Making Films for the Inner Eye: Jordan Belson, James Whitney, Paul Sharits
Suppose the Vision of the saint and the artist to be an increased ability to see—vision
—Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision
. . . look into your eye, go down into your own eye—and going—
—Oskar Fischinger, notes on Radio Dynamics
Kenneth Anger has said that he would prefer to "project images directly into people's heads." Stan Vanderbeek once called his "Movie Drome" (in which viewers lay on their backs to watch a mosaic of images on a domed ceiling) "the closest thing to mind theater. . . . I'm trying to get, literally, right inside your head." In an "Expanded Arts" issue of Film Culture Jonas Mekas enthusiastically endorsed an "absolute cinema, cinema of our minds":
For what is cinema really if not images, dreams, and visions? We take one more step, and we give up all movies and we become movies: we sit on a Persian or Chinese rug smoking one dream matter or another and we watch the smoke and we watch the images and dreams and fantasies that are taking place right there in our eye's mind. . . . This is the ultimate cinema of the people, as it has been for thousands and thousands of years.
A futuristic counterpart to Mekas's evocation of an "ultimate cinema" appeared a few years later in Canyon Cinema News: "Eventually cathode ray tubes may be hooked up directly to brain wave analyzers and the
cinematographer of the future might only have to think his film to see it." Robert Breer, with characteristic humor and common sense, once remarked, "I'd really like to have my films go 'Fvoom!' just like that—one split second. You wouldn't have to pay; you'd come in and go out. But somehow, that's not the way perception works." Nor is it the way film works; yet all of these comments express a similar desire to bypass the material demands of the medium and make direct contact with the minds of viewers.
The three filmmakers in this chapter demonstrate most forcefully that the dialectic of eye and camera cannot be evaded even when the goal is an "ultimate cinema," a cinema of and for the mind's eye. More specifically, what Jordan Belson, James Whitney, and Paul Sharits have in common is their use of the cinematic apparatus to evoke states of mind that lie beyond the boundaries of materialist and rationalist modes of thought. Where they differ is in the ways they have chosen to get there. For Belson and Whitney, it is with imagery derived from inner vision and from philosophical and religious traditions that use images to visualize—or help induce—deep states of meditation. For Sharits, it is with manipulations of flickering light that disorient the perceptual system and turn it back upon itself. Despite the differences in method and imagery, and despite the common practice of placing Belson and Whitney among "West Coast abstract" filmmakers and Sharits among "structural" filmmakers, the three belong together in a study of how film artists can use the medium of film to awaken dormant perceptions and encourage viewers to discover new sites of vision within themselves. Each in his own way has accepted Oskar Fischinger's challenge to "look into your eye, go down into your own eye—and going—."
Fischinger's open-ended way of putting it should serve as a reminder of the peculiar temptation artists of the inner eye must resist. It is the temptation "to go beyond Art," as Bruce Baillie once expressed it to Brakhage, who heatedly responded:
This, for an artist, is tantamount to saying: 'I want to die!' Religion (ANY Religion in this century's time) does act on Western sensibility ALWAYS in terms of 'Beyond' . . . AND, as such, 'Religion' has proved THE most destructive force against artist sensibility.
Despite its excessive language, Brakhage's argument should be taken seriously; for, as James Whitney recognized, there are always "those who seek to go beyond any language. Those are the people whose eyes and ears are really open." But such people, Whitney continued, "won't have the energy to remain within that confine of art. . . . The artist, in a sense,
must keep a lot of ignorance. To stay in the world you have to preserve a certain amount of ignorance." Jordan Belson casts a different light on the same problem when he says that upon finishing Samadhi , "I felt I should have died. I was rather amazed when I didn't."
Belson, Whitney, and Sharits are among the artists who have gone down into the eye but have been able to "stay in the world" and make inward voyages visible to eyes accustomed to seeing only the external world. They have been able to communicate the "increased ability to see" invoked by Brakhage in Metaphors on Vision:
Suppose the Vision of the saint and the artist to be an increased ability to see—vision. Allow so-called hallucination to enter the realm of perception, allowing that mankind always finds derogatory terminology for that which doesn't appear to be readily usable, accept dream visions, day-dreams or night-dreams, as you would so-called real scenes, even allowing that the abstractions which move so dynamically when closed eyelids are pressed are actually perceived. Become aware of the fact that you are not only influenced by the visual phenomenon which you are focused upon and attempt to sound the depths of all visual influence.
Besides recognizing the inner eye's contribution to "untutored vision," here Brakhage indicates how the more visionary aspects of seeing and filmmaking can be understood and discussed without recourse to incommunicable experiences of the Beyond. Like Huxley's discussion (and Anger's use) of preternatural light, Brakhage's grounding of "Vision" in "an increased ability to see" keeps the visionary within the realm of visual perception—as I propose to do in the discussion that follows.
When the Western mind turns inward it often turns Eastward as well. This is especially true of Belson and Whitney, and only somewhat less true of Sharits. It is important to note, however, that their attraction to Eastern ways of thinking did not produce an attitude toward vision that is fundamentally different from Brakhage's assertion that it takes a "relaxing of Western muscles in the eyes" and a frame of mind that is "as non-reflective as possible" to see the subtle and ephemeral luminescence of the world around us.
Readers of Carlos Castaneda will recognize similarities between Brakhage's "relaxed" seeing and the nondirected, unfocused seeing with which Castaneda learned to break the "bubble of perception" and "pick out details which were too fleeting for normal vision." Ludwig Wittgenstein
writes of withdrawing his attention from specific objects of vision so that he could become attuned to his own consciousness:
It was a particular act of gazing, but not at any point or object. My eyes were wide open, the brows not contracted (as they mostly are when I am interested in a particular object). No such interest preceded this gazing. My glance was vacant; or again like that of someone admiring the illumination of the sky and drinking in the light.
In The Art of Seeing Aldous Huxley writes of "rid[ding] one's mind of any over-anxious desire to see." One sees better by not trying to see, he argues: "Efforts on the part of the conscious 'I' defeat their own object. It is when you stop trying to see that seeing comes to you." Or, in James Broughton's words, "Looking is a grasping act. Seeing is a receiving act. . . . Looking is an avarice, a hostility, a problem-making. Seeing is an adventure, a discovery, an acceptance."
As Brakhage, Castaneda, Wittgenstein, Huxley, and Broughton recognize, the first step toward "an increased ability to see" is to abandon goal-oriented "looking" in favor of open, receptive "seeing." The next step is to turn seeing inward, to reduce the outer world's visual stimuli so drastically that images of the inner world begin to take their place. This means allowing, in Brakhage's phrase, "so-called hallucination to enter the realm of perception."
Although, as Brakhage notes, the term hallucination often carries derogatory connotations, in its basic sense it simply refers to perceptions that do not arise from external stimuli. Scientifically speaking, "Hallucinations are directly related to states of excitation and arousal of the central nervous system, which are coupled with a functional disorganization of the part of the brain that regulates incoming stimuli." That definition comes from a study of hallucinations by Ronald Siegel, who adds that under such conditions, there is "an impairment of the discrimination normally based on external stimuli and a preoccupation with internal imagery " (my emphasis). Hallucinations may be experienced through any of the senses, but for obvious reasons, the visual forms of this "internal imagery" are most relevant to a discussion of films for the inner eye.
As Siegel points out, a classic study begun in 1926 by Heinrich Klüver showed that four basic geometrical patterns persistently recur in mescaline-induced hallucinations. One pattern has the quality of a grating, lattice, honeycomb, or fretwork; a second resembles cobwebs; a third takes the form of tunnels, cones, funnels, or alleyways; and a fourth appears in spirals. Klüver and later researchers found that these
images can accompany many changes in ordinary consciousness besides those induced by hallucinogenic drugs. The list now includes some of the conditions also associated with hypnagogic vision: waking up and falling asleep, migraine headaches, fevers, dizziness, epileptic seizures, sensory deprivation, electrical and photo stimulation, and crystal gazing.
Although the immediate circumstances of hallucinations and hypnagogic vision may differ, their "internal imagery" is surprisingly similar. Not only do the same geometrical patterns appear, but often their appearance follows the same two-stage development. The first stage, represented by simple geometrical patterns, may be succeeded by a second stage in which more complicated patterns and even full-scale scenes become visible. In addition, as Siegel points out, "religious symbols and images" are frequently found in the second stage (a point to be taken up a little later).
Siegel's own study of subjects under the influence of LSD and other hallucinogens showed that hallucinations can be codified according to eight forms ("random, line, curve, web, lattice, tunnel, spiral, and kaleidoscope"), eight colors ("black, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and white"), and eight patterns of movement ("aimless, vertical, horizontal, oblique, explosive, concentric, rotational, and pulsating"). One could hardly ask for a better breakdown of the basic elements of most abstract films! Not all visual elements are included in Siegel's code; there is nothing, for example, about texture and brightness. But it certainly offers a workable paradigm for depicting as well as describing abstract forms in motion. Moreover, the elements in this paradigm do not derive from the purely formal considerations of visual artists but from the brain's own image-making system.
The first-stage hallucinations of Siegel's subjects not only had geometrical patterns in common but tended to follow similar lines of development: from randomly moving dots and amorphous shapes in black and white (which anyone can see in the dark or with eyes closed), to geometric forms, a pulsating rhythm, and hues of blue (comparable, it would seem, to the "blue-ish tone" Brakhage calls the "prime color of closed-eye vision in deep memory process" and Paul Sharits has referred to as "the 'blueness' of inner vision"). As time passes, lattice-tunnel forms become more and more pronounced; the colors shift toward red, yellow, and orange; the pulsating movements become "more organized, with explosive and rotational patterns." The expanding and contracting, spiraling and tunneling forms often duplicate themselves, combine, or become superimposed. When the second-stage images appear they are usually seen "as overlying the lattice-tunnels and situated on the periphery of
those images." As well, during the second stage, "The images [are] often projected against a background of geometric forms," and even when the whole image is made up of non-geometrical shapes, the images themselves usually appear "in lattice-tunnel arrangements and moving in explosive or rotational configurations."
The imagery in the two stages of hallucinations quite possibly have different sources. The more "representational" or iconic images of the second stage may derive from memories of previous experiences, which are released, perhaps as they are in dreams, when the input of external stimuli is reduced. The geometrical patterns that constitute the first stage and supply the "background" patterns and movements of the second stage, may originate in phosphenes and other perceptions of light produced within the visual system itself. As noted in chapter 3, phosphenes also have characteristic shapes, colors, and movements, and under certain circumstances (migraine headaches, for example) take on brilliant colors and fairly complex patterns. They could easily supply many of the basic elements of first-stage hallucinations. It has been found that certain constellations of cells in the visual cortex will produce phosphenelike colored lights, lines, stars, and other geometrical patterns when electrically stimulated. Even the free-floating, grainy fields of visual "noise" might be raw material for geometric patterns in the first stage of hallucinations, assuming they can be shaped by organized sequences of electrical activity in the brain. Certainly the brain is capable of producing vivid perceptions of intricate geometric patterns of light, whatever the sources of the light may be. These patterns may well reveal some of the underlying organizing principles of neural activity in the visual parts of the brain, and it is this activity that is perceived by the inner eye.
If, as Gestalt psychologists have argued, our visual system is predisposed to recognize and take pleasure in a few simple forms that are found within the vast diversity of visual stimuli in the world around us, then Siegel's code might be thought of as a catalogue of those forms, as a description of what inner vision "projects" on the outer world, so to speak. To the degree that artists capture the elemental operating principles of this inner seeing, they not only permit us to "perceive where the inner world and outer world meet and overlap," as James Broughton puts it, but show us visual equivalents of the process that causes the meeting and overlapping to take place.
Presumably the wiring of all human brains is essentially the same. So it is no wonder that certain patterns occur over and over again, not only in hallucinations but in the arts and crafts of the world. Just as Gerald Oster
found phosphene-inspired shapes and patterns in folk art and children's drawings (see chapter 3), so Siegel finds equivalents of the abstract geometrical patterns of hallucinations in the art of "primitive peoples." As examples he reproduces four samples of Huichol Indian embroidery, each a variation of zigzag lines integrated into an overall lattice-work design. Interviewing members of the Huichol tribe during their peyote ceremonies, Siegel and his associates found that the visual imagery they reported was virtually identical to the "symmetrical repeating patterns found in Huichol weaving and art."
Siegel also notes the striking similarities between the basic elements of hallucinations and an archetypal form like the mandala. Although the word in Sanskrit means "circle," the mandala's visual representations often combine squares, rectangles, and triangles, as well as circles and other geometric forms in intricately interlocked symmetries like those of the yantras used in meditation. In their most elaborate forms, mandalas combine (first-stage) geometric patterns with (second-stage) iconic imagery—clouds, flowers, animals, humans, deities, and so on. Thus one might argue that despite the mandala's specific significance within particular cultural and religious practices, its visual origins are universal: they are to be found in hallucinations anyone might experience.
The mandala is also one of the earliest recurring shapes in children's art. It is, according to Rhoda Kellogg, "a key part of the sequence that leads from abstract work to pictorials. The child proceeds from Mandalas to Suns to Humans." This sequence of development in children's art roughly parallels the first and second stages of hallucinations and thus extends over time what the mandalas of Eastern art bring together in the space of each elaborate design.
Of course there is no absolute proof that children two and three years old try to draw their "internal imagery." They may simply make shapes that please them. Nor can one be sure that the stylized and symbolic art of mandalas represents hallucinatory perceptions. It may simply illustrate religious and philosophical concepts. That it shares basic forms with the art of young children, with folk art around the world, and with the imagery of hallucinations may be purely coincidental. Furthermore, it remains to be proved that the mechanisms producing phosphenes and visual "noise" are the source of light for the geometrical patterns of hallucinations. Yet, it is hard to ignore the correspondences among these various forms of visual expression and visual perception.
Certainly it would seem that hallucinations are as true to certain perceptual processes that begin within the mind, as perceptions of the external
world are true to processes that begin with light falling on the retina. (Indeed, some studies have suggested that purely mental images and ordinary visual perception share some of the same neural pathways in the brain.) Similarly, one may call inner imagery "abstract," but the perception of it can be as concrete as the perception of the outer world. In matters of visual perception, it is best to avoid making hard and fast distinctions between inner and outer, abstract and concrete—and, for that matter, East and West, except in the sense that the West has been more inclined to insist on these distinctions than the East has been.
By collapsing these distinctions, one can begin to understand how inner vision can be a literal and communicable "increased ability to see." In addition to the physical light of the external world, there is a perceived light produced by the central nervous system. Equivalences of the colors, forms, and movements of this inner light appear in many kinds of visual art. Therefore, there is no reason they could not be translated into the art of light moving in time.
Jordan Belson has said, "The hallucinatory aspect of imagery is certainly inherent in my work and in the ideas relevant to my work." He has also insisted on the solid, perceptual reality his films recreate: "I first have to see the images somewhere, within or without or somewhere. I mean I don't make them up." Belson made that statement in the late 1960s, shortly after he had completed Samadhi , whose title (from Mahayana Buddhism) refers to the total union between the mind and its object of contemplation, a mental state that can be achieved only in the most advanced stages of meditation. In a later interview, Belson said, "[Samadhi ] is intended to be a real documentary representation, as accurately as it was possible to make, of a real place and a real visual phenomenon that I perceived—just as I am looking at you right now." More recently he explained that he emphasized the "documentary" reality of the images in his films of that period because meditation and the visual phenomena it generates were still new to him. He was excited by the discoveries of his inner eye and by his ability to "trap them on film." Since the early 1970s, however, his films have been more consciously shaped by his concerns with "art making," as he puts it. They have also revealed an increased interest in imagery of the outer world, or as Belson said in 1978, "The distinction between an external scene perceived in the usual way and the scene perceived with the inner eye is very slight to me."
Four films made between the early 1960s and the early 1980s illustrate the shift in Belson's emphasis from purely "inner image, inner space," to combinations of inner and outer imagery—though the meditative inner eye always serves as the ultimate reference point and shaping influence on the overall form and content of the films. These films—Allures (1961), Meditation (1971), Light (1974), and Infinity (1982)—also demonstrate the range of filmmaking techniques Belson has adopted in response to the dialectic of (inner) eye and camera as he understands it: "I've always considered image-producing equipment as extensions of the mind. . . . The mind has produced these images and has made the equipment to produce them physically. In a way it's a projection of what's going on inside, phenomena thrown out by the consciousness, which we are then able to look at."
The film that according to Belson "relates more to human physical perception than [his] other films" is Allures . The basis of that relationship is the imagery of hallucinations. Indeed, Allures might almost be a textbook illustration of many of the elements Siegel isolates in his study of hallucinations. Points of colored light cluster into circles and spirals wheeling in empty space. Light travels across the screen in lattice- and weblike structures and forms grids and various geometrical shapes in two and three dimensions. The single most common shape is the circle, whose center corresponds with the center of the screen and whose peripheries become concentric rings or spirals of radiating dots and lines. Sometimes these mandalas of light are geometrically precise constellations of tiny glittering dots; at other times they are pulsating disks and halos of misty, glowing colors. Their movements nearly always follow what Siegel calls "explosive and rotational patterns."
Although metaphors of outer space frequently influence descriptions of the film ("a centrifugal starburst," "a pulsating sun," "another glimmering galaxy"), hallucinations offer more precise equivalents of the film's imagery. Belson implies as much when he calls Allures "a trip backwards along the senses into the interior of the being." Combining complex animation techniques with superimpositions and other special effects, Belson creates equivalent journeys of perception for the film viewer.
Compared with Allures, Meditation places greater emphasis on the spiritual significance of the mind's journey inwards, as is indicated by two quotations Belson included in his program notes for the first screening of the film: "By diving deep through your spiritual eye you will see into the fourth dimension, aglow with the wonders of the inner world. It is hard to get there, but how beautiful it is! (Yogananda)," and, "I saw a shining
ocean, endless, living, blissful. From all sides luminous waves, with a roaring sound, rushed toward me, engulfed and drowned me; I lost all awareness of outward things. (Ramakrishna)." Like Anger quoting Aleister Crowley, Belson uses the words of sages and mystics to establish a frame of reference for his film, and more specifically, to alert viewers to the thematic significance of the film's form and predominant imagery.
As Meditation begins, phosphenelike dots of white light surge upward in a field of deep blue-violet. At first their movements seem random, but as more of these minute light specks appear they form symmetrical patterns that rapidly change shape as they move upward through the frame. Then misty clouds of gray-green and violet fill the screen and dissolve into waves, surf, and flying spray. Mists and water merge and swirl, and suddenly a diver plunges into the water precisely at the center of the frame. The water churns, boils, and begins to spread outward in misty circles of deep lavender. More circles fade in and out until a small solid circle of light fills the center of the screen and starlike dots of light stream past it. The plunge inward has become synonymous with a rocketing outward through the universe.
Circle motifs, with their center corresponding to the center of the frame, continue to dominate the film until a large disk of light releases myriads of white dots that flow downward to meet a tumultuous surf rising from the bottom of the frame. The dots fade out, the surf rises higher and then dissolves into blowing mists that fade into darkness, bringing the film to an end.
Meditation is an extended visual metaphor of a mind in meditation. Its strength does not lie in the accuracy with which it represents specific details of meditative states—the "shining ocean," "luminous waves," "diving deep through your spiritual eye," and so on—but in its fidelity to the forms light is given by visual processes within the central nervous system. The specks of light and misty, glowing colors, the symmetry and circles, the mutating forms, are characteristic of hallucinations of many kinds—though they seldom achieve the organic unity of Meditation —and they recur in many variations throughout Belson's work as a whole.
Another recurring image in Belson's films is a "cosmic eye," formed by concentric circles defining an iris surrounding a pupil at the center of the frame. In Meditation its most striking appearance is in a passage near the end of the film: a star-filled night sky surrounds a bright iris in whose pupil more stars are visible. Then the iris fades and the whole screen becomes an endless space of stars and galaxies revolving around the still point at its center. For the "cosmic eye," distinctions between inner and
outer, center and peripheries, closed-eye and open-eye vision do not exist. Its point of view is, in T. S. Eliot's phrase, "more distant than stars and nearer than the eye."
Belson's increasing tendency to minimize distinctions between the physical light of the outer world and the mental light of the inner world is especially apparent in Light . "The film," he says, "portrays light simultaneously as both a spectrum of physical phenomena and as corresponding states of consciousness. It is an expression of light as a physiological and psychological substance."Light begins with an expanding blue rectangle containing a yellow circle with a dark blue center, like the iris of an eye surrounding the pupil. When this "cosmic eye" fades out, the rectangle turns deep purple, shrinks, and disappears. It is replaced by softly focused red and yellow lights flowing above a yellow "horizon." The effect is like an animation of Turner's most abstract seascapes, or a slowed down and smoothed out passage from Brakhage's Text of Light (which was completed the same year as Belson's Light ). Soon a brilliant sun rises through the frame and is followed by a second sun that stops in the center of the frame and gradually turns into a glowing orange penumbra with a deeper orange center and a surrounding green ground. The center then turns green as the ground turns orange, and the film continues with a series of changing circles and grounds.
Subsequent images of light include long thin lines of blue light and wider sprays of colors swirling out from the center of the frame, masses of gold dots floating in dark space (reminiscent of the golden "flakes" of light in Scenes From Under Childhood ), white specks flowing from the edges of the frame to the center in complex symmetrical patterns, and a circle of light within which four rays of light shine out from a small nugget of light in the center of the frame. As always, circles predominate and most movements are around, into, and out of the center of the frame, recreating a variety of "explosive or rotational configurations" that conform to the basic patterns of hallucinations cataloged by Siegel.
To treat light as "both spectrum of physical phenomena and as corresponding states of consciousness," Belson created images that are seen as light, not as objects upon which light falls. This is why Brakhage felt he was invading Belson's "territory" when he made The Text of Light . Brakhage's film, however, retains more of light's "corporeality" and gives more emphasis to its impact on the physiology of perception; hence the "jerky" and uncentered imagery that he knew would exasperate Belson. For both artists, the perception of light is physiological and psychological, but Brakhage's techniques tend to emphasize the former and Belson's the latter.
Their differences are also indicated by Belson's preference for geometri-
cal, symbolic, and archetypal forms that are seen in their purest state by the mind's eye. Brakhage is more inclined to discover them in the cluttered and informal imagery of the everyday world. Even Belson's representational images—such as the diver and waves in Meditation , the sun in Light , a naked female figure holding a hoop of light in the opening of Cycles , an airplane and a spinning dancer in Music of the Spheres —are withdrawn from external reality and made to seem like images evoked in the mind.
A case in point is one of Belson's most recent works, Infinity . The beginning shows a lake containing a small island and hills rising beyond it. Yellow sunshine falls on green foliage. The sun appears between branches extending from each side of the frame. Snowlike white dots fall in front of bare branches. More sun-shapes appear as the spume of waves flies up in the foreground. Mists swirl and yellow shafts of sunlight fall into the interior of a cathedral. At the half-way point, a sun hovering above the horizon shrinks to a glowing dot that spins and sprays out rays of light. For the rest of the film, abstract imagery prevails. Clouds of light whirl around a central point; starlike lights form a glittering sphere; shafts of light cross and interweave in lattice patterns that gradually turn into a sphere of light, which in its turn becomes a blue circle on a purple ground. The film ends as two circles of light appear next to each other and fuse into a horizontal figure eight, the symbol of infinity: ¥ .
As the film's structure suggests a movement from the finite to the infinite, so its imagery suggests a comparable movement from outward perception to inward hallucinations. As the sun becomes a spinning ball of light, it marks the transition between what Belson calls "an external scene perceived in the usual way and the scene perceived with the inner eye." In a sense, the scene has not changed, only the way of seeing it—but for Belson, that makes all the difference.
Like Belson, James Whitney began making films for the inner eye by using equivalents of the light-dots of closed-eye vision and the abstract geometric forms of hallucinations. Although his early collaborations with his brother, John, culminating in Five Film Exercises (1943–45), seem to have been devoted entirely to exploring spatial-temporal relationships between simple abstract shapes, his own independently made films venture into a much richer terrain of imagery and ideas. All of Whitney's subsequent work was influenced by his interest in "Ramana Maharshi,
Jungian psychology, alchemy, yoga, Tao, quantum physics, Krishnamurti and consciousness expansion," but those interests expressed themselves differently in different films. For that reason, and because Whitney has attracted less critical attention than any of the other filmmakers in this book, all of his films will be included in the following discussion, though greater emphasis will fall on the films that mark significant stages in Whitney's development as a film artist. Taken together, Whitney's films reveal—beneath their differences in imagery and technique—a single-minded dedication to uniting "cosmic happenings and inner psychic happenings," as Whitney says of his first major film, Yantra .
Preceding that film, however, was a short, Yantra Study (1949), based on a series of mandala paintings done by Whitney in the late 1940s. Though extremely simple structurally (static shots of the paintings are linked by dissolves), the film is quite rich visually. The mandalas are composed of rapidly sketched lines, rough brush strokes, and dribbles of paint in the abstract expressionist style of Jackson Pollock. Under Whitney's guiding hand, however, they reproduce the circles, rectangles, and
other geometric structures of the mandala-yantra tradition. Whitney's painterly interest in color, texture, and formal design is clearly evident in the mandalas of Yantra Study , but one can also sense in them the effort to give archetypal form to patches of light and dark that are like the flecks of light and streaks of color in closed-eye vision.
Whitney's next step was to translate those perceptions into "dot-patterns" (as he called them), which became the basis of his two best-known films, Yantra (1957) and Lapis (1966). He specifically equated his "dot-patterns" with the breaking up of forms as he perceived them in meditation and with "a quality which in India is called the Akasha , or ether, a subtle element before creation like the Breath of Brahma , the substance that permeates the universe before it begins to break down into the more finite world." In Yantra the swirling masses of colored dots coalesce into lines, waves, fountains, comets, and many circular and spherical designs. Although Whitney's comments on the film explicitly link its imagery to mandalas and other visual expressions of Eastern mystical traditions, it is not necessary to be familiar with those esoteric subjects to appreciate Whitney's accomplishment. That is not only because Whitney uses shapes, rhythms, and formal structures made familiar by modern abstract art but also because equivalents of the films' "dot-patterns" occur in
everyone's inner perceptions—though rarely so beautifully distilled from the visual "noise" and mental distractions that usually hide them.
The traditional function of yantras is to aid meditation. By concentrating all attention on the patterns of the yantra, the meditator eliminates extraneous perceptions, thoughts, and feelings in order to achieve something like a mental-perceptual unity with the design itself. The pattern, as Heinrich Zimmer puts it, "becomes reproduced by the worshipper's visualizing power." Or, as I argued earlier in this chapter, the yantra may help the meditator recognize patterns that are already present in the visual system but remain unnoticed until the steady stream of external stimuli is cut off by techniques of meditation or by other physiological and psychological conditions that cause hallucinations. Whitney's Yantra not only displays some of the archetypal patterns perceived un-
der those conditions but reproduces the mind's process of creating or discovering them.
In Lapis , which Whitney calls a "space/time mandala," the "dot-patterns" of closed-eye vision form even more elaborate designs. The film begins with masses of grayish beige grains drifting around the edges of an empty white field. Slowly the grains draw together in a revolving mandala of exceedingly intricate geometrical patterns. A close-up reveals the patterns to be made of pulsating dots of colored light that seem to follow their own independent trajectories yet constantly move into and out of elegant geometrical formations. They suggest galaxies (or subatomic particles) engaged in a stately cosmic dance.
Although Whitney's description of the film draws upon the language of physics and meditation—"a totally balanced opposition of stasis and flow, holding the paradox symbolically through wave and particle, pointing to a still center of emptiness"—the terminology Siegel applies to hallucinations works equally well: "lattice-tunnel arrangements . . . moving in explosive or rotational configurations." More speculatively, one might describe the
film as a vast metaphor of neural activity in the visual system of the brain. Its sequences of crystallizing and dissolving mandalas are like spacial-temporal maps of brain cells firing during the process of meditation.
Other, less elaborate treatments of "dot-patterns" appear in High Voltage (1958), a short film Whitney contributed to a "Vortex Presents" evening at the San Francisco Art Institute. More of a study than a full-fledged work, High Voltage includes flowing streams of grainy colors and pebbly, mosaiclike suns and mandalas, as well as a new motif of vibrating, crenellated lines similar to one of Siegel's hallucinatory forms or some of the designs commonly found in the rugs, blankets, and pottery of Southwest Indian cultures. Most striking, however, is Whitney's extensive use of solarization, a technique also present but much less emphasized in passages of Yantra . In High Voltage the solarizing greatly intensifies the film's grainy texture and creates fleeting shimmers and shifts of light and color. These approximations of the elusive and delicate patterns of light perceived in closed-eye vision would not be exploited fully, however, until Whitney made Dwija .
Completed in 1976, Dwija ("twice-born" in Sanskrit) is based on eight drawings of a mandalalike jar or alchemical vessel. Like the paintings in Yantra Study , the images of the vessel in Dwija emerge from mingled
lines, shapes, textures, and colors. In this case, the effect is not due to the style of the original drawings but to Whitney's filmic techniques. Whitney began with a loop of the eight alchemical drawings, which he then solarized, rephotographed, and superimposed in continuously changing combinations. He also hand-processed his footage in order to introduce further subtle variations in hue, texture, brightness, and density. The result is a vivid yet mysteriously insubstantial image of an alchemical vessel dissolving and materializing again and again within a pulsating stream of colored light.
The subtly mutating image of the vessel finally disintegrates into pulsating circles of light, while a ghost-image of the unbroken vessel remains in faint superimposition. After this point there are long passages of nearly pure white light with no intervening images of the vessel, but just when it seems that the vessel has totally dissolved into light, it returns, shimmering like an object seen through water or heat waves. It retains its molten, glowing lines to the film's end, but in the meantime the shape of a descending bird in the design of the vessel is reversed and ascends from the vessel: "The bird escapes leaving the broken shell of the bottle," as Whitney describes it. The bird's ascent would seem to symbolize the
soul's rebirth after passing through many trials of fire and light, but it could also stand for the perceptual renewal each viewer can experience through his or her own visual immersion in the film's flowing light.
In keeping with its theme of transformation and renewal, the film alludes directly to the practice of alchemy and more indirectly to the techniques of firing glazes for Raku pottery. By showing the vessel repeatedly dissolving and reforming in the flamelike stream of light, Whitney creates a cinematic equivalent of the lengthy and repetitive processes through which alchemists tried to transform base metals into gold. As the alchemist must go through a long series of steps to bring about this transformation, so Whitney painstakingly combined different techniques such as hand-processing, solarizing, and superimpositions to transmute the physical base of the medium into its essence: "an experience of pure light in immanent flux."
Making Raku pottery had become Whitney's principal creative activity after the completion of Lapis . He found that it offered "an amazing direct relationship to materials in terms of clay, glazing, firing, and smoking. The whole process was very enjoyable," he said, "because the mind moved freely into materials, and the transformation process was totally fascinating." Whitney explicitly related the imagery of Dwija to the "experience of looking into the kiln peephole to see the fire glistening over the glazes, the colors luminescent," but it seems clear that his whole approach to making the film—including processing the film himself—was in keeping with the "direct relationship to materials" he enjoyed in his pottery work.
Although Dwija is unique in its allusions to alchemy and pottery as models for filmmaking, it is like Yantra and Lapis in its use of "pure light in immanent flux" to create new visual forms. Although the imagery of the earlier films can be compared to the abstract geometry of hallucinations, Dwija conveys something closer to the grainy fields of light and the vivid but ephemeral images of hypnagogic vision. Whitney's direct engagement with the material of the medium gives Dwija an almost tactile immediacy that is more like Brakhage's equivalents of closed-eye vision than those of Belson's or Whitney's earlier films. If Yantra and Lapis concentrate on the imagery of inner seeing, Dwija gives more attention to the processes that produce the imagery.
In fact, during the time he made Dwija Whitney found himself seeking to get beyond images altogether. Much like Brakhage, who was "trying to find a place in the mind that is beyond picture or other than picture" in the roman numeral series, Whitney remarked while working on Dwija , "My primary concern now is to discover whether there is or is not something
that is not put together by thought, which is memory. Ultimately, I see this as leading to silence and imagelessness; seeing without an image—hearing without a sound." Although this hints at a surrender to the Beyond, it proved not to be so, as Dwija and Whitney's next film, Wu Ming (1977), convincingly demonstrate.
"Silence and imagelessness" is implied by the title Wu Ming , which means "no name." Early in the film the Chinese characters for "No name is the beginning of Heaven and Earth" are vertically superimposed on a sphere of tiny shimmering black and white squares. Formally, this thematic statement (taken from a Taoist text) is represented as a vertical line through a circle, representing the basic organizing concept of the film: the "binary" relationship of "0" and "1," according to Whitney. Nothingness and oneness, circle and line, make the simplest form of mandala, which reappears in the film as a gleaming shaft of light in front of a fluid oval of dots. Flowing dot patterns and mandalas are major components of the film's imagery, but much of the time (in Whitney's words) "clear projection light dominates."
This image of "imagelessness" is most striking in the concluding five minutes of the film. A large blue circle containing horizontal layers of lighter blue vapors slowly shrinks to a solid black dot in the center of a white field of light. As the dot shrinks, the effects of its afterimage become increasingly prominent: the dot seems to become brighter and the screen darker as negative afterimages are mentally superimposed on the film's positive images. Every eye movement makes the afterimage slide off its source on the screen, producing two dots and two screens continually shifting position. What is "on the screen," as distinct from what is "in the eye," becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. When the dot finally disappears into the center of the screen, its afterimage continues to hover and gleam on an ambiguous gray-white plane somewhere between the screen and the viewer's eyes. Meanwhile, concentric gray rings appear at the center and slowly expand to the edges of the screen and disappear, leaving nothing but "clear projection light" at the film's end. As Whitney describes it, "A very slow collapsing solid black hard-edged circle disappears in a pure white field. . . . From this disappearing point, an entirely different kind of energy radiates in expanding wave rings, IN as particle OUT as wave." Light is composed of particles and waves, and it is light's direct impact on the viewer's visual system that produces the powerful final effects of the film. At the end, the film's images are made to seem less important than the "imagelessness" of pure, unobstructed light.
The goal of seeing without images is expressed in the title of Whitney's last film, Kang Jing Xiang , which was nearly completed at the time of his death in 1982. The title means "like an empty mirror," but the film itself is not as "empty" as its title implies. Instead, it reiterates some of the most striking visual motifs of Whitney's earlier films: solarization, an alchemical vessel containing a butterfly, mandala-circles, and elegant "dot-patterns." More intriguing are Whitney's plans for Li , a film he did not live to make. It appears that he was hoping to achieve "imagelessness" by using the "dot-patterns" of closed-eye vision in a new way.
William Moritz, who worked closely with Whitney in his last years, describes the intentions for Li as follows:
[Li ] was to have consisted entirely of writhing "random" dot fields from which the eye (and mind) would create its own transitory patterns and meanings, as Dr. Bela Julesz discusses in The Foundations of Cyclopean Vision . "Li," the Chinese word for "organic grain pattern" as in wood, stone, etc., symbolized for the Taoists the natural, irregular, a-logical, fluctuating order of things.
At times, James also called this film Wu Wei ("no-resistance"), the Taoist principle of flowing with the rhythms of nature and chance.
Julesz's experiments with computer-generated random dot patterns were designed to help identify the processes used by the visual system to combine binocular data into a single, unified image of the visual world. In the course of his work, Julesz found that perceptions of depth and of simple shapes can be derived from totally random patterns of dots, if the patterns are viewed stereoptically, that is to say, if they are slightly displaced and shown to each eye separately like the pairs of photographs used in old-fashioned stereoscope viewers. The perceived depth and shapes are not, in other words, "in" the dot patterns, but "in" the brain's processing of the patterns.
The connection between Julesz's experiments with random dot stereograms and the Taoists' contemplation of "organic grain patterns" may be rather tenuous, but for Whitney it seems to have reinforced his feeling that "dot-patterns" can appeal to the basic form-making processes of the human mind. Even more than the shrinking black dot of Wu Ming , the "writhing 'random' dot fields" of Li would require audience participation: the viewer's own visual system would have to give form to the film's equivalent of amorphous visual "noise." Although the imagery in all of Whitney's films was designed for the mind's eye of the viewer, the "dot-patterns" of Li would have been purely stimuli for each viewer's inner vision.
In their vigorously metrical montage and their disconcerting effects on the viewer's perception, Paul Sharits's flicker films may seem diametrically opposed to the elegant and slow-paced films of Belson and Whitney (though, in fact, flicker effects occur in some of their films as well). What Sharits has done, however, is pick up where the planning for Li left off—not chronologically, since he had begun to make flicker films some fifteen years earlier—nor formally, since his films are based on alternating frames of solid color, not "writhing 'random' dot fields." But in conceptual terms, Sharits went in the direction Whitney had taken when he decided to make an imageless film that would stimulate the viewer's own image-making capacities.
Although at one level Sharits's flicker films continue to depict inner perception, at another level they set new perceptual processes into motion. As he explains in a statement for the Knokke-le-Zoute experimental film
festival of 1967, "In my cinema flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are analogues of such transmission systems," and his description of Ray Gun Virus could be applied to his other flicker films as well: "Light-color-energy patterns generate internal time-shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functioning of his own nervous system." The same could be said of other flicker films, such as Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer , Standish Lawder's Raindance , Tony Conrad's The Flicker , Keith Rodan's Cinetude 2, and Pierre Hébert's Around Perception , as well as passages in films by Robert Breer, Kee Dewdney, Michael Snow, Brakhage, Belson, and Whitney (to mention a few of the many avant-garde filmmakers who have used flicker effects).
Strictly speaking, flicker effects are not in the film at all; they are merely stimulated by it. Alternating frames of black and white, for instance, will evoke perceptions of an ephemeral and slightly pulsating gray. Alternating red and blue frames produce a comparably vivid, yet insubstantial, violet. The perceived color and the rapid pulsations are created by the viewer's visual system in response to the order and frequency, as well as the brightness and hue, of the alternating frames. As the light continues to flicker, the whole image may seem to expand and contract and even lift itself off the surface of the screen and hover disconcertingly in some ambiguous plane that is impossible to fix in space. In fact, it is not "in space" at all. It is "in" the temporally organized firing of brain cells. It is quite literally an "internal time-shape," as Sharits calls it, created by "the electrical-chemical functioning of [the viewer's] own nervous system." The same might be said of all seeing, but usually there is a fairly strong resemblance, or iconic relationship, between the external stimulus and the internal representation of the stimulus. The viewer of a flicker film, however, sees things that are very different from what is in the film itself. For this reason, one might argue that flicker is the filmmaker's most effective means of generating images directly inside the viewer's mind—as Anger, Vanderbeek, Mekas, and others had sometimes hoped to do, though by other means.
By their very nature, then, all flicker films take advantage of the fact that perception of rapidly alternating patterns of light and dark can have powerful physiological and psychological effects. Among the more unpleasant effects are headaches, nausea, and even, for a very small number of people, epileptic seizures. For that reason, the following disclaimer at the beginning of The Flicker is only partially tongue-in-cheek:
WARNING. The producer, distributor and exhibitors waive all liability for physical or mental injury possibly caused by the motion picture 'The Flicker.'
Since this film may induce epileptic seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons, you are cautioned to remain in the theater only at your own risk. A physician should be in attendance.
On the other hand, as Conrad knew perfectly well, flicker can produce a broad range of pleasurable and even exhilarating effects. Experiments have shown that when a strong light flashing five to ten times per second is directed on closed eyelids, most subjects perceive constantly changing patterns of color. In Heaven and Hell , Huxley compares these subjective perceptions to the visionary experience, and in an "Expanded Arts" issue of Film Culture , Jonas Mekas treats them as examples of "expanded" vision, quoting as evidence a particularly vivid account of the effects of a homemade "flicker machine":
Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colors on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are pounding to get in. After a while the visions were permanently behind my eyes, and I was in the middle of the whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me. There was an almost unbearable feeling of spatial movement for a while, but it was well worth getting through, for I found that when it stopped I was high above earth in a universal blaze of glory. Afterwards I found that my perception of the world around me had increased very notably.
Although the precise reason for these effects is still unknown, there is no doubt that flicker can produce perceptions comparable to some of those experienced in hallucinations, meditation, and visionary experiences ("I was high above earth in a universal blaze of glory"), and is, therefore, an appropriate basis on which to construct films for the inner eye.
Some evidence to support such a claim was supplied by a series of experiments conducted in the early 1970s by Edward Small and Joseph Anderson. They found that watching a short film of alternating white circles and black frames "induced the perception of symmetrical, geometric, colored patterns which were strikingly similar to many of the mandala forms reproduced in various works." Producing flicker with a circle rather than with full, rectangular frames undoubtedly encouraged perceptions of the mandala's circular shape, but when Small and Anderson asked their subjects to make drawings of what they saw while watching the film, most made circles containing "symmetrical, geometric" patterns characteristic of mandalas (even though, as the investigators were careful to determine, most of their subjects had never heard of mandalas and knew nothing of their traditional forms in other cultures).
Among avant-grade filmmakers who have made flicker films, Sharits is not only noteworthy for his persistence in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of flicker effects but also for his understanding of their relationship to visionary forms like the mandala. Because he realized that flicker was a cinematic technique capable of producing equivalents of visual experiences generated by mental processes alone, he specifically designed his flicker films to be "occasions for meditational-visionary experience," as he explains in his statement for the Knokke-le Zoute film festival in 1967.
Not surprisingly, mandalas play a significant role in the way Sharits conceptualized and attempts to describe his films. In addition to Piece Mandala/End War (1966), which Sharits calls a "temporal mandala" (and to which I will return for a more thorough discussion), there are also Razor Blades (1968), which begins, in Sharit's words, "as a mandala . . . [that] is visually sliced open"; N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), where the "color development is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas"; and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), which Sharits describes as "an uncutting and unscratching mandala." It is not the esoteric symbolism of mandalas that interested Sharits; rather, it is their "strong, intuitively developed imagist power," as he puts it. His flicker films exhibit some of that same power to stimulate and help shape the imagery of inner perception.
Piece Mandal/End War can serve as a concrete example of flicker films in general and the "meditational-visionary" experience aimed for by Sharits's flicker films in particular. A flickering dot at the beginning of the film introduces the flicker effect itself and at the same time embodies what Sharits calls the "circularity and simultaneity" that are the mandala's "tools for turning perception inward." Sharply perceived yet curiously tenuous, shadowy yet bright, the dot engages the viewer's perceptions in the temporal flow of the film while simultaneously revealing the discrete units of which that flow is composed. Rather than "IN as particle OUT as wave," as Whitney describes the concluding sequence of Wu Ming , the flicker-dot opening of Piece Mandala/End War is "particle" (the projector's discrete impulses of light) and "wave" (the fluttering persistence of the dot in the viewer's perception) at the same time.
Formally, thematically, and perceptually the film as a whole, like all flicker films, rests on the paradox of discontinuous continuity, separateness and union. In Piece Mandala/End War , Sharits extends that paradox from flickering fields of color to flickering black and white frames composed of still photographs of a couple making love. These few separate frames (showing the man on hands and knees above the woman and crouched to perform cunnilingus) go through innumerable repetitions and
permutations. When the lovers' heads are oriented toward the left, the background is black in the top half and white in the bottom half; when the lovers' orientation is reversed, the background reverses to white at the top and black at the bottom. When shots from opposite sides of the lovers alternate frame-by-frame, the background flickers grayly or almost seems to spin vertically while the lovers' bodies appear to whirl horizontally and, at the most rapid rate of flicker, fuse into a single-double body with heads, arms, and legs at both ends. At some moments the black and white images of the lovers are suffused with subtly vibrating hues contributed by interjected frames of solid colors. In Sharits's description: "Blank color frequencies space out and optically feed-fuse into black and white images of one love-making gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time."
Simultaneity of sequential moments may be a contradiction in terms, but the flicker effect gives it a kind of perceptual logic. The brain is forced to blend images that are not only temporally and spatially distinct but even mutually exclusive (such as figures facing left and right at the same time). Flicker breaks down such dichotomies as black/white, color/noncolor, left/right, bottom/top, beginning/ending, female/male.
In the middle of the film, however, the "circularity and simultaneity" is broken by flickering static images of a man (Sharits) raising a pistol to his head and pulling the trigger. The "bullet's" trajectory is traced in white animated dashes that hit the man's temple and then retreat back into the pistol's barrel; whereupon the man lowers the gun again. This doing and undoing of self-destruction is like a vertical line bisecting the "temporal mandala" of the film as a whole. At the same time, this seemingly intrusive image may be taken as an allusion to the perceptual violence of the flicker effect itself—indeed, of the whole process of projecting flickering light at viewers' eyes. While making his flicker films, Sharits was acutely aware of this form of violence. "The projector is an audio-visual pistol," he wrote in a note on Ray Gun Virus; "The retinal screen is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewer's normative consciousness."
In normal film-viewing situations, the projector-pistol also fires discontinuous impulses of light at the viewer's eyes but usually at a sufficiently rapid rate to disguise their discontinuity. (This is one of the projector's major contributions to the "grand scheme" of the camera-eye, as discussed in chapter 1.) What projectors are designed to hide, the flicker effect restores to visibility. It prevents the smooth fusion of frames normally perceived during film projection. Through this rupture in the normal perception of the cinematic image, one can catch a glimpse of the
discontinuous and mechanical processes that underlie the seemingly continuous and natural flow of images on the screen. The projector continues to operate at normal speed, but the rhythm of contrasting frames of color (or black and white) produces an equivalent of the projector's own flicker.
The flicker effect thus depends on a three-stage process involving the film's separate frames, the projector's conversion of those frames into discontinuous impulses of light, and the eye-brain's neural response to that attack of light-impulses. Sharits's artistry lies in his ability to produce visual equivalents of that process itself. This is the basis of his reputation as an analytical filmmaker who, in the words of one critic, "demand[s] that the relationship between screen, image, projector, film, and viewer be considered." Certainly Sharits's flicker films are concerned with the material base and self-referentiality of the medium. But his engagement in the dialectics of eye and camera led him to integrate the medium and the mind's own image-making processes. Sharits frees those processes from cinematic equivalents of the outer world, so that they can create perceptions comparable to the inner world of hallucinations. This is the "temporary assassination of the viewer's normative consciousness" Sharits speaks of.
His flicker films enter the realm of the inner eye by attacking the "retinal screen," but once inside the visual system they lose their violence. In fact, their rhythms of often approximate the alpha rhythms of the brain when it turns off external stimuli to concentrate on its own internal perceptions. Studies of electrical currents in the brain have shown that alpha rhythms (eight to twelve cycles per second) tend to appear even when the eyes close briefly; whereas long and deep meditation is, in Robert Ornstein's phrase, "a high-alpha state." Using an electroencephalograph, Small and Anderson found "considerable alpha-like activity" in the brain-wave patterns of subjects watching their film of flickering white circles. Although the projector shows twenty-four frames per second (and in fact each frame is flashed on the screen two or three times), the perceived light impulses may be much slower than that, depending on the degree of contrast from frame to frame. Paradoxically, then, flicker's violent attack on the retina can produce quite opposite effects farther along the visual system. As the rhythmical firing of visual cells spreads through the brain it may produce, not epilepsy, nausea, dizziness, or other disagreeable effects, but the internal peace of the "meditational-visionary experience." With flickering light as the link between the mechanics of the cinematic apparatus and the physiology of the visual system, Sharits produced versions of the Beyond that are perhaps the most concrete and down-to-earth to be found among films for the inner eye.