Brakhage and the Theory of Montage
Victor A. Grauer
[This essay, slightly modified, was published in the Millennium Film Journal, nos. 32/33, Fall
In the summer of 1982 I completed the final draft of a monograph entitled Montage, Realism and the Act of Vision, a work focused, for the most part, on the films of Stan Brakhage. As I progressed, it became increasingly clear that, in order to do justice to the complexities of Brakhage's work and thought, I would have to deal not only with film, but also certain other areas of the arts, especially the painting, music and poetry of the Twentieth Century. It eventually became necessary, for reasons that will become clearer in what follows, to deal as well with topics such as semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis (Freudian, Jungian and Lacanian) and deconstruction. Thus, the final version of the book, with chapters on Cézanne, Cubism, Mondrian, modernist music, semiotics and poststructuralism, as well as montage, Bazinian realism and, of course, Brakhage, became rather unwieldy. In any case, despite the efforts of many people over the years, 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 placed the book on a shelf and occupied myself with other interests. In the early nineties, however, I decided to condense the essential elements of the theory developed in the book into an essay of publishable length. This work, "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," was published in the journal Semiotica, in 1993.(1)
To make this essay manageable, however, it was necessary to leave out the very topics, film theory and the work of Brakhage, which had been my original concern. The essay thus deals with only two arts: painting and music. I have since been able to publish an essay on Mondrian,(2)
based on a chapter of the book, and have just completed another essay, on Cubism, also adapted from sections of the book.(3)
The Semiotica essay was recently reissued in the Internet journal, Music Theory Online,(4)
with a good amount of additional material dealing in some detail with the musical aspects of my theory. At this point, I feel a strong urge to, finally, publish something relating to the original inspiration for my work, Brakhage himself.
What I will, momentarily, present, 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 only a few changes and some added remarks in brackets, to clarify certain points. First, however, I must, very briefly, 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, composers, etc., developed, beginning in the early years of the 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" (the "antactic" or "negative field") radically "other" to the syntactic field. While in some sense "promoting" what might be (with certain important reservations) called "sensory experience," the negative field is opposed to the opposition which, for Derrida, grounds "metaphysics," concept vs. percept, and thus demands a complete rethinking (and re-experiencing) of what "sensory experience" might involve. Since many theories of "modernist" art, such as that, for example, associated with Clement Greenberg, are also based on a similar, basically traditional, concept vs. percept dichotomy, my approach must be understood as opposed to such theories as well. It is an attempt, moreover, to get beyond certain postmodernist and poststructuralist positions which insist that all works of art are simply "texts," to be "read." For me, works based in negative syntax are not well characterized as "texts," even in the radical sense employed by Derrida, but are themselves, among other things, critical acts, even "deconstructions," 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 treetrunk 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, certain ambiguous chords, etc., function in a manner quite similar to passage, and, in the hands of composers such as Schonberg, Webern, Stravinsky, etc., are used to "open" musical gestalts out to the negative field. In film, as I argue below, devices such as the fade, the dissolve and, especially, the match cut, can also be understood as equivalent 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, dissociation.
4. Ultimately the meaning of a notion such as the negative field is as problematic as the meaning of certain of Derrida's terms, 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, in some sense, a "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 "sensory experience," this experience is radically redefined in it. What we "see" (or "hear") 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 one of the early chapters of the book, I discuss an influential essay by Jean Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus,"(5) 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."(6)
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 which 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 "philosopher," and 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 "postmodern" culture. I attempted, on the basis of the
theoretical principles outlined above, to counter the destructive effects of simplistic modernist and
postmodernist 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 "postmodernism" which seemed (and still
seems) lost in its own hall of mirrors.
Brakhage's work is, among students of the film avant-garde, 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, difficult to understand and resistant to analysis, however, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding it.
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 film makers 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 to him, an attitude that he himself has fostered in his own writings, especially by the claim 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 from his.
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."(7)
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."(8)
Malcom LeGrice, following Sitney's lead, writes of Brakhage as "epitomizing the direction of
personal, visionary cinema, establishing, more than any other film-maker, the camera as heroic
protagonist. . . Brakhage is primarily an Expressionist,. . . concerned with utilizing subjective
means towards expressing a personal vision . . ."(9)
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."(10)
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."(11)
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" to 19th 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 underexposure, etc.(12)
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 a film like Brakhage's 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 this 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, shots of shadows, of trees, of the sun, of water of 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.
Analysis of films like this has proven a tremendous stumbling block for critics. The simple observation that Brakhage has thrown conventional narrative overboard, 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 esthetics.
Analysis of this sort does make sense, as far as it goes. Brakhage's esthetic 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 esthetics 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 where various pieces of footage, often shot with no particular "final product" 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 film makers, influenced by Brakhage, whose work can much more successfully be identified with Abstract Expressionism: Andrew Noren, Werner Nekes and Paul Winkler, among others.
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 [in an earlier chapter], treatment of screen-space is much less of a problem in film generally than treatment of time. Only the time-producing space of the film strip 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 had occasion to cite Annette Michelson's "Camera Lucida Camera Obscura," where she associates Eisenstein with Cubism and Brakhage with Abstract Expressionism. Toward the end of this article, 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."(13)
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 or dark 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 [in an earlier chapter] of positive montage.
Passage in Conventional Montage
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 passage as found in the paintings and drawings of the "old masters." 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 film strip. 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 agressively 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 in painting, traditionally been treated with great restraint and a host of taboos. Brakhage's plastic cutting, in the spirit of Cubist passage, agressively violates the taboos. Extreme intensification of the transitional negates its original function, transforming "old master" and even Cezannian reconciliation into Cubistic disjunction.
Where 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 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 tangible "material substance."]
Michelson has oversimplified by failing to recognize the dual function of Brakhage's fluidities. Eisenstein's clear cut 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, 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. In this respect, motion must be considered in relation to its opposite, stasis. In gestalt terms, motion can be considered as a "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, a temporal containter 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 originally have been 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 such a 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.(14)
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." No thing 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, 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, etc.), coupled with his radical complication of motion (as described above) often does, indeed, lead to effects of just this kind, not just 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 all traditional 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 film 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 film strip itself, that array of totally static images on which cinematic negative motion, negative time and stasis ultimately find identity and concrete existence.
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 . . ."(15)
[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 all the way down 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" film maker, 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 film strip -- fundamentally, the film strip itself).
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. [From my present perspective, I must admit that the preceding paragraph contains passages which oversimplify an extraordinarily complex and subtle issue. There is always a danger, in such characterizations, of reconstituting "the present moment" as some sort of absolutely privileged, mystical, transcendence of time and space, whereas what I am trying to express is something very different, something in a sense almost directly opposed to this, the "moment" experienced as radically contingent, radically "ordinary," radically localized, radically ephemeral, "static and isolated" in its passing, its ephemerality. What is being "named" here is, ultimately, un-nameable.]
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 attendent mystifications. [The "context of implication," related to Freud's notion of "secondary elaboration," Jakobson's notion of metonymic structure, and Bataille's informe, 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 film maker has done nothing to help the viewer "get" the ideas "behind" the film, there is no feeling of ambiguity [or polysemy] in the usual sense.
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,"(16)
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 cameraperson 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 event.
The nature of the problem should, at this point, be reasonably 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.
We may, at this point, return to the passage from Erwin Panofsky, quoted in chapter 2. It will be recalled that 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."
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 [and related technology -- Baudry's "apparatus"], 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 to 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 film-maker" as to Brakhage,(17)
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 P. Adams 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. . ."(18)
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 did not somehow 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."(19)
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, etc. 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 which 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 farfetched. 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, etc. On the contrary, it frees us to
search for the meanings that we ourselves can find as we struggle with our own associations.(20)
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 this 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.
1.1. "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," in Semiotica 94-3/4, 1993, pp. 233-252.
2. "Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence," in Art Criticism, vol. 11 no. 1, Spring 1996. Also
available on the Internet at: http://www.creview.com/kuspit/ac1gra.htm
"Passage from Realism to Cubism: The Subversion of Pictorial Semiosis," scheduled for
publication in Art Criticism in 1998.
4. Internet address is:
Film Quarterly, Winter, 1973/74.
Ibid., pp. 42, 43.
"Camera Lucida Camera Obscura," in Artforum XI, 5, Jan. 1973, pp. 31,32.
8. Visionary Film (New York:Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 233.
Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge, Mass. :MIT Press, 1977) pp. 88-90.
10. "Stan and Jane Brakhage Talking,'' interview with Hollis Frampton, in Artforum XI, Jan.
1973), pp. 76-79.
11. Metaphors on Vision (New York:Film Culture, 1963) unpaginated.
12. Ibid., (unpaginated).
13. Op. cit., p. 37.
14.14. The foregoing should serve, among other things, as a refutation of the "subjective viewpoint" theory, proposed by Sitney and others, for which a typical Brakhage film "postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist of the film." [see Sitney, Visionary Film, Op. Cit., p. 180].
15. Brakhage, op. cit.
16. Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: Viking Press, 1977), p. 53.
Visionary Film, op. cit. p. 175.
18. Ibid., p. 216.
19. "Autobiography in Avant-Garde Film" in The Avant-Garde Film, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New
York:New York University Press, 1978), pp. 217, 219-223.
Fred Camper, in an essay that came to my attention only shortly before completing the final revision of my book, has expressed views gratifyingly close to my own. For example: "No Brakhage film can be simply seen, but rather the viewer must continually struggle to see and resee it; and watching it becomes a continually shifting exploration of the very process of seeing." ["Stan Brakhage:A Retrospective," notes by Fred Camper, for the 1976 Los Angeles International Film Exposition]. Camper's essay reveals a rare grasp of the role of disjunction and multireferentiality in Brakhage's work.
Similar insights, less rigorously presented, can be found in Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), especially in his discussion of "synaesthetic cinema," pp. 75-91. While much in Youngblood's book seems, in retrospect, rather naively "Sixties-ish," many of his comments on Brakhage still, for me, have real validity.