PRINT September 2008


ONLINE ONLY: Conclusion to P. Adams Sitney's Eyes Upside Down

Conclusion: Perfect Exhilaration

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight,
under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts an
occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a
perfect exhilaration.

—Emerson, Nature

Jonas Mekas, “As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.”  Stills made by Arunas Kulikauskas; reprinted courtesy of Jonas Mekas.

Most of the films discussed in the previous pages present us with peaks of perfect exhilaration, often extended passages in which the filmmaker succeeds in conveying his or her rapture with the moment of taking a shot, the ecstasy of camera or vehicular movement, or the perfection of a sequence of shots falling together in a figure of montage. Inevitably these peaks are shadowed by their deflations, sometimes to the point of despair. In “Experience,” Emerson writes of “the flux of moods,” or alternately of their succession or even “a train of moods like a string of beads,” and each colors or shows “only what lies in its focus.” The characteristic genre I have been examining, the crisis lyric, takes its shape from the rhythmic alternation of these moods in the succession of their shifting of focus. In Ian Hugo’s Bells of Atlantis, Anaïs Nin hyperbolically describes this rhythm when she cries: “When human pain has struck me fiercely, when anger has corroded me, I rise, I always rise after the crucifixion, and I am in terror of my ascensions.” Generally the moments of pain, anger, and terror are not represented directly in these films. Instead, the tropes of montage or the interactions of picture and sound (especially when speech is involved) figure the negative oscillations against which the refreshed vision, or pictorial air, rebounds. In the exhilaration of filmic discovery, the traumatic sources of aesthetic ecstasy may be nearly erased. William Carlos Williams offers a stunning insight into this reversal in his poem “To a Dog Injured in the Street” when the terrible agony of the wounded animal first “brings me to myself with a start.” He recognizes the need to “sing” as a defense against the shock of pain and brilliantly reflects on the pastoral beauty of René Char’s lyrics:

I can do nothing
but sing about it
and so I am assuaged
from my pain.
A drowsy numbness drowns my sense
as if of hemlock
I had drunk. I think
of the poetry
of René Char
and all he must have seen
and suffered
that has brought him
to speak only of
sedgy rivers,
of daffodils and tulips
whose roots they water,
even to the free-flowing river
that laves the rootlets
of those sweet-scented flowers
that people the

The perfect exhilaration of many of the films treated in this book often makes it difficult to capture the subtleties with which their tropes and rhythms assuage occulted pain. In the major cyclic films such articulations often occur between individual films as crucially as within them.

The crisis film employs cinema as an instrument of discovery. The filmmaker comes to understand the nature and shape of the crisis by making the film. The film is a surprise and a revelation even to its maker. I know of no passage in Emerson where he writes of a principle of artistic composition trusting to the influx of reception and eschewing the predeterminations of design, unless it be in “Self-Reliance,” where he proclaims: “let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not.”² However, the ethics of surprise articulated centrally in “Circles” and “Experience” (where he insists “All I know is reception”) suggests an application in poetics that Emerson’s heirs understood. The measure of a work of art would thus be the degree to which it can surprise, and thereby exhilarate, its maker. “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire,” we read at the end of “Circles,” “is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”³ “Experience” identifies the revelation of such surprises as “Power” shooting through “the subterranean and invisible tunnels and channels of life,” and “the vital force supplied from the Eternal,” where “every insight from the realm of thought is felt as initial, and promises a sequel.”⁴

In similar terms, Larry Jordan described the process of making his magnum opus, Sophie’s Place (1983–87), as a serial revelation from the unconscious in which the making of one image promised its sequel:

[W]hen I did the long 90-minute animation called Sophie’s Place . . .
I held strictly to free-association image. When I finished one image,
I had to do the next. The first image suggested itself next. I couldn’t
evaluate it and say, “Oh, I could do something better.” And I found
that coming right out of the unconscious like that, I had more
continuity than any film I’d ever done before. . . . Human beings
conduct their lives from much stronger sources than the rational
mind. Modern psychology is pretty aware that there’s a difference
between the rational mind and another stronger, powerful, larger
mind, more powerful and archaic from which our drives come, and
that’s what impels our lives.⁵

Over nearly forty engraved background plates, Jordan’s cutout figures perform incessant transformations. He actually subtitled the film An Alchemical Autobiography; Transfiguration and Again Transfiguration. By calling it an alchemical autobiography, Jordan seems to be aligning himself with C. G. Jung’s psychological and spiritual readings of alchemical texts, which had considerable influence on American artists once they were translated in the late 1960s. But, perhaps more significantly, he is warning us not to look for the direct unfolding of biographical events in this story of the self, but instead to see an alchemical transformation of that life into an allegory of the temporal progress of his artistic inspiration. In considering the subtitle in this way, I am guided by the model of The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography (1968) by Robert Duncan, one of Jordan’s mentors. For Duncan, essential autobiography means the mystical sources of poetic creativity at work in his writing. In that book he dismissed the psychological implications of free association, to emphasize a poetic process channeling what Emerson called “the vital force supplied from the Eternal”:

The meaning and intent of what it means to be a man and, among
men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both
the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of
mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work
there. . . .

My purpose . . . here has been to give some idea how little a matter
of “free” association and how much a matter of enduring design in
which the actual living consciousness arises, how much a matter of
actual times and actual objects the living reality of the myth is for the
poet. Just these times, just these objects, just these persons come to
mind—at once things-in-themselves and things in ourselves.⁶

Not only does Sophie’s Place provide a paradigm for the transfiguration of autobiographical material into a powerfully sustained revelation of the design immanent in the spontaneous manipulations of collage cutouts, it culminates in my exhilaration and surprise with an image of eyes turning upside down, atop a hot-air balloon voyage, as if unconsciously interweaving two key elements of the scenario from Emerson I have called up again and again in this book. In his astute discussion of the film, Fred Camper wrote:

If Jordan’s film has a “central character,” it is a red-striped balloon,
which frequently has eyes, sometimes a hat. It often travels across other
images, and appears throughout the film, including at the beginning
and the end. Jordan has said that, for him, Sophie’s Place is a spiritual
autobiography, and it is tempting to see the balloon-face as a surrogate
for him and thus, by implication, for the viewer as well, passing as it
does through the film’s world like a spectator at a vast circus.⁷

In the circular structure of the film, the initial tableau of an English garden with mother and child returns. When the balloon-face manifests itself in that landscape, it rotates completely upside-down. With this concluding gesture the filmmaker redescribes the Emersonian mechanics of achieving the “low degree of the sublime” by which we can be “strangely affected,” but he does not essay a mimetic means of inducing it as most of the filmmakers discussed in this book have done (and as Jordan himself had done in other films). The collage animation, together with the incessant series of surprises induced by the filmmaker’s discipline of composition, produces a wondrous pictorial air in the alchemical autobiography. Within it compound images of the balloon perspective and the inverted eyes allegorically represent a route to what Jordan calls “spiritual wisdom” in his note on the film:

A culmination of five years’ work. Full hand-painted cut-out animation.
Totally unplanned, unrehearsed development of scenes under the
camera, yet with more “continuity” than any of my previous animations,
while meditating on some phase of my life. I call it an “alchemical
autobiography.” The film begins in a paradisiacal garden. It then
proceeds to the interior of the Mosque of St. Sophia. More and more
the film develops into episodes centering around one form or another
of Sophia, an early Greek and Gnostic embodiment of spiritual wisdom.
She is seen emanating light waves and symbolic objects. (But I must
emphasize that I do not know the exact significance of any of the symbols
in the film any more than I know the meaning of my dreams, nor do I
know the meaning of the episodes. I hope that they—the symbols
and the episodes—set off poetic associations in the viewer. I mean
them to be entirely open to the viewer’s own interpretation.)⁸

The opening background plate—that of the paradisiacal garden—returns in the end, and that is where the balloon-face turns upside down. The other plate mentioned in the note—that of the interior of Hagia Sophia, which gives the film its title—also appears twice, both times early in the film, perhaps corresponding to scenes of formal instruction in the filmmaker’s life. During its second appearance we see a magical projection apparatus at work, as if in the alembic of transfiguration the sacred space of Byzantium came to trope the filmmaker’s brief enrollment at Harvard University, where he became involved with serious cinema viewing and first started making films. Similarly, the visionary cities and encampments seen in some of the later background plates might refer to his subsequent migrations to San Francisco and New York. Against those backdrops the emerging artificers of transfiguration would symbolically represent his mentors, Robert Duncan, Jess, and Joseph Cornell, although even so general an interpretation is necessarily tentative when the author flatly denies that he knows the “significance of the symbols” arising from his associative process.

The teasing gap between autobiographical narrative and the perfect exhilaration of pictorial invention in Sophie’s Place suggests a paradigm for the dilemma of my work in this study. My primary effort has been to convey an appreciation for the achievements of eleven filmmakers working in interrelated modes of camera movement, superimposition, associative editing, and the disjunctions of language and image. At the same time I have made liberal use of their writings and interviews, and what I have learned of their biographies, to throw light on the intensities and resonances of those achievements by linking the exhilarations of their cinematic inventions to what Stan Brakhage called “the eccentricities of our personal lives”; for I find two of the three principles he articulated in homage to Andrei Tarkovsky utterly convincing, at least insofar as they apply to the American filmmakers in the heritage of Emerson and Whitman. The first of them, however, is more problematic. Brakhage’s triad was:

1) To make the epic, that is, to tell the tales of the tribes of the world.
2) To keep it personal, because only in the eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chance at the truth.
3) To do the dream work, that is to illuminate the borders of the unconscious.⁹

The centrality of personal life and the illumination of the unconscious are central concerns in these chapters, while the aspiration to make epic forms emerges in surprisingly different ways for many but not all of the filmmakers I have been discussing, if we liberally read the terms epic and tales as Brakhage apparently does. The epics at issue would be serial films, sequences or cycles of autonomous works, sometimes rigorously delimited as in Hapax Legomena or Is This What You Were Born For, sometimes open-ended as in Diaries, Notes and Sketches or The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse; and sometimes evolving between those poles as in The Book of the Family or My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure. Jeffrey Stout has pointed out that Brakhage’s invocation of epic forms opens up an avenue for the examination of the political aspects of these films, which I have evaded. Certainly, in addressing Tarkovsky’s achievement, Brakhage was compressing the Russian filmmaker’s political position within the category of the epic. Brakhage’s own tradition of the American epic that Whitman founded on Emersonian principles entails complex expansions on the political consequences of self-reliance in a massively expanding democracy. However, I have neither the expertise nor the space to unravel the political dimensions of that tradition in the work of the filmmakers discussed here.¹⁰ In the first generation of these filmmakers, Menken and Hugo generated their strongest films from the Emersonian exhilarations of bodily and vehicular camera movement and superimposition. Their younger contemporaries, Brakhage and Mekas, did the same, but they tended as well to nuance the exhilarations by arranging films into sequences. Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the version of the American epic he fashioned from what Emerson called our “flux of moods,” was the model for these internally modulated or dialectical serial films, whether or not the filmmakers realized it.

The following generation took the film sequence as an inherited option from the very start of their careers. For Noren, Frampton, and Beavers, the serial organization of films was an index of high aesthetic ambition, the functional equivalent of the epic form. Sonbert flirted with serial organization but ultimately distanced his work from it. Gehr, on the other hand, rigorously clung to the formal simplicity of Menken’s clearly delineated parameters of the autonomous lyric. His films are the purest examples of that mode in the tradition.

A third generation, represented here by Child and Friedrich, found in Frampton’s ironies, and in his use of language, a productive way to reconfigure and revitalize two parts of Brakhage’s triad while vigorously contesting Brakhage’s theoretical perspective and visual rhetoric (and that of his peers). Child sought to make the epic and articulate the unconscious while rejecting the idea of the selfhood behind Brakhage’s representation of personal life. Friedrich accepted that selfhood and the oneiric form but turned away from epic or serial forms.

Finally, it needs to be said that this schema does not constitute a hermetic system. Each of the eleven filmmakers have responded to as many and as powerfully formative influences as those I have tried to delineate here. Their films in turn will respond to other contextualizations. But the pervading Emersonian heritage will remain ineluctable. As the liberating god of our native artistic aspirations, Emerson prophesied what these filmmakers realized, that seeing the familiar world with eyes upside down would open fresh channels to the tales of our tribes, the eccentricities of our personal lives, and the borders of the unconscious, in sum, “the axis of primary thought.”


1. William Carlos Williams, “To a Dog Injured in the Street.” Collected Poems, vol. II, (1939–1962), ed. Christopher MacGowan, pp. 255–67.

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 266.

3. Ibid., p. 414.

4. Ibid., pp. 482–84.

5. Paul Karlstrom, “Interview with Larry Jordan,” December 19, 1995, Smithsonian Archives of American Art,

6. Robert Duncan, “The Truth and Life of Myth,” in Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), pp. 2, 13.

7. Fred Camper, “Film of Changes: Larry Jordan’s Sophie’s Place,” Film Culture no. 76 (June 1992), p. 33.

8. Canyon Cinema Film/Video Catalog 7 (San Francisco, 1992), pp. 189–90.

9. Stan Brakhage, “Brakhage Pans Telluride Gold,” Rolling Stock 6 (1983), p. 11.

10. For alternative views of the politics of the American avant-garde cinema, see David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), Power Misses: Essays Across (Un)Popular Culture (New York: Verso, 1997); Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Juan Antonio Suarez, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, & Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the1960s Underground Cinema (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1996); and Abigail Child, This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005). Jeffery Stout suggested that the political dimensions of my argument might be amplified by a consideration of “Emerson’s repeated professions of reluctance to engage directly in struggles for political reform; against this, his extensive anti-slavery writings and the central role his ideas played in New England’s debate over the Anthony Burns case; the politics of noncomplicity articulated in Thoreau’s 'Civil Disobedience'; the imaginative effort of re-founding America in Thoreau’s Walden; the possible echoing of this in Mekas’ Walden; the centrality of democracy in Whitman’s work; . . . Brakhage’s thoughts about the Vietnam War and those protesting it in mass demonstrations; Mekas’ 'This is a political film'; Mekas’ way of treating the theme of exile; the distinction between the characteristic stance of the Emersonian social critic (for example, in Ellison’s essays) and the stance adopted by Frampton . . . and Friedrich; . . . the politically monitory function of Romantic counter-epics of wandering.”