In the summer of 1982 I completed a monograph
entitled Montage, Realism, and the Act of Vision, focused primarily
on the films of Stan Brakhage. It became increasingly clear that, in order
to do justice to Brakhage's work and thought, I would have to deal not
only with film, but with the painting, music, and poetry of the Twentieth
Century, as well as with semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism,
psychoanalysis (Freudian, Jungian, and Lacanian) and deconstruction. The
final version of the book, with chapters on Cézanne, Cubism, Mondrian,
modernist music, semiotics, and post-structuralism, as well as montage, Bazinian
realism, and, of course, Brakhage, became rather unwieldy. And despite
the efforts of many people, including Thomas Sebeok, who accepted it for
publication in his Indiana University Press series on semiotics (the publisher
turned him down) and Brakhage himself, who enthusiastically endorsed it,
it was never published.
For many years I occupied myself with other
interests; then in the early nineties I condense the essential elements
of the theory developed in the book into an essay, "Toward a Unified Theory
of the Arts," which was published in the journal Semiotica, in 1993.
In the interest of economy, I had to leave out the very topics--film theory
and Brakhage--which had been my original concern and deal with only two
arts: painting and music. Other essays--on Mondrian and on Cubism--adapted
from sections of the book, followed. The Semiotica essay has been
reissued in the Internet journal, Music Theory Online, with additional
material on musical aspects of my theory.
This essay is the first of the three chapters
of my book devoted to Brakhage's work and thought, more or less as in the 1982 version, with
a few changes and clarifying remarks in brackets. First, however, I must
summarize those aspects of my theoretical position necessary for an understanding
of this chapter:
1. Basic to my theory is the notion that to
understand something, to comprehend it as meaningful, even to "see," "hear"
or "experience" it in any ordinary sense, we must comprehend it as existing
within a kind of "force field," related both to the differential field of
Saussurian linguistics and the gestalt field of the Lacanian imaginary. I
call this fundamental ground of meaningful expression/communication/perception
the "syntactic" field, i.e., a field which both organizes (tax) and
unifies (syn ). It must be understood as necessary to (but not necessarily
sufficient for) semiosis. In Lacanian terms, the syntactic field produces
the unified "subject of enunciation," which we can also refer to as the "transcendental
subject." It can be understood as the ground, not only of logic and "ordinary"
language, but various "alternative" forms of expression, including rhetoric,
and, with certain important exceptions, poetic and artistic "language."
This syntactic, or "positive" field, can also be understood more or less
in terms of what Derrida has called "logocentrism"or "metaphysical presence."
2. In my view, certain "modernist" artists
and composers developed, beginning in the early twentieth century, a set
of strategies designed to thwart the syntactic field. All these strategies
are based on an "antilogic" which I call "negative syntax" or "antax." This
antilogic produces a "field" opposed to the syntactic field--what I call the
"antactic"or "negative field." While in some sense closely related to what
might be (with certain important reservations) called "pure sensory experience,"
the negative field is opposed to the opposition, which, for Derrida, grounds
"metaphysics": concept vs. percept. Since the theories of "modernist" art
associated with Clement Greenberg are also based on this same dichotomy,
my approach must be understood as opposed to such theories (though it resembles
them in certain respects). It also opposes post-modernist and post-structuralist
positions which insist that all works of art are simply "texts," to be "read."
For me, negative syntax is not simply "text" but is itself an analytic act,
even a "deconstruction," performed not by philosophers or critics, but artists.
3. Among the earliest manifestations of negative
syntax is the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, an approach to the visual arts
which grew (significantly, for me) out of nineteenth century Realism. Central
to the Cubist "deconstruction" of pictorial language is what in Derridean
terms could be called a "supplementary" device, an "effacement of borderlines,"
which art historians call "passage." Passage, closely related to devices
such as modeling and chiaroscuro, can be regarded as an art of transition,
a smooth "passage" from one area of virtual space to another. For example,
in a landscape, a shadowy area on one side of a tree trunk might imperceptibly
merge with a dark area of background shrubbery. Both the "old master"painters
and the Realists used passage as a means of smoothing over discrepancies
that could not be incorporated within traditional pictorial syntax (e.g.,
perspective) and, at the same time, creating a kind of "void" which the
viewing subject could be seduced into "fleshing out" mentally. Cézanne,
whose ad hoc approach to composition produced many spatial anomalies,
used passage in an attempt to smooth them over, often thereby creating an
effect of "warped" space. The Cubists carried Cézanne's approach
to an extreme, ultimately using passage disjunctively, to open form out
to the "negative space" of the "surface," which ends by itself "opening"
to the negative field, where passage and negative space merge. A parallel
development takes place in music, where devices such as the use of common
tones, modulation, transition, and certain ambiguous chords function in
a manner quite similar to passage, and, in the hands of composers such as
Schonberg, Webern, and Stravinsky are used to "open" musical gestalts out
to the negative field. In film, as I will argue, devices such as the fade,
the dissolve, and--especially--the match cut, can also be understood as equivalents
to traditional passage. Brakhage's "plastic cutting" functions like Cubist
passage, using such devices against themselves, "deconstructing" them in
a process which I call "negative montage," the montage of disjunction, disruption,
4. Ultimately, the "meaning" of a notion such
as the negative field is as problematic as the "meaning" of certain terms
of Derrida's, such as "differance," "the trace," or "deconstruction." I feel
that there is a relation between these terms and the negative field, but
this is, in principle, not something that could ever be "established." There
is also an important difference. The negative field, as I conceive it, can
be regarded as, above all, a purely "sensory" field, a notion which is quite
alien to Derrida's thought. We must recall, however, that it is opposed
to the traditional opposition, to which Derrida is also opposed: "concept
vs. percept." So, if the negative field involves "seeing" and/or "hearing,"
these experiences are radically redefined in it. What we "see" in terms of
the negative field is never "simply seen," but part of a struggle to see,
never passive, but an act of vision, the act of seeing seeing itself,
in its elusiveness, its ephemerality, its contingency, its differance
5. In an early chapter of the book, I discuss
an influential essay by Jean Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the
Basic Cinematic Apparatus," which analyses the effects of cinematic technology
from a Lacanian viewpoint, in which the smooth functioning of the "apparatus"
is associated with primary repression. From this standpoint, as I wrote,
"the very tendency of this apparatus to recede into the background and present
itself as a neutral recording 'medium' links it strongly with ideology,
which seeks always to suppress any awareness of its real nature and effect."
Later, I refer to another aspect of Baudry's argument, dealing with the
fundamental discontinuity embodied in the projection mechanism. For Baudry,
"it is precisely...the restoration of continuity to discontinuous elements
which poses a problem. The meaning effect produced does not depend only
on the content of the images but also on the material procedures by which
an illusion of [frame to frame] continuity...is restored from discontinuous
elements." The differences between the frames are necessary for the illusion,
"but only on one condition can these differences create this illusion: they
must be effaced as differences.... In this sense we could say that film
lives on the denial of difference." An awareness of Baudry's formulation
is implicit in much of the following chapter, where I attempt to demonstrate
that Brakhage has both anticipated Baudry and actively undone both "apparatus
ideology" and "denial of difference."
The chapter that follows reflects the time in
which it was written, a time when "modernism" was going out of fashion,
when Andy Warhol was beginning to be taken seriously, not just as artist but
as "philosopher,"when the "cinema of sight," associated with Brakhage, had
already given way to a "cinema of intellection," the so-called "structural
film," which was itself on the verge of obliteration by our ruthless, trend-obsessed
(despite protestations to the contrary) "post-modern" culture. I attempted,
on the basis of the theoretical principles outlined above, to counter the
destructive effects of simplistic modernist and post-modernist dogma alike
by demonstrating that things were not as straightforward as they might
seem, that if Brakhage's was, indeed, a "cinema of sight," this meant that
"seeing" itself had to be reconsidered on a very fundamental level indeed,
a level that must take us far beyond the limitations of both Greenbergian
modernism and a "post-modernism" which seemed (and still seems) lost in
its own hall of mirrors.
Brakhage and the Avant-Garde
Brakhage's work is, among students of avant-garde
film, almost universally acknowledged as representing a revolutionary break
with the past. He is probably the single most influential (and highly praised)
member of the so?called New American Cinema. Because his work is extremely
complex and resistant to analysis, however, there is a great deal of confusion
Aspects of his work (e. g., rapid montage, painting
on film, use of black or clear leader, superimposition, time lapse, flicker,
in-camera editing, jump cuts, hand-held camera--one could go on and on) have
had enormous impact, certain filmmakers building entire careers on the exploration
of a single one of his discoveries. His style as a whole, however, has rarely
been imitated with any success. Most who try, usually enthusiastic beginners,
soon grow discouraged by failure to match his intensity.
Brakhage's style is thought to be entirely idiosyncratic,
an attitude that he himself has fostered in his writings, especially when
he claims that he both shoots and edits his films in a state approaching
trance. So personal, complex, and intense a style strongly discourages followers.
The current avant?garde has taken the hint and, having plundered his work
for ideas and techniques, has moved on, stylistically, to a world remote
Brakhage and the Critics
Partly because of the apparently subjective
nature of so many aspects of his films, partly because of attitudes expressed
in his writings, Brakhage has come to be regarded by critics as an arch?Romantic,
a visionary neo?idealist. Annette Michelson's "Camera Lucida /Camera Obscura"
is a comparison of Eisenstein and Brakhage; the former "lucida," the latter
"obscura," Eisenstein represents the "epic" tradition, shaped ideologically
by "dialectical materialism," formed artistically by "the poetry, painting,
and theater which developed ...from Futurism through Cubism and Constructivism."Brakhage
represents the "lyric" tradition, shaped ideologically by "romantic idealism,"
formed artistically "in the movement from the space and conceptual framework
of Cubism through Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism."
In more or less the same vein, P. Adams Sitney
finds in Brakhage, "perhaps more intensely than anywhere else, the strains
of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry in American art [converging] with
the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism." Malcom LeGrice, following Sitney's
lead, writes of Brakhage as "epitomizing the direction of personal, visionary
cinema, establishing, more than any other filmmaker, the camera as heroic
protagonist....Brakhage is primarily an Expressionist,...concerned with
utilizing subjective means towards expressing a personal vision."
Brakhage and Cézanne
An unequivocal refutation of the prevailing
view can be found in the words of Brakhage himself. He has stated, paraphrasing
D. W. Griffith, "all that I really want to do is make you see." "I wanted
to feel like I lived in the same world with other people. That's not the
same as communicating.... My primary need was that, at some point, I share
a sight with them....I don't think it has much to do with the creative act."
In the same context, Brakhage describes himself
as "the most thorough documentary film maker in the world because I document
the act of seeing as well as everything that the light brings me." Criticizing
P. Adams Sitney for having "no fix on the extent to which I was documenting,"
he complains that Sitney "and many others are still trying to view me as
an imaginative film maker, as an inventor of fantasies or metaphors."
Obsession with the "act of seeing" dominates
Brakhage's major theoretical statement, Metaphors on Vision, which
opens with the following oft-quoted but little understood passage: "Imagine
an eye unruled by manmade laws of perspective, 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?....
Imagine a world before the `beginning was the word.'"
Brakhage's evocation of Ruskin's "innocent eye"
has done much to foster his reputation as Romantic anarchist. But he goes
beyond Ruskin. Refusing to dwell on the infant's eye, which soon enough
"learns to classify sights," Brakhage states that "only the ultimate of knowledge"
can compensate for the loss of innocence. Far beyond the naive attempt to
subjectively recreate an Edenic state of pure receptivity is "a pursuit
of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication,
demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception
in the original and deepest sense of the word."
In evoking a purely sensory "knowledge,"opposed
to the conceptual, Brakhage links Ruskin's theory with the far more sophisticated
project of Cézanne, for whom "optics" meant "a logical vision."
The process of turning away from conventional, language-dominated modes
of seeing, struggling to see with the eyes only, not the mind, a process
that Cézanne attempted to describe sporadically and with great difficulty,
is set forth in Metaphors on Vision with exhaustive (and exhaustingly
confusing) detail. While Brakhage was undoubtedly aware of Cézanne,
there is no question of direct influence. Brakhage was clearly determined,
as was the great painter, to live every detail of the process through his
own experience, taking nothing at second hand. Metaphors on Vision
is, among other things, the kind of document phenomenologist admirers
like Merleau-Ponty would have liked to have had from Cézanne.
Brakhage and the Apparatus
While, consciously or not, echoing Ruskin and
Cézanne, Metaphors also anticipates Baudry's critique of
camera ideology. Contrasting the human eye, "capable of any imagining" with
"the camera eye, its lenses grounded to achieve 19th century Western compositional
perspective," Brakhage ironically reveals the debt of motion picture "science"
to19th Century romantic sentimentality.
Standardized shutter speeds are "geared to the
feeling of the ideal slow Viennese waltz," the tripod is "balled with bearings"
to give it a smooth "Les Sylphides motion;" restricted to horizontal
and vertical movements in the spirit of "pillars and horizon lines." The
lens is coated and filtered, the light meter balanced and the film chemically
designed "to provide that picture postcard effect (salon painting) exemplified
by those oh so blue skies and peachy skins."
Brakhage continues, recommending a host of "remedies"
designed to wrench the apparatus free from perspective and its attendant
rigidities: spitting on the lens, throwing it out of focus, speeding up
or slowing down the shutter, hand-holding, over or under exposing the celluloid.
A Faceted Vision
If Metaphors on Vision reveals a truly
dialectical grasp of theory, it reveals also the energy with which Brakhage
has pursued the practice of vision itself. The following passage demonstrates
how the intensity of his investigations of the act of seeing brings him
to the point of Cubist fragmentation: "concentrated once upon my wife's
arm, elbow to hand, my eyes drew every possible line out of it until all
seemed strands separated as if in a dissection of its light and shadow surface.
Then a semi-reformation produced multiple arms, moving independently in
this re-defined space, superimposing over each other, all differently drawn....Eventually
it became impossible for me to discern the originating image."
If we see the "multiple arms, moving independently"
each in its own fragment of time, as a series of very brief shots, we have
something very close to one aspect of Brakhage's montage.
Rapid montage is, of course, the strongest and
most pervasive aspect of Brakhage's mature style. Taken in itself, it can
be regarded as both the most and the least original feature of that style.
At the time of its emergence in his work (the late Fifties), montage of
this sort was considered completely outdated, a brave experiment that had
failed; it was no longer "being done." The novelty of Brakhage's montage
was therefore enhanced by the almost total eclipse of the Russian masters,
who, as he readily admits, had influenced him.
Nevertheless, a single viewing of Anticipation
of the Night, his first really ambitious venture in rapid montage,
will reveal beyond any doubt the enormous gulf between his approach and
that of his predecessors. Although this film has been paraphrased by Brakhage
in narrative-symbolic terms, none of its narrative or symbolic aspects is
in any way reinforced by any of the elements of film language or rhetoric
pioneered by the early montage masters.
The result is extremely confusing, even after
several viewings. There is an avalanche of shots-- of shadows, trees, the
sun, water, grass. Many of these are blurred by very rapid camera movements,
often to the point that we cannot "read" any image at all. Even when we
can read the images, nothing seems to hang together in any of the ways that
we have learned to expect from our previous experience with montage.
Brakhage's time facets, like the "exploded"
spatial facets of late analytic Cubism, break down continuity much more
radically than anything in Eisenstein, Vertov, Gance, or Leger. Time seems
to be starting and stopping anew with each shot, which refuses to "link
up," conceptually, with its neighbors. There is no sense of a time "container"
within which a single coherent event might occur.
Analysing films like this has proven a tremendous
stumbling block for critics. The simple observation that Brakhage has thrown
conventional narrativeoverboard, while certainly true, is only a beginning.
Many critics rest content with haphazard descriptions of particular techniques,
reserving most of their powers to the piecing together of some sort of
more or less reasonable quasi-narrative exegesis.
Writers with some background in modernist art
invariably make a special point of Brakhage's treatment of screen-space.
According to the prevailing wisdom, modernism has something to do with the
flattening of space; much of Brakhage's camera work has the effect of flattening
space; ergo, Brakhage is a modernist. Moreover, the spatial effect of Brakhage's
images, so often vague, blurry, distorted, even messy, easily calls to
mind the treatment of space so characteristic of certain Abstract Expressionist
painters, particularly Pollock and de Kooning. Given the historical situation,
coupled with the apparently subjective tone of Brakhage's own writings,
it is not difficult to see why his work is almost always discussed within
the context of Abstract Expressionist aesthetics.
Analysis of this sort does make some sense,
as far as it goes. Brakhage's aesthetic has undoubtedly been deeply touched
by Abstract Expressionism. The influence has been most obvious in his handling
of the camera, almost always a matter of spontaneous, unpremeditated involvement,
akin to "action painting." Everything in the workings of the apparatus
designed to give a neat, orderly spatial impression in depth is strongly
resisted. True to his written testimony, he has spat on the lens, thrown
it out of focus, jiggled the camera. He has resisted the all too easy tendency
of the lens to generate automatic perspective space in a hundred ways,
from the use of distorting lenses to emphasis on extreme close-ups.
Editing and Spontaneity
While Brakhage's "expressionist" treatment of
screen-space is an undeniable aspect of his style, analysis in terms of
space alone can be of little use in the effort to grasp his far more characteristic
and consistent approach to montage. There is, moreover, really nothing
in Abstract Expressionist aesthetics to prepare one for the situation encountered
in the editing room. Here, no matter how spontaneous one might like to
be, the laborious process of locating specific pieces of film, deciding
where each will fit and precisely how long it will be, invariably demands
a certain amount of conscious, even calculated decision making.
While much has been made of Brakhage's experimentation
with films edited in the camera, the great majority of his major works
involve enormous amounts of post-facto editing. This indeed is usually
the stage in which various pieces of footage, shot with no particular context
in mind, are brought together and the film as such takes shape.
This "analytic" process, often involving laboriously
detailed notes and sketches, is deliberately omitted by certain filmmakers,
influenced by Brakhage, whose work can much more successfully be identified
with Abstract Expressionism: Andrew Noren, Werner Nekes, and Paul Winkler,
Screen-Space vs. Time
Over and above the issue of "Abstract Expressionist
spontaneity" is the basic issue of space vs. time in film. As I have already
argued, treatment of screen space is much less of a problem in film generally
than treatment of time. Only the time-producing space of the filmstrip
itself can, after all, be regarded as the ground of film syntax, positive
or negative. Screen space is highly flexible--idiosyncratic spaces do not
need to be reconciled, as in a painting, since they can readily be replaced.
Idiosyncratic events must, on the other hand, take their place as permanently
determined elements of the time field.
Film, moreover, is not a particularly plastic
medium in its spatial dimension. As with photography generally, there has
been a considerable sacrifice of plasticity to the rigid optics of "realism."
Outside the realm of animation, precise spatial facetting in film would
be extraordinarily difficult. Stratagems such as spitting on the lens or
shaking the camera, while effective in neutralizing certain built-in effects,
can hardly be taken seriously as attempts at spatial determination. Film
is precise exactly where it most needs to be--in time.
The essential structural element in Brakhage's
work is the precisely controlled temporal discontinuity of his montage,
directly analogous to the precise spatial discontinuities of Cubism. Unlike
Eisenstein, Brakhage does not compromise in order to preserve the sense
of a coherent, even partially continuous time field. There is rarely any
attempt to correlate the shot-to-shot sequences as edited with some kind
of "normal" sequence of events, either narrative or documentary.
On the contrary, techniques which defeat "positive"
temporal continuity are liberally employed: jump cuts, both forward and backward
in time; immediate repetition of similar shots; recurrence of similar shots
at various, often widely separated parts of the film; the use of "rhythmic"
montage; shot to shot variation of movement-tempo and direction of movement;
extreme fragmentation of the time field through rapid cutting. Sound, traditionally
a powerful reinforcer of continuity, is eliminated.
The meaning of Brakhage's montage vis-a-vis
continuity and discontinuity, Abstract Expressionism, and Cubism, is far
from obvious. We can, in fact, go more deeply into both issues by pursuing
a revealing, if quite natural, misunderstanding. I have already cited Annette
Michelson's "Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura," in which she associates Eisenstein
with Cubism and Brakhage with Abstract Expressionism. Toward the end of this
essay, she sums up an aspect of their relationship as follows: "If Eisenstein's
cinema of intellection depends upon the unity of the disjunct, sensed as
disjunct, the cinema of sight [Brakhage's cinema] will be, from this point
on [since Anticipation of the Night], incomparably fluid." A bit later,
writing of Anticipation of the Night, she clarifies as follows: "Its
fluidity almost belies its total sovereignty. The cuts are many and quick...but--and
this is Brakhage's point of dialectical intensity--they are fused by a
camera movement sustained over cuts. Disparate images...are united by movement
or direction either repeated or sustained through the cut. Disparate spaces
are unified in a consistent flattening or obscuring of spatial coordinates
and that unity is intensified by the synthetic effect of continuous movement
produced in editing."
Anyone familiar with Brakhage's work will recognize
in the above a description of what he has called "plastic cutting." Defined
by P. Adams Sitney as "the joining of shots at points of movement, close-up,
or abstraction to soften the brunt of montage," plastic cutting is a pervasive
element of Brakhage's approach to editing which can take many forms: he
may cut from a shot which ends in black to one which begins in black; or
from white to white; he may cut from movement to movement or blur to blur
so that, in the confusion, the exact time point of the cut is obscured;
he may match the shape of one part of an image with a similar shape in the
same part of the frame in the next shot; he may superimpose film rolls so
that cuts on one are masked by bright areas on another; he may combine any
of the above.
While all forms of plastic cutting tend to fuse
juxtaposed shots, contrasting such fusions with the disjunctions of Cubism,
as Michelson does, is a fundamental error. Plastic cutting is, in fact,
closely analogous with Cubist passage. The connection will be more evident
if we backtrack a bit to our earlier discussion of positive montage.
Passage in Conventional
As was then pointed out, devices such as cutting
on motion (the match cut) and the dissolve are temporal reconciliations of
a kind very similar to the spatial reconciliations of "old master" passage.
Like their spatial counterparts, these filmic devices contain the seeds
of radical disjunction since they take place, not in representational time,
but on the "surface time" of the filmstrip.
Because such a time field has no representational
meaning, the viewer interprets its emergence as a "warping" of the time
"ground" enclosing the time "figures," the events; hence the interpretation
of the dissolve as "passage (really distortion) of time."
Cutting on motion is a bit more subtle. Nevertheless,
in distracting the viewer momentarily from motion contained in representational
time to uncontained motion "in itself," carried over from one shot to the
next, the match cut sets up a tiny kinetic "charge" of "surface time."
When, as in less conventional films, cutting on motion is used more aggressively
to link two ordinarily unrelated motions (e. g., the swinging of a tennis
racquet and the lurching of an automobile) its artificial, purely formal
invocation of the filmic "surface" is more pronounced. Such an effect is
often used as a "sophisticated" substitute for the dissolve.
Other, closely related, effects are produced
in what is called "associational editing," a famous example being the well-known
transition from scream to railroad whistle. Again the viewer is distracted
momentarily by a purely formal link on the "temporal surface."
Plastic Cutting As "Cubist" Passage
All of the above devices verge on the subliminal,
having, like "old master" passage, traditionally been treated with great
restraint and a host of taboos. Brakhage's plastic cutting, in the spirit
of Cubist passage, aggressively violates the taboos. Extreme intensification
of the transitional negates its original function, transforming "old master"
and even Cezannian reconciliation into Cubistic disjunction.
Whereas a professional editor will, when cutting
on motion, take great care to preserve the sense of representational time
flow, Brakhage will deliberately disrupt it. Through plastic editing, for
example, the motion of a person's head turning to screen left may be completed
by automobile headlights turning in the same direction. A zoom-in on the
headlights may "become" a child's face rushing toward the camera. These motions
have nothing in common as far as representational time is concerned--the
flow from one to the other cannot be contained within it.
On the contrary, the fusion of any two motions
in this manner calls forth the otherwise subliminal temporal "surface,"
which, like the pictorial surface of Cubism, causes juxtaposed representational
elements to repel one another. Paradoxically, therefore, it is through the
fluidities of plastic editing that Brakhage most completely resists the
fusion of his images into conceptually manageable perceptions. As should
be clear at this point, the word "surface" has become quite problematic.
Like Derrida's "writing" or "trace," words which should by no means be taken
at face value, "surface" in the context of Cubism or of Brakhage's mature
films has become "difficult" and should not too easily be "understood."
In terms of the theoretical construct I am erecting here, the term ultimately
merges with the "negative field" itself, thereby losing all connection with
the notion of surface as usually understood, in the sense of some sort
of immanent "material substance."
Michelson has oversimplified by failing to recognize
the dual function of Brakhage's fluidities. Eisenstein's clearcut fragmentations,
like those of the Futurists, fail to generate the strong negative field which
alone can prevent them from reuniting within a heightened positivity. His
straightforward "collisions" simply generate a more highly charged "current"
of positive syntax through which the narrative may more dramatically flow.
Brakhage's fluidities, on the other hand, literally "short circuit" this
current by fully opening forbidden channels.
Motion And Stasis
It is hardly an accident that so much of the
preceding has hinged on Brakhage's treatment of motion. Unlike Eisenstein,
who preferred to juxtapose essentially static shots, Brakhage typically
places great emphasis on mobility within the shot, to the extent that some
of his films seem in perpetual motion. Even when his subject is not moving,
his camera usually is, often violently so. This intensive, highly original
and varied use of motion is extremely problematic, generating results that
are often contradictory, as we have seen. In order to understand it, we must
probe more deeply the nature of the cinematic apparatus and its effects.
If film can be described as in some sense uniting
time and space, its capacity to generate motion (or the illusion thereof)
is the most dramatic evidence of this union. Motion can, in fact, be regarded
as a kind of passage uniting the two fields. At the same time it can be said
to generate a somewhat independent secondary "field" of its own, best understood
by analogy with time and space. In this respect, motion must be considered
in relation to its opposite, stasis. Specifically, motion is the "figure"
seen within the "ground" of stasis.
As with the background space of positive pictorial
syntax, the stasis of positive filmic syntax operates as an invisible, abstract
field within which motion takes place. In conventional film, the viewer must
never be in doubt as to which is which. This is by no means as simple as
it seems, for either the camera or the photographed object or both may be
moving. If the object is to be perceived as moving, the camera must be perceived
as a stable ground. If the camera is to be seen as moving (as in a wide angle
horizontal pan), the image (a landscape, say) must be seen as ground. If
camera and object are both perceived as moving, "figure-ground" stability
is in danger of breaking down altogether--often there is some other element
on the screen which must be read as stable.
Motion figure/ground can lead to illusions as
powerful as any associated with perspective. For example, in a typical pan,
say from left to right, we might see a group of buildings literally moving
across the screen from right to left. If, as is usually the case, we read
the buildings as stable, the screen itself must take on the motion and appear
to move from left to right. The mind of the viewer is able, with no trouble
at all, to accept this impossible situation by creating an unseen element,
what we may call the "omniscient viewer," an all-seeing Godlike eye. When,
according to the logic of motion figure/ground, the screen (the camera)
must appear to move, this movement is understood as movement of the "omniscient
viewer." The image of buildings drifting right to left across the screen
thus becomes the left to right motion of the "omniscient viewer's" head as
it scans the horizon.
Through his characteristic use of the camera
(coupled with plastic editing), Brakhage tends to destroy the figure/ground
relations of conventional film motion. One might say that his extreme camera
movements and his tendency to cut on movement generate a "negative" motion,
analogous to negative time and space.
For instance, Brakhage's version of the pan
described above might well be extremely rapid and irregular, with a sudden
downward tilt of the camera at the end, so that the buildings lurch upward.
This upward motion might be continued in the next shot by, say, a flock
of birds rising out of a tree. As most beginners know, a too rapid horizontal
pan in itself can radically disrupt our normal manner of perceiving motion.
This, coupled with its irregularity and the sudden lurch at the end, would
make it all but impossible to read in terms of an "omniscient viewer."
Any tendency to interpret the upward lurch of the buildings as the secondary
result of a downward movement of such a viewer's head (or even "realistically"
in terms of camera movement), would be seriously weakened by the continuation
of the upward flow in the "primary" motion of the birds. As any two motions
fuse through plastic editing, it becomes exceedingly difficult to "read"
each as having an independent source.
In this kind of context all motions will tend
to be seen simply as movement of images across the screen. If an image is
moving from screen right to left, we will not tend to read it as the stable
"ground" of some inferred movement from left to right (such as that of
an "omniscient viewer") but will be more or less forced to accept it as
right-left movement "in itself." Thus, in his radical complication of motion,
Brakhage induces us to simplify our means of comprehending it.
That our analysis of negative motion is still
incomplete, however, will be evident if we ask ourselves what it means
to say that "an image is moving from screen right to left." Nothing is
actually moving across the screen, only something we call an "image." The
cinematic image, as we know, is the result of light projected through a
photographic emulsion which either lets it pass or, to some extent, interrupts
it. This play of light and shadow is clearly visible as such in the space
between projector and screen (given a certain amount of dust and/or smoke
in the screening area). Lifting our eyes to study this space during any but
the most completely static scene, we can appreciate how the notion of cinematic
movement "in itself" is intimately tied to the formation of a "readable"
image which must function as a "figure" of motion. In the absence of such
an image, our eyes removed from the screen to the space directly overhead,
we see that motion of light in one direction is equivalent to motion of shadow
in the opposite direction. Placing our attention on one, we may see motion
from right to left; shifting our attention to the other, all else being equal,
motion is suddenly from left to right.
Brakhage's tendency to weaken the figural impact of the image (through
out-of-focus photography, spitting on the lens, and the like), coupled
with his radical complication of motion (as described above) often does,
indeed, lead to effects of just this kind, not in the space overhead, but
on the screen itself. In such instances, all sense of motion figure/ground
can collapse, motion literally dissolving with the image itself into a play
of light and shadow. What we see may be changing but is not moving. Thus,
in their most extreme violence, Brakhage's motions can lead to stasis.
As should now be evident, the entire dialectic
of film motion and stasis parallels that of pictorial figure and ground
in the movement from perspective space to Cubism. In each case, as the "negative"
asserts itself, the passive background comes forward. Stasis, as the "background"
against which motion is perceived is, in the great majority of films, simply
weightless and invisible, like the ground of pictorial positive syntax.
When, with Brakhage, the figure-ground of positive cinematic motion is weakened,
the ground, or "negative" of motion asserts itself. In its weaker form,
this "negative motion" can cause us to perceive the simple "surface" motion
of the image across the screen rather than the implied motion, in the opposite
direction, of an "omniscient viewer." In its stronger form, it reveals
itself not simply as the negative of any particular direction of
motion but of motion itself: negative motion is stasis made visible,
analogous to the Cubist pictorial surface, made visible through the assertion
of negative space.
But what can it mean to say "stasis made visible?"
How can one equate an abstract concept with something concrete, like a pictorial
surface? Once again, we must return to our basic analogy: as a pictorial
figure presented against a ground is equivalent to a form seen within passive
space, filmic motion presented against stasis is equivalent to an event perceived
within passive time. Stasis is, in fact, equivalent to what we have been
calling time. As negative pictorial syntax brings space actively forward as
a concretely perceptible surface, so negative filmic syntax brings time (stasis)
forward in a similar way. Thus, in Brakhage, time is perceived largely in
its own terms, as specific "weighted" duration, rather than in terms of some
motion contained in it, which can only imply its existence. Duration in this
sense can, ultimately, be determined only in terms of the linear space of
the filmstrip itself, that array of totally static images on which cinematic
negative motion, negative time, and stasis ultimately find identity and concrete
Thus has Brakhage written of creating his films
"with an eye to their speaking just as strips of celluloid held in the hand,"
stating that "all my significant splices...are the result of viewing the
film to be edited both through the editor at an approximate 24 frames a
second and also as stilled strips of film." [In an earlier chapter of the
book, I discuss, at some length, Bergson's notion of duration, as opposed
to what he calls "cinematographic time." Brakhage's approach to montage
is at once a subversion of "cinematographic time," an affirmation of Bergson's
"duration," a refutation of Bergon's critique of "the spatialization of
time," and a demonstration of what Derrida might mean by "spacing" as "temporization."]
Resisting The Conceptual Order
As the above analysis demonstrates, Brakhage's
compositional "strategies" involve the complete dismantling of cinematic
positive syntax, from the intricacies of montage language and perspective
time to the fundamental "denial of difference" [see reference to Jean Louis
Baudry in the Preface] which is the illusion of motion itself. While it
would undoubtedly be misleading and in any case grossly anachronistic to
characterize Brakhage as a "Cubist" filmmaker, our theoretical framework
clearly reveals a profound structural affinity between his strategies and
those of Cubism.
Most obvious, of course, is the parallel between
Cubist facetting and rapid montage. More fundamental is the analogous treatment
of the syntactic field generally. As with Cubist passage, Brakhage's plastic
cutting simultaneously breaks up the overall field of representation (positive
time) and unites the various micro-fields (the individual shots) on the "surface"
(the negative time field generated by the filmstrip--fundamentally, the
As the negative space of Cubism destroys depth,
Brakhage's negative time (and negative motion) destroys time "depth." Each
moment tends to become static and isolated, an event unto itself, freed from
dependence on past and future, experienced as a unique time of its own.
As in Cubism, negative determination of the perceptual field is equivalent
to the disruption of positive syntax--negative time is negative syntax. Each
image is thus isolated within its own static micro-time as each painted
"sign" becomes isolated within Cubist space. Union of and on the surface becomes
representational (and perceptual) disjunction.
While Abstract Expressionism lays positive syntax
aside and simply affirms the surface, the negative syntax of Brakhage and
the Cubists actively engages positive syntax in a struggle for the surface.
Without such a struggle, as has already been emphasized, the "context of
implication" will arise from the ashes of positive syntax, giving birth
to ambiguity and its attendant mystifications. [The "context of implication,"
related both to Freud's notion of "secondary elaboration" and Jakobson's
notion of metonymic structure, can be understood as a kind of "proto-syntax"
in which all kinds of loosely or even randomly juxtaposed elements can come
together ambiguously or polysemically to make some sort of sense even when
no clearly defined syntactic field is present.]
In Brakhage, for the first time in the history
of film, the context of implication itself is consistently encountered
and disrupted. As a result, his images, as images, appear with a unique
clarity--even the blurred images, seen as blurred, are vividly clear. Despite
the fact that the filmmaker has done nothing to help the viewer "get" the
ideas "behind" the film, there is no feeling of ambiguity in the usual
We may certainly be confused when watching a
Brakhage film--we will not be led to believe that everything we see implies
something else, that when two images are juxtaposed in time this is more
than a "mere" juxtaposition, that there is some relationship between them,
clear or ambiguous, which must, as, for example, in the Kuleshov experiment,
be revealed in our "imagination."
It is this ability to create juxtapositions
which resist our need for what Rosalind Krauss has called a "conceptual
order...transcending the materials of experience," that is the true achievement
of Brakhage's montage, the heart of his cinematic revolution.
The Link With Realism
The preceding discussion, necessarily highly
formal, might lead one to conclude that Brakhage's films are, indeed, totally
formal structures, presentations of isolated bits of time or film completely
devoid of significant connections with any outer or inner reality. Such
a conclusion would be totally inadequate, a crude simplification of an extraordinarily
rich and complex creative nexus. Brakhage's films are strongly rooted in
the deepest possible involvement with the outer and inner worlds and the
relation between them.
Turning first to the former, I have already
cited his view of himself as fundamentally a documentor, a view reinforced
by much in Metaphors on Vision. As our transition from the naturalist
viewpoints expressed in this work to the "Cubistic" organization of the
films themselves was rather abrupt, the link with realism may have depended
too much on the purely theoretical analogies involved. Now that the theoretical
points have been made, let us, for the sake of argument, lay them aside
to ask ourselves a very basic, practical question which goes to the heart
of realism: how can we best present an ordinary event filmically in such a
way that it is perceived as much as possible in and for itself (rather than
in terms of something else) with maximum clarity and minimum distortion?
We could, of course, film it cinema verite
style, in a single long take. Let us even assume that we could accomplish
this in a manner that did not evoke any of the overtones of film language.
What would such a procedure accomplish? Upon careful examination, we would
discover that our long take of an "event" actually consisted of a myriad
of shorter events, all running into one another. A long take is, in time,
what a wide angle shot is in space. We get a total picture but lose all
sense of detail. If we are serious about clarity, we must concern ourselves
with detail. Let us, therefore, redefine "event" as a relatively brief occurrence
which can be fully grasped in a single act of perception. In order to do
justice to this detail, we must somehow isolate it from the surrounding events.
Within a long take, a single event can be isolated
by zooming in on it. If the camera person failed to zoom, the effect can
be produced on an optical printer. The sudden, close-up view will, indeed,
enhance clarity and detail; it will also unavoidably call forth overtones
of film language. The detail will, in fact, lose its "ordinariness." Singled
out in this manner, it will be "read" as having a special significance,
a veiled meaning in terms of some context not yet completely clear.
We could go farther, taking the event completely
out of context by literally cutting it out of the long take, attaching
head leader, tail leader, and rather clinically, projecting it as a totally
isolated shot. In the abstract, this might seem reasonable. In practice,
it would be extremely difficult to properly prepare viewers for what they
are about to see. After an indefinite length of time during which blank
leader is on the screen, the shot would suddenly appear. If truly brief,
it could well be over before the viewers realized it had begun.
An obvious solution to the above problem might
be to project the shot in slow motion. This would give viewers time to adjust
to the shot's appearance; it would also enhance certain details. The value
of slow motion with respect to detail has indeed been so highly touted that
its one serious drawback is rarely mentioned: it involves a distortion of
the time field. Perceiving an event in slow motion, we cannot grasp it as
it happened in its own characteristic tempo--its inherent evanescence, the
special kind of clarity made possible by the vivid apprehension of a brief
moment, would be lost.
Splicing the head of the clip to its tail, we
could make a loop which could be repeated indefinitely. The many repetitions
would enable viewers to grasp a good amount of detail without the need
for slow motion. However, such a recourse would still involve serious drawbacks:
by being repeated, the event would be overemphasized, losing its special
quality as something unique; such repetition can very quickly induce viewer
fatigue and/or something like a trance state, hardly conducive to clear
perception; finally, repetition will invariably call attention to itself
--viewers will tend to see the form, the repetition, rather than its content,
The nature of the problem should, at this point,
be relatively clear. There would seem to be no way to simply and/or systematically
achieve what has to be one of the fundamental requirements of film realism,
the clear presentation of an ordinary event in its own terms, within its
own time frame. Sensitive to this basic difficulty, Brakhage, like Cézanne,
realized that the problem of clear seeing in itself called forth a complex,
highly intuitive process of active vision.
In the spirit of Cézanne and the Cubists,
he set out to place each event within a context of similar events, a context
specifically created, composed so that each would set the other off, with
none dominating. Only through an actively determined, complex composition
of this sort, in which each event can be apprehended in its own unique
evanescence, set off by, but not confused with or dominated by neighboring
events, can we hope to achieve realism in any rigorous sense. The struggle
for perception on this level, with each thing seen in and for its own uniqueness,
rather than as a part of some larger, transcendent "reality," is only another
way of describing what I have called "negative montage." Thus everything
already discussed on the formal level has roots deep within the soil of
the realist quest.
It will be recalled that Erwin Panofsky referred
to the "idealistic conception of the world" implied in "all the representational
arts," a conception causing them to "operate from top to bottom," starting
with "an idea...not with the objects that constitute the physical world."
According to Panofsky, only "the movies" operate in the other direction,
from "bottom to top," thus doing "justice to that materialistic interpretation
of the universe which...pervades contemporary civilization." [source?]
As our discussion of ideology [see discussion
of Baudry, in the Preface] has made clear, such a statement can only be
taken as representing a potential state of affairs, not something simply
given through use of the motion picture camera, as Panofsky implies. Not,
in fact, until we reach the mature work of Brakhage is the promise of a true
film realism along materialist lines fulfilled.
In his films we are, for the first time, completely
freed from the domination of the "idea," either, as in narrative, "Russian"
Montage, and much experimental film, explicitly present as a structural and
interpretive force; or, as in cinema verite, implicitly present as
a conventionalized constraint on vision itself through dependence on the
apparatus and its ideology. Through development of the complex interactive
process that I have called "negative montage," Brakhage has been able to
free both the "material" of everyday life and the "material" of film itself
from the necessity for conceptual mediation, liberating them from systematic
control to speak, essentially, for themselves. Thus, not simply through manipulation
of a technical device, but by means of a creative accomplishment of considerable
scope, Brakhage's films finally do illuminate that infinitely rich "bottom"
of which Panofsky speaks.
The Associative Nexus
Having addressed the problem of Brakhage's link
with the outer world, I must now speak of his relation with the inner. No
aspect of his work has been so fully discussed, yet so often misunderstood,
as his apparently fanatical absorbtion in the "mythic" aspects of his own
life and personality. This extraordinarily intense inner quest has, understandably,
generated a good deal of skepticism regarding his claims as a "documentarist."
Unquestionably, Brakhage's earliest cinematic
impulses stemmed from a deep need for self-exploration. When he began making
films in the early Fifties, the prevailing mode of American cinematic experimentalism
was what P. Adams Sitney has called the "trance" film. For Brakhage, as
for his mentors (among the most prominent, Maya Deren, James Broughton,
and Kenneth Anger), the trance film, essentially a created film-dream, was
a means of self-analysis very much in the spirit of Freud. Indeed, as Sitney
has written, "Freud has never meant as much to any other filmmaker" as
to Brakhage, whose relation to psychoanalysis rivals Eisenstein's to dialectical
materialism. Another influence, equally popular among the intellectuals
of the period, was Surrealism, itself heavily in debt to Freud.
Central to both psychoanalytic and Surrealist
"technique" is a process known as `free association,' a means of short
circuiting the convention-bound workings of the rational mind in order
to reach the unconscious. In free association, as in Surrealist `automatic
writing,' the subject is encouraged to develop word associations devoid
of either syntactic connection or consciously derived symbolism. One simply
speaks or writes the first thing that comes into ones mind.
Few artists have applied free association so
rigorously to every aspect of their work as has Brakhage. His determination
to "turn off" the workings of the conscious mind is, indeed, his closest
link with Abstract Expressionist painting, itself born from a similar mix
of Surrealism and Freud. While free association is used rather timidly in
the early trance films, largely as a source of plot elements, the later
films draw on it far more intensely as a guide to camera work and montage.
In psychoanalysis, the analyst uses the patient's
free associations as a guide to help sort out the "inner meaning" of dreams
and fantasies which are presumed to stand for `censored' unconscious thoughts.
Brakhage has often written of his own films as though he himself were the
analyst, struggling to reach the hidden depths symbolized within. Following
his lead, most commentators have adopted a similar strategy, treating his
films as dreams to be explicated in symbolic terms.
While interpretations of this sort can be highly
relevant and revealing, as with psychoanalysis itself, too much dependence
on associative symbolization can lead to endless and pointless ambiguities.
In therapy, the justification for any given method is its promise of a
cure--what justifies any particular method of filmic interpretation? The
"totalizing end" of Brakhage's film, Dog Star Man, for Sitney, an
outstanding Brakhage explicator, is not what it is for Brakhage himself.
To Sitney, the climax comes with the image of the Dog Star man furiously
chopping the tree, a chopping which "becomes a metaphor for the splicing
of film." According to Sitney, "the apotheosis which Brakhage describes
(Dog Star Man assuming Cassiopeia's throne in the sky) appears for but a
second on the screen and it is not the last image of that figure. We see
him furiously chopping again."
In the absence of any theoretical framework
above and beyond Sitney's vague allusions to Blake and the Romantics, there
is no meaningful basis for choosing either version or for assuming that
the film has an "apotheosis" at all. In view of the fact that Brakhage very
definitely does employ free association, the sensitivity to its workings
undoubtedly displayed by commentators like Sitney has genuine value. In
the last analysis, however, such commentary, even by Brakhage himself, is
tentative at best and all too often misleading.
The Pitfalls of Paraphrase
The heart of the difficulty with symbolic paraphrase
of a mature Brakhage film is the extremely problematic relation between
free association, conventional film language and negative syntax. Brakhage's
films are more than associationally determined strings of imagery. Not only
do they put aside the conventions of film language, they actively oppose
such conventions. What is more, if our analysis is correct, they oppose
the implicational context which permits any sort of symbolism, even of the
most unconventional kind, to arise. While many Brakhage commentators reveal
some awareness of the above, the great majority proceed as though the distinctions
involved somehow do not really matter.
As an example, let us remain with Sitney, whose
interpretations are so insightful as to be all the more misleading. For
Sitney, Brakhage's The Animals of Eden and After "portrays the process
of convalescence as a normalization or accommodation to socially dictated
patterns of perception and thought." Describing the turning point of the
film as the birth of a goat, he characterizes this event as the point, "within
the narrative of the film, ...at which the child, [the film's "protagonist"]
witnessing the birth of the animal, imagines his own birth."
At another point Brakhage "intercuts [a] caged
bird with the crying child....The trapped bird now stands for the feeling
of the weeping child."
The difficulties of this kind of exegesis are
immediately apparent upon a viewing of the film. As with most Brakhage
works, we are presented with a barrage of disjunct images linked by no trace
of film language; organized, as I have already stressed, in such a way
as to defeat any possible coding process before it can begin. We see images
of a young boy in bed. Nothing in the film informs us that he is the protagonist
of a narrative. We see a goat giving birth, but there is nothing in the
way this event presents itself that can lead us to understand it as a "turning
point." If a shot of the boy directly follows a shot of the goat, it is
Brakhage's special achievement, all but unique among filmmakers, that we
will not fall victim to the Kuleshov effect and automatically assume that
the child is "witnessing the birth" of a baby goat. Similarly, a juxtaposition
of a shot of "the crying child" and the caged bird cannot, in the context
created by Brakhage, cause the bird to "stand for the feeling of the weeping
child." If Sitney's interpretation were as straightforwardly accurate as
his presentation implies, he would be describing something completely conventional,
an episode from "The Waltons," perhaps.
A clue to what is going on in the above "reading"
is provided by the Freudian context to which I have already alluded. Sitney
is reading, probably with genuine insight, not the film, but the nexus
of associations behind it, associations which have left their trace upon
the film itself as though it were a dream. The object of analysis, therefore,
is not Animals of Eden and After but Brakhage himself. As a series
of insights into Brakhage's state of mind, projected onto the images of
the sick child, Sitney's analysis is unquestionably valuable. In failing
to distinguish between the film itself and the associations surrounding
it, however, he makes the fatal mistake of treating the later work as though
it were still at the "trance film" stage, a series of symbolic film-dreams.
In settling for a "dream analysis," in which Brakhage's overriding concern
with the destruction of conceptually determined vision is treated "metaphorically,"
Sitney leads his readers away from the struggle, so apparent in the films
themselves, for the real thing. [Already when I first wrote this, as I was
very much aware, it was a commonplace to insist that "one cannot" separate
out "the work itself" from the associations surrounding it, that there
can be no "work itself" apart from such associations and certainly no "real
thing" as opposed to something mediated by language, culture, politics,
and so forth. For almost every other body of cinematic work, I would heartily
agree, but in Brakhage's case, I must vigorously dissent. Not that I see
Brakhage in terms of the rightfully discredited notion of the `autonomous'
work of art, promoted by Clement Greenberg and some of his more idealist
colleagues. But in Brakhage, as in the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and
the work of certain other modernists, something very different is afoot
and must be thought differently. Personal associations are obviously still
extremely important for such artists, but, at the very heart of their work,
there is a profound dissociation between the work itself and the personal
meanings and feelings which gave rise to it. Such works, as I argue in a
later chapter of my book, are more comparable to psychoanalysis itself than
to anything that could possibly be analyzed by it.]
A patient in the hands of a psychoanalyst may
well be doomed indefinitely to the ambiguities of free association. An
artist can go beyond this stage to work precisely and unambiguously within
the formal possibilities of a particular medium. In wedding his highly original
formal strategies to an essentially derivative but deeply felt involvement
with associationally determined subject matter, Brakhage has employed the
former to clarify the latter, bringing it up out of the obscure realm of
dream, "visionary" experience, and "poetic" ambiguity, into the clear light
of organized "ordinary" vision.
In the extraordinarily complex films that result,
ambiguity is `resolved' into something with which it can easily be confused,
a rarely achieved mode of perception which provides the key to Brakhage's
relation with his subject matter. Let us call it by the self-descriptive,
if somewhat awkward, term, multi-referentiality.
Ambiguity and multi-referentiality represent
different stages in the evolutionary process leading from naive realism
to negative syntax. The contradictions of realism first manifest themselves
as ambiguities, of vision, representation, or both. Two or more interpretations
present themselves in a context (the context of implication) which demands
resolution on some "higher" level. As no such level is perceptually evident,
it is inferred in the realm of "meaning." A vague aura of mystery arises
through the contemplation of some level of "inner meaning" on which such
seemingly disjunct elements can be unified. As the ambiguities become more
intense, the explanations in terms of `inner meaning' become more far-fetched.
Thus do the extreme ambiguities of Cubism call forth speculations regarding
the `fourth dimension.' As the apparently strange and mysterious spaces of
Cubism resolve on the matter-of-fact surface, so do its ambiguities give way
to multi-referentiality. In this context, there is no sense of implication,
no paradox that must be resolved within some higher or broader field which
might encompass it. A passively "aesthetic" sense of awe in the face of deep,
impenetrable mystery, is replaced by an active struggle to see and understand
purely on the basis of what is directly perceptible and thinkable. Whatever
one may conclude remains open to revision, rethinking, relooking.
True multi-referentiality is extremely rare
and represents a profound achievement, enabling both artist and involved
viewer to come to terms with what is presented to the eye and mind on many
different levels, each with an equal claim. Thus, the fact that Brakhage's
images are, in a sense, `mere' juxtapositions, does not by any means force
us into an abstract (i.e., purely formal) viewing, purely in terms of light,
shadow, color, rhythm, and so forth. On the contrary, it frees us to search
for the meanings that we ourselves can find as we struggle with our own
I am now in a position to draw some provisional
conclusions. Clearly, the importance of Brakhage goes beyond the great
praise that has been heaped upon him as a unique, isolated "genius," whose
work is utterly subjective, thus beyond rational analysis. While many aspects
of his films are highly personal; while he probably does put himself in something
like a trance state in order to free associate filmically; while he often
writes about his work in transcendental, even "cosmic" terms; we have seen,
nevertheless, that his work is fundamentally grounded in structural principles
that can yield to analysis; that can be discussed objectively; that do,
in fact have precedents with which they can be compared. Far from being
either a formal purist or formless romantic, he has been able to transcend
such alternatives in the creation of films which are simultaneously documents,
subjective visions, and highly disciplined structures.
this article was prrinted in Millennium Film Journal No. 32/33 (Fall