PRINT January 1973

Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura

For Jay Leyda

WE CELEBRATE, AS THIS YEAR BEGINS, the birthdays of two master film makers: Eisenstein, were he living at this hour, would be 75 years of age and Stan Brakhage this month turns 40. Convergences and parallels of aspiration and achievement suggest themselves in such force and number as to strain the limits and categories, national and formal, which critical and historical discourse on cinema most generally employ. As one begins to think about the work of these two men, their kinds and intensities of energy, the trajectories which they describe through the culture of our time and, more specifically, through its paradigmatic esthetic mode—the cinema—one has a fresh, keen sense of that mode’s continuity. 

I will take that sense as signaling that for cinema, too, it is coming to be true, as Eliot some 50 years ago claimed in the most celebrated of his critical texts, that,

No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. 

One is impressed by the importance of this 

as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. . . . The necessity that the artist shall conform, that he shall cohere is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. 

And Eliot, suggesting that “this existing order must be if ever so slightly altered by the supervention of novelty,” thereby proposes what one might term a dialectical view. He goes on to say that the artist will “in a peculiar sense” be aware, as well, that “he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated by them. . . . It is a judgment, a comparison in which two things are measured by each other.” 

A sense of this also being true for cinema is produced by one’s sense of this occasion as dynamic in its effect, as acting to sharpen focus, to disclose the contours of a tradition within a sensationally rapid succession of individual talents. One’s view of history, of history’s claims upon one are thereby altered. To think and write on cinema has largely been to propose hypotheses, protocols, and fictions to the world at large, and to propose them with a levity wholly unthinkable in any other area of inquiry—a levity that has guaranteed their incomparably rapid and steady supersession. It is, however, the speed and dynamism of cinema’s development which has steadily confounded the noblest attempts to constitute, the most prudent efforts to reflect upon, its ontology. Occasions such as these invite us, then, to reconsider the reasons, and to think of ways in which to reinvent historical and critical tasks, review their relation to each other, redefining film form, remaking film sense. More immediately and most generally, what are the ways in which we can make sense of this particular conjunction, how explain the manner in which these anniversaries are felt as one occasion, fusing in a dialectical moment of a movement which comprehends them both, and so much more? 

Here are some ways. One has first the sense of these two men as Masters, as artists who invent strategies, vocabularies, syntactical and grammatical forms for film, and as men whose innovative functions and special intensity of energy are radical, defining the possibilities of the medium itself for their contemporaries. One sees, as well, that they share a common function, through a conjunction of praxis and theoria, to define those possibilities and to deter-mine the arenas of discourse and of action. In so doing, they force the very best of their contemporaries to define themselves, in work and discourse, in relation to them. You may, then, view Eisenstein and Brakhage negatively, postpone judgment, recommend rejection, but you cannot, I will claim, avoid situating yourself in relation to them. I am saying, then, that filmmaking and the theory and criticism of film must, in their most intensive and significant instances, ultimately situate themselves in relation to the work and thinking of these two artists, and I will infer, correlatively, that failure to do so may be seen most indulgently as provincialism, must more exactly be termed unseriousness. 

We have the sense, as well, of artists whose notions of their art are philosophically informed; they are shaped by the ideological structure in which they are formed—structures so greatly divergent as that of dialectical materialism and a romantic idealism—and they take film as inheriting a philosophical function. Thus each will hypostasize an esthetic principle into an epistemology and, ultimately, an ethics. For Eisenstein,“ montage thinking is inseparable from thinking as a whole”; for Brakhage, filmic poesis is the visual instantiation of the imperial sovereignty of the Imagination. Both men propose forms and styles as embodiments of a filmic ontology, and both will posit the making and experiencing of such film as, ultimately, a privileged mode of ontological consciousness itself. 

Here, then, are two artists generating in their work the formal stylistic modes, textual mythic themes central to the work of their time. Both support and greatly extend their work through writing which can be seen as inseparable, as I have suggested, not from the sense of their work alone, but from its development. To think about October is constantly to be referred back to the mind at work in Film Form and Film Sense; to reflect upon The Art of Vision is to touch at every point the proliferative meditation of Metaphors on Vision, to become aware of the way in which both artists sustain a characteristically modern dialectical relation between poetic and critical functions.

Both men are solidly rooted in and sharply responsive to the social structures and energies of their times. That is, they experience its forms of alienation as the special kind of frustration inhering in the artist’s relation to his public. Eisenstein’s sense of himself as actively, deeply involved—of that self-subsumed, as it were, in the historical process of the Revolution—gives us the sense of his work as vectorial in the context of that transformational process. Brakhage is infinitely less privileged in his lonely commitment to revelation, his guerrilla stance in defiance of the culture of mid-century America. It is a tragedy of our time (that tragedy is not, by any means, exclusively, but rather, like so much else, hyperbolically American) that Brakhage should see his social function as defensive in the Self’s last-ditch stand against the mass, against the claims of any possible class, political process, or structure, assuming its inevitable assault upon the sovereignty of the Self, positing the imaginative consciousness as inherently apolitical. 

The forms of their cinemas will, then respectively be epic and lyrical, engaged, respectively as well, in an encounter with, a reclamation and testing of, the dramatic and the mythical. Generated by antithetical postures, their forms diverge. But the fundamental seriousness and wholeness of concern and the will to define his function in the culture of his time, to speak as artists for the necessity to assume or overcome the condition of alienation, are common to both men. And the concern, the will, are, of course, reflected in the difficulties which attended the progress of their careers. If we may count as blessed the culture not in need of heroes, we may measure, as well, the problematic nature of both American and Soviet society by the manner in which both men figure, through an achievement contested but sustained in a lifelong battle with repressive authority, as “heroes” of a larger Western culture. 

For both men are, more specifically and intimately, part of the culture of modernism and of the modernist art of their times. Eisenstein was formed, as we know, by the poetry, painting, and theater which developed in the complex itinerary of immediately pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia, from Futurism through Cubism and Constructivism. Similarly Brakhage must—in one way, among others—be understood in the movement from the space and conceptual framework of Cubism through Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. We know Eisenstein more intimately for our knowledge of Rodchenko, Tatlin, and the way in which they comprehended the lessons of Cubism. We have, as well, a sharper view of the genesis of his editing style when we know how it grew from his decision as a young theater designer and director to adopt, as he puts it, “the principles of the cubists.” In his staging of the Pletnev play Precipice, he decided 

to use not only running scenery . . .  but also—possibly under the demands of shifting scenery—to connect these moving decorations with people. The actors on roller skates carried not only themselves about the stage, but also their piece of city . . . thereby solving the problem—the intersection of man and milieu. . . .2 

But one has an even clearer view of that genesis and its consequences when we see the manner in which Eisenstein’s move from theater into film is confirmed by and takes place in, a movement more general in the art of his time, when we attend to Tatlin, speaking of his own design for the stage production in 1923 of Khlebnikov’s Zangezi

The Zangezi production is to be related to the principle that the word is a building unit, material a unit of organized space. Khlebnikov himself characterized this super-narration as an architectural work built of narrations and each narration as an architectural work built of words. He regards the word as plastic material. The properties of this material make it plausible to operate with it to build up ‘the linguistic state.’

This attitude on the part of Khlebnikov gave me an opportunity to do my work in staging it. Parallel with his word construction I decided to make a material construction. This method makes it possible to fuse the work of two people into a unity . . .  In one of the ‘planks of the play,’ the ‘planks of which Zangezi is built,’ we find a succession of thing-like sounds. . .  To emphasize the nature of these sounds I use surfaces of different materials, treated in different ways. Zangezi is in its structure so many-faceted and difficult to produce that the stage, if it is spatially enclosed, will be unable to contain its action. To guide the attention of the spectator, the eye of the projector leaps from one place to another, creating order and consistency. The projector is also necessary to emphasize the properties of the material.3 

In the year following this collaborative work by Tatlin and Khlebnikov, as I have on a previous occasion pointed out,4 Eisenstein found himself propelled out of theater into the space of cinema, as a direct consequence of his staging Tretiakov’s Gas Masks within a factory situation. 

In Gas Masks we see all the elements of film tendencies meeting. The turbines, the factory background, negated the last remnants of makeup and theatrical costumes, and all elements appeared as independently fused. Theater accessories in the midst of real factory plastics appeared ridiculous. The element of ‘play’ was incompatible with the acrid smell of gas. The pitiful platform kept getting lost among the real platforms of labor activity. In short the production was a failure. And we found ourselves in the cinema.5 

And Eisenstein, with an exact and vivid sense of the practical consequences to be drawn from experience, makes his first film in and around a factory and its “real platforms of labor activity,” initiating his cinema of montage with a sumptuous movement of the camera through that factory’s space, inspired, no doubt, in a way characteristic of him, by the concrete structure of the space and its industrial cranes. 

His propulsion into cinema had been, then, anticipated by Tatlin’s realization, as he worked with Khlebnikov in a radically Constructivist theatrical enterprise, that the spatiality of the stage could no longer contain the complexity, nor render the desired immediacy, of the movement and materials of his construction. Something then had to be invented to confer “order, consistency,” and a certain illusionistic intensity upon that spectacle; the invention is the leaping projector, that surrogate camera. This kind of interplay is accounted for in Victor Shklovsky’s recent remark that: 

At that time the individual arts developed and flowed in one common stream. It is impossible to understand Eisenstein . . .  without Mayakovsky. Neither can his [Mayakovsky’s] poem About This—whose hero passes from one milieu to another, undergoing various transformations—be understood without a knowledge of the cinematography of the time, without an awareness of what it then meant for artists to be confronted with the collision of fragments endowed with a unity of meaning, revealed in a series of conflicts.6 

Eisenstein moves through and with the developing art of his time, discovering through theater and the plastic arts, the space of cinema, inflecting, in turn, through his “montage of attractions,” his systematization of conflict in the percussive rhythm of that montage, the forms of poetry. Brakhage develops in explicit concern with the major esthetic innovations of the ’50s and ’60s. For Brakhage, poetry undoubtedly plays the revelatory role that theater had for Eisenstein. He has an intensive interest in making new and vivid the poetics of Romanticism, sustained by a constant commerce with men such as Charles Olson, Robert Kelly, John Cage, Robert Duncan, and an intensive involvement with the work of Pound and Stein as presiding, more than any other artists of this century, over the direction of his own filmic enterprise. If Eisenstein cannot be understood without Mayakovsky (and, one must add, Meyerhold), Brakhage’s mature work is hardly to be thought of without that of Pound and Stein. Both men are voracious in their reading as well as energetic in their responses to the efforts of contemporaries. Both are also (and this deserves a special stress) candid and uniquely generous in their judgments of the work of colleagues, as only men deeply secure in the knowledge of their own worth and the solidity of their culture can be. 

And both film makers are, interestingly enough, extremely wary of sound and its uses in the making of film. Eisenstein’s reticence, shared by many of his more innovative colleagues, is a matter of historical record. The collective “Statement on Sound of 1928,” presumably written by Eisenstein and endorsed by Pudovkin and Alexandrov7, is understood fully only when one remembers that the montage style was, for Eisenstein, isomorphic with dialectical process, that he proposed through that style, the filmic possibility of access to a heightened consciousness. Endowed, then, with a filmically ontological status, montage is the instrument of filmic revolution, the agent of revolutionary consciousness in and through film. Eisenstein’s sense of sound as a threat to cinema is directly grounded in the apprehension that sound meant talk and that talk meant the restoration, through synchronous dialogue, of theatrical structure. He sees that restoration as profoundly, inexorably retrogressive in its consequences: sound, thus misused, is an agent of “illusionism,” destructive of “the culture of montage,” subversive of revolutionary cinema. One must read this text as articulating the particular intensity of that sense of danger imminent in the worldwide adoption of sound. One must understand it as a call to militant action against a reinforced illusionism’s subversion of the revolutionary achievement through a kind of filmic Allied Expeditionary Force, mobilized in the name of the Restoration around the new recording technology. Therefore the manifesto, the warning, the program for further extension of the montage style into sound; therefore the insistence on their contrapuntal asynchronous organization as yet another dialectical moment in the consolidation of the filmic revolution. 

Brakhage’s categorical rejection of sound has its undoubted origin in his vehement commitment to the primacy or “nobility”8 of sight and to his expansion, literalization, and revivification of the Visionary claim, the sense of the Imagination as indeed primarily and concretely generative of images. He therefore eliminates sound from almost all of his mature work, going so far as to suppress a completed and extremely fine sound track composed for Part One of Scenes From Under Childhood, which functions as a refinement of superimposition effect, depositing its clear, acoustical articulation of an unseen space upon the space we are given on the screen. And two of Brakhage’s most interesting works (Fire of Waters and Blue Moses) are by no means incidentally sound films, though they propose on every level, critical alternatives to the main options of his development. 

To understand Brakhage’s elimination of sound, why he feels it to be subversive of the primacy of the moving image, one should consider not only his own statements but also two major sources of influence. First the figure of William Blake. If we may see his talk of angelic visions, recorded elsewhere in this issue, as a possible culmination of an important influence, one must certainly locate it as another theme in a constantly renewed repertory of eidetic imagery. Refining upon a reading of Northrop Frye’s, Harold Bloom points out that the poet shows us "two gates to that Garden of Beulah which itself, at its upper limits, becomes the Gates of Paradise, and that at that upper level, the sense of hearing drops out and is subsumed by a more intense sense of sight.”9 And Brakhage quotes Gertrude Stein, as he frequently does, in a recent letter: 

It has always bothered me a good deal that and as in America hearing plays such a large part in everything it is a thing that makes any one really creating worry about everything . . . Lots of voices make too much sound, any one voice sounds too much like that voice, and soon I do not worry, hearing human voices is not real enough to be a worry. When you have been digging in the garden or been anywhere when you close your eyes you see what you have been seeing, but it is a peaceful thing that and is not a worry to one. . . .10 

Each film maker, then, derives a sense of the problematic nature of sound from the intensity and integrity with which his forms reflect a sense, and his structures stand for philosophical commitment. That intensity and integrity are the source of a power which transcends the exactitude of arguments or invulnerability of positions. 

There is finally one other way—and this brings us to the heart of things, to the formal ordering of the work and its consequences for the cinema at large. We can begin to think of Eisenstein and Brakhage as engaged in enterprises that are comparable; each man undertaking to reassess the past, reclaiming those impulses and strategies which seem to hold promise for the future and devoting the totality of his energies to their radicalization


Eisenstein thought and wrote a great deal about American film and his involvement with it. When young, he loved the Pearl White serials, Fairbanks’ Mark of Zorro, and speaks of them as having been “exciting for their possibilities”11 in a manner which recalls Godard’s taste for Monogram’s Series B. In Dickens, Griffith and The Film Today he is at pains to make clear his debt to Griffith. Speaking, however, for ”our cinema [as] neither a poor relative nor an insolvent debtor of his," he defines the task of Soviet film makers as a systematization, a conversion of the limited, empirical use of montage into something stronger, more complex, more cogent. Eisenstein’s proposal of the dialectic in filmic form is the finest expression of a more general theorization of the medium, of a full acceptance of its synthetic nature, typical of the early Soviet period. 

Analyzing Griffith, Eisenstein discusses the manner in which parallel editing reflects the structure of bourgeois society itself, inferring that montage can be other, can be dialectical, an agent of dialectical consciousness. Eisenstein saw that a radicalization of the techniques and applications of parallel editing was required, and took it as his task, extending the dialectic of montage to every level of film, creating films conceived as moments in the development of historical consciousness as well as that of filmic consciousness. Generally, Eisenstein’s films are seen as historical; somewhat loosely, they tend to be described as “epic” in style. This is a term I should like to consider. 

Erich Auerbach, preparing to define the qualities of epic style in Homer, cites in the first chapter of Mimesis the celebrated excursus which interrupts the account of Ulysses’ encounter, on his return home, with Euryclea, the housekeeper, and the circumstances surrounding the infliction of an ancient scar upon his neck, perceived by her with a start of recognition while washing his feet. The incidents are recalled in a leisurely manner; indeed, as we are told, more than 70 verses are given to the digression, preceded, then followed, by 40 on each side. The interruption 

comes just at the point when Euryclea recognizes the scar—that is, at the moment of crisis . . . and all is narrated again with such a complete externalisation of all the elements of the story and of their interconnections as to leave nothing in obscurity .. .. Not until then does the narrator return to Penelope’s chamber; not until then, the digression having run its course, does Euryclea, who had recognized the scar before the digression began, let Odysseus’ foot fall back into the basin.12 

Auerbach then goes on to say that “the first thought of a modern reader—that this is a device to increase suspense—is, if not wholly wrong, at least not the essential explanation of this Homeric procedure.” He then makes clear that the effect is rather “to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalised, it conforms to a basic impulse of the Homeric style: to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts.” He adds that one’s sense of the presentness of what is happening eliminates everything else from the stage, filling the reader’s mind entirely, conjuring away any intimation of that which is not there, then present. 

I will suggest that Eisenstein developed through the radicalization of montage a style which we can indeed now see as grounded deeply and specifically in the Homeric form here described. And he came not unprepared for this task as the student of both Meyerhold and of Kuleshov. 

Looking at the sets for the great Meyerhold productions of the biomechanical period—at the set for The Magnificent Cuckold, for example—one reads in it the utter impossibility of the hidden, internalized, discreet, subtly evocative, shaded action. It provides no place for casual or imprecisely articulated gestures. You cannot dawdle, hesitate, lounge, meditate, or reflect in it. You can stride, bounce, slide, jump, solicited by a set that is a machine for action. Nothing, neither action, attitude—nor even, of course, the stage machinery itself—is hidden. And to project, to externalize temporality itself, a colored wheel turns, its revolutions making visible the passage of time. This theater was Eisenstein’s theater, its style his own, and it instructed him in the uses of complete and equal intensity of externalization, in the techniques of rendering visible and palpable.

The utter plasticity afforded by montage, the extension beyond the conventions of parallel editing as proposed by Griffith, he learned, as others did, through Kuleshov. He was aware that acceptance of the radically synthetic possibilities inherent in the editing process could not only synthesize disparate spaces, objects, but could also be used to contract and distend the temporality of film and in so doing create radically new spatiotemporal objects of apprehension. It remained for him to invent for those objects a form and style which could be felt as isomorphic with dialectical process. 

It is at this point, which is to say, during the making of October that he perfects the use of the excursus as a heightening of montage technique in the service of that epic style. Examples abound, but none more powerfully instructs us than the sequence, in the section entitled “The July Days,” of the lifting of the bridge. Protesting crowds have been fired upon by the government forces during a demonstration, and the lifting of the bridge, ordered by the government, cuts off avenues of action and escape to the demonstrators. The sequence is composed of three discrete, related parts: Part I (comprising shots 1 through 62) is an attack on a demonstrator by an officer in the company of bourgeois women; Part II (shots 63 through 102) is the raising of the bridge; Part Ill (shots 103 through 139) gives us the triumph of bourgeois witnesses to the event, drowning copies of Pravda and banners in the river. The middle section, with which we are particularly concerned, represents one of the most radically interruptive sequences in Eisenstein’s work. Uniquely powerful in its conjunction of metaphoric, dramatic, and formal functions, it expands in a great deccelerando between the explosive rhythms of Parts I and 111, its distending excruciation intensified by the symmetrical contrast of their rapid and percussive violence. 

Opening the bridge, Eisenstein opens, as well, a vast wedge of time within the flow or progress of action. A girl has died upon that bridge, and she lies, her long hair loosened, upon a junction of its splitting surface, as the angles of vision, the distances from which we perceive her corpse, are multiplied. In eight shots, their lengths averaging at 25 frames, 13 she appears in view. A horse and carriage dangle in counterweight at extravagant height from the center of the opening bridge, as it slowly, inexorably swings open. The bridge’s rising and stationary sides are given as vantage points; the horse is seen from the rising side and from below in tilt at angles which progressively intensify its dizzying ride in air. We see the carriage dangling, from below, at the rising bridge’s summit, then from the open side in still another position. The movement of horse and carriage, of the girl’s loosened hair, dangling and gliding, are testimony to the absolute, unalterable authority presiding over this massacre. 

A reordering of chronology begins to appear within the sequence. Shots are repeated; a shot will be followed by another unquestionably representing an earlier point in time of the recorded action. Thus the girl appears, with head and torso both visible after her head has been seen in a previously placed shot, to pass out of the frame. We infer a rising of the bridge beyond the point of our experience of it. Again and again she reappears, in a complex intercutting with shots of the bridge’s rising, its girders. Her hair slips finally free into the growing gap; the slow progress of movement is reinforced in its slowness by the distension of slow motion. 

Eisenstein renders, in the repetition and variation of this sequence the gaze of fascination and analysis joined in the full disclosure of an action in its multiplicity of aspects and of moments. He reorders the action through a temporal staggering and a spatial dislocation which suspend that action, recomposing its progress into a distended present moment. The movement of the bridge is subjected to a disjunctive, analytic process; it opens, closes and then opens back upon itself. The movement forward and then back in time suspends the action in an abeyance of time’s passing, investing the sequence with the fullness of the present. Detailed views of the bridge’s underpinnings, the slow motion of the girders are seen in characteristic compositional oppositions of movement within the shot, antithetical camera movements which slowly recompose not only the complex architecture of the bridge, but, as we very gradually perceive, the space of the far shore, effecting a dislocation of the horizon line, wresting the shore from its narrative location, its spatial function, proposing, as the horizon slips into diagonality, a space that flattens into inaccessibility. 

What are the further effects of the particular strategies of the bridge sequence? As action is subjected to the extensive analytic reordering, when a multiplicity of angles and positions of movements and aspects alters the temporal flow of the event and of the surrounding narrative structure, the disjunctive relations of its constituents are proclaimed, soliciting a particular kind of attention, and the making of inferences as to spatial and temporal order, adjustments of perception. And the inferences, the adjustments thus solicited reinforce the visibility of things, make for a particular kind of clarity. The visibility afforded by this particular excursus is created by the refinement and complexity of the editing which creates it. Eisenstein gives us within this insertion another complex of insertions that intensify our sense of temporal flow in abeyance, conferring upon the sequence (and upon a film which makes other, ample use of the retarding technique) something we may call the momentousness of the epic style. 

Eisenstein, then, is proposing in the unity of his filmic innovation a radical renewal of two specific traditional strategies of narrative form: the excursus or retard of epic style and the editing style of Griffith. We know, of course, that he was not alone among his contemporaries in so doing. Brecht’s theater and theory are the most consequential parallel effort in this direction, and it is helpful to recall the major features of that effort as described by Walter Benjamin.14 The epic theater, then, is primarily a “theater of gesture, sharply delineated, frequently interrupted.” Its style is grounded “not in reproduction of events but rather in their disclosure.” It seizes, then, upon the technique of interruption as the means of “making action clearer.” Gesture is interrupted by action, but by placards, songs, and commentary as well. It is a theater primarily philosophical (analytic) rather than religious (empathic) in impulse. Its best subjects tend to be those familiar in advance to its audience, because they can be subjected to the dialectical exploration of the relation between object (or action) and its means of representation. Historical subjects are therefore privileged in epic theater. 

It is essential to realize that Eisenstein’s epic plasticity and clarity greatly depend upon the fostering of the spectator’s sense of disjunction between shots, angles, movements, and, in some cases, light sources. The distended moment, the retarding sequence is experienced as unfolding, as a laying out before one, fold by fold, of a fabric that is the event. Or to put it differently, momentousness is the result of an additive, cumulative sequence, the unity of constituents sensed, however obscurely, as discrete. 

Kerensky’s climb to power, figured in the ascent of an almost never-ending staircase, is dependent for its effect upon our experience of a continuity of action which seems to exceed the limits of the actor’s field of physical action, suggesting to us as we view it that the action is a trope, called into being by extension, repetition, a splicing which extends its time and space. Kerensky’s moment of final access to power, figured in the reception by the lackeys of the Romanoffs and his crossing of the threshold into the Czar’s apartments, offers another intensive use of the retard. Seen in medium shot from the back, gloves in hand, then in close-up of his booted feet, Kerensky’s hesitation is extended by three shots of the lackeys’ faces, a shot of official insignia, of officers standing at attention, two close-ups of them, the head of a bronze peacock, its feet. Then once again, Kerensky seen from the back, gloves in hand, the peacock’s head, again, two shots of the bronze mechanical bird’s tail in a movement of spread, its head, the spread of tail feathers. Once again we see Kerensky from the back, again with gloves in hand, then the spread of feathers, the officers, the peacock turning, in close-up, followed only now by the doors beginning to open 35 before Kerensky. Once more the bird’s tail is seen, the doors open, once more the bird, now seen to have a fettered claw. We see that fettered, padlocked claw again in close-up and Kerensky only now enters the doors which have opened—without closing—three separate times in the quick succession of visual stutter. 

This sequence is followed by the creation of the people’s army—that vast and complex undertaking—figured in the assemblage of a single rifle for use in military drill. The temporal distension and compression are subtended by one’s awareness of the shots as discrete and of the manner in which they are articulated within a whole. Eisenstein speaks at one point of the percussive effect of montage as providing a kind of mot or impulse that drives the film ahead, proceeding, as Benjamin remarks of Epic theater, through a series of jolts. Thus, in The General Line, the celebrated sequence of the cream separator derives its power from Eisenstein’s violation of the conventions regulating degree of change in angle for the photographing of still objects, subverting the visual flow and continuity guaranteed by those conventions. In all cases, the disjunctiveness of the filmic event refers one back to its ordering process, so that when one turns from the experience of those events to the texts which serve to generate and explicate them, one discovers with a start of recognition the following statement: 

The juxtaposition of these partial details in a given montage construction calls to life and forces into the light that general quality in which each detail has participated and which binds together all the details into a whole, namely into that generalized image wherein the creator, followed by the spectator experiences the theme.

The strength of montage resides in this, that it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator. The spectator is compelled to proceed along the self-same creative road that the author traveled in creating the image. The spectator not only sees the represented elements of the finished work, but also experiences the dynamic process of the emergence and assembly of the image just as it was experienced by the author. And this is, obviously, the highest possible degree of approximation to transmitting visually the author’s perceptions and intention in all their fullness, transmitting them ‘with that strength of physical palpability’ with which they arose before the author in his creative work and his creative vision.15 

Eisenstein then goes on to suggest the relevance to this consideration of Marx’s definition of “the course of genuine investigation”: 

Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of the truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjunct members of which unite in the result. 


Eliot once remarked, in a phrase I can neither quote nor locate exactly, that we know more than the artists of the past and that they are precisely what we know. Eisenstein was part of the past Brakhage came to know as a young film maker beginning his work in the early 1950s. That knowledge was, however, mediated by the use of Eisenstein’s work made by Brakhage’s lonely predecessors, the American Independents of the postwar period, and most particularly by the work and theory of Maya Deren. 

Deren worked and argued for a “lyrical” film, positing its “vertical” structure and ultimately its disjunctiveness, as against the “horizontality” or linearity of narrative development. She thereby claimed for film the stylistic polarities which Jakobson, formulating the basic structural attributes of speech through an analysis of its disorders in aphasia, has proposed in the metonymic and metaphoric modes. Deren’s work extends the extraordinary intuition with which Cocteau had seized upon the primary Eisensteinian impulse. Inserting within the literally split (spliced) instant of a tower’s crash, a poet’s odyssey of self-discovery, he had pushed the strategy of disjunction to that point at which its analytic function dissolved. He had, moreover, in the most nakedly autobiographical of films, inverted the direction of Eisensteinian energy, reinstating the Self as subject, multiplying the modes of its appearance—in mask, signature, voice-over, tableaux, auto biographical incident and allusion—substituting that multiplicity of apparitional modes for the disjunction of the given event. He pays homage, in his opening address to the spectator, to Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Andre del Castagna, as painters of coats of arms and enigmas, implicitly enjoining us to decipher or read the film as a text. He is, of course, paying homage to the development of perspective in Renaissance painting, and one is therefore not surprised to read, in his Postscript to the published script of Blood of a Poet,16 of his reluctance to “deform” space. Fearing, no doubt, the Caligarisme which was his film world’s name for its form of a more general, French detestation of expressionism, he confines himself to manipulating the time of action while attempting to respect its spatial integrity. The result is an important film, an engaging hybrid, and a work of particular consequence for young Americans in the ’40s and ’50s to whom the major works in the Surrealist tradition were still largely unfamiliar. 

Deren, arguing for her personal, “vertical,” “lyric” film, was to work in a direction which reversed Cocteau’s. Rather than splice a moment of time in to which she could insert the integrality of a film, she attempted to work with the single moment, distending it into a filmic structure of exquisite ambiguity underwritten by the braver spatial strategies that came perhaps more easily to the developed kinetic sense of one who had been trained as a dancer.

It was left for Stan Brakhage to radicalize this revision of filmic temporality in positing the sense of a continuous present, of a filmic time which devours memory and expectation in the presentation of presentness. To do this one had, of course, to destroy the spatiotemporal coordinates in terms of which past and present events define themselves as taking place in time. The assault of Brakhage upon the space of representation then, brings the fin al dissolution of that spatial integrity which Cocteau, neoclassicist that he was, had been at pains to preserve. And it is, of course, at this point that Brakhage moves into the climate of expressionism, pushing the abstractive process, contracting the depth of the visual field, to the point where he dissolves the spatiality of narrative. In so doing he redefines time as purely that of sight, the time of appearance. He replaces the filmic scene of action by the screen of eidetic imagery, projecting the nature of sight itself as the subject of the cinema. His editing style, at once assertive and fluid, creates that “convergence of a hundred spaces” which Klee had called for and which only a radically redefined temporality could provide. It is in that strict sense Utopian.

Slow motion, the anamorphic lens, the superimposition which contracts space and arrests temporal flow, extreme close-up, change of focus, the out-of-focus shot, the use of leader, the inversion of images, the sensed rhythm of the body in the camera movement, the violent contrast of volumetric and flat areas, the rapid flash-pan, the painting and scratching of the surface, and the affirmation of the grain of film begin to compose an inventory of personal strategies. Wonder Ring, a film of the Third Avenue El shot in 1955 for Joseph Cornell, must have served a crucially educative purpose. For the movement of the train itself, the framing of its windows, the reflective surfaces of both windows and doors, the distortions produced by un evenness in those surfaces, all propose a composite inventory of the resources in the camera itself. Dispersed throughout the structure and the trajectory of the elevated railway, they are reassembled, as it were, and the sequence of formal strategies available is discovered as the course of a journey.

It is, however, in Anticipation of the Night—still tied, ever so tenuously, to the narrative theme of suicide contemplated—that Brakhage reaches the threshold of his major innovations. This film is, in a way, his October. In it his distinctive editing style will emerge. If Eisenstein’s cinema of intellection depends up on the unity of the disjunct, sensed as disjunct, the cinema of sight will be, from this point on, in comparably fluid. It will be, as well, the cinema of the hypnagogic consciousness aspiring to a rendering of a totally unmediated vision, eluding analytic grasp.

It is suggested by Sartre that the hypnagogic consciousness is the consciousness of “fascination.”

This does not mean, in fact, that consciousness is not fully centered on its object; but not in the manner of attention. What is lacking being precisely a contemplative power of consciousness, a certain way of keeping oneself at a distance from one’s images, from one’s own thoughts and solo permit them their own logical development, instead of depositing upon them all of one’s own weight, of throwing oneself in to the balance, of being judge and accused, of using one’s own power to make a synthesis of whatever sort with no matter what. A coach appeared before me which was the categorical imperative. Here we see the fascinated consciousness: it produces an image of a carriage in the midst of thinking about Kantian morality. . . . 17

It is, of course, precisely this fascinated state of consciousness, the depositing up on them of all one’s own weight, throwing one’s self into the balance which Brakhage introduces as the pivotal principle of his cinema. In so doing he develops a theory of Vision and a cinematic style, both irreducibly, intransigently critical of all conventions—and most immediately those of Renaissance spatial logic, and of perspectival codes. The cinema of the hypnagogic consciousness, of the image, inaccessible to analysis, devours in its constant renewal both memory and expectation, projecting that “continuous present” which Brakhage had sensed as Gertrude Stein’s great and particular lesson for him. The agents of its sustained instantaneity are camera movement, light, and the editing process itself. In Anticipation, then, Brakhage’s shadow hovers over light emerging through door and window, the brilliance of car lights streaks through the black night, a garden is seen as light reflected from its green, a rainbow forms in the water of a garden hose. In the dark of night, the complex play of lights animating an amusement park move, spinning, circling, whirling, in a space of infinite depth and total ambiguity. The camera moves with and against light. An image is reversed, and that movement of reversal flattens, transforms the space of the garden in the image. Pans, shot away from the light, from within the park’s ride, send light careening across the screen and into the obscurity of its surface. The camera gains from that obscurity the ability to reverse the reality of its own movement into the illusion of the object’s motion, so that a moon and a temple like structure are seen in pans to streak across the screen.

In this film we see as well Brakhage’s editing style reach maturity. Its fluidity almost belies its total sovereignty. The cuts are many and quick (Brakhage in his mature work also makes great use of the fade), but—and this is Brakhage’s point of dialectical intensity—they are fused by a camera movement sustained over cuts. Disparate images (car lights and a boy in a garden, for example) are united by movement or direction either repeated or sustained through the cut. Disparate spaces are unified in a consistent flattening or obscuring of spatial coordinates and that unity is intensified by the synthetic effect of continuous movement produced in editing.

Brakhage has moved, then, through the climate and space of Abstract Expressionism, severing every tie to that space of action which Eisenstein’s montage had transformed in to the space of dialectical consciousness. Brakhage posits optical space as the “uncorrupted” dwelling of the Imagination which constitutes it. Dissolving the distance and resolving the disjunction Eisenstein had adopted as the necessary conditions for cinema’s cognitive function, he proposes, as the paradigm of contemporary montage style, an alternative to Intellectual Cinema: the Cinema of Vision.

Annette Michelson



1. T. S. Eliot, "Tradition, and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays, New York, 1932, pp. 4–5.

2. Sergei Eisenstein, “Through Theatre to Cinema,” Film Form, New York, 1949, p. 14.

3. Vladimir Tatlin, “On Zangezi,” Catalogue of the Vladimir Tatlin Exhibition, trans. Troels Anderson and Keith Bradfield, Modern a Museet, Stockholm, 1968, p. 69.

4. Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1969, p. 75.

5. Eisenstein, “Through Theatre to Cinema,” p. 16.

6. Viktor Shklovsky, Once Upon a Time, Memoirs and Notes, Moscow, 1966, p. 447.

7. Reprinted with an editor’s note by Jay Leyda in the first direct translation into English from the original Russian text, as Appendix A to his English edition of Film Form, pp. 257–260.

8. Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, Toward a Philosophical Biology, New York, 1966, pp. 135–156.

9. Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company, A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Ithaca, New York, p. 30.

10. Quoted by Stan Brakhage in a letter of November, 19 72, to Hollis Frampton. Source is not given.

11. Eisenstein, Film Form, p. 204.

12. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 4.

13. I am indebted to Phoebe Cohen for a frame count prepared as part of a research project undertaken for a seminar in Soviet Film at New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies.

14. Walter Henjamin, Essais Sur Bertolt Brecht, trans. Paul Laveau, Paris, 1969, pp. 1–37, p. 82.

15. Eisenstein, Film Sense, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda, New York, 1949, p. 82.

16. Jean Cocteau, Blood of a Poet, in Two Screenplays, trans. Carol Marlin-Sprccy, New York, 1957.

17. Jean Paul Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination, trans. Bernard Frechtman, New York, 1966, p. 57.