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"Mehr Licht . . ."
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"Mehr Licht . . ."

Not so very long ago it was characteristic to associate film with dramatic or with narrative art. We saw the images, so to speak, but we tended to place them as a story, a continuity necessarily involved with a message that either a novel or a play might otherwise convey. Something flashing, or stuttering in a myriad of colors, might alter our attention, but it was at best, we thought, an effect used in support of the actual purpose: to get on with the story itself.

In contrast to this presumption, a film by Stan Brakhage wants to push us out, to force us, in fact, to see as the activity of light itself permits us to. One mutual friend may object that he is "ruining our eyes" but I would emphasize that it is in the defense of those eyes, and their possibility, that his work takes on its most real and singular character. Therefore I interrupt myself and these notes to look again at a beautifully simple and precise instance, Mothlight . What do I see?

tones brown, green
    details of [moth] wing, other parts—
occurring between light source—and
    the light now on the wall—
    scale—as detail of "size"
the presence (present-s as he would say)
of what occurs in  the light.

Arts Canada , December 1968.


And I find myself seeing the "blank" film
at the end as particularized now—dust bits,
scratches, something in  the light.

My understanding is that this film was made by placing fragments of mothwings and parts between strips of scotchtape—and of making from that a print capable of projection. To see, in short, what is in the light—as dust motes in the air might be so seen.

His early films are, effectually, "psychodramas" but his work moves intensively, and quickly, into the literality of light as the eye is given to experience it. A significant film of this experience is Anticipation of the Night , which he has spoken of as follows:

The daylight shadow of a man in its movement evokes lights in the night. A rose bowl held in hand reflects both sun and moon like illumination. The opening of a doorway onto trees anticipates the twilight into the night. A child is born on the lawn, born of water with its promissory rainbow, and the wild rose. It becomes the source of all light. Lights of the night become young children playing a circular game. The moon moves over a pillared temple to which all lights return. There is seen the sleep of innocents in their animal dreams, becoming the amusement, their circular game, becoming the morning. The trees change color and lose their leaves for the morn, they become the complexity of branches in which the shadow man hangs himself . . .

What I find interesting here is the apparent melding of a vocabulary involved with symbolic action ("a circular game") and with the phenomenal character of light itself ("anticipates the twilight into the night").

His notes for beginning film-makers are relevant in that he proposes one take film into a light-free room and there expose it to specific activity of light—for example, the flare of a match or the beam of a penlight. Equally, he suggests scratching on black filmstrip, so that this qualification of light may be experienced. He wants to emphasize that what the film will evoke or more accurately make manifest is the activity of light as the eye is given to experience it by means of its action on the "light sensitive" film.

Consider how explicit the activity of light is to film in all senses. We see the movie by virtue of the fact that light is being projected from a source, through a material variously prepared (e.g., by camera, painting, scratching, direct exposure, alternate chemical action, etc.)—and here of course the point is that light may be used


not only to "create" the initial condition of the film, but is itself "created" and/or brought to reveal the multiple condition of its nature by its passage through the film.

In fact, it is light and the eye which experiences it that seem to me the two insistent terms of Brakhage's activity as a film-maker. I know that he has also deep concern with "what things mean" and with basic human relationships—but light, in all its modality, as "seeing sees it," is much more to my own mind his insistent preoccupation. So it is that perhaps the most ambitious of his master-works is called The Art of Vision . No doubt he thinks as well of that kind of vision which is called "visionary" and he without question possesses it. Yet I love that teasing, nonsense wisdom of, "Where was Moses when the lights went out . . ." It must be part of all that says, "Let there be light . . ."—or that calls one into the light, asks that light be shed on this, lightens the load well as the heart.

Not long ago I sat with friends watching a number of the 8mm films which comprise the lovely Songs sequence, and because we were in the living room of an adobe house, and senses of earth in that way all around us, and because there were the occasional lights of passing cars, like firelight flickering on the walls—I felt an oldtime invocation of possibility . Pound says, "Damn your taste! I'd like if possible to sharpen your perceptions after which your taste can take care of itself . . ." John Cage has spoken of that previous music, as he might put it, which had to do with concept and its demonstration, and of that music he himself has had so much to do with, which concerns perceptions and their arousal. The center of what we were seeing was the very possibility of sight itself. We saw the light.

To return then . . . I have been looking at a recent issue of Scientific American (September 1968) devoted to "Light," and much of it I can't follow. Still much of it and/or what its subject concerns is familiar to me because of conversations with Brakhage. For example—that what we see as color is due to the failure of the material from which light is being reflected to absorb that color. But more to the point here: the experience offered by his films is initial, and has to do with the primary fact of sight, as light creates it.

October 29, 1968


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