MONTAGE, REALISM AND THE ACT OF VISION
Victor A. Grauer
©Victor A. Grauer, 1982
The Cinematic Act of Vision
Art of Montage
Our review of the most basic elements of negative space and time provides us with the tools we need for a much closer examination of filmic negative syntax than has been possible heretofor. Such an examination may, at the same time, be regarded as a continuation of that inquiry into the fundamentals of negative syntax generally which is the principal subject of the last two chapters. Naturally, the work of Stan Brakhage must continue to occupy the center of our attention. In our view, as should now be clear, no other film maker has so consistently, completely and energetically devoted himself to the attack on signification which lies at the heart of both realism and negative syntax.
Event and Time
Of all the material covered thus far, the most fundamental statements regarding the nature of negative syntax are undoubtedly those of Mondrian gathered together in the section of Chapter 8 entitled "A Dialectic of Form and Space." Mondrian's thought, as rigorous as his artistic practice, reduces his theory to two basic elements: form and space. In order to apply his analysis to film, we must find an appropriate equivalent in time for the notion of form.
The closest we can come to a term which must thus convey the idea of a temporal gestalt is probably "event." This term will suffice provided we are willing to apply it in a somewhat restricted sense. We must regard an event, like a form, as limited; thus having a beginning and ending; thus "figural" with respect to a temporal "ground." Substituting the term in this sense for the word "form" and the word "time" for "space," we may alter most of Mondrian's form-space dialectic in a manner that can be applied directly to negative montage. For example:
Nature reveals [events] in [time] ...[events] are part of [time] and ...the [time] between them appears as [an event] a fact which evidences the unity of [events] and [time] ...[An event] is limited [time] concrete only through its determination. Art has to determine [time] as well as [events] and to create the equivalence of these two factors ...
In relation to the environment, simple [events] show a static balance ...In order to establish universal unity, their proper unity has to be destroyed: their particular expression has to be annihilated ...
Non-figurative art is created by establishing a dynamic rhythm of determinate mutual relations which excludes the formation of any particular [event].1
Annihilation of the Event
Fully in the spirit of Mondrian's "annihilation" of form, Brakhage consistently disrupts the "event." A relatively simple instance can be found at the very beginning of his film Window Water Baby Moving (WWBM). The original footage, before editing, evidently "documented" a straightforward enough event: Brakhage's pregnant wife, Jane, taking a bath. In the final version the bath in question is thoroughly disassembled to the extent that it no longer is readable as a unified, coherent gestalt.
Brakhage's remarkable approach to montage is evidenced in his treatment of the three main elements of the opening sequence: the window, Jane's body, the bath water. Normally, shots of window and water would simply be "inserted" to condense time and mask discontinuities. These essentially static elements would thus form part of the (static) temporal "background" against which Jane's activities would be perceived. Brakhage deliberately organizes both montage and mise-en-scene to thwart this effect.
At the very beginning (see WWBM, opening sequence, in the Appendix), we see two brief shots of the window punctuated and accordingly emphasized by two longer segmerts of black leader. Shots 5, 6 and 11 involve strong interactions between Jane's body and the window, filmed in such a way that the window light (sunlight) plays an active role. Especially important is Brakhage's treatment of the window frame, with its cross configuration. Window and water are linked and emphasized in shots 8 and 10 by the presence of this cross as a shadow, a presence underlined by the positional match with the window in the preceding shots. Later the same shadow appears centered on Jane's swollen belly as she lies in the tub (sequence 2, shots 9 & 11).
While thus disrupting the temporal figure-ground by activating static "background" elements, Brakhage also breaks up and reassembles Jane's activities so as to weaken their event-value. For example, cuts 5-6, 6-7, 10-11 of the opening sequence are jump cuts involving abrupt discontinuities in the position of her body to the extent that we are unable to discern a coherert temporal sequence. Indeed, shot 7 seems to be taken from the latter part of shot 6, the missing intervening segment appearing later as shot 11.
In its relative legibility, WWBM is comparatively restrained, similar to a work like Mondrian's Gray Tree of 1911. Most of Brakhage's mature films are closer to the more extreme late tree paintings of 1912-13, works grounded in the closest scrutiny of nature which, paradoxically, hover at the edge of total abstraction. In order to deal with films of such complexity, we must probe more deeply into the framework we have derived from Mondrian.
The "dialectic of form and space" presented in Chapter 8 may be broken down into three basic segments or "steps": 1. neutralization; 2. opening; 3. field-determination. According to Mondrian, the "expression of relations" necessary to the breakup of form is "veiled" by "natural appearance" which must therefore be neutralized. "Abstract forms or dislocated parts of forms can be relatively neutral." Any form, however, even the most abstract, remains a "limited form," exhibiting "static balance." As the "particular expression of any form," however neutralized, "has to be annihilated," limited form must therefore be opened to the surrounding space. As is apparent in the tree paintings, the early stages of the opening of form are intimately connected with the use of passage, which literally opens each facet.
Ultimately, however, it is not only passage (which is, after all, present in many
Futurist paintings) but the particular placement
and design of the facet itself which
determines the perceptual field in such a way as to thoroughly open form to space. When the facets enlarge to rectangular
planes in the later works, it is their proportions,
"the proportions within which the plastic means are placed," which create that "dynamic rhythm of
determinate mutual relations" which is "dynamic equilibrium."
It is in terms of these three fundamentals of negative syntax, neutralization, opening, field-determination, that we may more fully treat Brakhage's annihilation of the event.
Neutralization 1-- The Image
Perhaps the simplest and most straightforward aspect of Brakhage's work are the various techniques he uses to weaken the "natural appearance" of the photographic image. Among these devices, some of the most common are: soft-focus or non-focus (the film Pasht, which records the birth of kittens is rendered completely abstract as a result of non-focus filming); extreme close-up (in the opening sequence of Cat's Cradle, for example, all shots of the Cat -- shot 2, etc.-- see Appendix); extreme motion, often of the camera itself, resulting in a blur (as in the shots of swirling lights, Anticipation of the Night opening sequence, shots 2, 4, 10, 12, 14 -- see appendix); scratching or painting of the film strip (see description of sequence from the Prelude to Dog Star Man in Appendix); over or under exposure (see same excerpt from Prelude); superimposition (the Prelude and Parts 2, 3, and 4 of Dog Star Man are based on double, triple and quadruple exposure); the use of imageless film, i.e., clear, black, or colored leader (see reference to frames of solid red and orange in description of Dog Star Man Prelude excerpt-Appendix). All of the above devices facilitate the "expression of relations" by tending to obliterate content. The great frequency with which they appear in Brakhage's work is, in itself, a measure of the intensity of his attack on signification.
Neutralization 2 -- Screen Space
There is a direct parallel between Brakhage's image neutralizations and Mondrian's efforts, in the late tree paintings, for example, to neutralize the representational aspect of the image through "use of abstract forms or dislocated parts of forms." But as we have consistently argued, the primary field of film is time, not space. The neutralization of naturalistic forms can only be a secondary consideration with respect to disruption of the event. To this end, it is screen-space itself, abstract or naturalistic, that must be neutralized in favor of an essentially temporal determination.
Much has been made, of course, of Brakhage's flattening of space, an effect produced through shot-composition and an emphasis on surfaces and shadows. Undeniably, all of the image-neutralizing devices cited above also tend to contribute to the neutralization of space through the production of a flattening effect. But the attack on spatial depth remains an essentially pictorial strategy for intensifying two-dimensional space, which must be neutralized.as well. The special nature of cinema demands that we go beyond the limits of pictorialism.
The closest analogy to the remarkable interplay of space and time in film can be found in that other doubly-"dimensional" art: music. While organization of the musical "pitch-field" is far simpler than that of cinematic screen-space, both play a similar formal role. At any given moment in a piece of music we are hearing a particular determination of the pitch-field, i.e., usually what is called a "chord" or, more generally a "sound." At any given moment in a film, we are seeing a particular determination of screen-space, i.e., what is called an image." Time confers on the elements of sound or image what is, in both cases, called "motion." On a larger scale, temporal determination is equivalent to structure itself.
As the strong formal analogy between pitch and image suggests, Brakhage's neutralizations
of screen-space may be understood in the light of those neutralizations of the pitch-field so characteristic of
musical modernism. We must recall that the powerfully centric pull of tonality was resisted in two superficially
different but fundamentally similar ways: the "bi-tonality" of Stravinsky and the "atonality"
of Schönberg and Webern. Serialism is essentially a methodical generalization of the latter approach.
As bi-tonality sets up bi-polar oppositions between two mutually negating keys, so certain Brakhage films are polarized between spatial extremes. An especially consistent example is the film, Cat's Cradle (CC). Early in the film, the face of a woman -- Brakhage's wife, Jane -- is consistently shown on screen left. Suddenly we see a male head in shadow on the lower right. At one point there is a rapid cut from the male figure to an equally shadowy female figure, also on the right. Through plastic cutting the two seem to merge. There is an immediate cut back to Jane, "isolated" on screen left.
Later in the film, the polarities are reversed. We see rapidly alternating shots of Jane, on the right, Brakhage himself on the left. Still later, the two women are consistently shown on screen left, the two men on screen right. Spatial op position is at its strongest toward the end of this secuence, when Brakhage turns his head toward screen right, followed by Jane turning left; the other man then appears, immediately moving to the right--shots of him alternate with those of a vaguely defined figure moving to the left.
If the relatively simple, largely static oppositions of CC may be compared with bi-tonality, the far more complex, dynamic oppositions of a film like Anticipation of the Night (AON) recall the multi-polarities of atonality. The key to this aspect of AON is to be found in six pages of handwritten notes for the film, reproduced in Brakhage's Metaphor's on Vision. A peculiar feature of these notes is the mysterious arrow-notations which pervade them, as in the following excerpt:
As should be clear to anyone familiar with the completed film, these notations must be interpreted as vectors (arrows indicating direction of motion). As Schoenbergian pitch-space is thoroughly polarized by the mutual repulsions of the twelve tones, Brakhage's screen-space is similarly polarized by the systematic opposition of ten vectors:
Much in AON involves vector oppositions of an extremely violent kind, the effect of which is to thwart any attempts on the part of viewers to orient themselves in space. The film begins, however, with a particularly interesting organization of milder oppositions (see Appendix, opening sequence of AON). In the first shot of the film, we see a patch of light oriented on a left-lower to right-upper diagonal. Within this rhomboid, a shadow moves along the opposite diagonal, first up from the bottom, then back down to the center. The shot may be diagrammed as follows:
Vector 1 Vector 2
While shot 2, swirls of moving lights, has no relation to shot 1 in terms of content, its treatment of space presents a meaningful continuation. The shot begins with motion along the same diagonal as the patch of light, from right upper to left lower. The lights then swirl in the opposite direction, clockwise:
Note the consistency of the spatial polarizations. All the vectors are aligned on the diagonal opposite to that of the light patch. Each vector is opposed to those before and after it on at least one directional axis: rignt-left or up-down. Within each shot, the vectors are in 180 degree opposition. The diagram also reveals a strong parallel with some fundamental procedures of the twelve-tore method. Shot 3 inverts the relationships of shot 1; shot 13 reverses the direction of the vectors of shot 1; shot 15, minus the extension, is to 13 as 3 is to 1, that is, an inversion. Thus shot 1 may be compared to the "original form" of a tone-row; 3, to the inversion; 13, to the retrograde; 15, to the retrograde-inversion. Shot 15, with its extension, dovetails two forms of the "row" in a manner consistent with serial practice. Most interesting, perhaps, is the manner in which the tilt of the light patch remains invariant between original form and retrograde, inversion and retrograde-inversion, in a manner recalling standard serial procedures.
While we could be making too much of a fortuitous parallel, we can hardly ignore
Brakhage's own statement that AON was "specifically inspired by the relationships I heard between the music
of J. S. Bach and Anton Webern."3 If the film as a whole lacks the thoroughgoing systemizations of Schönberg,
Webern, even Bach, the above example reveals Brakhage's awareness of and interest in the possibilities of systematic
planning along such lines.
Opening 1 -- Neutralization of Motion
AON begins by emphasizing the contrast between the rapid, inchoate motions of the swirling lights and the quiet, measured movements of the shadow-protagonist. As the film progresses, the motion becomes consistently more intense, the vector oppositions more violent. In one sequence, we see phalanxes of huge trees, photographed from a moving automobile or train. In shot after shot, motion vectors oppose one another head-on to the point that our vision becomes vertiginous: a procession of trees seems magically set in motion across a space thoroughly drained of depth, so unstable and disorienting that we hardly know where on the screen to place our attention from moment to moment.
In sequences like this, space is literally dissolved by motion. But motion itself is threatened by its own violent contradictions. In the midst of the tree-processions, we are suddenly thrust back into the interior of a house. The trees are now seen through a window which is itself placed into a rigntward motion, apparently the result of a camera pan to the left (see AON, sequence 2, Appendix). In the next shot, the camera appears to pan in the opposite direction, right, moving the window back toward screen left. So strong is the sense of right-motion from the previous shot, that the viewer is half inclined to pick up the implied rightward motion of the invisible camera as a continuation of the preceding literal motion of the window. Yet the window is now moving right-left. Such a shot, in which two vectors appear to cancel one another, is strongly analogous to the Cubist facet described in "A Visual Paradox," Chapter 5, which must be read as receding in two contradictory directions at once.
This kind of situation, not at all rare in Brakhage, must be understood in the
light of our earlier discussion in "Negative Motion," Chapter 7. Strong vector contradictions of this
sort tend to destroy our sense of motion figure-ground. The event, defined as a figure of motion, opens out to
time as stasis, the ground of motion. Thus the neutralization of screen-space, in its most extreme form, is also
an important tool in the opening of the limited event to time.
Opening 2 -- Plastic Cutting
By far the most pervasive and potent tool for the opening of pictorial form is Cubist passage. As has already been demonstrated, Brakhage's complex and varied use of what he has called "plastic cutting" has an essentially equivalent effect--cinematic events and sub-events (shots) are opened to one another (and thus the temporal field generally) through smooth transitions on the "temporal surface." Plastic cutting is extremely common in films like AON and Dog Star Man (DSM). The opening sequence of AON (see Appendix) contains several such cuts, linking shots 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 13-14, 14-15, which all begin and end in darkness. Shot 5, beginning in total darkness and ending brightly, can itself be regarded as a passage from shot 4 to 6. Later in the same film (see sequence 4, shots 2 and 3, Appendix) a baby's head "becomes" a blob of light through a carefully executed match of shape and position.
More extreme continuities permeate much of DSM. The excerpt from the prelude described
in the Appendix is typical. Highly neutralized, inchoate images merge to the extent that resolution into individual
shots is all but impossible. In sequences of this kind, with images, spaces, motions in a constant state of "becoming"
(i.e., mutual negation), the viewer's perception opens to the temporal surface where the "limited event"
is thoroughly dissolved.
Field Determination 1-Rhythm
While neutralization and opening are necessary elements of negative syntax, they are insufficient. As in so many Futurist works, neutralized, fragmented forms can all too easily fall under the sway of higher level positive structures. In the process, not only the form, but the contingent, concrete elements which give it life, will be engulfed and absorbed. Negative syntax paradoxically annihilates the particular form or event in order to promote such elements, the particular traces or details hidden therein.4 This, at least, is its initial thrust. Ultimately, as in Mondrian's abstractions, the life-giving principle behind our awareness of contingent, concrete detail is all that remains.
The key to this principle, which Mondrian calls "dynamic equilibrium," is a certain kind of fundamentally disjunctive rhythm or proportion. While Mondrian uses both terms interchangeably, the former would seem most appropriate in the late tree paintings and other works of the same period, where great stress is laid upon open, disjunct linear accents. In the later abstractions, where the lines join to form relatively stable rectangular planes, we may more readily speak of "proportions." With respect to the time-field, a similar distinction has already been made in our discussion of music, where rhythm has traditionally been expressed in terms of "attack-points." Stravinsky and the early Webern employed heavily accented, "syncopated" attacks to break up the traditional symmetries, disrupt the rhythmic flow and stress particulars. The later Webern generalized this process into a measured determination of true durations with a "planar" weight (as opposed to attack-points), an approach which led, via Cage and Stockhausen, to Moment Form.
Brakhage, who studied with Cage, and has more than once acknowledged the strong influence of Webern, Messiaen and the post-Webernians, has developed his own approach to both strategies. In many films, he employs a variety of devices to create disjunct rhythm through use of visual accent: sudden hard cuts introduced into a context dominated by plastic cutting (AON, opening sequence, shot 16; DSM prelude, hard cuts to red and later orange -- see Appendix); sudden contrasts from light to dark and vice-versa (AON, sequence 3, shots 3-6; WWBM, opening sequence, shots 1-6--Appendix); jump cuts (sun-shots in DSM prelude, Appendix); sudden joltings of the camera (AON, sequence 3, shots 2, 4 and 6, Appendix).
An especially important source of rhythmic activity are subject-motions occuring within a single shot. Some can be extraordinarily subtle, such as the drift of a falling snowflake. Others, the sudden turn of a head, the clenching of a fist, even an eye-blink, produce distinct beats which, when reinforced by other beats, can play an active rhythmic role. Most forceful of all in-shot motions are those which interact strongly with the frame-line, producing a distinct accent at the moment of contact (see AON, sequence 4, shots 1 and 2, Appendix).
The interplay of three types of accent is illustrated in sequence 3 from AON (see
Appendix). Shot 2 is subdivided by a strong in-shot accent produced when the camera suddenly stops. This is followed
by a hard cut to black, punctuated by the appearance of light sparks. Shots 4 and 6, like 2, contain accents created
by sudden camera movement. Shot 5, like 3, is black with bright accents. All combine to create the following characteristically
rapid and irregular rhythm (the basic unit being the 1/24 second duration of the frame):
Shot 2 [20-21] Shot 3 [ 6-2-1-1-1-9] Shot 3 [9-15-15] Shot 4 [2-4-2-7-3] Shot 5 [15-5]
Note how in-shot accents become incorporated into the montage. The sudden arrest of the camera is placed at the midpoint of shot 2. The 9 black frames at the end of shot 3 are followed by 9 frames of stability at the beginning of shot 4. The 15 frames of camera motion which immediately follow are similarly balanced by 15 frames of stability before the shot is cut. Here we have the cinematic equivalent of those "units which articulate themselves by means of reciprocal effect" that Pousseur found in early Webern. In a situation such as this, with temporal flow continually interrupted by unpredictable accents, with each moment continually responding to and balancing its immediate neighbor, the most indistinct and ephemeral details-a slight discoloration of grass (AON, sequence 3, shot 2), the delicate opening of a baby's hand (AON, sequence 4, shot 2) move into the foreground of the viewer's awareness.
Field Determination 2--Proportion
The numbers provided in the rhythmic breakdown presented above stand not only for intervals between attack-points, as in traditional music, where such intervals are passive, but also for ratios between those static durations made perceptually active by the disruptive power of the attacks. More in line with the practice of the later Webern, Brakhage also employs more purely durational relations, where accent is subordinated to a proportional tension between shot lengths. This approach, found most often when (literally) static shots must be related, is especially revealing for the insights it provides into Brakhage's treatment of the temporal field.
Let us look, for example, at the very beginning of WWBM (see opening sequence, Appendix). The first four shots, lacking any motion, thus any internal rhythmic cues, have clearly been provided with "externally" determined durations: 11, 31, 10, 31. The close approximation to the ratio 1:3:1:3 cannot be ignored. WWBM sequence 2 (see Appendix), consisting exclusively of essentially static shots, exhibits the following durations: 10, 81, 10, 19, 40, 20, 20, 10, 20, 10, 10, 10, 120, 30. There can be no doubt that simple ratios are intended.
More consistent evidence for Brakhage's concern with the precise determination
of temporal proportions on a shot to shot basis is provided by a film remarkable for its combination of in-shot
staticism and rapid cutting: Cat's Cradle
(CC). The film begins, appropriately enough, with a shot of hands clapping (see opening sequence, Appendix). The
claps, dividing the shot into three parts, of 4, 8 and 4 frames respectively, seem to be setting a tempo for the
rest of the film. The second shot, an extreme close-up of cat's fur, last 24 frames, exactly 3:2 in relation to
the 16 frame initial shot. Shot 3 is 8 frames long, 1/3 the length of its predecessor.
Unlike WWBM, CC continues to present consistently rational proportions, as illustrated, for the first 50 shots, in Table II.
The ratio underlying each pair of shot length numbers appears immediately below them. Aside from three slight discrepancies, apparently errors or slight adjustments, all pairs reduce to simple ratios, most to 1:1, 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 3:1 (or the same reversed). Somewhat later into the film, a new pattern emerges. By shot 95, simple proportions based largely on ratios such as 3:5 and 5:7 dominate. Here, for example, are the shot-lengths for shots 117-134: 5, 5, 5, 7, 3, 5, 5, 3, 7, 15, 3, 7, 5, 5, 7, 3, 15, 10. The fascinating combination of simple shot to shot ratios and complex, unpredictable higher level relationships, exhibited above as well as in Table II, recalls Pousseur's comment on the later Webern's"attempt to regulate the proportion of regularity which must exist within any irregularity."6
As with the purely ad hoc rhythms of AON, discussed in the previous section, the
disjunct proportions of CC tend to disrupt the temporal flow, placing a strong perceptual weight on each shot,
no matter how brief or apparently inconsequential. To better understand this remarkable process of temporal analysis
which posits, in the words of Annette Michelson, "the sense of a continuous present, of a filmic time which
devours memory and expectation in the presentation of presentness,"7 we must continue to explore our musical
Moment Form and Negative Montage
A key event in the musical evolution we have traced is John Cage's effort to let "the sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves"8 by dissolving the "glue" of musical continuity through use of chance operations. That Brakhage, who studied with Cage, was unquestionably affected by such ideas, is most obviously apparent in his (Brakhage's) account of the origins of the DSM Prelude. One of the two superimposed film rolls of this work was, in its original form at least, generated largely by random methods derived from those of Cage.9
Less obvious, but far more pervasive in Brakhage's work generally, is the impact
of Cage's absorbtion in the contingent, concrete "sound-object." The notion of such an object, isolated
yet open to its spatio-temporal surroundings, gives rise, ultimately, to Stockhausen's moment form. As sound-objects
or moments can consist of almost anything, from isolated tones to dissonant chords to noises, electronic sounds,
tape recorded sound effects, even traditional tonal passages, so Brakhage's neutralized "light objects"
are drawn from a wide variety of sources: solid colors, black or clear leader, densely painted or scratched film,
photographic images distorted by odd lenses, close-up, superimposition, etc., and also the most conventional imagery,
neutralized simply by virtue of its placement within a negative structure.
As we have learned, a moment-form moment "is not merely regarded as the consequence of the previous one and the prelude to the coming one, but as something individual, independent,and centered in itself ... "10 Unlike the limited, closed event, however, the moment is defined as fully open to the temporal field. While an event must begin and end as a function of that gestalt closure which will set it off from surrounding events, a moment, fully open to what is around it, need simply start and stop.
For Jonathan Kramer, the moment-centeredness of moment form is intimately connected with the destruction of traditional musical continuity, what he calls the "metaphor of musical motion." Time, traditionally defined by goal directed motions ("movements") perceived psychologically in terms of affect, is redefined by certain modernist composers as a set of static durations ("moments") perceived materially in terms of an objectively measurable proportional determination. With the breakdown of continuity, each moment can more easily be apprehended as an entity in itself rather than as a part of some hierarchically ordered progress.
Something quite similar is at work in Brakhage, whose breakdown of traditional cinematic continuity was a major theme of Chapter 7. We do not need to evoke the most extreme effects of "negative motion" in order to appreciate the vital role of staticism in so much of his work. Everything already said regarding image neutralization, from non-focus to use of imageless film, can also relate to the weakening of motion. Paradoxically, where motion seems strongest, as in AON, Brakhage's tendency is to pit it against itself through the use of strong vector oppositions and disjunctive accents, thus promoting stasis. Certain films, such as CC, consist largely of static, if extremely brief, shots. As in moment-form, the static quality of individual shots gives them a durational weight in direct relation to their measurable length, thus promoting a proportional determination of the temporal "surface" potentially equivalent to Mondrian's treatment of space. The high degree of consistency in the choice of shot lengths for a film like CC does indeed point to a conscious effort at the determination of temporal proportions essentially in accord with Kramer's view of moment-form.
While much in Brakhage's treatment of the temporal field is actually closer to
Webern or Cage than to moment-form per se, Kramer's analysis does help us understand certain basics. Each temporal
detail in Brakhage, like each moment-form moment, is open to details, shots, "moments" before and after
it. Each film, like a moment-form work, is, as a whole, open to its temporal surroundings, not requiring any particular
beginning or ending trappings, simply starting and stopping. Nevertheless, despite such openness, each brief shot,
gesture, trace, is, like a moment-form moment, "individual, independent, centered in itself."
The Determinational Basis
While Kramer places great stress on the proportional relationships of moment-form, he has little to say about the manner in which such relationships are to be determined. There is good reason for this. All attempts to reduce such determination to a system, from Post-Webernian serialism to the use of chance operations, have left much to be desired.
While Brakhage has flirted with procedures close to both serialism and Cageian indeterminacy, neither has been more than a point of departure for what is, fundamentally, an intuitive process. For example, the ultimate value of Cage's methods to the creation of the DSM Prelude was that they helped to thwart, in Brakhage's words, "all brain dominance," so that a "hyperconscious" state might more easily emerge. As Brakhage has often stressed12, such a hyperconsciousness, bordering on trance, the antithesis of logic or system, is the ultimate arbiter of that which is best in his work.
Our analysis of Mondrian has already alerted us to the danger of equating such
a state with something so vague as "subjectivity." In fact, as we have learned, there are good reasons
for assuming that for Brakhage, as for Mondrian, such states originate in highly objective experience -- the intense
observation of and reaction to external contingencies. This experience, certainly as potent as indeterminacy in
thwarting "brain dominance," leads, finally, to the emergence of that "axiomatic" operation
of an autonomous perceptual intuition which we have found at the heart of Mondiran's radical evolution. If Brakhage's
field determinations, like those of Mondrian, ultimately resist explication of either a rational (systematic) or
irrational (random) nature, their precisions are nevertheless apparent -- to the eye.
Toward the Cinematic Essence
The intensity with which, so often, Brakhage attacks the image, coupled with his undoubted concern for the establishment of precise temporal relationships, might lead us to conclude that, ultimately, his imagery exists simply for the purpose of articulating temporal structure. While there may well be a grain of truth in such a hypothesis, it is clear that Brakhage has never followed Mondrian from the referential complexities of the late tree paintings to the pure field determinations of the subsequent abstractions.
There has, of course, been no lack of pure abstractionism in the long history of the film avant-garde, from the first experiments of Eggeling and Richter to the computer grapnics of the Whitney Brothers and Vanderbeek. Despite the many very real excellences to be found in such work, however, we will search in vain among the abstractionists for signs of a highly developed, consistently disjunctive, negative treatment of the temporal field. There would, in fact, among the more widely known film makers, seem to be only one formally comparable with Brakhage in any rigorous sense: the Austrian, Peter Kubelka. As Kubelka's strategies simplify and clarify certain structural themes in a manner recalling the reductiveness of Mondrian, a brief consideration of his work will complete the formal part of our analysis.
Kubelka's Adebar dates from 1957 (one year, in fact, before the completion of AON). This film, which Sitney has compared with "Webern's densest compositions,"13 is about one and a half minutes in length. Adebar is based on a motif of pygmy music, exactly 26 frames long, which recurs continually on the soundtrack. Every shot is either that length, half that length or twice that length. The basis for the montage of this film is a scheme involving the permutation of five basic shots, each of which can be presented in either positive or negative. As every positive shot is preceded and followed by a negative one, and vice versa, every cut in this black and white film is maximally disjunctive.
Schwechater (1958) is also based on the permutation of a limited number of basic elements. Each shot can be only one, two, four, eight or sixteen frames long. In this case, each shot is preceded and followed by a stretch of imageless film, either black or clear leader.14
Adebar and Schwechater, in their extraordinary interplay of rapid cutting and shot to shot disjunction, their precise calibration of temporal proportion, and their intense celebration of ephemerality as vividness, are comparable only with films like AON or CC (though there can be no question of influence in either direction). If the Brakhage films can, however, best be understood in relation to the late Analytic Cubism of Picasso in 1911, or Mondrian in 1913, those of Kubelka are closer to that subsequent trend toward simplification known as Synthetic Cubism.
The strong contrasts and hard cuts of Adebar and Schwechater recall similar contrasts and hard edges in Picasso and Bracue beginning in 1912, as passage begins to give way to clearly defined proportional determination. The use of banal imagery that is nevertheless visually striking, functioning as empty signs, is of course a hallmark of later Cubism. The imageless black and white leader of Schwechater recalls the equally imageless planes of solid color so common in Cubist collage. Simplification of proportional relationships in connection with the use of predetermined schemes is especially important in the Synthetic Cubism of both Léger and Gris.
If Adebar and Schwechater radically reduce the filmic medium to a few basic elements, Kubelka's next film, Arnulf Rainer (1960), goes even farther. This work, a response to his first viewing of a Brakhage film (AON), represents its author's desire to "get to the absolute basis of my medium, and to handle it as purely as was possible."15 In Arnulf Rainer, as in the mature works of Mondrian, there is a calculated reduction to those materials best suited to the clearest possible articulation of proportion. Kubelka uses only clear leader, black leader and, for the soundtrack, white noise or silence.
A certain amount of confusion has arisen from the association of Arnulf Rainer with certain later, similarly reductive
American works known as "flicker films." While Kubleka's film does, indeed, employ powerfully stroboscopic
passages which induce the "flicker" effect, such passages are always balanced by stretches of stable
black or white and often counterpointed by the sound track. Like Brakhage, Kubelka has no interest in inducing
the sustained hypnotic effects which are, of course, of the essence in true "flicker" films.
If works like Tony Conrad's The Flicker or Paul Sharits' N:o:t:h:i:n:g are best compared with similarly hallucinatory paintings by Bridget Riley or Victor Vasarely, Arnulf Rainer belongs with the precisely differentiated clarities of Mondrian. The film's stark contrast of black and white clearly recalls the look of a typical Mondrian, dominated by white rectangles and thick black lines.
More basic, however, the abrupt juxtapositions of black and white are equivalent, as fundamental oppositions, to the oppositions of horizontal and vertical in Mondrian. This collapse of color contrast and dimensional opposition into a single category is especially significant. By reducing the ground from the two-dimensional picture plane to the one-dimersional film strip without sacrificing the possiblity of richness or scope (as, for example, in minimal or conceptual art), Kubelka has significantly intensified the reductive process beyond the point reached by Mondrian. Finally, the total neutralization of both image and motion brings the proportional relationships of Arnulf Rainer completely into the foreground of the viewer's awareness. As in Mondrian, the determination of equilibrated proportions is essentially equivalent to composition itself.
Less obvious, but equally significant to its affinity with Mondrian, is the manner in which the "pure" elements of Arnulf Rainer reveal a truly musical plasticity. In this respect, the achievements of Schönberg, Webern and their followers become relevant. With the reduction of film to completely abstract, neutral elements, lending themselves easily to notation and manipulation, the application of powerful serial procedures to the determination of the cinematic time field becomes an intriguing possibility.16
Realization of the Wish
If the relationships we have discovered among Brakhage, Mondrian, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen and Kubelka have clarified much regarding the purely formal aspect of negative film syntax, they have left us in the dark concerning its deeply personal roots. We have already encountered this problem in our discussion of Mondrian, whose seemingly cold formalisms developed from the intensification of an already extreme expressionist outlook. To complete our inquiry, we must return once more to Brakhage, but from the "other side" of the struggle to see.
The Oedipal Theme
Like Mondrian and, indeed, Cézanne, Picasso, Schönberg and Webern, Brakhage begins as an expressionist and in many ways remains one. Like these artists, an intimate relationship exists between the most formal and personal aspects of his work, a relationship that can be regarded as a key to the meaning of negative syntax. Let us begin by examining the crucial early "trance" film or "psychodrama" of 1955, The Way to Shadow Garden (WSG). As with similar films by Deren, Anger and Brakhage himself, WSG is dominated by a single protagonist, a somnambulist in a dream environment, clearly functioning as a projection of the filmmaker's own search for self-fulfillment. Unlike the later Brakhage films we have examined, WSG presents a coherent, if bizarre, sequence of events.
A well dressed, middle class young man returns home in a highly disturbed state of mind. His malaise is echoed by the sympathetic behavior of various objects in the room (e.g., a rocking chair rocks by itself). He tears at his tie, which appears to be strangling him, shuts the window, stares at a light bulb, throws water on his face. Finally, there is an abrupt, climactic occurance: as he reaches for a glass of water, the glass, of itself, falls to the floor and shatters. The very next shot reveals him already in the act of gouging out his eyes, from which blood is streaming.
He moves, in apparent agony, toward a door opening on a flower garden. At this point, the film switches to negative. We see him, in negative, suddenly in the garden. All signs of anxiety are gone. He appears to be absorbed in fascinated contemplation of the "magical" scene. We see the strange, negative garden in close-ups, animated by slow, loving, camera movements. Like the protagonist, we are fascinated by the purely visual splendour of the transformed garden.
We have already discussed Brakhage's deep and lasting involvement with psychoanalytic
themes and techniques (see "The Associative Nexus," Chapter 7). Indeed, whether stemming from Brakhage's
unconscious, or deliberately "planted" in the film, WSG reveals a wealth of patently Freudian associations.
The key to the film does not appear within it, but is provided by biographical material. As a child, Brakhage was overweight and wore glasses. "When I was a certain age, and when the glasses and fat of me were a solid manifestation of my own removal from everything around me that I was so dependent on, I lost weight and threw away the glasses."1
There is a long list of personal associations for Brakhage in the act of getting rid of his glasses, obviously a profound turning point in his life. He came eventually to associate the glases with the camera lens and, hence, the culturally accepted artificialities of perspective space. The immediate consequence of his bold act of defiance was much more personal and frightening: fear of going blind. According to Freud, "in the Oedipus as well as the castration complex the father plays the same role of feared opponent to the infantile sexual interests. Castration and its substitute through blinding is the punishment he threatens."2 Throwing away one's glasses is an act of defiance against that authority which has established perspective space as the norm for visual experience. Brakhage has defied the father. In the context of the Oedipal theme, his fear of blindness is related to fear of castration, the direct result of guilt associated with symbolic patricide.
The distress of the protagonist of WSG is thus explained. In Oedipal terms, his disturbing isolation must be understood as estrangment from the mother. He is tormented by ambivalence toward the authority of the father, symbolized by his clothing (suit and tie), at which he tears. The shattering of the glass is a perfect example of what Freud has called "condensation," the tendency of certain symbolic elements to carry multiple meanings. Another Freudian term is also important in this context: "displacement" involves the substitution of one thing for another by some direct associative relationship, often purely verbal.
By verbal displacement, we can regard the shattered glass as a substitute for the discarded "glasses." This, by a further displacement, symbolizes the murder of the father. But more is involved in this particularly rich condensation. The glass is filled with water, a powerful double displacement linking the mother (amniotic fluid) with the eye itself (aqueous humor). In a temporal elision unique in the film, the gouging of the eyes, seen immediately after the shattering of the glass, is presented as already in progress, as though both were really the same event. The shattered glass can thus also be associated with the blinding itself.
Now let us take a closer look at the central Oedipal act, the climax and turning point of the film. We see the protagonist apparently gouging out his eyes, not, as one might suppose, with pieces of glass, but the tips of his fingers. Why this particular technique? Again we must turn to biographical material, an obsession of Brakhage's to which he has referred again and again: closed eye vision. According to Brakhage, "the commonest type of 'closed eye vision' is what we get when we close our eyes in daylight and watch the moving of shapes and forms through the red pattern of the eyelid."3 Experimentation of this sort has been important to Brakhage for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it permits one to study the process of seeing itself in a "pure" state, freed from outside stimuli.
There is, of course, more than one way to induce closed eye vision, the most intense
effects stemming from an active massaging of the eyelids by the fingers. If, indeed, this is what we see at the
climax of WSG, the expected "castration" has itself been displaced by what can only be called "visual
To Freud, every dream is a wish. The wish expressed in this film-dream is for a renewal of sight, associated with union with the mother. The constraint on vision, associated with the Oedipal father, literally blocking access to the eyes (the mother), is the glasses. The wish is achieved when they shatter. The ambiguous activity which follows is simultaneously a blinding (castration, suicide) and a renewal of vision (masturbation, intercourse with the mother) through erotisation of the eyes. Significantly, only after either being blinded or exercising closed eye vision, both involving a turning inward, does he find himself outside, in the beautiful garden.
The theme of visual renewal through blinding, unmistakably related to Ruskin's
"innocent eye," recurs in Brakhage's next film, Reflections on
Black (1955), whose protagonist is, indeed, blind. At a certain point,
Brakhage has scratched holes in the film emulsion where the blind man's eyes appear. As this creates a shimmering
starlike effect, it has usually been interpreted as a symbol for his "visionary" powers. It is also,
literally, a "scratching out" of his eyes, a reenactment of the eye gouging/massaging of WSG. In this
connection it is a symbol for "cleansing" renewal in the form of closed-eye vision, the erotisation of
sight. (Significantly, the plot of the film hinges on the blind man's erotic inner visions.) Prophetically, by
scratching directly into the film, Brakhage associates his Oedipal theme with the "opening" of the filmic
surface and the consequent destruction of the image which will play so important a role in his later work.
Beyond the Dream
The complex, central act of WSG is, indeed, a key to the understanding of much that was to motivate Brakhage in the years to come. Clearly, however, this kind of film could not continue to satisfy him. WSG is a "trance film," a "psychodrama," and, as such, a "film-dream." It is, indeed, in the spirit of a typical Freudian dream analysis that we have analyzed it. But there is a profound difference between a dream and a work of art. To Freud, it is the "latent" dream content, that which emerges from analysis, which is of real importance. The "manifest" dream, the dream as initially experienced or at least remembered, is of no importance at all once the latent content has been revealed. Psychoanalysis is thus a destruction of the manifest dream. As a film-dream, a typical trance film lends itself to this same sort of analytic approach. But the manifest content and the film itself are one. Such a work is thus vulnerable to the very thing it invites -- the "destructiveness" of interpretive analysis.
In some sense such works deserve their fate. The creation of a work of art that
is little more than a projection of the inner conflicts of its maker is a narcissistic, fundamentally asocial act,
demanding that its viewers concern themselves with the problems of the maker to an inordinate degree. Since Brakhage
has never been interested in seducing the viewer, Hollywood style, into developing a strong identification with
the protagonist, the latent meaning of his trance films becomes largely a matter of (destructive) academic interest.
Most fundamental, in terms of Brakhage's Oedipal project, the trance film approach
can never lead to anything more satisfying than a purely symbolic realization of the wish. By associating the "impossible"
Oedipal desire with an essentially artistic project, the renewal of vision, WSG points the way to something beyond
itself, a new kind of art work which can burst the narcissistic confines of dream projection to both embody and
satisfy desire through the erotisation of sight. Closed eye vision becomes the model for a radically new kind of
A Fundamental Split
Anticipation of the Night (AON), of 1958, is the first major work of the new type. While, as we shall see, this film has been motivated by essentially the same inner conflicts revealed in WSG, none of the new works can be approached simply as though it were a more complex and allusive type of trance film. In making a film like AON, Brakhage deliberately plunges into the midst of the conflicted consciousness itself, the world of free association and Surrealist automatic writing. There is no coordinated planning. Each stage of the film's development can be radically dissociated from the others. Typically Brakhage will shoot a good deal of film without any clear idea of how he plans to use it, editing sometimes years later. While, in the trance films, free association will guide the process of scripting, in the new works the same technique is applied spontaneously to both shooting and (insofar as practical) editing. The essentially intellectual process of dream symbolization gives way to a directly intuitive determination, a struggle to see in a manner liberated from all "brain dominance."
The purely formal aspect of this struggle has, of course, already been treated at some length in the previous chapter. The fact that formal issues can be so totally detached from content is itself an important clue to the nature of Brakhage's new approach. The trance films could not meaningfully have been treated in this manner. Like almost all other films, conventional or "avant-garde," they are integral. All their elements work together to produce a unified, mutually reinforcing effect. A film like AON is not integral. There is, in fact, a fundamental split between the film as completed (and projected) and the associations which have motivated and to some extent shaped it. It is our purpose, in this chapter, to examine, and attempt to account for, this split. For now, we must simply call attention to the problems created when, as has all too often been the case, it is ignored.
While many of Brakhage's later films have been subject to symbolic paraphrase and analysis, these works, unlike the trance films, cannot simply be treated as "manifest" dream content, from which a latent meaning can be distilled. As we have argued, they operate to thwart symbolization of any kind. Viewed as their creator intended, at 24 frames per second through a projector, they must be regarded largely as multi-referential (referentially open) determinations of a temporal field.
While the associations surrounding these films are of genuine interest and importance, their manifest content must be sought outside the film as projected, in sources such as: Brakhage's own comments, often-extensive, regarding the origin of the work and its personal meaning for him; Brakhage's notes and sketches; the film, not as projected in the manner intended, but studied at leisure through a viewer. The last named practice, while often quite revealing, involves a total negation of the primary perceptual (temporal) field of the work. The first two ignore it altogetner. If we keep firmly in mind the difference between this sort of "manifest" content and the film as experienced within its own time field, we may, without confusion, proceed to an analysis of the "associational background" of AON.
Continuation of the Oedipal Theme
An important clue to the symbolic connotations behind Anticipation of the Night can be found in the title itself. Anticipation of the night is anticipation of blindness as both death and, as masturbatory union with the mother (closed-eye vision), erotic pleasure. As this suggests, there is a strong link with the Oedipal world of WSG. Brakhage's poetic paraphrase of the film calls attention to an extremely simple narrative thread (all but obliterated in the film itself) which obsessed him during its making: a man in a room contemplates an open door; finally, he goes through the door, and searches for a particular tree, on which he hangs himself.4 As Brakhage's comments make clear, this is simply a point of departure for a whole series of complex symbolic associations. He stresses a particular, highly symbolic image which, in the film as projected, is almost impossible to recognize: a "rose bowl," i.e. a glass bowl containing water on which a rose is floating. The protagonist is understood to be contemplating the rose bowl as he holds it in his hand, hesitating before the open door.
Here we have an important connection with WSG. The rose bowl continues and clarifies the glass and water symbolism of the earlier film. In Freudian terms, the presence of the rose in the glass bowl tells us that the protagonist is now in possession of the Oedipal mother. The resemblance of the rose to the pupil of an eye confirms the link of mother and vision so central to our analysis of WSG. The fact that the protagonist is holding the bowl symbolizes his security in the new, liberated vision he has attained, reflected in the remarkably secure handling of imagery throughout the fllm itself.
But all is far from well. The movements of the water shatter all light entering
the bowl, which casts fragmented, distorted shadows. The shimmering lights in conjunction with the red rose suggest
fire.5 The protagonist is afraid that his new found vision, presaged in WSG, may dissolve into fragments, may literally
burn itself out. Since this vision is so deeply internalized, such fragmentation threatens the inmost self. Other
important symbols reinforce themes already broached in WSG. A window and open door represent "openings"
from the claustrophobic room (self) to the outer world. A rainbow and a baby crawling or a green lawn call forth
Brakhage's own reference (in the opening of Metaphors on Vision) to Ruskin's "innocent eye." Disembodied fragments of light suggest closed eye
vision. A building with columns symbolizes the constraints of perspective space.
From Freud to Jung
While the main body of AON can be understood as representing the protagonist's innermost thoughts and feelings, he himself appears only in the first section of the film and the very end. Unlike the young man of WSG, this central figure is never presented in flesh and blood. We see him only as the flattened, disembodied projection of Brakhage himself: a shadow.
With this figure, a clear link with the final "negative" section of WSG,
we move from the world of Freud to that of Jung. For Jung, "the shadow -- that is...the negative side of the
personality ..." is an important archetype. It represents "the dark aspects" of the self, primitive
and "incapable of moral judgement." As the shadow is intimately connected with the unconscious, the act
of bringing it into consciousness "is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge ..."6 In
WSG, the figure of the protagonist seen in negative is clearly an invocation of the shadow, liberated at the climax
of the Oedipal drama. The archetype is carried over intact to AON, where, in the first shot of the film (see Appendix),
we see the shadow of Brakhage himself framed in the light cast from a partially opened door (or a window in the
door) onto an interior wall. Brakhage is filming his own archetypal "projection," projected by the light
of the sun, eventually to be "projected" onto the screen of a movie theater. In Jungian terms, the Oedipal
wish for renewal of sight will be achieved only through contact with the shadow, representing the "blind"
world of the unconscious.
Jungian Theme--The Archetypal Tree
The most potent, pervasive and menacing symbol in the associative nexus behind AON could easily pass unnoticed. At key points in the film we see shots of trees. These shots, which might be read simply as "country scenes" or evocations of the innocence of nature, carry particularly ominous associations for Brakhage. After all, the most fundamental action of the film's "narrative" thread is the search for a particular tree. At the conclusion, we see the shadow protagonist hanging from it.
In Brakhage's next large scale work, one of his most ambitious efforts, Dog Star Man (DSM) of 1960-64, the tree theme is continued and deepened. Discussing this film in an interview, Brakhage dwells on "the tree" as one of the "motifs that emerge through all my work." He goes on to describe the origins of the film in relation to this theme:
I cast myself as a woodsman with an ax and started climbing the hill ... Without realizing why, I dragged a white tree up two thirds of a mountain, replanted it at a certain point, then struggled with it, and pushed it over. As if battling with myself, some other man, or a monster, I struggled with that white tree, threw it over, then chopped it up.
Brakhage associates the symbolic battle with asthma attacks that he had been having with alarming frequency. Referring to a book by a doctor who associates certain dream images with "idiotoxic" disorders such as asthma, Brakhage cites an apparently typical example involving "a man fighting with himself, with some beast, a dog, a serpent, a cat, or with his twin brother, or with another man." The fight takes place before a dead white tree, while a woman watches. "This is a standard symbol you can find stamped on Cretan coins, such as the one on the frontispiece of Robert Graves' The Greek Myths."7
"Casting himself as a woodsman" for the filming of DSM, Brakhage lets his hair grow down to his shoulders and grows a beard. Filmed by his wife, Jane, he reenacts the search of AON for the tree on which his "shadow" had hanged himself. Finding this tree, he throws it over and "chops it up." In Freudian terms, we could regard this as another Oedipal variant, with the tree as the "father." Compounding the theme in characteristically Freudian style, we could say that Brakhage, long-haired and bearded (years before this became acceptable), has become both father and mother of himself -- as the stern Oedipal father, observed (photographed) by the mother-wife, he is searching for himself as the child (the phallic tree) whom he will castrate, thus freeing himself from his own childhood and its asthma producing anxieties.
But, as we already know, the tree symbol has broader and more powerful connotations in a Jungian context. In a sense not at all incompatible with the Oedipal theme, the tree can clearly be associated with Jung's archetype of the "self," already discussed in relation to Mondrian. Indeed, the tree archetype greatly clarifies the profound affinity already revealed between the two outwardly dissimilar artists. Both Mondrian and Brakhage, at crucial periods of their development, project their innermost identities with the greatest intensity onto the image of a single tree. In both cases the result is the same: the tree disintegrates into fragments -- the underlying, invisible "archetype as such" is thoroughly disassembled and demystified.
At least two of Brakhage's most thoroughgoing explicators have shown some insignt into this process. Dan Clark describes the tree-chopping as a symbolic "chopping of the sun, splintering up its light into thousands of smaller star lights." Sensitive to the Oedipal theme, Clark associates the sun with "the goal of his quest, the Mother..." and, at the same time, the "self" (Sun is son). "His self is fragmented and thrown across the heavens ..." Brakhage's violent attack, not simply on the symbolic tree, but the process of symbolization itself, is reflected in Clark's interpretation of the film's conclusion: "[He is] reborn not as the myth-man DSM, but as the man Brakhage. The film is a myth and the shattering of that myth."8
P. Adams Sitney's description of this symbolic climax is similar in spirit: "the resolution of the film is not a Blakean liberation into Eden and reunion of the imaginative and physical division." Sitney cites the work of Mallarmé and Wallace Stevens who "triumphantly proclaim the failure of the divine within or without man; instead they posit a teleology of poetry, and in their wake Brakhage ends his film with a naked affirmation of his materials and his mechanics. The images dissolve in projected light; the chopping of the tree becomes a metaphor for the splicing of film."9
The above is a fine example of Sitney at his worst/best. There is nothing whatever
in the film itself to suggest a metaphoric relation between the chopping of the tree and the splicing of film.
Sitney is simply reading his own associations into the work. Nevertheless, his misleading interpretation does contain
an impressive insight. There is a link between destruction of the archetype and the fragmentations of montage;
Brakhage, in the spirit of Mondrian, is struggling to resolve the symbolic into the structurally determined surface,
a kind of sublimation in reverse. Sitney is reading his insight into Brakhage's very real struggle as if it were
an insight into the metaphoric "message" of the film. Metaphor of this kind abounds in Mallarmé
and Stevens. In their work the symbolic wishes simply to "symbolize" the idea of its own dissolution
into the material surface. In Brakhage, the dissolution (negative syntax) is real.
Beyond the Archetypal lmage
In order to understand the depth of Brakhage's involvement with the archetype, let us return to Jung's original source, Dionysius the Areopagite, and his mysterious definition: "That the seal is not entire and the same in all its impressions...is not due to the seal itself ... but the difference of the substances which share it makes the impressions of the one, entire, identical archetype to be different."10
The original archetype is a uniform, imageless "seal" or stamp which
produces images or "impressions" due solely to the "differences" within the "substance"
of that which is "stamped" by it. This is not a very difficult riddle. Clearly, all these properties
are shared by one thing: light. What Jung has called the invisible "archetype as such," that which lies
behind "archetypal images" such as the tree, what Mondrian seems to have identified with space, is light
In this context, Brakhage's Freudian association of the mother with vision is equivalent
to his Jungian projection of himself on to the tree. By destroying the tree, he is able to go beyond it to the
archetype "as such," the original source of all light, all vision. As Clark says, "the sun was the
goal of his quest, the Mother..." But Clark goes farther: chopping of the tree becomes "chopping of the
sun, splintering up its light into thousands of smaller star lights." Brakhage, like Mondrian, attacks the
archetypal essence itself, leaving both Freud and Jung (and Mallarmé and Stevens) far behind. In the words
of Sitney, "the images dissolve in projected light..." This must not be taken metaphorically, but literally.
Through the disruptions of negative syntax, the symbolic sun is "fragmented," i.e. resolved into the
matter of fact light of the projector.
A Fourfold Conjunction
In what we may call the "associational residue" of DSM, Brakhage' s inner struggle takes on cosmic dimensions. Yet, at the heart of his conflict lies a fundamentally social desire: the overcoming of narcissistic self absorbtion (isolation) through the development of relationships with others. Thus, complementing "epics" like DSM, are a group of outwardly more modest, down to earth films centering around his wife, children and friends. Unlike the more ambitious works, these "domestic" films are intimate, consisting almost exclusively of "ordinary" footage shot on a more or less day to day basis. Nevertheless, while such works often begin as simple documentations of everyday activities, few resist the tidal pull of the associational background already discussed.
Among the richest, most challenging and revealing of the "domestic" films is Cat's Cradle (CC) of 1959. Shot shortly after his wedding, CC "documents" the relationship between Brakhage, his wife, Jane, and a married couple who were close friends of Brakhage: Carolee Schneemann, a dancer and film-maker, and James Tenney, a composer. Brakhage has spoken of modelling his own notion of ideal marriage on their relationship and, wanting Jane to be influenced in a similar manner, taking her to stay with them for "two very disturbing weeks ..."
...naturally Jane, not sharing my mythos of marriage ...resisted all of that concept tremendously. I was trying to take an ideal form and strike a marriage thereoff, like taking a cookie shape and making cookies...
I was trying so hard to relate to Jim as man that there are images in Cat's Cradle in which you can't tell whether it's Jim or myself you are looking at, even though he had a beard and I didn't... I was trying to superimpose Jane in relationship to Carolee Schneemann and failing miserably on all counts.11
Complicating the relation between the two couples is a fifth "protagonist," Carolee's cat, which remained "in heat" during the entire two week visit. Typically, Brakhage encapsulates the situation in psychoanalytic terms, quoting a well known passage from Freud as a "key phrase":
"I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved." So all sex within Cat's Cradle tends to be interrelated; that is, there is no sex that does not involve four people with the cat seen as a visual medium of heat.12
The notion of a fourfold interrelation, arranged symmetrically around a center (the cat) is reflected in the film's imagery and structure. The twofold polarisation of the couples (opposed by couple but also by sex) becomes the right-left spatial polarization discussed in the previous chapter. Specific moments in the film seem to express the tensions of such polarisation: Jane "reacts" to the appearance of a shadowy female figure near another figure which could be Brakhage; later, he and Jane turn away from one another to opposite poles of the screen space.
Right-left polarization is, to a lesser extent, complimented by polarization on the opposite axis -- several shots are presented upside down. These right-left, up-down symmetries are echoed in certain symmetrical images: flowers and flowered wallpaper; a foot stepping on a sheet, causing wrinkles to radiate from the center: a spider embroidered on a pillow; a facetted glass jar with a flower at the center.
The cat, for Brakhage "the touchstone visually and formally of everything
else that happens in the film,"13 often "represented" simply as blurred fur, is almost continually
in motion from one part of the screen space to the other. Only when studying the film on a viewer, frame by frame,
does the extent of its function as "medium" or "mediator" become apparent. At one point, on
screen left for example, there is a cut from Jane to a shot of the cat, which, marvelously enough, occupies the
exact area previously occupied by the negative space of Jane's head. A hand then appears from screen right to pet
the cat. At a later point, in a sequence of three shots, Brakhage "fuses" into Jane, who, in turn, "fuses"
into the cat. Both fusions are accomplished through a type of plastic cutting which is particularly characteristic
of CC, a kind of "stitching together" of one shot to the next by means of sunlight flickering over the
The Marriage Quaternio
Despite Brakhage's invocation of Freud, the circumstances, structure and imagery of CC clearly reflect Jungian themes. The cat, for example, and much of the symmetrical imagery, invoke what Jung has called "the central symbol," a psychic center of energy which
acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice. For this reason the centre is ...often pictured as a spider in its web ...14
The spider image, present on the embroidered pillow, can be associated with the cat through the film's title, the "cat's cradle" game, with its weblike symmetries, being a perfect expression of Jung's "lattice." Later in the same discussion, Jung adds that "among the various characteristics of the centre the one that struck me from the beginning was the phenomenon of the quaternity."15 This returns us to the notion of the mandala archetype, which, as we have seen in our discussion of Mondrian, Jung resolves into the four points of the cross, the "fourfold conjunction of opposites."
We can arrive at the same configuration via another Jungian route, the shadow archetype. According to Jung, "the shadow can be realized only through a relation to a partner." This archetypal partner, the subconscious counterpart to the self of a male, the basis for his "eternal image of woman," and the moving force of his psychological projections, Jung calls the "anima." For a woman, the "animus" plays a corresponding role.
The recognition of the anima gives rise, in a man, to a triad, one third of which is transcendent: the masculine subject, the opposing feminine subject, and the transcendent anima... The missing fourth element that would make the triad a quaternity is, in a man, the archetype of the Wise Old Man ...These four constitute a half immanent and half transcendent quaternity, an archetype which I have called the marriage quaternio.16
From Brakhage's point of view, he himself would be Jung's "masculine subject,"
Jane "the opposing feminine subject," Carolee Schneemann the "anima," and (bearded) James Tenney,
"the wise old man." In the center of this archetypal marriage quaternio is its "central symbol,"
the cat. In purely formal terms, we may refer to the "archetypal image" at its most abstract: the "fourfold
conjunction of opposites" which is the mandala, ultimately the cross. The right-left polarizations of the
human figures relate to the horizontal opposition; the top-bottom polarizations resulting from image-inversion,
the vertical opposition. The images of flowers, foot-on-sheet and spider-pillow are themselves mandalas, with lines
radiating out symmetrically from the "central symbol."
A Dream Analysis
Our reduction of the "manifest" content of CC (which content, we must keep in mind, is mostly derived from either background information or leisurely study of the film through a viewer) to its archetypal framework invites us to derive a "latent" content by means of a process analogous to psychoanalytic dream analysis. Our discussion of WSG, AON and DSM has prepared us by providing a specific orientation in both Freudian and Jungian terms. At the center of all three films is the issue of vision as union with the mother through the erotisation of sight. In the last two, the mother is identified with the source of light itself, which, on the symbolic level, is the sun. Union with the sun is finally achieved (again, in purely symbolic terms) in DSM. We have already, of course, identified Jung's "archetype as such," prior to the formation of any archetypal image, with light itself. The sun, as source of light, can then be regarded as the source of the archetype, the "collective unconscious." It is also the "central symbol," that in which all the oppositions become united.
When we add that the sun is the fundamental source of heat as well as light, its relation to the central symbol of CC, the cat, becomes clear. Both Jungian "conjunction" and Freudian "condensation," the cat can be associated with sexuality, the Oedipal mother, the center, light, heat, the sun, the archetype itself, and the fluidities of vision. Fundamentally, all these things can be regarded as means of dissolving oppositions. Thus the cat's role as mediator between the polarized humans, helping to transform one into to other, like the sunlight which also acts to "stitch together" differences through plastic cutting.
In psychoanalytic terms, we might conclude that Brakhage desires a dissolution
of the oppositions between the two couples and the two sexes through the mediation of a completely open, unrestrained
sexuality. The "heat" of the cat would thus represent sexual tension above all. At one point in the film,
tension seems to be building to a maximum as James Tenney opens the door, a process greatly extended through montage
in a sequence that works almost as a parody of conventional film "suspense." The release of tension accompanying
the flood of sunlight pouring through the fully open door can be "read" as orgasm, the "consummation"
of the fundamental, latent, wish behind the film dream.
Dissolution of Difference
As an analysis of the "manifest" complex of associations surrounding a film called Cat's Cradle, the above is adequate enough. But the film, unlike Brakhage's earlier trance films, refuses to cooperate in the symbolic process. Viewing CC as projected, one is confronted with a continual barrage of images colliding and/or fusing with one another in probably what is the most extreme use of rapid cutting since Abel Gance. It is difficult or impossible, even after several viewings, to identify many of the images. The cat, especially, is hard to spot as much more than a moving, furry texture. As Brakhage himself has admitted, viewers are often confused as to how many people are represented. Since all four characters are continuously being fused, it is hardly surprising that some see the film as a portrait of a single person.17 In order to do justice to the film itself, presented as intended by its author, we must probe more deeply into the motives which gave it birth. Clearly, what has already been "revealed" does not represent the most profound level of "latent content" behind the "manifest" associations already discussed.
As should now be evident, there is a strong network of interrelations between WSG, AON, DSM and CC which can be traced to the most fundamental "wish" of the earliest film. Brakhage desires a dissolution of differences between himself and others generally (the original motive for losing weight and throwing away the glasses). Fear of such differences is at the root of his fear of blindness, which could produce total isolation.
The wish for sexual union with the mother thus has a social meaning which blends
with the Oedipal theme and, in terms of Brakhage's actual project, supplants it. Union with the mother through
the erotisation of sight is equivalent to creation of the kind of films that will enable him to share with others
his own unique way of seeing, the "aberrations" of which were the cause of the initial social barrier
(the glasses). Thus the latent content hidden behind the manifest symbolizations surrounding a film like CC cannot
be separated from the very real struggle to make the fundamental wish a reality: the "struggle to see"
through which vision is determined, thus shared, by means of negative syntax.
Dissolution of the Archetype
The tool we need to reveal the true "latent" content behind the "manifest" network of associations hovering around CC is already at hand. Our analysis of Mondrian's subversion of the archetype is the key to a remarkably simple and complete transformation of material already covered. Let us recall that Mondrian's theories bore a remarkable resemblance to those of Jung, as though Mondrian wished his work to be an embodiment of the archetype in its most fundamental form. Ultimately, however, it became clear that the source of the resemblance was not similarity but opposition: Mondrian's work can be regarded as a mirror opposite of the archetype, each mature painting a true antimandala. As we have demonstrated, Mondrian opens the archetypal image out onto its surface, transforming a highly symbolic "transcendency" into a perceptually determined material entity. As Brakhage's negative syntax is essentially equivalent to that of Mondrian, we may approach his struggle with the archetype from the same standpoint as that of the painter. Thus the associational background of CC may be "decoded" by opening or, what amounts to the same thing, inverting, the analysis we have already presented.
In Jungian terms, the search for the archetype involves a process of reduction of all elements to the idealized, abstract relationships symbolized by them. Thus the four protagonists of CC can be abstracted to the "marriage quaternio," with the cat as "central symbol." Underlying this "mandala" is the "fourfold conjunction of opposites" which is the cross, in Christian terms "the light." Jungian analysis thus leads to a spatial configuration, a gestalt, symbolizing that which can neither be perceived nor thought -- the ineffable. Opening this symbol is equivalent to the opening of form itself into space or the event into time. Structural weight moves from the center to the periphery, from the "timeless" whole to the ephemeral trace. Ultimately, it is only in the context of a coherent "event" that the symmetrical images of CC can function as mandalas which the film's spatial polarizations can resolve into a symbolizing conjunction. With the disruption of the event through negative syntax, the images cannot signify; the left-right, up-down polarizations intensify into a fourfold disjunction of opposites. The ineffable reveals itself as the matter of fact.
Nowhere is Brakhage's "inversion" of Jung more forceful than in his treatment of the cat. For Jung, this would be a conjunction, a condensation, symbolizing many things at once. As we have seen, moreover, everything signified by the cat has in common a mediating function. Thus, in Jungian terms, the cat is the "central symbol," a transcendance within which all differences are reconciled. Ultimately, the central symbol, as dissolver of difference, cannot be distinguished from the archetype itself, the invisible "archetype as such," (prior to any archetypal image) which we have already identified as light. Thus the elusive image of the cat becomes not only the light (and heat) of the sun, but the ineffable "light" of symbolization itself.
In opening the archetype, and the symbolic process of which it is the essence, Brakhage opens this "light" to the surface, revealing it (as in DSM) as the light which actually pervades the film as projected, the light of the projector bulb. This it is which is ultimately embodied by the cat, or, more literally, the negative space of its projected "shadow," distributing light equally throughout screen-space, "stitching" with light from one shot to the next. In this context, both cat and sun resolve into plastic cutting as passage. True to the ultimately disjunctive nature of passage, the cat "reconciles" through intensification of all polarities, thus, like dynamic equilibrium, or the Webernian series, functioning as a "destruction of the plastic means." This is equivalent to the neutralization of all imagery, the opening out of all differences which could lead to signification.
While Brakhage can be said to have reduced the ineffable to the ephemeral, the
symbolic to the matter of fact, this "reduction" must not be misconstrued. All the intensity of the original
associations is maintained in and through the basic structural principle. Ultimately, the sexual "heat"
of the cat, the "erotisation of sight," and Brakhage's negative montage are one and the same.
The Liberation of Vision
In a Freudian dream analysis, the latent content is understood to be that which is signified by the manifest content. A typical film "dream" does, indeed, contain "signifiers" which point to a latent "signified." However Brakhage's later films disrupt the sign function. Thus, despite their "manifest" existence, they cannot be regarded as manifest dream-content in the Freudian sense. For this reason, as we have maintained, the "manifest" content of a film like CC must be sought in its associational background.
As our analysis of this background has revealed, however, all of the film's associations point, not simply to repressed personal conflicts, but to the very process by which such conflicts are "resolved" in the making of the film itself. Every attempt to arrive at some ultimate latent "meaning" leads us instead to a material entity (the film) from which meaning has been expunged. Brakhage's attack on "all brain dominance" has therefore been remarkably thorough. It is the film itself, as projected, in all its brain-numbing, eye opening complexity, which must, finally, be identified as the latent content we have been seeking. Indeed, the creation of a film like CC must be understood as exactly equivalent to the psychoanalytic process itself.
As "latent content," the product of an analysis which is complete, a work such as CC is, unlike the trance film, no longer vulnerable to the sort of critical "dream analysis" (or, if you prefer, "deconstruction") which would render it superfluous. It is symbolism itself, or rather its absolute authority, which is rendered superfluous by the film. While we may still recognize and relate to the imagery and its overtones, they can no longer hypnotize us; they have become "multireferential."
We are now in a position to understand Brakhage's use of the film. Creation of CC was part of an attempt to rid himself of what he has called an"idée fixe" regarding the relation of his marriage to that of his friends. "Then Jim and Carolee could go on unhindered by the myth, and we could all be friends; but there was a tremendous battle that had to take place first."18 In order to destroy the myth poisoning his relations with his wife and friends, he must disengage himself from personal symbolic associations in order to see what he has filmed with the unattached objectivity of an outsider. Thus, ultimately, Brakhage's effort to free himself from the ideal "cookie cutter" form of the marriage quaternio coincides with his larger Oedipal, social and artistic goal. By struggling to liberate vision, his own and that of others, he is able to transcend the narcissism of the trance films, breaking out of his isolation to "share a sight."
NOTES FOR PART V
Chapter 10--Art of Montage
1. Cf. "Dialectic of Form and Space" in chapter 8, above.
2. Brakhage, op. cit. [unpaginated]
3. Stan Brakhage, "Letter to Ronna Page," in The Avant-Garde Film, op. cit. p. 134. Brakhage's musical background and interests have never been sufficiently appreciated. He studied with John Cage and has written of his strong debt, not only to Bach and Webern, but Boulez, Pousseur, Stockhausen and Messiaen. See "Letter ..." p. 136 and Sitney, "Autobiography ..." op. cit. p. 210.
4. The reader should of course recognize that the word "event" is now being used in a much more limited sense than preceding chapters. In applying earlier discussions to the present context, it would be necessary to substitute event-trace or detail, in most cases, for event.
5. The breakdown of image content and shot length in CC is based on the shot list appearing in Dan Clark, Brakhage (New York:Film Makers Cinematheque, 1966) pp. 44-46. The proportional analysis is my own.
6. See note 11, chapter 9, above.
7. "Camera Lucida ..." op. cit. p. 37.
8. See note 16, chapter 9, above.
9. see P. Adams Sitney, "Interview With Stan Brakhage,", (1963) in Film Culture Reader, ed. Sitney (New York:Praeger, 1970) pp. 222-224.
10. See note 20, chapter 9, above.
11. Sitney, "Interview ..." op. cit. pp. 223, 228.
12. See, for example, Ibid. pp. 214-215, 223-224, 227-228.
13. Visionary Film, op. cit. p. 333.
14. Information on both films is drawn from Peter Kubelka, "The Theory of Metrical Film," in The Avant-Garde Film, op. cit. pp. 148, 154, 155.
15. Ibid. p. 156.
16. An attempt of this sort is the basis for an ongoing project of my own. See Victor Grauer, "A Theory of Pure Film," in Field of Vision 1 (1976) and 3 (Winter, 1977-78).
Chapter 11---Realization of the Wish
1. "Stan and Jane Brakhage Talking," op. cit. p. 73.
2. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913) in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by A. A. Brill (New York:Modern Library, 1938) p. 907.
3. Sitney, "Interview ..." Op. cit. p. 223.
4. Stan Brakhage, "On Anticipation of the Night," in Filmwise (1961) pp. 19-20; quoted in Sitney, Visionary Film, op. cit. p. 181.
5. See Brakhage's "Notes of Anticipation" in Metaphors on Vision, op. cit. [unpaginated]
6. C. G. Jung, "Aion:Phenomenology of the Self" in The Portable Jung , ed. J. Campbell (New York:Viking Press, 1971) pp. 145-147.
7. Sitney, "Interview ..." op. cit. p. 218.
8. Dan Clark, op. cit. p. 55.
9. Visionary Film, op. cit. p. 216.
10. See note 37, chapter 8, above.
11. Sitney, "Interview..." op. cit. p. 207.
12. Ibid. p. 208.
13. Ibid. p. 207.
14. C. G. Jung, "Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy" in The Portable Jung, op. cit. p. 450.
15. Ibid. p. 451.
16. "Aion:..." op. cit. p. 161.
17. See Sitney, "Interview ..." op. cit. p. 208.
18. Ibid. pp. 207, 208.