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Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking

Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking

by Stan Brakhage

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ESSENTIAL BRAKHAGE gathers twenty-one manifestos, screening lectures, Q&A sessions, drawings, poems, shooting scenarios, stills, narrative scripts, and theoretical essays on the art of filmmaking written over the last five decades by one of the acknowledged masters of independent American cinema. Film annotations and a current bibliography are included.


ESSENTIAL BRAKHAGE gathers twenty-one manifestos, screening lectures, Q&A sessions, drawings, poems, shooting scenarios, stills, narrative scripts, and theoretical essays on the art of filmmaking written over the last five decades by one of the acknowledged masters of independent American cinema. Film annotations and a current bibliography are included.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Brakhage is celebrated as a groundbreaking experimental filmmaker. In a career spanning 50 years, he has produced over 300 films, some only a few seconds long, others several hours in length. His best-known work, the multipart Dog Star Man (1962-64), was recently included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry of outstanding films. With this anthology, the publisher offers generous excerpts from two out-of-print Brakhage books, Metaphors on Vision and Brakhage Scrapbook, plus a sampling of recent writings. McPherson describes this collection as "an entry point to the viewing and study of the films," but some essays, lectures, manifestos, program notes, and annotations require much more background and context than is provided here, particularly for a younger generation unfamiliar with the work. While some of the writing is dated, Brakhage's advice to aspiring independent filmmakers retains interest, and notes on selected films will be useful for film society programmers and scholars. Recommended for large academic film collections. Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A collection of 21 manifestos, screening lectures, question and answer sessions, drawings, poems, and other work written over the past five decades by one the masters of independent American cinema. Shooting scenarios, b&w stills, narrative scripts, and theoretical essays on the art of filmmaking are included. There are also descriptions of some 80 films, through 2000. This work lacks a subject index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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McPherson & Company
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metaphors on vision

                    Imagine an eye unruled by man-made lawsof perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, aneye which does not respond to the name of everything butwhich must know each object encountered in life through anadventure of perception. How many colors are there in a fieldof grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green"? How manyrainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware ofvariations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alivewith incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endlessvariety of movement and innumerable gradations of color.Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."

    To see is to retain—to behold. Elimination of all fear is insight—which must be aimed for. Once vision may have beengiven—that which seems inherent in the infant's eye, an eyewhich reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than anyother human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights,an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual towarddeath by its increasing inability to see.

    But one can never go back, not even in imagination. Afterthe loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balancethe wobbling pivot. Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit ofknowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication,demanding a development of the optical mind,and dependent upon perception in the original and deepestsense of the word.

    Suppose the Vision of the saint and the artist to be an increasedability to see—vision. Allow so-called hallucination toenter the realm of perception, allowing that mankind alwaysfinds derogatory terminology for that which doesn't appear tobe readily usable, accept dream visions, day-dreams or nightdreams,as you would so-called real scenes, even allowing thatthe abstractions which move so dynamically when closed eyelidsare pressed are actually perceived. Become aware of the factthat you are not only influenced by the visual phenomenon whichyou are focused upon and attempt to sound the depths of allvisual influence. There is no need for the mind's eye to be deadenedafter infancy, yet in these times the development of visualunderstanding is almost universally forsaken.

    This is an age which has no symbol for death other than theskull and bones of one stage of decomposition ... and it is anage which lives in fear of total annihilation. It is a time hauntedby sexual sterility yet almost universally incapable of perceivingthe phallic nature of every destructive manifestation of itself. Itis an age which artificially seeks to project itself materialisticallyinto abstract space and to fulfill itself mechanically becauseit has blinded itself to almost all external reality withineyesight and to the organic awareness of even the physicalmovement properties of its own perceptibility. The earliest cavepaintings discovered demonstrate that primitive man had agreater understanding than we do that the object of fear must beobjectified. The entire history of erotic magic is one of possessionof fear thru holding it. The ultimate searching visualizationhas been directed toward God out of the deepest possiblehuman understanding that there can be no ultimate love wherethere is fear. Yet in this contemporary time how many of us evenstruggle to deeply perceive our own children?

    The artist has carried the tradition of visual and visualizationdown through the ages. In the present time a very few havecontinued the process of visual perception in its deepest senseand transformed their inspirations into cinematic experiences.They create a new language made possible by the moving pictureimage. They create where fear before them has created thegreatest necessity. They are essentially preoccupied by and dealimagistically with—birth, sex, death, and the search for God.

the camera eye

                    Oh transparent hallucination, superimpositionof image, mirage of movement, heroine of a thousand andone nights (Scheherazade must surely be the muse of this art),you obstruct the light, muddle the pure white beaded screen (itperspires) with your shuffling patterns. Only the spectators (theunbelievers who attend the carpeted temples where coffee andpaintings are served) think your spirit is in the illuminated occasion(mistaking your sweaty, flaring, rectangular body for morethan it is). The devout, who break popcorn together in yourhumblest double-feature services, know that you are still beingborn, search for your spirit in their dreams, and dare only dreamwhen in contact with your electrical reflection. Unknowingly, asinnocent, they await the priests of this new religion, those whocan stir cinematic entrails divinely. They await the prophets whocan cast (with the precision of Confucian sticks) the charactersof this new order across filmic mud. Being innocent, they donot consciously know that this church too is corrupt; but theyreact with counter hallucinations, believing in the stars, andthemselves among these Los Angelic orders. Of themselves,they will never recognize what they are awaiting. Their footsteps,the dumb drum which destroys cinema. They are havingthe dream piped into their homes, the destruction of the romancethru marriage, etc.

    So the money vendors have been at it again. To the catacombsthen, or rather plant this seed deeper in the undergroundsbeyond false nourishing of sewage waters. Let it drawnourishment from hidden uprising springs channeled by gods.Let there be no cavernous congregations but only the networkof individual channels, that narrowed vision which splits beamsbeyond rainbow and into the unknown dimensions. (To thosewho think this is waxing poetic, squint, give the visual objects athand their freedom, and allow the distant to come to you; andwhen mountains are moving, you will find no fat in this prose.)Forget ideology, for film unborn as it is has no language andspeaks like an aborigine—monotonous rhetoric. Abandon aesthetics—themoving picture image without religious foundations,let alone the cathedral, the art form, starts its search forGod with only the danger of accepting an architectural inheritancefrom the categorized "seven," other arts its sins, and closingits circle, stylish circle, therefore zero. Negate technique, forfilm, like America, has not been discovered yet, and mechanization,in the deepest possible sense of the word, traps both beyondmeasuring even chances—chances are these twinedsearches may someday orbit about the same central negation.Let film be. It is something ... becoming. (The above being forcreator and spectator alike in searching, an ideal of anarchicreligion where all are priests both giving and receiving, or ratherwitch doctors, or better witches, or ... O, for the unnameable).

    And here, somewhere, we have an eye (I'll speak for myself)capable of any imagining (the only reality). And there (rightthere) we have the camera eye (the limitation, the original liar);yet lyre sings to the mind so immediately (the exalted selectivityone wants to forget that its strings can so easily make puppetryof human motivation (for form as finality) dependent uponattunation, what it's turned to (ultimately death) or turned from(birth) or the way to get out of it (transformation). I'm not justspeaking of that bird on fire (not thinking of circles) or ofSpengler (spirals neither) or of any known progression (norstraight lines) logical formation (charted levels) or ideological formation(mapped for scenic points of interest); but I am speakingfor possibilities (myself), infinite possibilities (preferring chaos).

    And here, somewhere, we have an eye capable of anyimaginings. And then we have the camera eye, its lenses groundedto achieve 19th-century Western compositional perspective (asbest exemplified by the 19th-century architectural conglomerationof details of the "classic" ruin) in bending the light andlimiting the frame of the image just so, its standard camera andprojector speed for recording movement geared to the feeling ofthe ideal slow Viennese waltz, and even its tripod head, beingthe neck it swings on, balled with bearings to permit it that LesSylphides motion (ideal to the contemplative romantic and virtuallyrestricted to horizontal and vertical movements (pillars andhorizon lines), a diagonal requiring a major adjustment, itslenses coated or provided with filters, its light meters balanced,and its color film manufactured, to produce that picture postcardeffect (salon painting) exemplified by those oh so blue skiesand peachy skins.

    By deliberately spitting on the lens or wrecking its focal intention,one can achieve the early stages of impressionism. Onecan make this prima donna heavy in performance of imagemovement by speeding up the motor, or one can break up movement,in a way that approaches a more direct inspiration ofcontemporary human eye perceptibility of movement, by slowingthe motion while recording the image. One may hand holdthe camera and inherit worlds of space. One may over- and under-exposethe film. One may use the filters of the world, fog,downpours, unbalanced lights, neons with neurotic color temperatures,glass which was never designed for a camera, or evenglass which was but which can be used against specifications, orone may photograph an hour after sunrise or an hour beforesunset, those marvelous taboo hours when the films labs willguarantee nothing, or one may go into the night with a specifieddaylight film or vice versa. One may become the supreme trickster,with hatfulls of all the rabbits listed above breeding madly.One may, out of incredible courage, become Méliès, that marvelousman who gave even the "art of the film" its beginning inmagic. Yet Méliès was not witch, witch doctor, priest, or evensorcerer. He was a 19th-century stage magician. His films arerabbits.

    What about the hat? or if you will, the stage, the page, theink, the hieroglyphic itself, the pigment shaping that originaldrawing, the musical and/or all other instruments for copula-and-then-procreation?Kurt Sachs talks sex (which fits the hatneatly) in originating musical instruments, and Freud's revitalizationof symbol charges all contemporary content in art. Yetpossession thru visualization speaks for fear-of-death as motivatingforce—the tomb art of the Egyptian, etc. And thenthere's "In the beginning," "Once upon a time," or the very conceptof a work of art being a "Creation." Religious motivationonly reaches us thru the anthropologist these days—viz., Frazeron a golden bough. And so it goes—ring around the rosary,beating about the bush, describing. One thread runs clean thruthe entire fabric of expression—the trick-and-effect. And betweenthose two words, somewhere, magic ... the brush of angelwings, even rabbits leaping heavenwards and, given some direction,language corresponding. Dante looks upon the face ofGod and Rilke is head among the angelic orders. Still the NightWatch was tricked by Rembrandt and Pollack was out to producean effect. The original word was a trick, and so were all therules of the game that followed in its wake. Whether the instrumentbe musical or otherwise, it's still a hat with more rabbits yetinside the head wearing it—i.e., thought's trick, etc. Even TheBrains for whom thought's the world, and the word and visi-or-audibilityof it, eventually end with a Ferris wheel of a solarsystem in the middle of the amusement park of the universe.They know it without experiencing it, screw it lovelessly, find"trick" or "effect" derogatory terminology, too close for comfort,are utterly unable to comprehend "magic." We are eitherexperiencing (copulating) or conceiving (procreating) or veryrarely both are balancing in that moment of living, loving, andcreating, giving and receiving, which is so close to the imagineddivine as to be more unmentionable than "magic."

    In the event you didn't know "magic" is realmed in "theimaginable," the moment of it being when that which is imagineddies, is penetrated by mind and known rather than believedin. Thus "reality" extends its picketing fence and each is encouragedto sharpen his wits. The artist is one who leaps that fenceat night, scatters his seeds among the cabbages, hybrid seeds inspiredby both the garden and wits-end forest where only foolsand madmen wander, seeds needing several generations tobe ... finally proven edible. Until then they remain invisible, tothose with both feet on the ground, yet prominent enough to betripped over. Yes, those unsightly bulges between those oh soeven rows will find their flowering moment ... and then befarmed. Are you really thrilled at the sight of a critic tentativelymunching artichokes? Wouldn't you rather throw overalls in theeventual collegic chowder? Realize the garden as you will—thegrowing is mostly underground. Whatever daily care you maygive it—all is planted only by moonlight. However you rememberit—everything in it originates elsewhere. As for the unquotablemagic—it's as indescribable as the unbound woods itcomes from.

    (A foot-on-the-ground-note: The sketches of T. E. Lawrence's"realist" artist companion were scratches to Lawrence'sArab friends. Flaherty's motion picture projection of Nanook ofthe North was only a play of lights and silhouettes to the AleutianIslander Nanook himself. The schizophrenic does see symmetrically,does believe in the reality of Rorschach, yet he willnot yield to the suggestion that pinpoint light in a darkenedroom will move, being the only one capable of perceiving itsstasis correctly. Question any child as to his drawing and he willdefend the "reality" of what you claim to be "scribbles." Answerany child's question and he will shun whatever quest he'dbeen beginning.)

    Light, lens concentrated, either burns negative film to achemical crisp which, when lab washed, exhibits the blackenedpattern of its ruin or, reversal film, scratches the emulsion toeventually bleed it white. Light, again lens concentrated, pierceswhite and casts its shadow-patterned self to reflect upon thespectator. When light strikes a color emulsion, multiple chemicallayers restrict its various wave lengths, restrain its bruises toeventually produce a phenomenon unknown to dogs. Don'tthink of creatures of uncolored vision as restricted, but wonder,rather, and marvel at the known internal mirrors of the catwhich catch each spark of light in the darkness and reflect it toan intensification. Speculate as to insect vision, such as the bee'ssense of scent thru ultraviolet perceptibility. To search for humanvisual realities, man must, as in all other homo motivation,transcend the original physical restrictions and inherit worldsof eyes. The very narrow contemporary moving visual reality isexhausted. The belief in the sacredness of any man-achievementsets concrete about it, statutes becoming statues, needingboth explosives and earthquakes for disruption. As to the permanencyof the present or any established reality, consider inthis light and thru most individual eyes that without either illuminationor photographic lens, any ideal animal might claw theblack off a strip of film or walk ink-footed across transparentcelluloid and produce an effect for projection identical to a photographedimage. As to color, the earliest color films were entirelyhand painted a frame at a time. The "absolute realism" ofthe motion picture image is a human invention.

    What reflects from the screen is shadow play. Look, there'sno real rabbit. Those ears are index fingers and the nose aknuckle interfering with the light. If the eye were more perceptiveit would see the sleight of 24 individual pictures and anequal number of utter blacknesses every second of the show.What incredible films might ultimately be made for such an eye.But the machine has already been fashioned to outwit even thatperceptibility, a projector which flashes advertisement at subliminalspeed to up the sale of popcorn. Oh, slow-eyed spectator,this machine is grinding you out of existence. Its electricalstorms are manufactured by pure white flames interrupting theflow of the photographed images, its real tensions are a dynamicinterplay of two-dimensional shapes and lines, the horizonline and background shapes battering the form of thehorseback rider as the camera moves with it, the curves of thetunnel exploding away from the pursued, camera following, andtunnel perspective converging on the pursuer, camera preceding,the dream of the close-up kiss being due to the linear purity offacial features after cluttersome background, the entire film'ssoothing syrup being the depressant of imagistic repetition, afeeling akin to counting sheep to sleep. Believe in it blindly, andit will fool you—mind-wise, instead of sequins on cheeseclothor max-manufactured make-up, you'll see stars. Believe in it eyewise,and the very comet of its overhead throw from projector toscreen will intrigue you so deeply that its fingering play willmove integrally with what's reflected, a comet-tail integritywhich would lead back finally to the film's creator. I am meaning,simply, that the rhythms of change in the beam of illuminationwhich now goes entirely over the heads of the audiencewould, in the work of art, contain in itself some quality of aspiritual experience. As is, and at best, that hand spreading itstouch toward the screen taps a neurotic chaos comparable to thedoodles it produces for reflection. The "absolute realism" ofthe motion picture image is a 20th-century, essentially Western,illusion.


Excerpted from essential brakhage by Stan Brakhage. Copyright © 2001 by Stan Brakhage. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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