Before the Beginning Was the Word:Stan Brakhage’s
Viewers encountering a Brakhage film for the first time often find the experience daunting and more than a little puzzling. A major obstacle to appreciation or understanding is the visual approach by which Brakhage renders images of things and places at the edge of recognizability. It is not that a particular image is perceived as abstract—although a number of his films, or parts of films, are decidedly non-representational—but that our ability to easily and comprehensively order what we see into fixed semantic categories seems short-circuited. Thus familiar, conventional ways of processing movie images—automatically labeling or "naming" their contents before moving on to putatively more complex cognitive tasks elicited by fictional narratives—are at once slowed and deflected onto other types of mental operations. For instance, near the middle of Prelude: Dog Star Man (1961) we see a brief close-up of brown animal fur, either that of a dog or, more likely, a cat. The hesitation in placing, as it were, a frame around this image, giving it some prescribed context, forces us to refocus attention towards less obvious qualities of "fur-ness"—texture, length, color, movement—instead of neatly consigning the bearer of fur to a realm of domesticated (in both senses) animal meaning. In other words, in Brakhage films we enter into momentary perceptual transactions in which we trade unhindered assimilation of images for intensified contact with pictorial or sensory features that might otherwise go unnoticed. At the same time we register the contours of a distinct subjectivity that regards the world-through-the-camera in an idiosyncratic, frequently revealing manner.
The process described here is part of what Brakhage referred to in his 1963 writings on film aesthetics, Metaphors on Vision, as an “adventure in perception.” In his best-known pronouncement, he summons the movie viewer to “imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective...How many colors are there in a field of grass to a baby unaware of 'Green'? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?” Although he readily admits that any actual return to a state of “innocent,” childlike vision is impossible, lhe persistent project throughout his vast oeuvre has been to guide the eye in a journey of “untutoring,” using every possible cinematic tool as leverage for that journey. Prominent techniques contributing to the defamiliarizing of images include superimposition (which can confuse the shape or integral boundaries of things), very bright or very dim exposures, softened focus, odd angles, filters, spatial distortions caused by shooting with an anamorphic lens, rapid hand-held camera movements, unusually tight framing, and absence of synchronous sound. These practices tend to appear not singly but in various combinations, their effects are heightened by consistent strategies of fast editing or montage. That is, even if we could fix the species of animal whose fur is displayed in extreme, soft-edged close-up, the brevity of such a shot would make identification practically moot. Favoring shallow compositions over images shot in depth, Brakhage additionally forces us to process the contents of his radically non-dramatic films minus the wider spatial perspectives we rely on—in conventional movies as well as daily life—to connect objects or details in a natural landscape to a wider field of apprehension. For instance, seeing a field of bright flowers near a rugged mountain cabin gives us various cues for how to regard the flowers themselves. Brakhage intends to strip our responses so we can see, say, the flowers without the iconographic baggage of countless prior representations of related "pastoral" scenes.
There are (at least) two important consequences of this approach to photographic imaging. First is the creation of a visual experience in which language does not hold sovereign power: “Imagine a world ‘before the beginning was the word.’” Film theorists in the 1970s, taking their lead from linguistic theory and the psychoanalytic discourse of Jacques Lacan, posited that as we watch movies we sub-vocalize appropriate words to fit what we see and that, further, the syntax and grammar of conventional film is organized into strict, coded patterns of articulation. Such language-based theories were controversial and, significantly, had to bypass the workings of avant-garde and other marginal movements in order to appear coherent. A Brakhage film like Cat's Cradle (1959) does not entirely suppress our recourse to naming but rather floods our typical eye-brain loop with stimuli for which attached language cues are either less than automatic or, in cases of purely sensory appeal, non-existent. Implicitly refusing the longstanding separation of mind and body, reason and affect, proposed by philosophers since Descartes as the basis of the self-conscious ego, Brakhage's films and writings celebrate an aesthetics grounded in finely-calibrated subjective feelings. At the heart of his system is the concept of “moving visual thinking,” the expression of ideas in forms that are inseparable from emotive responses. That is, our ability to think is an integral function of so-called bodily realms of emotion.
A second consequence of Brakhage's uniquely expressive style is to open, or more accurately re-open, a given image to associative or metaphoric connection with a subsequent image. It might sound paradoxical but as pictures are detached from their fixed standing in a realistic milieu, possibilities of sparking fresh meanings become enhanced. For example, in Prelude—in fact throughout Dog Star Man—human and animal body images are fused by editing and other visual parallels with properties of landscape, natural elements, and celestial forms. A woman's crotch is juxtaposed with the roots of a tree, an undulating flame paired with an anamorphically-elongated shot of a nude woman, the movement of clouds compared with the capillary action of blood, a shaggy dog placed next to a shot of the bearded film-maker. The sinuous barrage of poetic exchanges and transformations ventured in the course of this film—male and female, animal and human, body and landscape, macro- and microcosmic—fosters a dreamlike nimbus of ambiguity (in notes to the film, Brakhage cites the structure of dreams as one source of inspiration). Despite the highly pleasurable activity of making formal or ideational matches between disparate shots, the viewer may nonetheless experience confusion over how to arrange the headlong couplings into larger frameworks of significance. Indeed, it can be argued that the genuinely exciting effort to recenter our perceptions around moment-to-moment appreciation of phenomenal image qualities does not necessarily lend itself to longer skeins of evolving action, the translation of poetic synapses into quasi-narrative trajectories of meaning; in other words, in Brakhage's longer films, the issue of overarching theme seems to challenge his narrow focus on immediacy. Thus if aspects of Dog Star Man remind us of a dream-state, is there a continuous logic or idea under which the metaphors can be grouped? Regardless of how individual viewers choose to answer this question, what is undeniable is the degree to which Brakhage is able to mobilize cinema to inscribe not just the visual flow of imagination but the principles by which that imagination has come to know itself. At its best, the experience of a Brakhage film allows us access to a powerful framework of self-knowledge. As the great director-theorist Sergei Eisenstein proclaimed, referring to the glories of montage editing: “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 as it was experienced by the author.” The same might be said of Brakhage's formal approach, with the caveat that our responses to a given work are likely to be both personalized and quite disparate in nature.