PRINT January 2018


Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision

Stan Brakhage working on Dog Star Man: Prelude, ca. 1961. Photo: Robert Benson.

Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision, edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York: Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry, 2017. 212 pages.

IN THE INTERVIEW with P. Adams Sitney that opens Metaphors on Vision, a collection of essays first published as the Fall 1963 issue of Film Culture, Stan Brakhage rejects the suicide that ends his 1958 film Anticipation of the Night, seeing it as too bound up in the dramatic conventions he would subsequently seek to excise from his practice. Leaving behind such psychodrama, he set out on a quest to find filmic realization for the adventure of vision itself.

There is ample evidence of Brakhage’s commitment to this pursuit, notably in the nearly four hundred films he made prior his death, in 2003. Yet, perhaps ironically for one who fought so insistently to escape the prison of language, the reception of this work has been inescapably colored by the filmmaker’s own writings. Particularly strong has been the influence of Metaphors on Vision, a volume of idiosyncratic, pun-riddled prose that offers an exhilarating and at times frustrating elaboration of Brakhage’s ideas on cinema, artistic subjectivity, and the act of seeing. Out of print in the US for more than forty years, it has recently been reissued by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry in a handsome edition that includes a facsimile of the George Maciunas–designed original followed by a freshly typeset, easier-to-read iteration that has been richly annotated by Sitney.

In the book’s eponymous first essay come its most famous lines: Brakhage urges the reader to “imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective” and asks, “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?” Both language itself and Western pictorial conventions, he implies, rigidly police our perception. Years before the ascent of apparatus theory, Brakhage indicted the monocular perspective of the camera lens and deemed the “absolute realism” of the film image a myth in need of assailment. He acknowledged that a prelapsarian return to infantile vision is impossible, but took it as his task to create a cinema of nonmimetic revelation that would be true to the experience of subjective, embodied perception “before ‘the beginning was the word.’”

Brakhage’s legacy has endured—and with good reason: No figure of experimental film has been more maligned, yet none has been more lionized.

Arguably, Brakhage’s heroic rhetoric did more than his films to spur mounting antipathy toward his work as the 1960s drew on and the reductionist rigor of structural film displaced his expressive lyricism as avant-garde cinema’s dominant sensibility. Already in 1966 Annette Michelson deemed Brakhage retardataire, turning to his writing, rather than his films, for evidence. The former was, she argued, an “uncritical parody of abstract expressionist orthodoxy” that denied the force of technological mediation in its conception of the camera as an extension of the filmmaker’s body. In the 1971 special issue of this magazine devoted to experimental film, Brakhage’s name would appear unfavorably, as an antithesis to those glossophilic practices—e.g., Michael Snow—receiving affirmative appraisal. This filmmaker of sex, death, and heteronormative domesticity would fare little better with the rise of feminist criticism over the next decades.

Despite such upbraiding, Brakhage’s legacy has endured—and with good reason. He hardly needs rehabilitation; no figure of experimental film has been more maligned, yet none has been more lionized. What he does need, for the benefit of both his detractors and his acolytes, is complication—and here the republication of Metaphors on Vision provides its most valuable assistance. If its opening texts read as works of film theory in the vein of Jean Epstein or Maya Deren, offering an interrogation of cinema as a technology of vision with implications far beyond Brakhage’s own practice, later pieces delve into other modes of writing: There are descriptions of the filmmaker’s working method and home life, reflections on film history and modernist poetry, snippets from correspondence, and fragments of film scripts. Brakhage touches on topics that remain of great interest today, including the relationship between computer-generated imagery and lens-based capture and the possibility of nonanthropocentric forms of vision. With Sitney’s vital help, what emerges in this volume is an essential portrait of a filmmaker, his convictions, and his context. This cumulative picture is far more complex than the hardened caricatures of him—whether positive or negative—that too often circulate. Even heroes are fallible, and even romantic egotists make momentous contributions. Metaphors on Vision allows us to see both more clearly.

Erika Balsom is the author of After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017) and a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London.