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.” Each frame is an abstract masterpiece in its own right. The “visionary” 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 Kashmere, “Adventures in Perception: Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet and the Romantic Tradition”, Splice (Winter 2005): 6-9.
 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.