Mothlight (1963), perhaps Stan Brakhage's most frequently screened film, was made at a time when he lacked money for raw stock. He collaged moth wings, other insects, and various plants between two strips of splicing tape with the dimensions and perforations of 16mm film. His lab was just barely able to strike a print from this "sandwich" which served as the basis for other prints. Though the later The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) was made similarly, Mothlight is unique in Brakhage's oeuvre.
Brakhage's own descriptions, written for rental and sales catalogs, can be good places to begin to understand his films. Late in his life he told me that he hoped these would provide the viewer with "a way into the films," but that they were also not meant to be exclusive or restrictive interpretations. "What a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black." is how Brakhage described Mothlight. The second part is characteristically allusive, since the film has no visible reversals of black and white, but the first is clear as a bell: he imagines "what a moth might see."
The effects of his collage technique are several. Each image lasts no more than 1/24th of a second, the length of a single frame - less, actually, because for some of the time of the projected film, usually half, the screen is dark. But the idea of a "moth seeing" is plausible for several reasons. Small details, blades of grass and insect parts, are greatly enlarged in projection. To the human observer, a moth flits about rapidly, and is far smaller than many things in its environment, making the film's rapid pace seem appropriate. What's important here, as always in Brakhage, is not literal verisimilitude - his aspiration would not be invalidated if scientists came up with a way of recording what a moth actually sees in flight and found it quite different. Instead, Mothlight is Brakhage's imagining of what a moth might see.
This places Mothlight early in one of the major traditions of Brakhage's work: attempts to discover alternative eyesights, and to imagine seeing through eyes other than his own. Children's seeing has been important; for his Window Suite of Childrens' Songs (1969), he even let his kids do the photographing. A number of films, such as The Presence (1972), involve attempts to imagine what seeing is like for other animals. The larger agenda is always to expand beyond what one might call "functional" seeing, the eyesight one needs to navigate a room or a street, and to try to disengage from the naming of the objects that one sees, something he famously suggested in the opening lines of his book, Metaphors on Vision, speculating that a child's learning to name things might limit vision - before admitting, not long after, that "one can never go back, even in imagination."
Another element of Mothlight is key in Brakhage's work as well: rhythm. Indeed, when I first saw the film at 16, at my first full program of Brakhage films, I thought of J. S. Bach, whose music I had been discovering. Of course, Mothlight is less neatly ordered than Bach, and its effect is quite different, but its barrage of objects also feels almost classically organized, full of surprises which balance each other out.
Finally, Mothlight makes explicit reference, by virtue of the way it was made and the way it is shown, to the nature of film projection, which was long cinema's defining element. For the most part, Brakhage does not seem to have composed for the limitations of individual frames, so in projection, long strands of plants and smaller moth wings are generally divided up into multiple images. This creates a striking contrast at the film's core, between the organic shapes of insects and plants and the rigid, rectilinear geometries of film projection, which chop a series of rectangles with a height to width ratio of 1.33:1 out of the film strip, and in a larger sense, out of nature as well. Of course, what Brakhage could put on the strip was itself only a tiny sample of nature, but then the mechanism of projection, which isolates a series of frames in rapid succession, divides space and time even further. What Mothlight gives us, then, is an encounter between geometry and nature, and between whatever presumably slower rhythm with which we are used to seeing and the radical, every-frame-is-different pacing of this landmark film.
Mathematicians use the word "mapping" in various ways, but most commonly it refers to a procedure whereby one set of elements is altered or transformed by a precise rule, often called a "function," into another, usually different set. For example, a simple function might take any number and double it. Perhaps more to the point, a function could constitute a rule whereby three-dimensional objects are transformed into two-dimensional images, though for it to be a true mathematical function, the positioning of the object and transformation method would have to be precisely specified. Still, the act of making a film, either by photography or by collage, can loosely be thought of as a kind of mapping. Objects in the world are converted into what can be stored on, and projected from, a film strip. Commercial narrative films most often try to hide this process, so that instead of being encouraged to become aware that the actors are merely projected shadows, the viewer is asked to become involved in all the illusions and interactions of the fictive world, even feeling present within it.
Avant-garde films, by contrast, often try to call attention to their materials, to reveal the conditions of their making. In Mothlight, Brakhage reveals those conditions in a very particular way. He has calculated his collage with reference to what the strip would look like when projected. What is more, the great majority of his films of all types evidence related forms of thinking, self-aware mappings from the world to the strip to the projected image. In Anticipation of the Night (1958), his first major extended work, the camera lurches about through space, often in repetitive movements across static fields, also often following other repetitive movements, such as in the images of children on amusement-park rides. Sometimes Brakhage even cuts on matching shapes or camera movements in different spaces. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the film is not entirely one of plunging the viewer unawares into the shadow man's journey and his failed attempts to engage with and make sense of the world, leading with seeming inevitability to his separation from it. Instead, movements past trees and grass, along a road looking at lines of trees above, and through mysterious interiors, often seem to be reflecting on, or colliding with, the frame's edge. The children at the amusement park circle by almost as rapidly as single frames, fragments of celluloid that reinforce this point. Brakhage's subject, then, is at least dual: the protagonist's journey, his quest for a wholeness of vision that he fails to reach, and the inherent limitations of the process of mapping portions of the world, via cinema, onto film strips. Moreover, each half of his subject modifies the other, so that the limitations of the frame feed into this film's particular theme of failure, the shadow man's quest suggesting a yearning for something beyond what even a vast number of film rectangles might be able to show, while some of the film's most spectacular light plays seem, if only momentarily, to leap off the screen.
In the standard-8mm Song 7 (1964), Brakhage seems to be using a matte box to subdivide the frame, but he also repeatedly places his fingers in front of the lens, at diagonal angles, in a way that blocks part of the image while also echoing the hilly geography of San Francisco which is his subject. At times one can see his fingers' flesh color. In the longest section of Song 13 (1965), he films a passing train through a car window, sometimes close to the train cars so that they go by in a blur, at other times apparently farther away. But one can see, very faintly, the reflection of his camera in the car window, and more, that the camera does not have a single lens, but a three lens turret, which permits the filmmaker to change the photographing lens quickly. One can also see which lens is where, and the mystery of the changes in framing is thus revealed as the result of shifting between different focal lengths. In Song 7, both Brakhage's fingers and the sides of buildings echo the edges of the frames, which combine with sometimes rapid camera movements, causing the sea to seem to rotate, for example, making it clear that he is composing for the strip. And in Song 13, the white spaces between the train cars, which give this section of the film its strongest rhythm, often don't even occupy a whole frame: look closely, and you can see the white intruding on one side of one frame and disappearing on the other side of the next, making the nature of film projection visible. These techniques are more than just modernist "truth to materials." The artificially constructed nature of all film frames is revealed, but instead of simply spiraling solely into self-referentiality, Brakhage uses his techniques to suggest that both the outer world and an individual's inner visions are far vaster than what film can show.
Such films are poised on a knife-edge, suspended between two possibilities. A lyrical portrait of the geography of a great city is also a study in the paradoxes of reducing it to film. One looks through the images to the city and to the way it is filmed at the same time that one looks at the film images and learns more about their nature. Avoiding the apparent transparency of some lyrical films and the academicism of certain self-referential ones, Brakhage has it both ways: presentations of visions, and acknowledgments of the nature and limitations of cinema, the two at times seeming to struggle with each other.
In The Process (1972), the juxtaposition of rapidly flickering solid colors with images that place objects (children, a burning candle) within them may not recall the film strip to those who have never seen the process of film projection, but will suggest a glorious barrage of colored "leaders" to anyone who has worked with film, even though it's clear that the solid colors are not leaders at all but were created in the lab, and thus refer to the process of color printing, in which the printer lamp color can be used to determine the hue of the final image. In the wholly "abstract" (a word Brakhage hated) Romans and Arabics, he often places fuzzy and shifting shapes just at the edge of the frame. They move beyond the frame and come back into view, showing the limits of framing while suggesting realms that lie beyond. They also dissolve, transform, grow, shrink, and reconstitute themselves. There is no firm ground, but there is also a sense that he is working with film's limitations, with optics that can blur as well as render sharply, possible degrees of blurring seemingly infinite. In the "cosmic" shapes of Jordan Belson's films, one senses that the film frames are merely necessary vessels, and that one should be losing oneself in the ever-transforming worlds at their centers. In Brakhage, the edges of the frame, the specific parameters of film projection, and the limitations of cinema optics are always apparent.
In most of his hand-painted films, Brakhage used optical printing to slow down the rhythm from that of Mothlight, repeating each hand-painted frame two, three, or four times, thus getting images lasting as long as 1/6 of a second. Slower than that, he used to say, becomes a "slide show." An exquisite tension is thus created between images perceptible, however momentarily, as still paintings, and images whose collisions create illusions of movement. The nature of the film strip, and the mapping of his paintings onto it, are invoked by the very procedure he uses.
The sense that Brakhage's films are calculated mappings distinguishes his films from other works to which they are sometimes compared. Bruce Baillie's great Castro Street (1966), or the spectacularly indistinct first section of his Quick Billy (1970), suggest, with their transformations and fusions of objects from the world via color, and out of focus and superimposition, and other similar Brakhage-like techniques, a filmmaker who would create an alternative universe out of the everyday, a world with particular qualities: meditative, floating, lost, unrooted in any center. Brakhage's films have their own particular, albeit different, qualities: unpredictable rhythms, movements away from any evident pattern that seems to have been established, a sense of the fragility of each vision, an ever-vibrating uncertainty. But by virtue of articulating the limits of his medium, he suggests that what we see is only a tiny portion, perhaps even only a pale copy, of the original inspiring visions. For all its vast detail, The Art of Vision (1965) feels as if it presents only fragments of the cosmos: particular cells, particular blood vessels, particular stars. The shape transformations in Arabics are many and varied, but they do not feel exhaustive; their effect is to suggest that many more such transformations are not only possible, but are perhaps occurring somewhere outside the frame. As complete as his films' visions can seem, they also acknowledge their own limitations. And on a less materialist level, just as Mothlight should be understood not as actual moth vision but as Brakhage's imagining of it, so his attempts to envision childhood seeing are not meant as the actual eyesight of actual children, but as his adult attempt to "go back"; his attempts at documentary in the "Pittsburgh trilogy" always reveal the limitations of his camera's framing and revel in his inevitably transformative light-poem lyricism. Faust in the Faustfilm series is his own myth; his attempts to envision the biography of his second wife Marilyn in the "Vancouver Island films" don't much reflect her actual life. His visions may seem all-encompassing, but have enough self-awareness to acknowledge their inward-questing nature, and that when an external subject seems to be invoked, that subject is represented no more objectively or completely than a film strip is able to capture the physical 360-degree reality of the world as we experience it.
There are thus at least three presences in Brakhage's work: what we see on the screen, and its effects; the ways in which the imagery reminds us of the limitations of film; the way that that reminder also suggests there is much more than what is, or can be, presented. His films at once suggest incompleteness and create an aura of an almost mystical beyond, of the unseen and the unseeable, of movements and colors and objects he has not shown. Even in the three-minute Mothlight, nature seems nearly infinite in the variety and variability of its objects.