward, Brakhage’s prose becomes entropic, breaking apart into essential elements. He swears he is “thru writing”—indicating both a surrender and a path, Sitney elucidates. We begin to encounter “scripts,” the non-narrative montage of films both realized and abandoned. Towards the end, Metaphors is a transcript, a “non-blue” print to Brakhage’s films as kino-haikus. From “The Night Film”:

 

Dark to rose

Water & Rose

Dark to green

Grass—Child!

 

Throughout these passages, as in the films they direct, colors flutter and bounce for pages, “from dark to pink to boy to flesh.” Each line is so truncated that the eyes fall quickly down the page, reading like hand-painted strips of film pulled through the sunlight. Even in writing, Brakhage makes language subservient to sight. Most of Brakhage’s late work was composed  of hand-painted films, the dyes of which are suspected to have eventually killed him. His final film, Chinese Series (2003), created on his deathbed, is a dedication to one of the world’s oldest forms of montage—Chinese ideograms. Poeticized by Pound and animated by Eisenstein’s own example, the subject is a fitting coda for the poet-filmmaker.  Chinese Series was a final declaration, perhaps, that he was thru writing thru filming. Scratched directly into filmstrips, the work is largely illegible in any language—we are left with scrawled bits of a character, glimpses of ideas. In the last frames, however, one can just make out the radiating top of 光—“light.”

Contributor

Sadie R. Starnes

SADIE R. STARNES is an artist and writer from North Carolina. Now based in Brooklyn, she has held a number of solo exhibitions between NY and her former home of Tokyo.

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