Stan Brakhage's Film Theory & Visual Music

story © Michael Betancourt, September 4, 2011 all rights reserved.


An Excerpt from The History of Motion Graphics:

Stan Brakhage (1933 – 2003) is exceptional, both in the sheer quantity of films he made, and in the innovative aesthetics and novel techniques he created that characterize the wide variety of his films. His work with abstract film that dominated his productions starting in the 1980s clearly demonstrates the close connections, continuously present in his film theories, between his films and visual music. Actively producing film work from the 1950s until his death in 2003, the last decade of his life was spent primarily working on abstract films whose finished form was created through a combination of direct hand painting processes and optical printing. These works reveal a direct linkage between the earliest abstract films and contemporary media art (such as VJ and the visual music renaissance brought about by digital technology).

His work as an experimental film theorist provides an explicit connection between the Modernist aesthetics of the fine art world and the specific visual engagements used by experimental film. It is through the synaesthetic dimensions of his theory, developed over the course of his career and demonstrated through his film practice is the linkage between synaesthetsia and his (abstract) films become apparent:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green?” How many rainbows can the light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be?
[Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision” in Film Culture no. 30, 1963, np (17; as MoV is unpaginated, approximate numbers were found by counting the first page as 1 and continuing to the end).]

The opening of his first major publication, Metaphors on Vision (1963), establishes the foundations of his film theory: a phenomenological interest in perception disconnected from linguistic constraint or expression. His interest in this treatise is the unfettered exploration of visual perception—and yet at the same time, it reflects the same inspiration of color and light (even in this opening statement) that guided earlier color music inventors. However, where color music sought to prove a correspondence between color and sound, in Brakhage’s theory, the emphasis falls on an attempted recovery of primal experience—the initial sensory encounter with pure color and form, independent of later linguistic interpretations.

In pursuing this perceptual understanding, his theory turns to transitory, almost imperceptible sense experiences as a means to start a recovery of the more primary experiences that are the focus of this engagement. In the process, his writing suggests a lurking synaesthetic dimension:

My eye, again, outwards (without words) dealing with these “indescribable,” “imaginary” vibrations, producing the categorized colors, best known negatively, this sensibility dealing with this phenomenon, 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 change. ... Under extreme non-concentration, fixed by effortless fascination, akin to self-hypnosis, my eye is able to retain for cognizance even those utterly unbanded rainbows reflecting off the darkest of objects, so transitory as to be completely uninstructable, yet retaining some semblance in arrangement to the source.
[Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision” in Film Culture no. 30, 1963, np (23-24).]

The afterimages Brakhage describes so poetically belong to the “noise” in perception that is normally ignored: like the bright spot that is the camera flash afterimage in the retina, after images are for his theory a suggestion of a nether-realm of perception that is both immanently present and thoroughly inaccessible, hidden beneath normal perceptual actions. It is through the self conscious disengagement that we can recover this more accurate experience of the perception process—and it is this specific engagement with these marginal phenomena normally ignored that provides the aesthetic foundation for his theory.

This conception of film and the film image is one where the photographic basis of most film production is a hindrance rather than an aid to image production (apparent across Brakhage’s work as a whole; he sought to overcome the naturalistic image). The avant-garde focus on breaking down boundaries and seeking out novel types of experience and imagery depends on a recognition that the camera’s typical function, as well as the dynamic response range that different film stocks had a limiting effect on the ability of that medium to produce imagery corresponding to experiences outside the narrow focus of a commercial industry whose products correspond only to a narrow, mimetic realism. This issue is a common factor in the avant-garde film’s experimenting with accidents, errors, glitches and other mistakes as a means to locate new types of imagery. Those techniques developed by the avant-garde for creating these moving images followed from a process of engagement with the limits of what commercial, industry-standardized technology would allow; it is also the reason that avant-garde films are of interest to TV advertizing as a source of innovation.

Brakhage’s theory is a formalization of the avant-garde process of rejection that separates it from commercial production. His phenomenological basis suggests a desire to bracket off of prior knowledge in an attempt to set it aside to engage in a direct experience; this focus on primary forms is common to the Modernist avant-garde. (This philosophical position was specifically critiqued by Post-Modern theorists, especially Jacques Derrida and his followers who developed the theory of Deconstruction.) Yet, it is important to recognize the qualification in Brakhage’s theory—this setting aside of past experience to directly interpret is an idealized goal, not necessarily a feasible possibility. His concern in this construction is not the recovery of a past, utopian state of direct experience, but rather the attempt to recover such a state. His focus is not in the results of such a setting-aside, but in the experiences that emerge from attempting to engage with a direct perceptual experience. In this regard, the film camera worked as a proxy for the perceptual state Brakhage describes, limited by its own technological nature:

We have the camera eye, its lenses grounded to achieve 19th century Western compositional perspective (as best exemplified by the 19th century architectural conglomeration of details of the “classic” ruin) in bending the light and limiting the frame of the image just so ... By deliberately spitting on the lens, or wrecking its focal intention, one can achieve the early stages of impressionism. One can make this prima donna heavy in performance of image movement by speeding up the motor, or one can break up movement, in a way that approaches a more direct inspiration of contemporary human eye perceptibility of movement, by slowing the motion while recording the image.
[Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision” in Film Culture no. 30, 1963, np (18).]

The motion picture technology itself constrains the kinds of potentials available to an artist such as Brakhage—and so, his solution to the constraints that the film industry developed to make certain the film image produced a consistent, repeatable visual form was to advocate for an assault upon the technology; this is the same variety of technological attack on “industry standards” that the Paik-Abe videosynthesizer performed on the television signal. In Brakhage’s theory these attacks on the technology are necessary for philosophical—and aesthetic—reasons: the motion picture camera-projector combination reify a specific aesthetic of facile, everyday, mimetic realism in the technology used to make and show films. Only a direct engagement that challenges that reification directly is capable of producing imagery that violates those aesthetic foundations. Only when the optics, motion, and other technologies of film production break with the assumptions of this mimetic realism does the film begin to potentially allow Brakhage’s hypothetical untutored eye.

This process of breaking the assumptions built-in to the camera and film technology requires a transformation of that technologies’ function. His discussion of sound follows a similar trajectory in its recognition of the role that sound plays in relation to the images it accompanies:

Sidney Peterson recently made a statement to me (of which Jane [his first wife] just reminded me) that: “There are only two kinds of sound tracks: mood-music and lip-sync.” Now I think it very relevant that he designated the other-than-atmospheric (or choral)-sound track with the specific term: “lip-sync.” Jane does think of it most clearly in relation to the image of a rock: “You either have some comment upon the rock or you have The Song of The Rock, the rock’s lip-sync, so to speak.”
[Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision” in Film Culture no. 30, 1963, np (66).]

This recognition as an aesthetic principle appears through the silence of his films; the direct relationship between image and sound means that there is always some type of correspondence, some association, made between whatever is on the soundtrack and what is shown on screen. This conjoining of image and sound imposes an audible aspect on the pictures, transforming their meaning and superimposing the kinds of interpretation that Brakhage is focused on avoiding. This recognition makes the potential for a silent, yet synaesthetic, visual form an explicit part of his theorization.

The hand-painted films produced between the 1980s and his death in 2003 are uniformly silent, and even when there is a photographic substrate beneath his hand painting, their focus in on other types of “vision” than what a camera-lens-projector assembly presents in a more typical film. These hybrid films were made using a combination of techniques to produce their imagery. While the most evident part—the hand painted film strip—belong to the well established tradition of direct films that stretch to the early avant-garde films made by the Futurists in Italy, their specific form and structure depends on the reproductive capability of optical printing. The descriptions Brakhage wrote for these films obscure their hybrid nature:

(Black Ice, 1994) I lost sight due a blow on the head from slipping on black ice (leading to eye surgery, eventually); and now (because of artificially thinned blood) most steps I take outdoors all winter are made in frightful awareness of black ice. These “meditations” have finally produced this hand-painted, step-printed film.

(Stellar, 1993) This is a hand-painted film which has been photographically step-printed to achieve various effects of brief fades and fluidity-of-motion, and makes partial use of painted frames in repetition (for “close-up” of textures). The tone of the film is primarily dark blue, and the paint is composed (and rephotographed microscopically) to suggest galactic forms in a space of stars.
[Stan Brakhage, Canyon Cinema Catalog no. 8, 2000, p. 73.]

These descriptions for two of the better-known examples, Stellar (1993) and Black Ice (1994), are typical of how Brakhage explained the films themselves. While seeming to explain the intent and process involved in making these films, what happens instead is a confusion of what was involved in their production: hand painted film strips provide only a basic part of the finished film that was rephotographed, enlarged, looped and otherwise manipulated through optical printing; the role of this process was so significant to the finished films that Sam Bush, the optical printer technician at Western Cine, where the optical printing was done, received special credit on many of these films, as the end of Stellar states:

This film is to be considered a collaboration with Sam Buch, optical printer at Western Cine, in the sense that I was the composer, he the visual musician.

This credit is revealing. Without the optical printer’s transformation of his film strips, the final film would be utterly different. Composed from short sequences of colorful black and light fields (resembling stained-glass windows) where some parts of the image fade in and out, while other imagery grows larger, moving off the edges of the frame, suggesting forward motion through black space; white specks (bubbles) in the thickly applied aniline dyes become the stars evoked by the film’s title. It is a rhythmic montage, tempered by variations of speed, fades and the hold frames. A limited quantity of original footage provided a foundation for a complex sequence of transformations, tempo changes and movements that all depend on the transformative potentials of the optical printer. What Brakhage has done is to combine the technical effects of direct film with the optical manipulation characteristic of the Whitney brother’s films where a smaller quantity of footage provides the raw material—a visual database—for a remixing and reassembly into a new project. The significance of these films for motion graphics lies less with their specific nature as direct cinema modulated through optical printing than with their presentation of an optical, silent synaesthesia:

I now no longer photograph, but rather paint upon clear strips of film—essentially freeing myself from the dilemmas of re-presentation. I aspire to a visual music, a ‘music’ for the eyes (as my films are entirely without sound-tracks these days). Just as a composer can be said to work primarily with ‘musical ideas,’ I can be said to work with the ideas intrinsic to film, which is the only medium capable of making paradigmatic ‘closure’ apropos Primal Sight. A composer most usually creates parallels to the surroundings of the inner ear—the primary thoughts of sounds. I, similarly, now work with the electric synapses of thought to achieve overall cathexis paradigms separate from but ‘at one’ with the inner lights, the Light, at source, of being human.
[Quoted in Robert Haller, First Light (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1998) p. 81.]

Unlike Brakhage’s more theoretical discussions, this is a statement that closely reflects the production process for his hand painted/optically printed films. His statement makes them specifically into ‘scores’ whose performance is recorded through the optical printing process—to continue this metaphor, the finished film is then a recording of a purely visual analogue to audible music. This conception is synaesthetic, but on a structural level rather than in terms of relationship between sound and image: what is being visualized is a compositional arrangement whose organization, repetition and visual design is fundamentally based on the kinds of compositional structures experienced in the composition of music.

This particular paradigm for visual music is not unique to Brakhage, even though his specific implementation is unique, its underlying premise converges with those of other artists, most notably the structural modeling proposed by Joseph Schillinger’s work. It is an adaptation of the rhythmic, tonal dimensions of music applied to the temporal organization of visual material. The near-abstraction of a film such as Stellar where the title reflects the visual content and that content implies the title in a circular relationship where the invocation and evocation of movement through the cosmos guides the interpretation of a film organized around short, measured sequences of images. The reappearance of similar imagery at different points during the roughly two minutes of the films’ running time has its basis in the melodic statement and restatement common to musical compositions.

While Stan Brakhage’s theories reflect his aesthetic origins within the Modernist paradigm that dominated the 1950s and 1960s, they also reaffirm the significance of the hybrid approach to technology in the production of synaesthetic media art. It is the hybridity of Brakhage’s hand painted films that separates them from earlier direct film work by Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith. His use of optical printing was not as a way to preserve his painted imagery or correct minor errors in the registration of hand painted elements, but as a primary constructive technique—these films cannot exist without the optical printer; this approach to abstract film resembles that used by the Whitney brothers in the 1940s with their Film Exercises. The connection between Brakhage’s optical printing of hand painted material employs his film strips as a “database” whose manipulation and recombination creates the finished film.

Visit Fred Camper's site to see high-resolution images of Brakhage's hand-painted films.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 4, 2011  all rights reserved.

All images, copyrights, and trademarks are owned by their respective owners: any presence here is for purposes of commentary only.