Visionary Film: The Apocalyptic Eye of Stan Brakhage

Still from "The Dante Quartet" (1987)

Film is not all about storytelling. Sometimes it is about light. Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), the prolific American avant-garde filmmaker, scratched, painted, hand-processed, and generally experimented in every conceivable way with celluloid in the effort to give the film-viewer a new set of eyes – eyes transfixed and transformed by beautiful, lyrical explosions of light and colour. The rapidly moving shapes and figures of his most abstract works approximate what he called “closed-eye vision” – what we see on the inside of our eyelids when we shut them tight. Brakhage’s experimental films offer us the possibility of a world that “shimmers” with mystery and beauty – pregnant with what the Greeks called thaumazein, primordial wonder.

My wife and I just had our first baby. As she interacts with things for the first time – our apartment, our dogs, the grass, the flowers, her own reflection in the mirror – I can’t help but wonder what she sees and feels as she experiences life for the first time. This perceptual “innocence,” the prospect of a world of bright and beautiful sensation as yet unstructured by language – by divine and Adamic “naming” – is precisely what Brakhage invites us into through his films. His more “representational” films are almost like transfigured home movies, exploring autobiographical images of birth, childhood, nature, sex, landscape and general being-in-the-world with what might be termed a kind of prelapsarian naïveté; his more abstract creations penetrate beyond natural forms to cascades of light and colour. Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is as graphic a depiction of birth as one is likely to see in a movie theatre, yet here this basic human experience becomes visual poetry – full of metaphor and soft cadences. Text of Light (1974) is a 68-minute-long exploration of the light refracted through a glass ashtray – about as far away from Hollywood narrative filmmaking as one can get. Brakhage’s filmmaking style was organic, intuitive, hands-on, and above all deeply personal – with most every completed piece identified with a hand-scratched, almost childlike, “By Brakhage.”

I have only seen a few of the hundreds of films Brakhage made across his lengthy career, though thanks to the Criterion Collection they are now readily available on DVD. The films which have left the greatest impact on me, however, have been those which plunged into near-total abstraction – particularly Mothlight (1963) and The Dante Quartet (1987). Mothlight was made by attaching pieces of dead moths – wings, legs, and so on – to the filmstrip and printing the result. It is a bizarre yet breathtaking film – the wings of the moths merge, at 24 frames per second, into a dazzling array of ornate, delicate forms. The Dante Quartet – which consists of four parts, mirroring Dante’s descent into Hell – was made by painting on the celluloid, a technique so strange and so far removed from what we normally consider cinema that the results have to be seen to be believed – rhythmic, colourful and emotional constructions that evoke both the “transcendent quest” and the “apocalyptic sublime.”[1] Each frame is an abstract masterpiece in its own right. The “visionary”[2] possibilities of the filmic medium are pushed to the very limit – without actors, script, soundtrack, what is left is pure light.

Is there a theological lesson here? Such filmic visions may perplex and perhaps frustrate us. Yet what I see in Brakhage’s films is the possibility of a new way of seeing – an apocalyptic eye, that ‘lifts the veil’ on nature (and the uniquely human) in order for us to see the “glory and freshness” of the dawn of creation in each created form. Such an “eye” begins in wonder, and will not rest until it finds a more perfect poetry.

Brett David Potter is working on a PhD in theology, art and culture at the Toronto School of Theology and has an MCS in Christianity and the Arts from Regent College in Vancouver. Before that he studied film and video at York University. His current research project is an attempt to navigate the space between theological aesthetics and contemporary art, with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jean-Luc Marion as guides. Brett lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto, where alongside his academic interests he makes video art, writes music and blogs about art, film and faith (on his blog “unfolding forms”.)

[1] Brett Kashmere, “Adventures in Perception: Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet and the Romantic Tradition”, Splice (Winter 2005): 6-9.

[2] See P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

More stills from Stan Brakhage’s films can be viewed at Fred Camper’s gallery.

Thanks to Marilyn Brakhage for permission to use stills from The Dante Quartet. These images may not be reproduced elsewhere, including on the Internet, except by permission of Marilyn Brakhage.


  • Steve Scott says:

    Thank you.. I sat through `Dog Star Man’ and numerous other Brakhage screenings in the `70s c/o the London Filmmakers Co op in the UK…..and when in New York in the early 80s I was at the Museum of modern Art for his personal appearance/lecture and retrospective screening of his hand painted films…….Brilliant then and now……

  • bruceherman says:

    I’m so glad to see that VonB. and Marion are being read in conjunction with experimental imagery such as in the films of Brakhage. Often Balthasar is associated exclusively with tradition (and yet the traditions only continue to be vital if there is new ground explored even as the inheritance is acknowledged).
    It is so interesting, though, that Brakhage and many other experimenters now seem “traditional” in the sense of dated modernist exploration (from early Surrealist film through current folks like P.T. Anderson) as “good old modernism”… It’s as though experimentation has less cache these days as tastes shift toward traditionalism and a high-culture-consumerist feel. (Ironic that traditionalism is really the postmortem on tradition.)

  • brettdavidpotter says:

    Thanks Steve and Bruce for your comments! I have a couple of great film school profs (themselves still part of that hand-processing, DIY filmmaking scene) to thank for introducing me to Brakhage along with Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow etc.

    It’s strange how one era’s “avant-garde” can, almost instantly, become part of the “tradition” new filmmakers (and, these days, video artists) want to react against…

  • Steve Scott says:

    Interesting. Brakhage was very much a lyrical filmmaker working out of the materiality of the medium (and what he could paste onto a frame) incl: `wrong’ lenses, light settings….and in one case shooting thru a glass ashtray (inspiration, apparently for Superman’s `special effects guys) Then there was his notorious `Pittsburg’ trilogy with `The Act of Seeing with your own eyes’ (gives CSI a run for its money) all this to say that Brakhage was AFTER the earlier film/surrealist experiments Bunuel/dali..Gerard du Lac, up thru Jean cocteau, Maya Deren but BEFORE (and somewhat dissed by, in my hearing in London 70s) the `structuralist’ filmmakers (P Gidal, et al) who wanted to deconstruct the `passive’ viewing experience of `cinema’ and use the materiality of film, or the projected situation (everything from Snow’s Wavelength to Anthony MCall’s projection stuff) as a way of awakening a critical/poliicized viewer…..somewhat akin to Clement Greenberg’s early opposing of reflexive formalist approach to painting to image saturated, sentimental and market driven kitsch. But even the formal/essentialist `film not cinema’ people were naive, accordng to one school of thought. The realm of the image/simulacra was inescapable….it was the mediating logic of all relations according to people like Guy DeBord and Jean Baudrillard (again this was the 60s/70s) so it should be `possible’ (but in retrospect no more emancipatory than any other attempt) to view film simultaneously as `material’ while (ironically) exploiting its social effect as `cinema’…. different presses (over here in US) have published `working versions’ shooting scripts of DeBord’s `society of the spectacle’……..but if you want mainstream , check out Antonioni’s `Blow up’ from the mid 60s……..

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