PRINT September 2012


Filmstrips from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, 1963, 16 mm, color, silent, 3 minutes 13 seconds.

NOT THE CAMERA BUT THE PROJECTOR; not a representation but the thing itself, a ribbon of once-living stuff preserved in celluloid coursing along, flashing before our eyes: It was neither Muybridge’s 1879 motion studies nor the Lumière brothers’ 1895 actualités nor even Peter Kubelka’s imageless flicker film Arnulf Rainer (1960) that truly manifested the very essence of cinema but the film-object Mothlight, a three-minute-thirteen-second motion-picture collage assembled and printed by Stan Brakhage at more or less the moment this magazine came into being.

Something like the Stone Age epitome of machine art, Mothlight proposes an alternative form of cinematic production. A projection piece predicated on the fixed rhythm developed from the Lumières’ cinématographe, Brakhage’s film is almost ridiculously primitive, not to mention crazily labor-intensive in its artisanal means. Produced during the summer of 1963, while the artist was in the process of shooting and editing his cosmic psychodrama Dog Star Man, Mothlight was created by painstakingly collaging bits and pieces of organic matter—moth wings, most notably, as well as flowers, seeds, leaves, and blades of grass—and sandwiching them between two layers of clear 16-mm Mylar editing tape.

Both the medium and the method were the message. (Brakhage made the filmstrip a bit longer than one hundred feet, the arbitrary standard length of a 16-mm camera roll, as though to have it considered a single shot.) Film historian P. Adams Sitney has characterized Mothlight as Brakhage’s radical response to an “oppressive economic situation.” Without money to buy film stock, the artist conceived the idea of working directly with reality. But, regardless of what motivated him, Brakhage—would-be poet, shameless visionary, self-dramatizing expressionist that he was—also created something as materialist as any Stella canvas or Judd construction. Mothlight abolishes photography altogether, and yet—more than any movie ever made—it is profoundly indexical. At the same time, the artist was practicing a particular sort of magic.

Brakhage was neither the first filmmaker to eschew the camera nor the first to scratch patterns into, or glue objects to, the film emulsion. He does, however, seem to have been the first to fashion a movie entirely from actual flora and fauna. If cinema is primarily the art of animation—restoring or creating movement, conjuring ghosts, and bringing inert matter to life—then little Mothlight is pure cinema: life transmuted into light and motion. The great Polish animator Władysław Starewicz had amazed his pre–World War I audience with movies that, like his 1912 Cameraman’s Revenge, were populated by artfully reconstituted insects; Brakhage did not film his insects but, rather, fashioned his film out of their remains.

There were, naturally, complications. The original collaged strips proved too flexible to be printed in the film lab and so had to be reconstituted without sprocket holes—a process explicated in a lengthy letter to the poet Robert Kelly, dated August 22, 1963. Brakhage would call Mothlight “THE most difficult film to finish, at least per length . . . , I’ve yet been involved in.” Yet this radical realism would hardly prove a road not taken: Over the course of the filmmaker’s prolific career, he would intermittently return to a cameraless means of production. Dated 1967 but first publicly shown in 1972, his nine-second Eye Myth consisted of a segment of a found Coca-Cola commercial that the artist had stained, painted, scratched, and chemically treated until the surface of the completed film was, per its maker, a quarter inch thick. In 1981, Brakhage “remade” Mothlight in 35 mm: The Garden of Earthly Delights is almost a negative image of the earlier film, with a busier frame and brighter palette. In the end, he would often part ways with camera-based representation while retaining the projection technology. From the 1990s on, Brakhage was increasingly involved in painting directly on film to achieve an effect that, when projected, suggested something like molten stained glass.

Mothlight is a more modest experience: Dominated by many gradations of brown, the work features a counterpoint of rich yet muted greens occasionally punctuated by bursts of yellow and pale violet. It may be somber in palette, but it is also galvanizing. The film’s original title, Dead Spring, is too musty for the energy unleashed. Once-living things have been preserved by light rather than pickled in formaldehyde; the projector functions as a form of X-ray, enlarging and revealing the intricate inner workings of the organic material. This exercise in radiant mummification, a new form of photosynthesis, was fancifully described by the artist as an exercise in consciousness—“what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white.” Call it the chaos of the moth. One would hardly describe so relentlessly percussive a flutter as lyrical.

Filmstrips from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, 1963, 16 mm, color, silent, 3 minutes 13 seconds.

Most of Mothlight’s constituent elements are easily recognizable. There is no illusion of depth but a continuous emphasis on the explosive power of the individual frame. The movie is a rhythmic conflagration insisting on itself as truth twenty-four times per second, and the fragility and violence of cinema have never been more apparent. Brakhage made the most real film-object imaginable. And yet Mothlight is richly metaphoric. Doesn’t this pulsating flicker draw us, mothlike, into the light? Isn’t celluloid a form of the cellulose that constitutes this movie’s organic stuff? Don’t these onrushing moth wings signify the very ephemerality of the cinematic image? At the same time, however, the film retains its utter literalness. It is a movie in which you actually see exactly what you are looking at—a strip of clear, if slightly schmutzig and somewhat distressed, celluloid passing through the projector.

Mothlight is an eyeblink of a movie that makes light of theory; a classroom demonstration said to have been Brakhage’s most frequently rented film. Perhaps so—at least in the days when every school had an AV room stocked with variable-speed 16-mm projectors. (During the brief period in which I served as an adviser to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, I argued in vain that Warhol’s movies should, for authenticity’s sake, be presented as unwieldy, clamorous 16-mm installations rather than in the form of silent video loops. I might just as well have suggested that all quattrocento paintings be reintegrated into, and viewed by candlelight in, the churches that commissioned them.) Nowadays, thanks to the work’s inclusion in the first volume of Criterion’s invaluable By Brakhage: An Anthology (2003), Mothlight is most often shown via DVD. It instantiates a resurrection still, but, no longer a thing that can be physically examined or projected frame by frame, it is in its inevitable digital translation only a ghost of itself.

J. Hoberman’s new book, Film After Film: or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last month.