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Chapter 4— "Giving Sight to the Medium": Stan Brakhage
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Chapter 4—
"Giving Sight to the Medium": Stan Brakhage

When giving sight to the medium, "with, not through, the eye" (William Blake), with, rather than thru, machine, with any means at your bestowal (rather than disposal), with the light, and naturally then OF all these things also as in any gift, the term "moving picture giving" takes on a blessed (and necessary to me) dimension.
—Stan Brakhage, A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book

The poet Robert Kelly summed up his reaction to Brakhage's film The Art of Vision (1965) with the phrase "mind at the mercy of eye at last."[1] Another poet, Robert Creeley, echoed Kelly's judgment: "Seeing your films," he wrote to Brakhage, "I do see , first of all, and 'think' later."[2] The primacy of "seeing" over "thinking" is frequently assumed to be the principal characteristic of Brakhage's films. Fred Camper, for example, writes in a retrospective essay on Brakhage, "He has, more than any other filmmaker, defined film as visual , freed it of extra-visual considerations, and then used the visual to express a totality of thought."[3] Camper's reference to "a totality of thought" is crucial to an understanding of Brakhage's visual aesthetics. Rather than putting "mind at the mercy of eye," Brakhage appeals to what he has termed an "optical mind," which is "dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word."[4] In its original sense, perception is a creative union of mind and eye, a "sensuous or mental apprehension, perception, intelligence, knowledge," as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the Latin origin of the word. Translating sensuous knowledge into visual art has been Brakhage's greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker.


If Brakhage often speaks on behalf of the eye, it is to counterbalance what he feels to be our culture's bias in favor of the mind and our conse-


quent failure to recognize how easily the mind can imprison itself in an abstract and diminished universe of its own making. As he writes in Metaphors on Vision: "Even the Brains for whom thought's the world, and the word and visi-or-audibility of it, eventually end with a ferris wheel of a solar system in the middle of the amusement park of the universe. They know it without experiencing it, screw it lovelessly."[5] In contrast, Brakhage invokes an "adventuring eye" that acts in "partnership" with the mind:

My eye, again, outwards (without words) dealing with these "indescribable," "imaginary" vibrations. . . . an irresponsible gamble thwarting the trained response link between retina and brain, breaking the associational chain, this mind-eye partnership playing the game with an unmarked deck, as in the beginning, giving eye's-mind a chance for a change, yet a deck all the same, only ship-shape for exploration, not a-bottled-trophy.[6]

Without the eye's sensuous knowledge, the mind will atrophy, become a mere trophy, like a ship in a bottle, incapable of sailing out on voyages of exploration. In "partnership," however, the "mind-eye" can go exploring in a world that is like an unmarked deck ("as in the beginning"), and it can know the world without labels and "the associational chain" that binds the "tutored" eye.

In his campaign to give "eye's-mind a chance," Brakhage has confronted two major obstacles. The first is the cultural bias that not only separates thinking from seeing but relegates seeing to a secondary or supporting role in the drama of mental life. As Brakhage has put it, "We don't know how to let the eyes think, or how to be conscious of eye-thought."[7] The second obstacle is a consequence of the first: viewers of his films, including many critics, seem to have great difficulty equating the imagery of the films with the phenomena of actual visual perception. This difficulty was exemplified for Brakhage when, as he describes it, P. Adams Sitney "refus[ed] to close his eyes and see if he couldn't see something that was related to the painting on my film." Though one of Brakhage's most insightful and sympathetic critics, Sitney seemed unwilling to grant the possibility that the sources for certain aesthetic effects in Brakhage's films might be found behind his own closed eyelids.

Whether or not the incident occurred as Brakhage describes it, the point he wishes to make is clear:

I said [to Sitney] I am the most thorough documentary film maker in the world because I document the act of seeing as well as everything the light brings me. And he said nonsense, of course, because he had no fix on the


extent to which I was documenting . He and many others are still trying to view me as an imaginative film maker, as an inventor of fantasies or metaphors.[8]

That is, in fact, the predominant view of Brakhage in Sitney's Visionary Film and in most other commentaries on Brakhage's work. Given that the title of his first and most important collection of writings is Metaphors on Vision , critics can hardly be blamed for interpreting Brakhage's "documentaries" metaphorically. Yet, a pervasive theme of that work is the literalness of the "eye adventures" described there. One example, quoted at length in chapter 3, is Brakhage's changing perceptions of his wife as his eyes become increasingly saturated by light. Anyone willing to accept the veracity of that and many other accounts of "untutored" vision in Brakhage's writings and lectures should not be surprised by Brakhage's claim to be "the most thorough documentary film maker in the world." Or as he put it on another occasion:

I really think my films are documentaries. All of them. They are my attempts to get as accurate a representation of seeing as I possibly can. I never fantasize. I have never invented something just for the sake of making an interesting image. I am always struggling very hard to get as close an equivalent on film as I can, as I actually see it.[9]

If poets are "literalists of the imagination," in Marianne Moore's well-known phrase, then Brakhage is a literalist of perception, striving to make equivalents of what he sees, as he actually sees it.

"Equivalent" is the crucial term. It stresses unadorned accuracy in representing what is seen but makes allowance for the mediation of the materials and processes of filmmaking. The term "equivalent" allows for the fact that not everything that can be seen can be photographed: phosphenes, for example, or visual "noise" and other sensations of light, texture, and color created by the visual system itself. Furthermore, as Brakhage noted in an interview, there are "qualities of light" for which film is "too gross or too inferior or whatever to be receptive to." This being the case, Brakhage continues:

I have to search for equivalents that will give something of the quality of what I'm seeing. Well, that takes me back to the absolute beginning—because all along, all I or anybody else have been able to do, is create by whatever means—film or any other art—an equivalent of what we were seeing.[10]

When Jane Brakhage, who also took part in the interview, comments, "It's a weird thing to do in the first place," Brakhage first agrees, "Yes, it


is isn't it?" then adds, "But if you think about it, it's so beautiful, because only by doing such a weird thing could you actually get involved in trying to create an equivalent for something that most people weren't already seeing." By stressing weren't , Brakhage implies that although people may not have seen equivalents of what Brakhage sees, they could see them and would recognize them as being like their own, if they had the chance to do so. His films offer them that chance. "I mean," Brakhage adds, "you begin trying to get an equivalent that's rather close cousin to whatever anybody else is seeing."

Here is an indication of the social role Brakhage's films can play. If viewers recognize equivalents of their own seeing in Brakhage's films, they may become increasingly open to ways of seeing that do not conform to the social conventions respected by the "tutored eye" and that are not incessantly reinforced by conventional techniques of image making. As Brakhage puts it, "I really want to help people to see, to the extent I have any clear social function as an artist."[11]

To accomplish this goal, Brakhage attempts to "document" seeing that is available to everyone—not just to artists and visionaries privileged with some sort of rarefied visual acuity—otherwise his images could not communicate with the "baby" that "remains forEVER 'untutored'" in everyone.[12] This is why Sitney's "refusal to close his eyes" was so galling to Brakhage. It seemed like an implicit rejection of the social relevance as well as the perceptual accuracy of Brakhage's films.

By insisting on the documentary aspect of his work, Brakhage also challenges a common assumption about the difficulty in viewing his films. Fred Camper once described the difficulty this way: "There is no 'base' that one can approach [Brakhage's] work from," because it offers no "connection with [the viewer's] direct experience." In fact, Camper said, "One cannot understand Brakhage in terms of what you see, or the way you view the world; you must understand his work by trying to understand the way he sees the world."[13] It is true that conventional assumptions about seeing are of little help to the viewer of a Brakhage film, but that is because they place such narrow limits around the possibilities of seeing. In challenging those assumptions, Brakhage has taken it upon himself to help people see what they are truly capable of seeing; thus, it is not Brakhage's way of seeing that we must come to understand but our own. In Brakhage's words: "I am primarily concerned with making films which can be taken into the viewer, in thru his experience of himself in the act of seeing, without his being taken in by the film and/or via his lack of experience."[14]



To take film in, instead of being taken in by it, viewers cannot remain passive receivers of images. They must become engaged with film in a continual creative process of visual renewal, a typical example of which is offered by the conclusion to Dog Star Man (1961–64). Dan Clark's description of the closing moments of the fim is meticulous:

DSM [i.e., the Dog Star Man] chops, bare chested, in
sunlight—same as before
DSM walks through snow, looks up
daytime sky with clouds
night sky with stars
DSM chops, in b&w negative, in orange-toned color
DSM chops, in close up, medium shots, from below
flashes of a roll of film ending, orange, white
DSM chops
axe chopping roots of a dead tree
flashes, sprocket holes move slowly down frame
DSM chops
b&w roots chopped
DSM chops
b&w roots
sprocket holes
star in black sky
dark purple
dark green

Although no verbal description can equal the experience of seeing the film, Clark's list of images is as accurate as one could hope to make it, given the film's extremely rapid pace (most of the images are on the


screen for only a fraction of a second). Drawing upon these images, I propose to show how visual renewal figures thematically and perceptually in the conclusion to Dog Star Man .

One line in Dan Clark's text clearly indicates Brakhage's method of integrating imagery and theme: "axe chopping roots of a dead tree." An axe chopping tree roots also appears earlier in Dog Star Man , usually in a context that seems to equate chopping with sexual intercourse. At the film's conclusion, however, the chopping is more specifically related to "cutting" film. In addition to sprocket holes, which remind us of the material strip of film itself, the images include pieces of film askew on the screen as if they were chips of the dead tree sent flying by the impact of the axe's blade. What Clark calls "flashes" are places where all film opacities seem to have been cut through, permitting pure light to burst forth.

The film contains within its own imagery the means of bringing itself to an end (as Clark notes, there are "flashes of a roll of film ending"). The act of chopping within the film cuts the film off with a few final "flashes," sputtering colors, and finally "black." The ending thus emphasizes the means of making the film, especially the editing, which can be thought of as cutting away the deadwood, eliminating the stale, familiar representations of the visual world so that new ways of seeing can have room to grow.

In its fusion of method and message, the film also joins and temporarily shapes the viewer's process of visual perception. This is its specifically perceptual significance, which emerges when Clark stops referring to recognizable objects ("axe chopping roots," "sprocket holes move slowly down the frame," and so on), and begins listing simple visual impressions ("flashes," "white/black/orange," "orange/black/blue/black," and so on). These impressions of changing light and color, combined with the quick, nervous rhythms of the editing, allow us to experience with our own eyes the intensity, the flashing and surging of energy that Brakhage has given to light moving in time. This is visual renewal, and to see film in this way is to know it sensuously and as immediately as the nervous system knows something is hot—or to use a subtler analogy and one truer to Brakhage's stated interests, as the body "knows" itself through the "movement of its own tissues," to quote Charles Olson.

In the interview preceding Metaphors on Vision , Brakhage refers specifically to Olson's "Proprioception," a collection of notes or "working papers" (as Olson's editor calls them) concerned with that sense of the self one derives from perceptions of one's own body: "PROPRIOCEPTION:


The Dog Star Man wanders in a maze of bare branches and 
superimposed streaks and flares of light in  Dog Star Man, Part 4 .

The Dog Star Man chops dead wood amid superimposed 
lights and sprocket holes in  Dog Star Man, Part 4 .


the data of depth sensibility / the 'body' of us as object which spontaneously or of its own order produces experience of, 'depth' Viz SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES."[16] It is a very short step from this definition and its corollary, "that one's life is informed from and by one's literal body,"[17] to Brakhage's goal of making films that must be "taken into the viewer in thru his experience of himself in the act of seeing." While taking in the lights, colors, textures, fleeting images, and darkness that bring Dog Star Man to a close, one can hardly avoid an immediate and nearly physiological sense of one's own "act of seeing."

In that sense, vision can be "proprioceptive." It can produce the opposite of the disembodied, objective "view" that Gibson labeled "the visual world" and that social convention (buttressed by orthodox studies of visual perception) takes to be the correct and normal way of seeing. Visual renewal arises from a more direct, physiological sense of light-eye-brain interaction.

Since Brakhage's goal as a filmmaker is to create equivalents of "the act of seeing," "film is, thus, premised on physiological sense—takes Sense as Muse," as he wrote in an article published in 1967.[18] To Jonas Mekas, Brakhage wrote, "I find myself feeling that it is the total physiological impulse of a man must be given form in the making of a work of, thus, called, art."[19] And to Michael McClure: "I am simply here involved with a process so naturally always existent its workings have been overlooked: that the light takes shape in the nerve endings and IS shaped, in some accordance we call communication, thru physiological relationship."[20] Visual renewal is a way of looking again at that "process so naturally always existent its workings have been overlooked." It depends on the filmmaker's ability to shape light's movement in ways that not only communicate with the viewer but retain some sense of the interplay of brain, nervous system, and the eyes that receive the light of the external world.

This is why Brakhage has taken exception to William Blake's neat couplet: "We are led to believe a lie / When we see with not through the eye." For Brakhage, the filmmaker engaged in "giving sight to the medium," as he writes in "A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book," must see" 'with, not through , the eye' (William Blake), with , rather than thru, machine."[21] In Brakhage's dialectic of eye and camera, the "machine" is no more a "window" than the eye is. Both eye and "machine" make what is seen; hence, cinematic equivalents of seeing cannot be divorced from


the materials and processes of filmmaking, any more than human sight can be separated from the body's visual system.

It is, then, "with, not through , the eye" that Brakhage would have the viewer experience—not simply see depictions of—the process of visual renewal. Both the inspiration for his films and their means of communicating with the audience derive from the premise that in each moment of seeing, the world is made anew. "Everything is new to the eye. Everything at every instant is new," Brakhage has said. "Only in the long take, it begins to decay and get old. So that first impression, if fully realized, if fully lived, that is fixed for all time."[22] Equivalents of those first impressions are what Brakhage strives to fix for all time in his films: "So the whole point is, in bouncing light off things, or catching it howsomever, that everything shall be something integrally new. It will be new anyway, but if it doesn't maintain its newness then I have failed, because I am new at every given moment."[23]

The "flashes," brief glimpses of "white," "orange," "blue," and moments of "black" at the end of Dog Star Man summarize the process of seeing everything "integrally new." They produce a metaphor of vision in the most direct way possible: by making the viewer aware of seeing as a physiological, nerve-centered event before it becomes a conscious recognition of labeled and familiar objects and events. Visual renewal, in other words, restores the perceptions of the "untutored eye."


New ways of seeing and of understanding what can be seen have been Brakhage's principal preoccupations for nearly four decades. Only his earliest films, as Brakhage has said, drew their inspiration from "drama" rather than from the dynamics of perception.[24] The change came with Desistfilm (1954), in which, Brakhage explained many years later, "I was beginning to accept my own sight."[25]

What Brakhage accepted was the jerky, discontinuous movements of the eyes themselves. For example, during the teenagers' party that is the subject of the film, one shot begins with a close-up of a hand on the neck of a mandolin, then slides down to the other hand strumming the strings, moves up to the face of the boy playing the instrument, then darts diagonally downward to the hand of another boy holding a cigarette to his lips, and as he takes a deep drag, the camera moves upward to reveal his full face. A cut replaces that face with another boy's face, and then in the same


shot, the camera pans quickly to a fourth boy's face, edges to a tighter close-up, then sweeps back across the room, veers up to the ceiling, plunges back down again, and in a series of circular movements, zeroes in on the face of a girl who is the center of the party's tensions and desires.

The camera movements are motivated in part by the emotional intensity of the scene, but they are also evidence of Brakhage's nascent acceptance of his own sight. Catching and releasing one point of interest after another, the camera moves as the eyes do when they dart from detail to detail of an unfamiliar scene. As Brakhage quite rightly notes, eye movements are not like smooth, continuous pans: "The eyes are clutching at things. They are at times almost clawing to prevent this [smooth panning] movement." So in Desistfilm , the camera "goes up curtains, grabbing patterns and arrives where it does, stays there or doesn't, because that, at the moment, is either vital to me or not."[26]

Such camera movements are indeed characteristic of the way the eyes actually scan a scene. Rather than slide smoothly from point to point, they make a series of short jumps, or saccades, with intervening pauses of 1/10 to 3/10 of a second. When the eyes follow a moving object, their movement is less saccadic but never absolutely smooth. Even when "fixed" on one point, the eyes are engaged in three involuntary movements: a slow "drift" away from the point of fixation, a series of tiny saccades that flick the fixation point back to the center of the fovea (where the focus is sharpest), and a continuous high-frequency tremor. The eyes are never still, because as Alfred Yarbus explains, "Good conditions for perception cannot be obtained if the retinal image is strictly stationary."[27]

Blinking and saccades are ways of constantly renewing the perceived image. After each blink or saccade, "new signals arise from the whole retina or from certain of its parts." Yarbus found that "ordinarily, the end of a blinking movement or the end of any saccade (a very large voluntary one or a small involuntary one) is always the beginning of a new process of seeing." It is "new" because "certain signals arising from the retina are inhibited while others reappear."[28] Here is still another reason to take Brakhage literally when he says, "Everything is new to the eye. Everything at every instant is new."

During each saccade the retinal image is probably blurred, but the blurring and moments of blackness that accompany each blink of the eyelids are ignored by normal vision and rendered invisible in the conventional visual world. For Brakhage, however, they became unavoidable aesthetic considerations. "I have increasingly worked with this quality of seeing—this jumping," he says. "The problem is that most people are reading these films out


of the trained experience of the normal film. To them, my film is making the statement that the subject or person is jumping and leaping about. But what I am really stating is that the eyes jump and move about."[29] They do indeed "jump and move about," not only to renew the retina's signals to the rest of the visual system but also to satisfy curiosity, assuage fears, feed desires—in brief, to make their contribution to what Rudolf Arnheim calls the "total engagement by which the organism lives in its world, acting upon it and being modified by it."[30]

Moreover, as Arnold Gesell notes, when the eye shifts focal lengths it seems to want to "catch" and "hold" objects in its view. This leads Gesell to call the eye "a teleceptive-prehensory organ" that "gropes and grasps" the world around it.[31] The explanation for this can be found, at least in part, in the eye's evolutionary development. The eye and the visual areas of the brain evolved in direct relationship to the increased ability of primates to see, grasp, and move about. "The forces of evolution," Gesell writes, "had to provide continuously for a harmonious inner-adjustment between eyes, hands and feet."[32] Although increased prehension and manual dexterity permitted human vision to become more "versatile" (Gesell's term), the same "inner-adjustment" continues to guide our "act of seeing." While retaining traces of their evolutionary heritage, the eyes have become the swiftest and most sensitive "limbs" of the body—and Brakhage's hand-held camera is a most appropriate means of conveying their capacity for "clutching," "clawing," "grabbing," and "jump[ing] continuously."

Like Gesell (whose classic studies of child development support many of Brakhage's personal observations and intuitions), Brakhage has argued that sight is inextricably bound to the "sense" of movement. Gesell writes, "Specific acts of vision always occur within the total unitary pattern of the organism. Mentally they have a motor basis."[33] Brakhage pursues the same notion in a letter to James Tenney:

I sense "motion " as the first sense, at least in the sense of "control" viewable as "response," long before either "touch," where one could make a verb of it in relation to a baby, and "seeing," where the eyes could be said to be moved.

As evidence Brakhage cites

that particularly fascinating movement of the whole infant head, wobbling forward in straighter and straighter, less and less wobbling, bee-line, zeroing-in so to speak, on the breast which does, then finally, depend upon the tactile, lips to nipple, for "the connection" so to speak. Sight does, finally, negate some of the urgency of this movement, finally putting an end to "the wobble"; but I am convinced the brain, alive center of this conscious-seeming head movement,


must from the start BE consciously impressed by movement as prime instrument of primal search.[34]

Here, in other words, is another motivation for Brakhage's camera movement: the "primal" sense of movement itself. His hand-held camera expresses the body's integration of tactile, kinetic, and visual senses.

When Brakhage writes in Metaphors on Vision , "One may hand hold the camera and inherit worlds of space,"[35] or when he tells an audience, "I've trained myself to hold this camera so that it will reflect the trembling or the feeling of any part of my body; so it is an extension, so that it becomes a thing to in-gather the light,"[36] he is simply acknowledging the body's inevitable role in "giving sight to the medium." Gesell writes, "Vision is an act, almost a creative act, which requires total and detailed participation of [the body's] entire action system."[37] Brakhage would say the same thing, except he would leave out the qualifying "almost." For him vision is a "creative act."

By the late 1950s, in films like Loving (1957), Anticipation of the Night (1958), and Sirius Remembered (1959), hand-held camera movement had become one of the most pronounced characteristics of Brakhage's visual expression but never the only one. Not only are the movements tightly edited, but frequently they are augmented by other visual effects such as flares of light, superimpositions, and paint applied directly to the film surface.

In Loving , the camera races over the ground, rushes up tree trunks, and sweeps in blurred arcs across the edge of a forest clearing. At other times it moves only slightly, rocking and gliding in close-ups of a man and woman embracing. In one passage Brakhage intercuts blurred pans of the forest and nearly stable close-ups of the lovers. The effect is a percussive glance-gaze -glance-gaze -glance-gaze —a rhythm in keeping with the film's overall structure and with the camera eye's ambivalence toward its intrusions on the lovers' intimacy. Later in the film, yellowish flares encroach on and finally efface images of the woods. There follows a flickering sequence of clear frames and fleeting images of the ground and a pine branch. Like the flashes at the end of Dog Star Man , these flickers suggest the pulsing energy required for the "creative act" of seeing.

Sirius Remembered includes similar passages of "white blinking," one of which is composed of rapid alternations of clear leader and images of the ground partially covered with snow. Also like Loving , this film is constructed from conflicting movements of staring and looking away, which are repeated again and again as Brakhage's camera catches sight of, then


Alternating clear frames and images
 of the ground produce a blinking
 rhythm in Sirius Remembered .


veers away from, the body of a dog decaying on the forest floor. The camera compulsively returns to the dog, but always by way of editing, never by reversing its movement during the same shot (thus offering a good example of the editing eye's influence on the camera-eye's movement).

Longer than Loving and more complex in its camera movement and editing, Sirius Remembered also carries the "creative act" of seeing a step further through the introduction of dissolves and superimpositions. Treetops are moved by dissolves rather than by the wind; the bared teeth of a dog's partially decayed mouth are accompanied by faint white superimpositions; one eye of the dog stares through superimposed dead leaves and twigs on the ground; rapid tilts up to the treetops are completed in brief dissolves to the dog's body stretched out on the ground under the trees; still shots of the dog are superimposed with repeated quick pans that launch a second image of the dog toward the edge of the frame; superimpositions of quick tracking movements forward lift one image of the dog toward the viewer, while the other image continues to show the dog lying in the tall grass at the edge of the woods. In keeping with its thematic development of death, decay, and regeneration, the film's dominant impression is of unceasing movement in an environment that is superficially completely still. It is the seeing that is moving in accordance with what Brakhage was seeing and feeling and also in accordance with the processes of nature: the transference of energy from the decaying animal to—and through—the earth it lies upon.

Anticipation of the Night deals with physical and spiritual death, symbolized by a suicide at the end and summarized in Brakhage's view at the time that "all of childhood was just an anticipation of the night of adulthood."[38] Yet, like Sirius Remembered , it is intensely alive in its camera movement and editing strategies. It may be that as Ken Kelman suggests, "The pressure of death breaks down the habitual ways of seeing and makes possible absolute and direct vision of life, vision without preconception or restraint."[39] Or, in Sitney's gloomier view, the film as a whole "describes the doomed quest for an absolutely authentic, renewed and untutored vision."[40] Thematically, the quest for "untutored vision" may be doomed, but formally it succeeds—at least to the extent that camera movement can "break down the habitual ways of seeing" and achieve a more precise equivalent of the direct and immediate act of seeing.

The camera may seem to move "without preconception or restraint" in Anticipation of the Night , but its movements are not without meaning and metaphorical significance. A building resembling an ancient Greek temple for example, is always seen to be level within the frame and always


brought in and out of the frame by straight horizontal and vertical movements that are as classically ordered and balanced as the architecture of the temple itself. A baby crawling on the grass, however, is presented in impulsive, erratic camera movements; most shots of a sleeping child are smooth, hand-held pans quietly tracing the child's still form on a bed. The moon dances to the rhythm of the trembling camera; rows of glowing street lamps advance or recede in exaggerated or flattened perspective as the camera travels along nighttime streets; lights on carnival rides twist, turn, circle, and whiz across the screen in abstract streaks of color. Trees—in daylight, twilight, and at night—travel through the frame again and again, as they might past a car's window (one of the many suggestions of the protagonist's inexorable journey toward the "night" of his death).

Anticipation of the Night , Michael McClure writes, "takes place inside of a man's vision , and the spectator merely has to watch," which is something many spectators find hard to do until they can accept this man's vision (not necessarily what is seen but how it is seen) as equivalent to their own.[41] In addition, Brakhage's camera movements and editing involve formal and thematic considerations, as well as reflect psychological and even symbolic concerns: "When I made Anticipation I was of course still sunk very much in metaphor," Brakhage points out.[42] But they also show Brakhage's increasing responsiveness to the immediate realities of visual perception. Explaining why he left out shots of a burning rosebush, Brakhage says, "The image was too myth-structured, too unreal to me, to be used in Anticipation of the Night: it had to be made more out of eye sources."[43]

Hand-holding the camera has been one of Brakhage's principal means of staying close to "eye sources," which means, as well, close to the body and its "entire action system," in Gesell's phrase. This strategy has distressed some critics. Parker Tyler complains that Brakhage's "racing rhythms" reveal a "crude infantile compulsion,"[44] and Annette Michelson once labeled Brakhage's camera movements "crude automatism"—though she subsequently retracted that judgment and became one of Brakhage's most astute supporters.[45] One suspects that these negative reactions, like Sitney's refusal to close his eyes to find equivalents of Brakhage's painting on film, stem from a prejudice against the body as the source of art, against "Sense as Muse," and therefore against "giving sight to the medium with, not through , the eye . . . with , rather than thru, machine." Brakhage's hand-held camera demonstrates, however, that the "machine" can gain in sensitivity and flexibility when it enters into a dialectical give-and-take with the "eye sources" from which Brakhage draws his inspiration.



For Brakhage the sources of vision are not limited to what the eye takes in. They include as well the light produced within the visual system itself. "I think," he wrote to Robert Kelly, "there is some 'short circuit' of light pouring into any eye, as it 'meets' that person's out-put/memory's-discharge, and that we SEE in midst of a smoldering fire of cross-currents."[46] Especially during emotional crises, Brakhage found that he saw the scene in front of his eyes and at the same time saw "patterns that move straight out from the inside of the mind through the optic nerves. In other words, an intensive crisis I can see from the inside out and the outside in."[47]

Although the fullest possibilities of seeing combine "inside" and "outside," Brakhage has taken particular pains to describe and find equivalents for seeing that comes from inside the visual system, because it is less often noticed and much less often represented in cinematic images. Yet, like peripheral vision and saccadic eye movements, it is part of everyone's vision and therefore must be taken into account by anyone "giving sight to the medium."

For Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), Brakhage painted on the film to produce equivalents of what came from "inside" each time he watched the birth of one of his children. In an essay published in 1971 he writes,

When I photographed the births of my children I saw that with their first intakes of breath their whole bodies were suffused with rainbowing colors from head to toe: but the film stock always recorded only the spread of reddish blotches across the surface of the skin: and so, by the time I had photographed the birth of my third child and in each occasion seen this incredible phenomenon, I felt compelled to paint some approximation of it directly on the surface of the 16mm film and superimposed, as it were, over the photographed images of the birth.

There were other visual impressions coming from "inside" that, as Brakhage goes on to explain, required a different mode of recreation in the film:

I felt free while editing this third birth film to also paint, on each 16mm frame at a time, all the visions of my mind's eye and to inter-cut with the birth pictures some images I had remembered while watching the birth—some pictures of a Greek temple, polar bears and flamingos (from a previous film of mine [Anticipation of the Night ]) . . . images which had of course, no real existence at the time of the birth except in my "imagination" (a word from the Greek meaning: "image birth") but were, all the same, seen by me as surely as was the birth of the baby.[48]


Brakhage's statement can also serve as an implicit rebuttal to two common explanations for his painting on film: that it is motivated by purely formal, painterly concerns or by the desire to call attention to the material nature of the film medium. Although these are not irrelevant to Brakhage's intentions, they are tangential to his guiding concern with documenting what actually was "seen by me ."

When Brakhage writes in Metaphors on Vision , "My eye, then, inspiralling, frictioning style-wise, being instrument for striking sparks, is bequeathed visions at every illumination it's struck to create," he is not indulging in fanciful rhetorical flourishes but is seeking to evoke some literal sense of the light—phosphenes and various manifestations of visual "noise"—that is "available to any viewer willing to release his eye for comparable movement."[49]

Not only are these phenomena of "closed-eye vision" important to Brakhage because they are there and therefore essential to any complete documenting of seeing, but also because they draw attention to the internal processes of the visual system itself, to the medium of seeing within the message of sight. Brakhage puts it this way: "You are seeing yourself seeing. You're seeing your own mechanism of seeing expressing itself. You're seeing what the feedback of the mind puts into the optic nerve ends that cause them to spark and shape up like that."[50] Here, in effect, is another way of saying that we see "with, not through , the eye" and that behind closed eyes one can see evidence of those processes of seeing at work.

To make equivalents of the introspective awareness of seeing, Brakhage not only paints on the film but bleaches, scrapes, gouges, and even coats it with mold and crystals. He also emphasizes the graininess of the film's emulsion, most apparent in his 8mm Songs (1964–69) and in their more recent reprinting in 16mm (1980–86). Although the visual effects of these techniques vary tremendously, they have in common a grainy texture in constant flux. This comprises the base of what Brakhage frequently refers to as "closed-eye vision." The grains may flow evenly across the screen or swirl and hover in a tumultuous crowd, like a cloud of gnats or like silty water blocked and turning back on itself. They may produce amorphous waves of color-light-texture or cluster into patterns and recognizable though highly mutable shapes. Whatever their form, they are intended to be equivalents of what anyone might experience as "the rhythm-pattern-flashes of the eye's nerve-ends, making up the grainy shapes of closed-eye vision."[51]

In addition to phosphenes and visual "noise," closed-eye vision in-


cludes the more precise images of hypnagogic vision. Hypnagogia has long been recognized as perception experienced while falling asleep, waking up, or any time when consciously directed awareness becomes disengaged from ordinary, active intercourse with the external world. Such mental states produce visual images ranging from phosphenelike shapes and patterns to distinct faces, figures, and scenes. However it manifests itself, hypnagogic vision originates in the brain's own neurological circuitry. According to one recent theory, it begins in the so-called old brain, the limbic and reptilian systems whose functions preceded the logical and linguistic formulations imposed upon thought by the newer (evolutionarily speaking) cerebral cortex.[52] If this is true, hypnagogic images would be particularly appropriate examples of the "eye adventures" that Brakhage says are "completely beyond any linguistic expression whatsoever."[53]

Typically, hypnagogic images appear briefly, change rapidly, and seem to come and go without the conscious volition of the person experiencing them. Brakhage's films offer innumerable examples of such images, which sometimes appear alone, sometimes in superimposition with other images, and sometimes woven into the grainy textures of other forms of closed-eye vision. In a letter to Robert Kelly, Brakhage writes,

I think the mind's eye's electrical output to the backside of its optic nerve does express itself in rhythm shifts, many clusters of same per second, much as the ear's hearing-of-innards is. . . . [T]he comparable light-beeps of eye's out-put do tend, thru colors (order of colors, in rapid flashes), to make the shapes of closed-eye vision which resolve into the specific details of memory's pictures.[54]

In other words, "closed-eye vision" is not limited to "abstract" patterns of grainy light and color. It may include the clear, recognizable images of hypnagogia, which emerge full blown yet seemingly unsummoned from the depths of consciousness.

No film explores this process more thoroughly than Scenes From Under Childhood (1967–70). During the early planning stages, Brakhage said he would explore "the possibilities of creating, and depending upon, a level of film which can occur as exclusively in the mind of the viewer as certain levels of Dog Star Man , etc., can only occur in the eye."[55] If Dog Star Man emphasizes—though certainly not exclusively—what comes "from the outside in," then Scenes From Under Childhood emphasizes what comes "from the inside out." Discussing the film after its completion Brakhage explicitly connects his "use of paint and material suspended in oil [and] superimpositions" with an attempt to "express something of this world


that's so alive to children: of closing the eyes and seeing explosions and dots and so on."[56] Like Gerald Oster in his study of phosphenes, Brakhage refers to Rhoda Kellogg's studies of children's art and suggests, "These drawings they were doing at the very early stage had a lot to do with closed-eye vision." Speaking more generally about the inspiration for Scenes From Under Childhood , Brakhage goes on:

The strangest world I think we have available to any sense is the world that occurs when the eyes are closed. And this whole work could be considered as moving in that direction, not just where I'm using dots and specks and patterns, but in fact in the memory process."[57]

The "memory process" of Scenes From Under Childhood begins in Part 1, with rapid dissolves of red and black—actually red and an ephemeral green-black produced by red's negative afterimage briefly retained during the subsequent frames of black. Since afterimages are created by and can only exist in the visual system itself, they offer an apt equivalent for seeing "from the inside out." They engage the viewer's visual system in a special way, since it is the viewer, not the filmmaker, who gives the black its (in this case) green overtone. In a very literal sense, as Brakhage has pointed out, producing afterimages is a way of "mov[ing] the film into the minds of the people watching it."[58]

Amid the red-(green) black alternations some orange begins to appear; then a fluttering of oranges and reds; and at some moments, an odd blinking of horizontal lines across the frame. Finally a wavering, distorted image of a small child appears among superimpositions of vague red shapes and flickers. Amid the superimpositions, blurry red shapes, and flickering colors, images of the baby's world begin to emerge: an overturned chair, passing figures of older children, polished floorboards, a door swinging open, a lamp, clothes in a closet, a donkey, the outside wall of the house, the mother picking up the baby, and the baby sitting, crawling, and struggling up to a standing position. Finally, in a shot of total clarity, a little girl tries to feed the baby, who constantly interferes by grabbing at the spoon in her hand. Part 1 ends with this clear-eyed image of conflicts arising at the juncture of instinctual desires and social roles. The tight, steady framing and sharp focus offer the first intimation that the multilayered, polymorphous visual experience of the "untutored eye" can evaporate in the heat of single-minded, task-oriented activities and the exertion of individual wills.

The red that predominates in Part 1 may draw upon what Brakhage called "the commonest type of 'closed-eye vision,' [which] is what we get


when we close our eyes in daylight and watch the moving of shapes and forms through the red pattern of the eyelids."[59] Or it may come from the way the mind's eye colors memory. All of the children are dressed in red in the early passages of Part 1. Their clothes may have absorbed the coloring of memory; or perhaps the clothes are the source of the color memory has given to these scenes of/under childhood. Either way, the colors, like the superimpositions and various pulsations and flickers of light, engage the viewer's perception at a level "dominated by the rhythms of inner physiology," as Brakhage puts it in a letter to Bruce Baillie.

The relevant passage in that letter illustrates Brakhage's sense of how theme, structure, and imagery in Part 1 combine along a line of development from "inner" to "outer" seeing:

[I]t's coming to seem to me that "Scenes From Under Childhood" on its primary visual level IS a track of the evolution of SIGHT: thus its images flash out of blanks of color, thru fantastic distorts/twists of forms and orders (those fantasies wherein one imagines oneself: even suggesting those "pre-natal" fantasies wherein Freud to his despair, finally found that unanalysable nest hatching all basic neurosis), space/shape absolutely dominated by the rhythms of inner physiology, then shaking like jellied masses at first encounters with outers, the beginning of The Dance, shattering OUT of even memory's grip thru TO some exactitude of sight/light.[60]

The feeding sequence ending Part 1 could be an equivalent of the "shattering OUT of memory's grip thru TO some exactitude of sight/light." Although it retains a visual richness and nearly comic sense of sibling rivalry—over who will control the spoon—the conclusion of Part 1 presages the conclusion of the fourth and final part of the film, in which the "exactitude of sight/light" has been reduced to gray images of "organized" play—track and field sports, baseball, flying motorized model planes—and of public buildings in a flat, gray photograph. Thus the end of Part 1 seems to parallel the beginning of the end of natural, spontaneous, "untutored vision": the undifferentiated inner-outer seeing that Brakhage believes to be inherent in early childhood.

In subsequent parts of the film Brakhage introduces explicit equivalents of "seeing explosions and dots and so on." Large irregular flakes and disks of glowing white light hover, drift, and dance; swarming, grainy yellow-white specks sway like dust motes in invisible currents of air; scattered sparkles float aimlessly about or cluster in one or another part of the frame; dense showers of glittering golden flakes fall gently through the frame (producing images somewhat reminiscent of the snow in the glass


paperweight in Citizen Kane and conveying some of the same nostalgia for lost childhood).

Many of these manifestations of light could be described with a passage from Metaphors on Vision in which Brakhage describes the "non-blue" light he detects in the daytime sky: "seeing thru the so-called color of it, discovering light, now sighting it down to 'flakes,' 'God-gold,' 'falling,' 'down.' Metaphors—feathers, snow, reign, all golden."[61] (Brakhage notes in the same passage that young children may color the sky yellow in their drawings until they are taught to make it blue.) These and other equivalents of phosphenes and visual "noise" evoke the visual world of the child and the adult's mental return to childhood's mysterious and exhilarating richness of vision.

The equivalents of the "flakes" and "grainy moving particles" of light in Brakhage's films come from many photographed sources, as well as from painting, bleaching, and scratching the film and from the film's own grains of emulsion. Another equivalent, which Brakhage seems not to have recognized until the mid-1960s, is the television screen with its thousands of phosphorescent dots. In "Hypnagogically Seeing America," an essay that appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1967, Brakhage explicitly linked the television image to the phenomenon of closed-eye vision:

The T.V. viewer becomes center-of-the-universe 1st time thru medium because the image-carrying-light comes directly at him (or, as McLuhan puts it: "The viewer is the screen") and comes en-meshed, or made-up-of, the television-scanning 'dots' which closely approximate his most private vision—his sense of his own optic nerve-end activity, seen as a grainy field of 'light'-particles when his eyes are closed, particles which seem to cluster into shapes in the act of memory and, thus, make-up the picture being re-membered as if it were a slide cast from the brain against the closed eye-lids.[62]

Some fifteen years later, in Murder Psalm (1980), Brakhage would use "television-scanning 'dots'" to complement painted, bleached, and stenciled equivalents of the "grainy field of 'light'-particles" in closed-eye vision. In that film, the television screen supplies literal equivalents of the electrical activity of the visual system as well as of the brain and nervous system as a whole (which is particularly appropriate in a film that compares two kinds of massive electrical disturbances: those in nature that produce lightning bolts and those in the brain that produce epileptic seizures).

At the time of writing "Hypnagogically Seeing America," however, Brakhage's interest in the correspondences between the television image


An equivalent of grainy closed-eye vision in  Murder Psalm .

and closed-eye vision was of a different sort. What concerned him was television's power to infiltrate the viewer's memory processes:

The T.V. 'dots,' backed by the light-source and the pale blue-ish [in black-and-white T.V.] tone of it (prime color of closed-eye vision in deep memory process, blue tinting the whole grainy field when the eyes have been closed in a dark room for a long time), do pre-tend the brain of the viewer is IN THE 'SET,' a tendency that soon makes him feel as if what he's watching had always been stored in his own memory banks, as if he ought to act on instructions from T.V. as surely as he would on his own experiences as remembered.[63]

The implications of this "tendency" are especially dire considering that at the time Brakhage was writing, the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War, and television was the principle source of images of the war and the political and social events surrounding it. As a social critic, Brakhage wanted to alert people to the impact television was having on public attitudes toward the war. As an artist, however, he chose not to deal directly with the Vietnam War and its electronic extension in American life. Instead, he made 23rd Psalm Branch (1966–67), an 8mm film about war in general and, more particularly, about his own memory's images (from newsreels and documentaries) of World War II.

The television image, as such, is not a source for 23rd Psalm Branch , but the common ground shared by television and closed-eye vision is a


major visual element in the film. Some passages in the film are composed entirely of tumultuous blotches of painted colors, others of paint superimposed on photographed images. Newsreel shots of explosions are visually echoed in boiling swirls of orange and black paint; then, as if the energy of the explosion were dissipating, the painting becomes scraped and cracked and finally is replaced by orderly rows of dots gliding smoothly through the frame.

As Brakhage had emphasized in his letter to Sam Perry (see page 72), the "dot plane" of closed-eye vision includes many different sizes, shapes, and movements of dots. In 23rd Psalm Branch they range from frenetically dancing spatters of ink and paint to rows of large round dots parading slowly across the screen. Often several sizes, shapes, and movements will be visible at the same time, such as tiny black pin-points sliding diagonally downwards while large round dots slide in the opposite direction. This regimenting of dots occurs for the first time following footage of ticker-tape parades and a shot of Mussolini. At first the air is filled with fluttering bits of white paper, then as if under the influence of Fascism itself, the "grainy field" of white specks is converted into orderly rows of black dots superimposed on more footage of parades and public ceremonies. Subsequently, the tight rows of black dots become circles in a black grid laid over more newsreel footage.

Brakhage seems to imply that even one's "most private vision" may surrender to images of authoritarian leaders and the mass psychology they exploit. If this seems to be pushing beyond the limits of credibility—if not into the realm of paranoia—one should at least consider the fact that psychological states often have physiological counterparts. In this case the "grainy field of 'light'-particles," which permits us to "see ourselves seeing," may reveal the psychological response certain images elicit. This may be Brakhage's most despairing comment on the dangers mass-media images pose for individual sensibility.

The film ends, however, on a different note. Its closing shots of children playing with sparklers at night have been variously interpreted as hopeful and even ecstatic images of childhood innocence; as a balancing of playfulness and violence; and, most pessimistically, as allusions to "the Nazi Walpurgisnacht " and thus to "the seeds of war in the pastoral vision."[64] What seems clear, however, is that the sparklers offer a particularly accurate equivalent of the brilliant sparks of phosphenes, and the children in their innocent play are engaged in a ritual celebration of light as it may be seen in closed-eye vision. In the final shot of the film, sparks fly off a sparkler in the hands of a young girl who is rapturously whirling


about in a large cloak (a young priestess of light?). On closer inspection, however, the sparks appear to be superimposed on the image of the girl, which suggests that the sparklers are external equivalents of the internal sparks of the visual system itself. They are the bridge between seeing "from the inside out and the outside in."


Whether the seeing comes from "inside" or "outside," its "medium" is light. Therefore, in "giving sight to the medium" of film, Brakhage works on the assumption that "what movie is at basis is the movement of light." As the moving light takes shape, it produces "what are called recognizable objects," after which "drama begins to come in, or story, or picture," but the basis, Brakhage insists, is always "the movement of light."[65]

In addition to its physiological, psychological, and cinematic significance, light has a metaphysical dimension in Brakhage's visual aesthetics. He frequently draws attention to Ezra Pound's translation of "Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt"—"All things that are are lights" (Canto LXXIV )—from the writings of the ninth-century philosopher and theologian Johannes Scotus Erigena, and he often refers to the later school of English "light philosophers," in particular to Bishop Robert Grosseteste, whose treatise De Luce was an important source for Pound's—and hence Brakhage's—ideas about light. Drawing upon Neoplatonic thought, Grosseteste proposed that the whole universe derives from light. God is light in its purest and most immaterial form, and the visible world of things is light's outermost extension, where it takes on a material appearance or becomes most completely "corporeal," in Grosseteste's terms.

Erigena's statement "All things that are are lights," expresses what Brakhage has long believed to be "the natural condition of the film maker at the moment of making."[66] In cinema "all things that are" quite literally are lights moving in time; therefore Brakhage had at his disposal the ideal medium for conveying the luminosity he perceived in the world around him—except that when "drama begins to come in, or story, or picture," viewers tend to forget about the basis of it all in "the movement of light." The challenge for Brakhage was to make light itself the film's subject, to preserve its luminosity without reducing it to purely abstract shapes.

In many of Brakhage's films, techniques such as extreme soft-focus, over and underexposure, flicker effects, negative and solarized images, flared frames, clear leader, and refractions of light in the lens have produced intermittent glimpses of light as a meaningful subject in its own


right. But with The Text of Light (1974), the two series of short films with roman and arabic numerals as titles (1979–82), The Egyptian Series (1984), and most recently The Babylon Series (1989–90), Brakhage has produced an impressive body of work with light as its overt and continuous subject. Although they are the films in Brakhage's oeuvre most likely to be labeled "abstract," they are more profitably viewed as concrete, literal documentaries of the physical and metaphysical light invoked by Erigena and Grosseteste.

Brakhage's comments at the time of making The Text of Light stress the film's equivalence with actual—if rare and hard to describe—perceptions of light:

I see light behaving in all kinds of ways that [are not] photographable with given means—that is, the given lenses and film stocks and so on. And most people don't see these things, although I've met some people who have seen them.

That light travels over the ground, that it pools—that there is a pool of luminescence which is very ephemeral, and which takes a relaxing of Western muscles in the eyes in order to be aware of. That light-streaks come down previous to rain—splitting the air—light-like phosphorescent streaks of . . . something! That I call light!

Also that where, in the Spring, before the grasses grow up and around these pools of light, there are up-shoots; it seems to be light shooting up, that shapes plant-like things, and then later plants come up there.[67]

In The Text of Light light does flow, pool, fall in streaks, shoot upwards, and take on innumerable forms in an ambiguous space that sometimes seems open to infinity and other times appears as flat as the screen itself. Some viewers see landscapes, cities, forests, oceans, sunsets, faces, and myriad living forms; others see chiefly light, color, texture, and rhythmical movement. A combination of both ways of seeing the film would probably be truest to what Brakhage calls the "primary impulses" of the film: Erigena's "All things that are are lights" and Blake's "To see a world in a grain of sand."[68]

Brakhage found visual equivalents of these "primary impulses" in sunlight refracted by a crystal ashtray and filmed with a macro lens held so close to the glass that it is impossible for the viewer to know how the images were created. By shooting one frame at a time as the light changed with the sun's movements, and by moving the camera very slightly between each exposure, Brakhage imparted to the camera's eye the minute shifts and tremors of a living eye and transferred that life to the images on the screen. Moreover, the glass itself gives the light a certain density or


Hints of a misty landscape in  The Text of Light .

Light streaks downward through the darkness in  The Text of Light .


"materiality," like that of physical objects. The light seems to take on the shapes, textures, movements, even the three-dimensionality, of things; yet, things in the film look like light. It is as if Brakhage were documenting the instant at which light achieves "corporeality" (in Grosseteste's terminology) but before its "glow" is extinguished in corporeal forms.

Because of these intimations of physical-spiritual relationships embodied in light, the film moves into what Brakhage calls Jordan Belson's "territory." What it means to enter that territory will be discussed in chapter 6, but it is worth noting now that as Brakhage worked on this film he carried on "a friendly argument in [his] mind with Jordan Belson":

He would say, O wonderful what it is, but why is it jerky? Or why not centered? Or, you know . . ., and to hold myself together I would say, No, Jordan, it has to be this way. So I, I owe him very much. He sustained me in that way a beautiful argument can, because it was very much in his territory. I mean this film is very much on his side of the street.[69]

So it is, but its way of conveying the perception of light is uniquely Brakhage's. The "jerky," off-centered images are not simply aesthetic preferences. They assert the physical presence of the eye/machine in even the most metaphysical contemplation of light. When Brakhage says it requires "a relaxing of Western muscles in the eyes" in order to see certain luminescences in nature, he is not implying an escape from the physiology of vision into some dreamy, other-worldly transcendentalism. He is alluding in yet another way to "the untutored eye" and to breaking "the associational chain" that prevents us from seeing all that is available to be seen in this world.

The roman and arabic numeral films also occupy Belson's "side of the street." Introducing film I , Brakhage writes:

This begins a new series of films which ordinarily would be called "abstract," "non-objective," "non-representational," etc. I cannot tolerate any of those terms and, in fact, had to struggle against all such historical concepts to proceed with my work.[70]

Instead, he coined the term "imagnostic," to suggest a combination of image and knowledge. "Image birth is the heart of the matter for me," he told an audience at the first screening of films I, II , and III . "But that isn't sufficient," he continued. "Imago means so much more than image. Gnostic carries so much more than knowing; it carries it for example in the Biblical sense of knowing and birth."[71]

Presumably, Brakhage does not object to terms like "abstract" and "non-objective" because they imply images that are not "referential" (Brakhage's


"Imagnostic" imagery in  III  of the  Roman Numeral Series .

An image from the brain's "tree-of-nerves" in  14  of the  Arabic Numeral Series .


term), but because they fail to convey the intensity and physicality of "image birth." They also fail to specify the crucial contribution of the cinematic apparatus itself. These images were never seen, Brakhage says, "except in their making." Pursuing this line of argument, Brakhage explains:

I'm trying to find a place in the mind that is beyond picture or other than picture . . . some area that isn't drawing at least in any easy or recognizable sense on pictures or combinations of pictures, so that something new can be born.[72]

Although Brakhage soon dropped the term "imagnostic," he continued to draw upon sources "beyond picture" as he completed the roman numeral series and then went on to the arabic numeral films, The Egyptian Series , and The Babylon Series . Working with very soft focus, extreme close-ups or macrophotography, and innumerable unidentifiable lights and reflections, Brakhage produces a world of diffuse, mysterious shapes; misty glowing colors; piercing glints of light; and nearly total exclusion of "referential" shapes. Except for recurrent hints of light refracted through a camera lens—quivering, elongated diamonds, materializing and evaporating, hovering and sliding in and out of the frame—there is little to connect the imagery of the films to anything outside the creative meeting of the mind and the camera-eye.

Even so, despite the emphasis of these films on "mind's moving-visual-thinking," Brakhage does not forget the physiological basis of these mental processes. His persistent emphasis on trembling microrhythms and swift, dynamic juxtapositions of images (characteristic of his work as a whole) produces metaphors of the energy underlying thought's images, the electrical impulses that Brakhage envisions surging through the brain's "tree-of-nerves," as he puts it in a comment on the arabic numeral films.[73] By documenting the birth of images in the mind, Brakhage took another step along the "track of the evolution of SIGHT" he followed in making Scenes From Under Childhood .

In fact, from the moment he decided to "accept [his] own seeing" in Desistfilm , Brakhage committed himself to following that track—wherever it might lead. From open-eyed engagement with the light of the world; to closed-eye visions of dots, sparks, grainy fields of light, and hypnagogic images; to intimations of the electrical patterns of thought itself—Brakhage has pursued the implications of that early, crucial decision. In the process, he has remained true to "Sense as Muse" by gathering light and giving it forms that communicate with other "optical minds" and their own "moving-visual-thinking."


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