Stan Brakhage the realm buster

Stan Brakhage the realm buster


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Stan Brakhage's body of work counts as one of the most important within post-war avant-garde cinema, and yet it has rarely been given the attention it deserves. Over the years, though, diverse and original reflections have developed, distancing his figure little by little from critical categories. This collection of newly commissioned essays, plus some important reprinted work, queries some of the consensus on Brakhage's films. In particular, many of these essays revolve around the controversial issues of representation and perception.

This project sets out from the assumption that Brakhage's art is articulated primarily through opposing tensions, which donate his figure and films an extraordinary depth, even as they evince fleetingness, elusivity and paradoxicality. This collection aims not only to clarify aspects of Brakhage's art, but also to show how his work is involved in a constant mediation between antinomies and opposites. At the same time, his art presents a multifaceted object endlessly posing new questions to the viewer, for which no point of entry or perspective is preferred in respect to the others. Acknowledging this, this volume hopes that the experience of his films will be revitalised.

Featuring topics as diverse as the technical and semantic ambiguity of blacks, the fissures in mimetic representation of the 'it' within the 'itself' of an image, the film-maker as practical psychologist through cognitive theories, the critique of ocularcentrism by mingling sight with other senses such as touch, films that can actually philosophise in a Wittgensteinian way, political guilt and collusion in aesthetic forms, a disjunctive, reflexive, and phenomenological temporality realising Deleuze's image-time, and the echoes of Ezra Pound and pneumophantasmology in the quest of art as spiritual revelation; this book addresses not only scholars, but also is a thorough and thought-provoking introduction for the uninitiated.

Contributors include: Nicky Hamlyn, Peter Mudie, Paul Taberham, Gareth Evans, Rebecca A. Sheehan, Christina Chalmers, Stephen Mooney and Marco Lori.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967285
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 01/10/2018
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marco Lori completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, with a thesis about Stan Brakhage's spiritual quest.

Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde; Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry; Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage and Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form. She runs a website with Ben Watson:

Read an Excerpt


Brakhage's Blacks

Nicky Hamlyn

The speed of fade and the time length of the black reminds us that movies aren't moving pictures only: structurally, they're time-based graphics (like a black screen), some of which aren't pictures at all.

Black has the specific quality of being only ever virtual. Natural luster, imperfect pigments, ambient light, and neighboring colours all inflect surfaces we perceive as black: achieving solid, lasting blacks takes considerable effort, the more so the more we deal with screen media that either reflect or emit light as the basis of their working.

There is metaphysical pressure to keep the contribution of shadows 'off the books'. Philosophers and physicists alike have a strong conviction that reality is positive. They think a negative statement such as "There is a permanent absence of light in the Shackleton crater" is really about where light is rather than where it is not ... [they] are uncomfortable with absences and so gerrymander discussion to disenfranchise black shadows, black space and the black sky of the lunar day.

The ideas for this essay have their origins in an earlier piece on Brakhage's Roman Numeral series, which touched briefly on the variousways Brakhage used black in those films. Subsequently the work was developed, rather haphazardly, for a presentation at a conference, of which this essay is a refinement. In a lot of thinking on the topic, black is conceived as negative, as an impure absence, but my aim here is to show how the blacks in Brakhage's films, while they are literally areas of apparent absence of light, or at least relatively reduced absences i.e., they can be construed as 'negative' in this strict sense, they are also, or also function, positively, in imagistic, graphic and structural terms. For painters, black is conceived of as a colour, something that is evident in its availability in a variety of shades with exotic names: Lamp, Ivory, Mars etc. These pigments reflect varying quantities of light, and each has a colour-cast, i.e., is impure. A truly black black, one that would absorb almost all of the light cast upon it, exists: Vantablack absorbs 99.96% of light. Unlike the paints and the film blacks described by Sean Cubitt above, which are subject to the influence of ambient light among other things, Vantablack absorbs everything, and this puts it strangely out of balance with other elements when it is combined to make a painting or other kind of images, because it falls so far outside the typical contrast ratios of a painting or a photographic image.

Black, and the shadows with which it is often associated, have a curious status in film. Notably in the film noir genre, shadows are often completely solid, which is almost never the case in perceptions of the real world, where the eye can peer into relatively solid blacks and adjust to differentiate detail and variety of density. Shadows in film noir have a quasi-autonomous compositional function and thus become a structural part of the image, imparting a degree of abstraction to what is otherwise a representation. But this is rare in cinema generally.

Whereas black in a painting is a reflective coloured surface, and is what it is in its literal material sense, in the celluloid filmstrip has a curious double status. At the point of image formation, 'black' is simply the area of the film where light registers strongly on the film's light-sensitive surface. Materially it is an area of density (silver halide crystals that have been blackened by light) that holds back that light in projection, so in a sense it is a refusal or interruption thereof; while at the level of the image it is, paradoxically, a representation of the (relative) absence of light, i.e., shadow or darkness. More precisely, it defines an area where there would be visible things had there been enough light when the image was made. Yet insofar as this absence impinges upon other areas of the frame contents, it becomes part of the image's form: it takes up space in the frame. Furthermore its density means that it is often stronger (denser) than other parts of the image that in its pro-filmic would be materially more substantial: the image of a shadow cast by a tree may be stronger than that of the tree itself.

The question of whether black is an image is also dependent on the specificities of a film and how it is conceived. Films like Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer (1960) and especially Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1966), which are composed of wholly black or white frames, are conceived as imageless, because the intention is to create patterns of light interruptions, structured from the presence and absence of light on the screen. In the case of The Flicker this was achieved by exposing the film to light with a lens-less camera, and by taking frames with the lens cover on for the white and black frames respectively. The film-maker Bruce McClure creates his black and white loops simply by bleaching selected frames on a strip of black leader to create the white frames, while leaving the black frames untouched. In these examples there is no intention to create an image and thus no image in the usual sense, even though the flicker stimulates hallucinatory colour patterns when the films are viewed. A selection of Brakhage's films can be made that demonstrates all of the above, including the last category of imageless blackness, which is a specific feature of Passage Through: A Ritual (1990), as discussed below.

The creative use of black has been a feature of Brakhage's oeuvre, starting right from the beginning with the noirish psycho-drama The Way to Shadow Garden (1954), a high contrast black and white film that turns to negative in the second part, after its protagonist has blinded himself and becomes a seer. At the end of the opening shot the camera pans to settle for five seconds on the exterior of the house in which the film will unfold. Dazzling light pours from two square windows, which are framed by an entirely solid area of black, creating a simple abstract composition, something which establishes a pattern for the rest of the film, as well as, in a wider sense, Brakhage's working against the simplistic dichotomy between representation and abstraction.

A single bare bulb is established as the film's only apparent light source, giving us to suppose that this precarious illumination is all that's keeping the film alive, warding off the total darkness that would otherwise ensue. At one point the camera lingers on the bulb in close up, seemingly in an effort to break with the positive meanings usually associated with light. The oppressive light momentarily threatens to obliterate the image.

The young protagonist lurches around inside the house and we see, inter alia, a framing with a black wine bottle on a table on the left side of the frame, his shadowed face on the other, thus a graphic presentation of two strongly contrasting forms of black. At the point where, having blinded himself, he staggers towards a French window and opens the doors, the composition is divided into three roughly equal vertical bands. The man is framed centrally in silhouette, bordered on either side by black. At this point the exact same shot cuts to negative and in what were solid black borders we suddenly see previously invisible details, though what we are looking at is all but impossible to decipher in negative. The anomaly is explained by the fact that negative images are low in contrast and rich in detail, whereas the positive print made from that negative is higher contrast and is furthermore printed darker to strengthen the silhouetted form of the man, so that a level of detail is sacrificed in favour of stronger blacks and highlights.

This framing is pre-figured earlier in the film when the camera settles momentarily on the same pair of doors, between which is a rectangle of solid black, thus a reversal of the disposition of black and white in the two shots, a move which also prefigures the later transformation into negative. A similar reversal also occurs when the windows seen from the outside in the opening shot are seen from the inside, before the protagonist desperately lowers the blinds on them.

After he has blinded himself he picks up the lamp and waves it around, causing shadows to play on the walls. He then puts down the lamp and writhes around between the lamp and a white wall, continuing the shadow play by other means.

Anticipation of the Night (1958) is the film that marks Brakhage's transition from human-centred psychodrama to a corresponding form in which the camera replaces the figure as protagonist. It opens with the same motif as the transitional shot in Shadow Garden, but framed very differently: an illuminated threshold, bordered by black, across which the shadow of a figure passes, momentarily darkening the screen. As if to mark the transition from rectilinear framing to the more oblique angles that will figure in subsequent films, the borders of the threshold fall diagonally across the screen, fanning out in a manner that strongly evokes the conical shape of a projector's light beam or indeed the cone of human vision.

This was the point at which Brakhage rebelled against the conservatism of conventional optics and stable points of view modelled on traditional perspective, in favour of a subjectivised vision achieved by hand-holding the camera. In this sense the sequence may indicate a kind of farewell to conventional framing. The shot is repeated several times in the opening minutes, first from one angle and then from the opposite (but not the reverse, as in narrative shot-reverse-shot grammar), and laterally inverted (mirrored, probably by flipping the negative over during the printing stages). The shot becomes a mobile movement of black within a light frame, from representation to abstraction, breaking down the distinction (which Brakhage disliked) between the two. This figure in a doorway is interspersed with compositions that contrast strongly in a formal sense, but which are made of similar stuff: sparkling points of white light on a dark ground. In both though, there is a flattening of the image through the silhouetting process, and this continues in twilight shots, filmed contre-jour from a moving car, of trees, which obliterate the slivers of evening sky. There is also a repeating pan around an object, which in effect functions as a horizontal wipe, from light to black. These shots also prefigure or anticipate the onset of night and thus black performs a precise semantic-thematic function.

As the film moves from day to night there is a form of double reversal from negative to positive and vice versa. In the first sense the trees' obliterating the night sky is a negation through interruption (a rhythmic process that also figures the way the projector's shutter interrupts the light at the moment when the next frame of film is pulled into the gate to be flashed onto the screen) of the illuminated scenery. These early scenes can be seen as light fields interrupted by dark movements. In the second sense there is a reversal of this field, from light to dark, against which spots of artificial light, and sometimes the moon, assert themselves uninterruptedly against the blackness of night. In their assertiveness they present as positive in a way that was not the case in the twilight part of the film.

Insofar as the subsequent Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) features figures (Brakhage and his then new wife, Jane Collum) it returns in part to the early psychodramas. At the same time it is one of his blackest films, with long sections where the screen is entirely dark apart from a small point of light or a curved shape arcing through the frame, though the arcing effect is as much that of the lamp's movement as it is the movement of any object. Brakhage makes much use of this device. As in Shadow Garden, the illumination is precarious and highly unstable: raw lights such as a hand-held lamp with a naked bulb and occasionally candles being the only apparent sources. The lamp is rhythmically waved to create flashes of bleached highlights and enveloping shadows on and of doorways, often reflected in mirrors, creating a double framing. Cigarette smoke, both frontally lit (white) and silhouetted (black) and an alarm clock, interspersed with repeated sexually explicit shots in negative, are rhythmically permutated. The film is notable for the way in which what is thematically an explicit film about young love is rendered in so highly an abstract way. The blacks are dense and solid and the fragmentary scenes emerge sporadically out of this dark. Black consistently dominates the image, immediately enveloping the momentary light flashes, so that rather than functioning as part of a differentiated pattern made from a range of grey tones, as it would in a negative of a conventional image, black and white are in battle.

As Brakhage's career developed one can detect a gradual move towards a concentration of colour and crystalline forms, which were often expressed as highly saturated colours, both primary and prismatic, as if the more broadly distributed colour of many of the films made in the 1960s and 1970s condensed into small intense areas. In these works, notably films like Arabic Numeral 12 (1981), black becomes more like the colour described by Cubitt above, inflected and tinted by adjacent light spilling into the dark areas through refraction, reflection and lens flare (see plate 1).

The blacks in Arabic 12 are less dense and often very grainy, sometimes because the prints are blown up from Super 8 originals. Often the black grain briefly freezes to form a greyish textured surface, upon which, or seemingly within which, new colour movements develop. Although, then, the film has been reworked in an optical printer, it has the quality of an improvisation. The hand-held camera is pointed at the sun through indiscernible obstructions, through and around which light leaks into the camera in the form of prismatic flashes, lens flare, including isolated arcs, lines of intense, star-shaped colours, and curvy, deformed geometric shapes; rhomboids, rectangles and triangles, as well as less defined patches and hues, including a bluish cast that overlays the whole image at times, modifying the contrast unpredictably.

The film-maker juggles with these elements, shifting the balance by increasing or decreasing the amount of light/colour in relation to black and by pointing the camera directly and indirectly at the light source. The object causing the blackness isn't itself black, but a blue something that most of the time is held too close to the lens for light to reach it. However it more often than not appears black. It has a kind of double status: any object will appear black when it is under-lit, as is the case here, but it also generates blackness by blocking the light to the camera, thereby depriving itself of light. The moving colour shapes also have movement occurring within them in the form of animated texture, and this texture impinges on the notional black surface too, so that its own colour changes. There's a gesture to Goethe's colour phenomenology, in which the prismatic colours arise in the interaction between white and black, which is appropriate because black here does appear to contain and juggle many colours. It is chromatically mutable, assuming surrounding colour-shapes, squeezing and dispersing, intensifying and darkening them, catalysing an endless succession of transitory phenomena. Throughout the film there are freezes, at which point the black becomes a static, textured grey field. Almost immediately small movements begin within this field, but the freezes remind us that underpinning the image is a volatile ground of grain movement, which becomes most visible when it is seen in greyish mid-tones (grain is imperceptible in areas of pure white and black). For instance in Paul Sharits' Axiomatic Granularity (1973), grain is re-filmed and magnified to the point where the solidity of a plain colour field fragments into dancing crystals of grain, illuminated by the light that strikes through and around them. Thus the solidity of any given colour on a film strip, including, black, is dependent in part on the density of grain and the magnification at which it is observed.


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Table of Contents

Introductory Notes

Brakhage's Blacks – Nicky Hamlyn

It Within Itself: Mimetic Fissures in Brakhage's Object Collage/Time Paintings – Peter Mudie

Bottom-Up Processing, Entoptic Vision and the Innocent Eye in the Films of Stan Brakhage – Paul Taberham

The Eye and the Hand: Brakhage's Challenge to Ocularcentrism – Gareth Evans

The Renewed Encounter with the Everyday: Stan Brakhage and the Ethics of the (Extra)ordinary – Rebecca A. Sheehan

Perceiving War's Horizon in Stan Brakhage's 23rd Psalm Branch – Christina Chalmers

Stan Brakhage's Temporality, Disjunction and Reflexive Process – Stephen Mooney

Art as Revelation: The Origins of a Sacred Calling – Marco Lori

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