PRINT January 1973

Stan Brakhage: Four Films

THERE IS A SMALL ANECDOTE in circulation concerning Stan Brakhage and his first confrontation with Andy Warhol’s “long-take” films of the early sixties. Brakhage arrived in New York one day, curious and somewhat irritated by the critical praise these films had received at the hands of Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice. He requested from Mekas a private screening of the work in question and, this promptly accomplished, retired to a room with a projector, only to emerge several hours later—tired but more enraged than before, denouncing the flurry of critical revelation occasioned by films such as Eat and Kiss. Mekas asked whether he had projected them at 16 frames per second. He had viewed them at 24. Then this, Mekas surmised, must be the source of his difficulty and he directed Brakhage to go back and run them at the slower speed. More time elapsed and Brakhage retumed, totally exhausted but calmer this time, and announced that, yes, now he understood what the fuss was about, what was at stake in these static films.

This story, although far from achieving mythic proportion, maintains an interest on two levels. First, it does illustrate the critical view of Brakhage and Warhol as the formal poles within which and against which the “structural cinema” of the last six years has developed. More importantly, I believe, Brakhage’s resentment can be at least partially accounted for by Warhol’s detached and parodistic implementation of certain devices which are significant in Brakhage’s overall esthetic.

That Brakhage might perceive a shared concern in the work of a sensibility quite unlike his own—given the voracious comprehensiveness of his technical and formal visual operations—or that he might find the experience unsettling is hardly a matter for surprise. What is surprising is that Brakhage’s gigantic effort has been almost totally subsumed by P. Adams Sitney, one of his principal exegetes, under two primary critical categories: “lyricism” and “mythopoeia.” It is worthwhile examining the constituents and implications of these terms before suggesting a divergent, though by no means exclusive, direction in his work.

As applied to Brakhage’s films, the concept of “lyricism” is employed to elucidate the optically mimetic qualities of camera movement, editing, superimposition, and color tonality. Its most concise definition appears in an essay of Sitney’s:

(It is) the cinema of direct seeing, which postulates a film-maker behind the camera. We no longer have the meditation of character in the film; instead of a protagonist, we have a screen filled with movement which expresses the idea of a man looking at something . . . It is the poetic postulation of the I, the first person.1

For Brakhage himself, this notion of “direct seeing” becomes capable of embodying not only modes of perception but the intricate rhythms of the circulatory and central nervous systems:

I took images as I could, according to feeling. So that as I’ve trained myself to hold this camera so that it will reflect the trembling or the feeling of any part of the body; so that it is an extension, so that this becomes a thing to gather the light . . . 2

This positing of a morphological relationship between physiology and shooting style finds support in the work of other film makers in the lyrical tradition; in Mekas’ Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, the rapid blink and nervous hand gestures of the artist find direct expression in the techniques of single frame exposure and quick, jerky panning movements. This formulation also figures the analogy—that Charles Boultenhouse was the first to detect3—between cinematic lyricism and the methodology of Abstract Expression ism. Thus this term becomes a nexus for painterly as well as poetic and musical correlatives (Jerome Hill refers to the 23rd Psalm Branch as an “extended rhapsodic tone poem of epic proportions”).4

Sitney locates the period of Brakhage’s lyricism from 1958 through the early sixties and states that it evolves into the form of mythopoeia: “A mythopoetic film does not refer to a specific myth; it does not compare traditional myths, but assumes the mythic structure, attempts to create a mythic image, to make an old myth new, or to make a completely new myth.”5 In tracing its general evolution in the avant-garde film, Sitney asserts that:

What took place between 1950 and 1960 was the growth of a form which could contain many simultaneous characters, episodes, and fantastic changes of space; a comparative cinema, with symphonic organization of parts into a grand, mythopoetic whole. I’ve called this elsewhere the exchange from a cinema of conjunction to a cinema of metaphor.6

The existence of “metaphor” referred to above is primarily located in terms of explicit constructions, that is, on the level of image-to-image comparison, whether those images occur simultaneously in a single field (by means of superimposition) or are temporally distinct. The burden of critical elaboration then hinges on the recognition and isolation of sets of characteristics shared by successive images. Sitney astutely acknowledges the presence of implicit metaphor, where an image through its shape or rhythm, directs a correspondence, usually of a cinematically reflexive nature, with an unseen object or process. But this construction is subsidiary in mythopoetic film. Thus images, apart from their purely sensual qualities, are always imbued with potential meaning, with an expectancy of completion by other images. They perform a generative as opposed to an isotropic function: “In each image, several themes find their beginning, middle, or end.”7 Here is a passage from Sitney’s explication of Dog Star Man, Part I, “Planets become clouds, which sweep in fast motion from the Rocky Mountains. Fire swallows itself (backwards motion) . . . later becoming the white disk of the sun.”8

Fred Camper, writing in Film Culture on 23rd Psalm Branch, asserts:

Brakhage’s meaning enters the frame at the level of seeing, of perceiving. It is only by following all the visual patterns of his films that we can hope to ‘see’ along with him. By the time of 23rd Psalm Branch Brakhage’s method of seeing has become so fused with his vision that the way he renders objects visually can suggest whole complexes of abstract ideas.9

Attempts at “following visual patterns” are complicated by a whole series of formal obfuscations: layering of images through superimposition, the use of filters, anamorphic lenses, scratching or painting directly on the film surface, very light and very dim exposures, soft focus. The issue of recognizability of objects in the frame constantly informs, or provides the impetus for, critical elaboration. In an article on The Art of Vision, Camper explains that “he films his objects so as to violate the possibility of the viewer making any connection with his direct experience. One cannot understand Brakhage in terms of what you see, or the way you view the world . . .”10

The critical vocabulary here, as elsewhere, is geared to an analytical style, both in the sense of Brakhage’s creation of a synthetic field by means of comparative spatial or physical entities, and in the sense of accounting for individual distortions in terms of different modes of the film maker’s perception. The basic principle of organization is held to be one of multiplicity and, insofar as the overriding structure of a given piece is discerned, this process takes place only after the viewing experience has ended (indeed, only after repeated viewings of the same film). These elements are essentially coextensive with those embrace d in the concept of “vertical construction” and are implied by Ken Kelman’s and Sitney’s use of the phrase “total architecture” or “total techtonic.”11 Furthermore, this criticism celebrates Brakhage’s creation of an image system freed from the constraints of a temporal or spatial continuum, a universe which can exist only in the imagination:

He has completely rejected continuity of space or time; that is, a real spacial dimension does not exist in his films and events do not follow each other with relation to any time sequence.12

The literature on Brakhage, whether or not it starts with an assumption of “lyricism” or “mythopoeia,” seems to stress not only the intensive editing but also the use of the film strip, and thus of the photographed image, as raw material to be stacked, scraped, dyed, and painted on in the effort to render visible a subjective consciousness. Yet there are Brakhage films which operate outside of these descriptive and formal strategies, and their divergent nature can be sensed in this curiously proscriptive passage by P. Adams Sitney: “In Lovemaking the lyrical eye lacks the intensity of the earlier ‘witnessed’ films . . . and above all the essential fiction, the positing of the film-maker’s relation to the material, his reaction and commitment, is entirely lacking.”13 The tone here is somewhat reminiscent of the mixed critical reception that greeted Brakhage’s “Pittsburgh Trilogy” (1971–1972) (eyes, Deus Ex, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes): films edited for the most part in the camera, consisting of a significantly small number of shots, and devoid of most of the expressive techniques enumerated above. These films (and several others completed at around the same time, such as Angels’ and Door) elicited the suggestion of a radical departure in the film maker’s work. It is possible that they are merely extensions or elaborations of certain concerns evident as early as The Wonder Ring in 1955.

There are several levels at which the evolution of Brakhage’s career may be considered as a dialectic. His use of scale presents the clearest case: Song 14 (1965) is 3 minutes long, Song 15 (1965) is 75 minutes in length, The Art of Vision lasts 4 1/2 hours. He has worked in both 8mm and 16mm and within a single work, Dog Star Man, has conjoined photographed microscopy and images of solar eruptions virtually within a single frame. A more complex area of investigation is proposed by a group of films spanning a period of more than ten years which chart a set of perceptual explorations apposite to those encountered in the bulk of Brakhage’s work. Four films have been chosen to illustrate that direction.

The Wonder Ring, Sirius Remembered (1959), Song 13 (1965), and Fire of Waters (1965) exhibit an extraordinary cohesiveness, not of style, but of shape and internal spatial representation. All four describe or give the impression of describing a unitary field, adhering to natural laws of continuity. All four describe dramatic oscillations in depth between the shallow, often defocused space characteristic of mythopoetic film and a deeper space more congruent with the demands of narrative. Indeed, quasilinear or monolinear organization, partially imposed by the nature of the events photographed, is a shared proclivity. Rhythms, rather than being dictated from the outside by musical structures, are derived (with the exception of Sirius Remembered) from the chance movement of objects within the frame or the pattern of variations in lighting. Although both Sirius Remembered and Fire of Waters are closely edited works, there is a paucity of image-to-image comparison; more generally, there is an underlying reduction or simplification of cinematic devices, and consequently an affirmation of the undistorted photographic image. Finally, the presence of metaphor in these films is almost uniformly implicit; the tendency is for objects or entire filmic movements to pose broad conceits that demonstrate either properties of mechanical image formation or optical qualities of perception.

The most inclusive of these conceits is found in The Wonder Ring. Made on a theme suggested by Joseph Cornell (who later appropriated the work by running it backward and upside down with the title Gnir Rednow), the film is a kind of excursion on the old Third Avenue El in New York, that becomes an essay on light sources, reflective surfaces, and perspective planes. It begins with a static long shot (virtually the only static shot in this four-minute film) of a covered stairway leading to a platform seen in silhouette. Sunlight illuminates the pinkish tiles of the roof. The second shot consists of a tilt (the only pronounced vertical movement of the film) up darkly lit steps, inscribed at regular intervals with yellow squares of light emanating from offscreen windows. This shot, which begins in medium close-up, starts to open up a deep corridor of space, then terminates in the completely darkened, therefore flat, entranceway. What follows is a right-to-left pan of the waiting room which traverses brown woodwork, a round brightly lit stained-glass window, and a yellow shaded light bulb dangling from the ceiling, coming to rest momentarily on a glass door through which the outside platform is visible in recessive depth. A faint reflection off the door appears in the lower center of the frame. A pattern is initiated which directs our awareness to different types of light sources, to framing objects which give shape to or color the light, and to transparent or semitransparent surfaces that reflect spatially disparate planes. In successive shots, tinted windows of mint green, orange, and maroon are visible at close proximity to the camera. We see the light bulb and a shot of the tracks again. In the tenth shot, which begins with a view of the tracks and platform beyond, an object (which is quickly identified as a train) rushes across the frame from left to right. It momentarily obliterates the previous space and restores it through the frames of passing train windows. This constitutes a wonderfully ironic reversal of the persistence of vision phenomenon in that the windows assume the basic shape of successive film frames through which the figures of passengers standing on the opposite platform remain motionless.

After three more shots, the cameraman boards a train and the references to the physical medium are expanded. Through a window in this perpetually moving vehicle, rows of windows fixed in the facades of apartment buildings take on the aspect of a film strip. Individual windows either reflect buildings from the opposite side of the street or open into the shallow depth of a room. Architecture passes from sunlight into shadow, from medium shots into long diagonal shots down intersecting streets. Color is muted by shadow, then reemerges in intense sunlight. At times, steel girders interrupt our perception of depth but at this point the field is ostensibly homogeneous. A shot, taken back on the platform, pans to a glass door. This time, the well delineated figure of a man in a suit and hat crosses the window in reflection. Due to imperfections in the texture of the glass, and the acute camera angle, the image ripples as in a distorting mirror. This sets up a number of shots taken inside the train in which the camera is placed at an angle from the window, and the passing architecture is seen to waver, its representational quality altered by “natural” means. Here one must stress that there seems to be no mechanical superimposition employed. he immensely complex system of reflections that make up the final portion of the film is simply “observed” by Brakhage and his recording instrument.

At the point where the layering of reflections begins, it is possible for the viewer to construct a mental space in which all the planes can exist simultaneously by ascribing spatial coordinates to each reflection in relation to camera position: behind and to the left, outside and across the street, etc. As this effort becomes increasingly complicated by trains passing in the opposite direction with their own sets of windows and reflections, it is abandoned in favor of a perception of the field as a shallow sea of moving shape and color. Perspective is dissolved by the effects of velocity, threatens reinstatement when a dark mass reduces the play of light on glass surfaces, then is suppressed by the round face of a woman floating by in a sky blue haze. In the final seconds, the field is totally eclipsed, first by darkness, then by very bright sunlight. In the first image, several small rectangles of light flash by in a pattern that suggests the arrangement of sprocket holes. In the second, the train window is illuminated in a way that reveals a heavy residue of dirt and water streaks previously invisible, on the mediating surface. This is an unequivocal reference to the camera lens, to the tendency in normative vision to look “through” rather than “with” transparent objects. (Brakhage repeatedly uses windows in the early films to convey entrance into the world, either by way of camera aperture or vagina as in Window Water Baby Moving.) The Wonder Ring indicates an essentially passive (in filmic terms) model for deemphasized perspective, one dependent on the chance accumulation of spatially disjunctive planes and the capacity of the camera apparatus to replicate that situation.

In Sirius Remembered, a study of a dead dog in various stages of decomposition, Brakhage resorts to a different strategy, that of constant rapid camera movement to achieve a holistic structure. The combination of hyperkinetic panning and a highly ordered, rhythmical editing style proposes the film as a paradigm of lyricism. And Brakhage, in an interview printed in “Metaphors on Vision” lays the groundwork for such a reading:

. . . every time I went to photograph that body: 1) I was trying to bring it back to life by putting it in movement again; 2) I was uprighting it by taking the camera at an angle that tended to make the dog’s image upright on the screen; 3) (which was really significant) Jane had often watched dogs do a strange dance around dead bodies not only of their own species but of others. (It’s like a round dance: the dogs, individually or in a pack, often will circle a dead body and then rub the neck very sensually all along the corpse perfuming themselves from the stench of decomposition.) Those were literally the kinds of movements with which I was involved in making Sirius Remembered without realizing it.14

A single portion of a wooded landscape with the dog as its central feature is examined over a period of two distinct seasons through variations in film stock and light exposure. The tonality is predominantly brown and white with some evidence of a very pale blue and three short bursts of the dog’s red eye. The dichromatic scheme aids in binding together the intermittent use of fades, dissolves, and superimpositions; there are many instances in which the image to either side of these devices remains essentially the same in composition and subject. Flash pans overlap and intersect one another giving the sense of minute changes in trajectory, focal length, or exposure. Thus, once the parameters of the physical space are established, and this occurs almost immediately, there is little necessity of “reading” in an image-to-image fashion. With the exception of the brief appearances of the eye and the initial shot of the dog’s decaying muzzle, involvement in the film takes a purely visual (and rhythmic) form. Although the location of the body within the frame or the identification of individual parts of the body being photographed is often difficult, this predicament is related to the animal’s integration, his absorption into the environment. This process is echoed in Brakhage’s use of visible splice bars as formal analogues to the tree branches and weeds.

In the middle section of the film, short metric lengths of clear leader are inserted between brightly exposed pans of the now snow-covered field, causing some retinal superimposition, and above all, emphasizing the physical dimensionality of the viewing screen. These sequences, despite their forceful musical quality, are intelligible as formal manifestations of the winter sky or the effects of snow blindness, and as such are derived organically from space as photographed. In the coda to Sirius Remembered, Brakhage recapitulates the varying stages of decay through mechanical superimposition. But due to the fact that the fused material is a known quantity and that the composition in each layer is similar, the temporal simultaneity achieved is reduced in its comparative force to a state of rhyme. An event is examined in its spatial and temporal context, not for the wealth of ramifications or associations it engenders but for its possibility of being reconstituted, through increments of tonality and texture, into a unitary vision.

While Sirius Remembered collapses depth of field into a flat surface by means of quick, jerking camera movements, Song 13 juggles an intricate concatenation of planes in a more or less constant trucking shot. It is another “train film” and its structure is remarkable in its simplicity : through the window of a passenger car moving right to left, the camera encounters a freight train (probably more than one) moving on a parallel track in the opposite direction. Flashes of landscape are glimpsed in the space separating adjoining cars; words (“Express” “Pennsylvania”) and numbers stencilled on the sides of the freight cars dart past at amazing speed. The film begins with five short shots of an overexposed, greenish-tinted field, very flat with several trees in the far background. These shots are inserted between longer passages of black leader, creating the effect of a flicker. The leader immediately gives way to the brown, orange, and yellow freight cars and, from this point on, the landscape (at times a barbed-wire fence, a house, a grain silo, become visible) intrudes with an irregular rhythm dependent on the height of various cars and the speed of the opposing train. When the cars are in the frame, a shallow, blurred depth with streaks of shadow (due to the corrugated construction of the boxcars) reminiscent of the visible splice bars in Sirius is evident. When the landscape interjects, the depth is radically distended and it is perceived as a still form. In a formulation that can hardly be improved, Guy Davenport, an early commentator on the Songs, maintains that “the other train is doing what the shutter of his camera is doing, and what the gate of the projector will do afterwards.”15 The process of assimilation of consecutive still frames into continuous movements is demonstrated graphically by the structure of the event.

About one third into the film, two more levels of depth emerge. The axis of the camera is shifted imperceptibly, and the engrained surface of the window, bearing an unmistakable reflection of the camera, is observed. This image also occurs in an irregular pattern, well-defined when the boxcars are orange, disappearing altogether in bright flashes of landscape. It is possible for the eye to fix its attention on each of four levels of depth and most often, it darts from one to the other holding the composite in a state of suspension. Each level of depth also corresponds to a different physical aspect of image formation: the object photographed, the shutter which cuts off light, the emulsion grains of the film stock, and the body in which that mechanism is housed.

By the end of the film (which only lasts six minutes), the viewer is led to an awareness wherein all representations of depth are retained simultaneously in an abstracted, undifferentiated space. At this point Brakhage cuts to two shots, each 17 seconds in duration. The first is of a dimly lit tree-lined street taken from the window of a moving automobile. A dark, luxuriant green is dominant, and the trees form vaguely defined shapes which merge with the outlines of the houses. The last shot of the film is an aerial view of clouds whose form is even less solid than that of the trees. Both shots continue the previously established right-to-left camera movement, and each successively decreases in velocity, combining in both form and substance to approximate a “natural” fade-out.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to mention the functional nature of Brakhage’s titles in all three films discussed so far. They consist of words scratched with a sharp instrument onto the surface of individual frames of black leader. Their outlines, therefore, seem to jiggle and bend when projected, reflecting the cellular structure of the film strip and intermittent pulsations of light from the projector.

Fire of Waters commences with black leader and sound. It is the film maker’s last sound film to date16 and it establishes relationships between sound and image, between image and the physical medium, between the processes of that medium and the phenomenology of the viewing situation that are massively intense. It is also a film in which elements of chance inflect perception to a degree unparalleled in previous Brakhage works.

The sound that accompanies the black leader is difficult to describe; it is like a cross between radio static and someone growling. A more salient description would be that of the sound produced by the shaking of a large sheet of aluminum, as with a stage prop simulating thunder. The sound terminates in two or three seconds and the letters of the title appear progressively, scratched out of black leader. Suddenly the outlines of the words seem to explode, tearing away the black surface and leaving blank leader scarred by a random pattern of scrapes and dust motes. This image is understood to be completely flat until a small point of light appears as through a veil, in the upper left-hand portion of the frame, proposing a highly ambiguous depth. The foreground dims slightly, the round light source begins to flicker, and flares, such as those occurring when unexposed film is subjected to a small quantity of direct light, enter the field. Then the screen momentarily is completely dark, followed by the reemergence of two small lights in the lower left and center of the frame.

An initial photographed image is glimpsed in a single-frame shot. Its duration is so minimal that one can do little more than recognize the outline of a rooftop in silhouette. Other images appear, in bursts of one, two, or three frames : trees framed in long shot against a light background, more houses (or perhaps the same house) whose architectural features are in clear focus. In between these shots, the tiny circles or rectangles of light continue to dance in and out of darkness. In the opening seconds of the film, these spots seemed to lie behind a flat, semi translucent surface. Now they begin to imply a more concrete depth—they serve as the only known coordinate in an indeterminate compositional scheme—and one attempts to peer through the darkness to construct a plausible volumetric field out of the scant information assimilated during the flash frames. The eye has a tendency to dart to a place where light appears, now understood as lighted windows or street lamps or car headlights, only to find it gone—its shape popping up in a distant corner of the screen.

It must be noted that the state of conscious ness elicited by this effort is one of unease, of suspense; for the viewer’s visual activity is undercut by the fact that Brakhage only employs black leader in two, or possibly three sequences. More commonly, the dark passages are extremely underexposed footage, and as such contain a prominent texture, an uncertain distribution of light values. The image is inordinately grainy and it is often difficult to distinguish a photographed light source from emanations of dust motes or other surface anomalies. The rapid, pronounced movement of emulsion grains as well, provides a random internal rhythm which complements that of the flickering light shapes and bursts of normatively exposed imagery. Time, in the form of the wear and tear of repeated 44 projections of a single print, overlaps its own network of thin lines and gouges. Editing, photography, the individual film strip and its physical qualities of uniqueness, interact and conspire in an intricate play of rhythm.

In a number of shots, the images of trees or houses are superimposed over small lights which themselves often give the impression of being superimpositions—where a circle screen left seems to emerge from a space disparate to that of a circle screen right. This device reinforces the awareness of limitations in spatial predictions based on notions of “in front” or “behind.”

The shots of photographed imagery are initially accounted for as night shots with lightning illuminating the sky (and there may be one shot of a bolt of lightning but it is probably the face of the moon hidden by dense clouds) and, later, are discovered to be daytime exposures. In any case, they produce slight after-images as they flash out of comparative darkness. Further, they project themselves off the screen into the theater environment, creating a virtual space between eye and screen, and directing our attention to the physical situation of cinematic image reception (as the visibility of grain patterns calls attention to the presence of the flat film strip).

The nature of the sound reflects strategies parallel to those on a visual level. After the artifice of thunder as the film opens, the track is ostensibly blank; that is, there is no recorded sound. What is heard is static and small crackles caused by the strip running over a live sound head in the projector. There is a direct correspondence between the perception of this sound and the perception of grain patterns.

Toward the middle of the film, over black leader, a cello is heard playing three repetitions of three descending notes. It is obvious that the recording was taken from an old, terribly scratched LP for the surface noise is almost as prominent as the tones and thus makes reference to the apparatus of sound reproduction. Following the ninth note, the silhouette of a grain silo intervenes rapidly. Light seeps into a dark field by means of a flare. There is a portion of completely bleached out footage and suddenly, quite distinctly, the edge of a piece of film stock with sprocket holes is seen at a diagonal in the frame. Most likely caused by an error in registration during the printing process, this shot is the first and only explicit manifestation of the physical medium, and the force of its reflexiveness is startling. The ongoing process of calling attention to the single, still frame, is here rendered in almost palpable form.

A scene of a street with telephone lines, several houses, a station wagon, fades into view out of a white field. The shot is held; there is no movement except for a tiny figure walking across a lawn in speeded up motion. Then a straight cut to a second house, with a hazy sky filling the upper two-thirds of the frame; a cut to two houses crouched in trees in long shot with threatening clouds overhead. A light blinks on in the window of a house at the right and this light remains visible as the screen returns to darkness. The duration and clarity of this sequence is proposed as evidence or as an explanation of the highly ambiguous depth of the previous footage.

Rapidly moving circles of light appear next to static rectangles recalling the shape of the sprocket holes. More vague illuminations pass and then a flash of a house in full exposure. The light fluctuates but the house remains. A piercing, ululating sound is heard, its rhythms synchronous with the shifting light exposures. Whether it is a dog squealing in pain or a voice in the midst of orgasm is uncertain. More suggestively it is the sound of a woman in childbirth. This is the third point of intensification in the film; the first was purely audible (the cello ), the second visual (the shots of different houses). The scream rises in pitch. It seems to be breathing life/light into the image or vice-versa, and the image trembles in singleframe exposure. A tiny automobile whizzes past almost imperceptibly. A figure on a bicycle darts down a street. Abruptly sound and image disappear; the film is over. Ten minutes have elapsed.

The reference to childbirth hypostasizes the theme of image formation. Throughout the film, one has the sense of watching the cinematic process in a primal or slowed down form; as if individual particles of light are seen gradually inscribing the substance of an image, (and close inspection reveals that in many of the three or four frame shots, a different exposure is evident in each frame), as if the dark mass of photosensitive emulsion can be seen moving, altering in its tonality and texture. And this awareness has the double edge of image formation as it takes place in the retina—individual receptors reacting to light in the manner of film grain. Although Brakhage has become known through the relentless transgression of his formal devices (the encasing of actual leaves and moth wings between pieces of mylar tape in Mothlight is a hyperbolic example), there is a copresent aspect of regression as well: in his notion of reentering a state of “innocent” vision found in infancy, in his attempts to render the visual sensations of childhood and prenatal existence, and in the recent “Pittsburgh Trilogy,” his return to in-camera editing.

Fire of Waters is a film in the midst of a constant process of conception; film before “narrative,” before “abstraction.” Finally we can offer in a conjunction undoubtedly latent through much of this discussion, Michael Snow’s comment on History, a work by a film maker—Ernie Gehr—whose concerns closely resemble those in Fire of Waters: “At last, the first film!”



1. P. Adams Sitney, “The Idea of Morphology,” Film Culture, No. 53–54–55, Spring, 1972, pp. 11–12.

2. Jonas Mekas, “ Movie Journal,” The Village Voice, January 6, 1966, p. 62.

3. Charles Boultenhouse, “Pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist Film,” Filmwise, No. 1, pp. 26–27.

4. Jerome Hill, “Twenty-third Psalm Branch,” Film Culture, No. 46, Autumn, 1967, p. 14.

5. Sitney, p. 18.

6. Ibid., p. 17.

7. P. Adams Sitney, “Imagism in Four Avant-Garde Films,” Film Culture Reader, New York, 1970, p. 148.

8. Ibid, p. 195.

9. Fred Camper, “ Twenty-third Psalm Branch (Song 23 ),” Film Culture, No. 46, Autumn, 1967, p. 18.

10. Fred Camper, “The Art of Vision," Film Culture, No. 46, Autumn, 1967, p. 42.

11. Sitney, “The Idea of Morphology,” pp. 17–18.

12. Camper, “The Art of Vision,” p. 40.

13. P. Adams Sitney, “The Avant-Garde Film : Stan Brakhage,” Afterimage, No. 2, Autumn, 1970, p. 11.

14. Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision,” Film Culture, Fall, 1963, n.p.

15. Guy Davenport, “Two Essays on Brakhage and his Songs,” Film Culture, No. 40, Spring, 1966, p. 10.

16. The first part of Scenes From Under Childhood (1967–1970) was completed with a soundtrack that Brakhage has since suppressed on the grounds that it was superfluous and that it deflected the viewer’s attention from the visual rhythms.