Out of print for more than 40 years, Stan Brakhage’s hugely influential Metaphors on Vision (1963) was recently republished by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry. Celebrating the arrival of this new, definitive edition of Metaphors on Vision, the Walker will present a special screening of Brakhage’s work—selected by Ed Halter of Light Industry from our Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection—to explore the artist’s visionary manifesto and youthful meditations on cinema. Metaphors on Vision by Brakhage will screen in the Walker Cinema on January 25, followed by a conversation with Halter. Below, an excerpt from Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision.
The Camera Eye1
Oh transparent hallucination, superimposition of image, mirage of movement, heroine of a thousand and one nights (Scheherazade2 must surely be the muse of this art), you obstruct the light, muddy the pure white beaded screen (it perspires) with your shuffling patterns. Only the spectators (the unbelievers who attend the carpeted temples where coffee and paintings are served) think your spirit is in the illuminated occasion (mistaking your sweaty, flaring, rectangular body for more than it is). The devout, who break pop-corn together in your humblest double-feature services, know that you are still being born, search for your spirit in their dreams, and dare only dream when in contact with your electrical reflection. Unknowingly, as innocent, they await the priests of this new religion, those who can stir cinematic entrails divinely. They await the prophets who can cast (with the precision of Confucian sticks) the characters of this new order across filmic mud.3 Being innocent, they do not consciously know that this church too is corrupt; but they react with counter hallucinations, believing in the stars, and themselves among these Los Angelic orders. Of themselves, they will never recognize what they are awaiting. Their footsteps, the dumb drum which destroys cinema. They are having the dream piped into their homes, the destruction of the romance thru marriage, etc.
So the money vendors have been at it again. To the catacombs then, or rather plant this seed deeper in the undergrounds beyond false nourishing of sewage waters. Let it draw nourishment from hidden uprising springs channeled by gods. Let there be no cavernous congregation but only the network of individual channels, that narrowed vision which splits beams beyond rainbow and into the unknown dimensions. (To those who think this is waxing poetic, squint, give the visual objects at hand their freedom, and allow the distant to come to you; and when mountains are moving, you will find no fat in this prose). Forget ideology, for film unborn as it is has no language and speaks like an aborigine—monotonous rhetoric. Abandon aesthetics—the moving picture image without religious foundations, let alone the cathedral, the art form, starts its search for God with only the danger of accepting an architectural inheritance from the categorized “seven,” other arts its sins, and closing its circle, stylistic circle, therefore zero.4 Negate technique, for film, like America, has not been discovered yet,5 and mechanization, in the deepest possible sense of the word, traps both beyond measuring even chances—chances are these twined searches may someday orbit about the same central negation. Let film be. It is something… becoming. (The above being for creator and spectator alike in searching, an ideal of anarchic religion where all are priests both giving and receiving, or rather witch doctors, or better witches, or… O, for the unnamable).
And here, somewhere, we have an eye (I’ll speak for myself) capable of any imagining (the only reality). And there (right there) we have the camera eye (the limitation the original liar); yet lyre sings to the mind so immediately (the exalted selectivity) one wants to forget that its strings can so easily make puppetry of human motivation (for form as finality) dependent upon attunation, what it’s turned to (ultimately death) or turned from (birth) or the way to get out of it (transformation). I’m not just speaking of that bird on fire (not thinking of circles) or of Spengler (spirals neither) or of any known progression (nor straight lines) logical formation (charted levels) or ideological formation (mapped for scenic points of interest); but I am speaking for possibilities (myself), infinite possibilities (preferring chaos).6
And here, somewhere, we have an eye capable of any imagining. And then we have the camera eye, its lenses grounded to achieve 19th century Western compositional perspective (as best exemplified by the 19th century architectural conglomeration of details of the “classic” ruin) in bending the light and limiting the frame of the image just so, its standard camera and projector speed for recording movement7 geared to the feeling of the ideal slow Viennese waltz, and even its tripod head, being the neck it swings on, balled with bearings to permit it that Les Sylphides8 motion (ideal to the contemplative romantic) and virtually restricted to horizontal and vertical movements (pillars and horizon lines) a diagonal requiring a major adjustment, its lenses coated or provided with filters, its light meters balanced, and its color film manufactured, to produce that picture post card effect (salon painting) exemplified by those oh so blue skies and peachy skins.
By deliberately spitting on the lens or wrecking its focal intention, one can achieve the early stages of impressionism. One can make this prima donna heavy in performance of image movement by speeding up the motor, or one can break up movement, in a way that approaches a more direct inspiration of contemporary human eye perceptibility of movement, by slowing the motion while recording the image. One may hand hold the camera and inherit worlds of space. One may over- or under-expose the film. One may use the filters of the world, fog, downpours, unbalanced lights, neons with neurotic color temperatures, glass which was never designed for a camera, or even glass which was but which can be used against specifications, or one may photograph an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset, those marvelous taboo hours when the film labs will guarantee nothing, or one may go into the night with a specified daylight film or vice versa. One may become the supreme trickster, with hatfulls of all the rabbits listed above breeding madly. One may, out of incredible courage, become Méliès, that marvelous man who gave even the “art of the film” its beginning in magic.9 Yet Méliès was not witch, witch doctor, priest, or even sorcerer. He was a 19th-century stage magician. His films are rabbits.
What about the hat?10 the camera? or if you will, the stage, the page, the ink, the hieroglyphic itself, the pigment shaping that original drawing, the musical and/or all other instruments for copula-and-then-procreation? Curt Sachs talks sex (which fits the hat neatly) in originating musical instruments, and Freud’s revitalization of symbol charges all contemporary content in art. Yet possession thru visualization speaks for fear-of-death as motivating force—the tomb art of the Egyptian, etc. And then there’s “In the beginning,” “Once upon a time,” or the very concept of a work of art being a “Creation.”11 Religious motivation only reaches us thru the anthropologist these days—viz., Frazer on a golden bough.12 And so it goes—ring around the rosary,13 beating about the bush,14 describing. One thread runs clean thru the entire fabric of expression — the trick-and-effect. And between those two words, somewhere, magic… the brush of angel wings, even rabbits leaping heavenwards and, given some direction, language corresponding. Dante looks upon the face of God15 and Rilke is heard among the angelic orders.16 Still the Night Watch was tricked by Rembrandt17 and Pollock18 was out to produce an effect. The original word was a trick, and so were all the rules of the game that followed in its wake. Whether the instrument be musical or otherwise, it’s still a hat with more rabbits yet inside the head wearing it — i.e., thought’s trick, etc. Even The Brains19 for whom thought’s the world, and the word and visi-or-audibility of it, eventually end with a ferris wheel of a solar system in the middle of the amusement park of the universe. They know it without experiencing it, screw it lovelessly, find “trick” or “effect” derogatory terminology, too close for comfort, are utterly unable to comprehend “magic.” We are either experiencing (copulating) or conceiving (procreating) or very rarely both are balancing in that moment of living, loving, and creating, giving and receiving, which is so close to the imagined divine as to be more unmentionable than “magic.” In the event you didn’t know “magic” is realmed in “the imaginable,” the moment of it being when that which is imagined dies, is penetrated by mind and known rather than believed in. Thus “reality” extends its picketing fence and each is encouraged to sharpen his wits. The artist is one who leaps that fence at night, scatters his seeds among the cabbages, hybrid seeds inspired by both the garden and wits-end forest where only fools and madmen wander, seeds needing several generations to be… finally proven edible. Until then they remain invisible, to those with both feet on the ground, yet prominent enough to be tripped over. Yes, those unsightly bulges between those oh so even rows will find their flowering moment… and then be farmed. Are you really thrilled at the sight of a critic tentatively munching artichokes? Wouldn’t you rather throw overalls in the eventual collegic chowder?20 Realize the garden as you will—the growing is mostly underground. Whatever daily care you may give it—all is planted only by moonlight. However you remember it—everything in it originates elsewhere. As for the unquotable magic—it’s as indescribable as the unbound woods it comes from.
(A foot-on-the-ground-note: The sketches of T. E. Lawrence’s “realist” artist companion were scratches to Lawrence’s Arab friends.21 Flaherty’s motion picture projection of Nanook of the North was only a play of lights and silhouettes to the Aleutian Islander Nanook himself.22 The schizophrenic does see symmetrically, does believe in the reality of Rorschach,23 yet he will not yield to the suggestion that a pin-point light in a darkened room will move, being the only one capable of perceiving its stasis correctly. Question any child as to his drawing and he will defend the “reality” of what you claim “scribbles.” Answer any child’s question and he will shun whatever quest he’d been beginning.)
Light, lens concentrated, either burns negative film to a chemical crisp which, when lab washed, exhibits the blackened pattern of its ruin or, reversal film, scratches the emulsion to eventually bleed it white. Light, again lens concentrated, pierces white and casts its shadow patterned self to reflect upon the spectator. When light strikes a color emulsion, multiple chemical layers restrict its various wave lengths, restrain its bruises to eventually produce a phenomenon unknown to dogs. Don’t think of creatures of uncolored vision as restricted, but wonder, rather, and marvel at the known internal mirrors of the cat which catch each spark of light in the darkness and reflect it to an intensification. Speculate as to insect vision, such as the bee’s sense of scent thru ultraviolet perceptibility. To search for human visual realities, man must, as in all other homo motivation, transcend the original physical restrictions and inherit worlds of eyes. The very narrow contemporary moving visual reality is exhausted. The belief in the sacredness of any man-achievement sets concrete about it, statutes becoming statues, needing both explosives and earthquakes for disruption. As to the permanency of the present or any established reality, consider in this light and thru most individual eyes that without either illumination or photographic lens, any ideal animal might claw the black off a strip of film or walk ink-footed across transparent celluloid and produce an effect for projection identical to a photographed image. As to color, the earliest color films were entirely hand painted a frame at a time. The “absolute realism” of the motion picture image is a human invention.
What reflects from the screen is shadow play. Look, there’s no real rabbit. Those ears are index fingers and the nose a knuckle interfering with the light. If the eye were more perceptive it would see the sleight of 24 individual pictures and an equal number of utter blacknesses every second of the show. What incredible films might ultimately be made for such an eye. But the machine has already been fashioned to outwit even that perceptibility, a projector which flashes advertisement at subliminal speed to up the sale of popcorn. Oh, slow-eyed spectator, this machine is grinding you out of existence, its electrical storms are manufactured by pure white frames interrupting the flow of the photographed images, its real tensions are a dynamic interplay of two-dimensional shapes and lines, the horizon line and background shapes battering the form of the horseback rider as the camera moves with it, the curves of the tunnel exploding away from the pursued, camera following, and tunnel perspective converging on the pursuer, camera preceding, the dream of the close-up kiss being due to the linear purity of facial features after cluttersome background, the entire film’s soothing syrup being the depressant of imagistic repetition, a feeling akin to counting sheep to sleep. Believe in it blindly, and it will fool you — mind wise, instead of sequins on cheesecloth or max-manufactured make-up, you’ll see stars.24 Believe in it eye-wise, and the very comet of its overhead throw from projector to screen will intrigue you so deeply that its fingering play will move integrally with what’s reflected, a comet-tail integrity which would lead back finally to the film’s creator. I am meaning, simply, that the rhythms of change in the beam of illumination which now goes entirely over the heads of the audience would, in the work of art, contain in itself some quality of a spiritual experience. As is, and at best, that hand spreading its touch toward the screen taps a neurotic chaos comparable to the doodles it produces for reflection. The “absolute realism” of the motion picture image is a 20th-century, essentially Western, illusion.
Nowhere in its mechanical process does the camera hold either mirror or candle to nature. Consider its history. Being machine, it has always been manufacturer of the medium, mass-producer of stilled abstract images, its virtue—related variance, the result—movement. Essentially, it remains fabricator of a visual language, no less a linguist than the typewriter. Yet in the beginning, each of an audience thought himself the camera, attending a play or, toward the end of the purely camera career, being run over by the unedited filmic image of a locomotive which had once rushed straight at the lens,25 screaming when a revolver seemed fired straight out of the screen,26 motion of picture being the original magic of the medium. Méliès is credited with the first splice. Since then, the strip of celluloid has increasingly revealed itself suited to transformations beyond those conditioned by the camera. Originally Méliès’ trickery was dependent upon starting and stopping the photographic mechanism and between times creating, adding objects to its field of vision, transformations, substituting one object for another, and disappearances, removing the objectionable. Once the celluloid could be cut, the editing of filmic images began its development toward Eisensteinian montage, the principal of 1 plus 2 making 3 in moving imagery as anywhere else. Meantime labs came into the picture, playing with the illumination of original film, balancing color temperature, juggling double imagery in superimposition, adding all the acrobatic grammar of the film inspired by D. W. Griffith’s dance,27 fades to mark the montage sentenced motion picture paragraph, dissolves to indicate lapse of time between interrelated subject matter, variations in the framing for the epic horizontal composition, origin of Cinemascope,28 and vertical picture delineating character, or the circle exclamating a pictorial detail, etc. The camera itself taken off the pedestal, began to move, threading its way in and around its source of material for the eventual intricately patterned fabric of the edited film. Yet editing is still in its 1, 2, 3 infancy, and the labs are essentially still just developing film, no less trapped by the standards they’re bearing than the camera by its original mechanical determination. No very great effort has ever been made to interrelate these two or three processes, and already another is appearing possible, the projector as creative instrument with the film show a kind of performance, celluloid or tape merely source of material to the projectioning interpreter, this expression finding its origins in the color, or the scent, or even the musical organ, its most recent manifestations—the increased programming potential of the IBM and other electronic machines now capable of inventing imagery from scratch.29 Considering then the camera eye as almost obsolete, it can at last be viewed objectively and, perhaps, view-pointed with subjective depth as never before. Its life is truly all before it. The future fabricating machine in performance will invent images as patterned after cliche vision as those of the camera, and its results will suffer a similar claim to “realism,” IBM being no more God nor even a “Thinking machine” than the camera eye all-seeing or capable of creative selectivity, both essentially restricted to “yes-no, “ “stop-go,” “on-off,” and instrumentally dedicated to communication of the simplest sort. Yet increased human intervention and control renders any process more capable of balance between sub-and-objective expression, and between those two concepts, somewhere, soul…The second stage of transformation of image editing revealed the magic of movement. Even though each in the audience then proceeded to believe himself part of the screen reflection, taking two-dimension visual characters as his being within the drama, he could not become every celluloid sight running thru the projector, therefore allowance of another viewpoint, and no attempt to make him believe his eye to be where the camera eye once was has ever since proven successful—excepting the novelty of three-dimension, audiences jumping when rocks seemed to avalanche out of the screen and into the theatre. Most still imagine, however, the camera a recording mechanism, a lunatic mirroring, now full of sound and fury30 presenting its half of a symmetrical pattern, a kaleidoscope with the original pieces of glass missing and their movement removed in time. And the instrument is still capable of winning Stanford’s bet about horse-hooves never all leaving the ground in galloping, though Stanford significantly enough used a number of still cameras with strings across the track and thus inaugurated the flip-pic of the penny arcade, Hollywood still racing after the horse.31 Only when the fans move on to another track can the course be cleared for this eye to interpret the very ground, perhaps to discover its non-solidity, to create a contemporary Pegasus, without wings, to fly with its hooves, beyond any imagining, to become gallop, a creation.32 It can then inherit the freedom to agree or disagree with 2000 years of Western equine painting and attain some comparable aesthetic stature. As is, the “absolute realism” of the motion picture image is a contemporary mechanical myth.
Consider this prodigy for its virtually untapped talents, viewpoints it possesses more readily recognizable as visually non-human yet within the realm of the humanly imaginable. I am speaking of its speed for receptivity which can slow the fastest motion for detailed study, or its ability to create a continuity for time compression, increasing the slowest motion to a comprehensibility. I am praising its cyclopean penetration of haze, its infra-red visual ability in darkness, its just developed 360-degree view, its prismatic revelation of rainbows, its zooming potential for exploding space and its telephotic compression of same to flatten perspective, its micro- and macroscopic revelations. I am marvelling at its Schlieren33 self capable of representing heat waves and the most invisible air pressures, and appraising its other still camera developments which may grow into motion, its rendering visible the illumination of bodily heat, its transformation of ultra-violets to human cognizance, its penetrating X-ray. I am dreaming of the mystery camera capable of graphically representing the form of an object after it’s been removed from the photographic scene, etc. The “absolute realism” of the motion picture is unrealized, therefore potential, magic.
Endnotes are by P. Adams Sitney
1 This chapter makes several allusions to the socioeconomic situation of the movie industry and film theaters at the end of the Fifties, when television had transformed the nature of moviegoing. That decade, television increasingly overcame cinema in popularity. The film industry responded to the introduction of color television with the promotion of wide-screen processes and 3-D.
In the second half of the decade, many movie palaces were replaced by smaller “art houses” specializing in foreign films. The more elegant of these theaters offered upholstered couches and carpeted lounges, where espresso was sold rather than popcorn. Frequently, the work of local artists was exhibited in these lounges.
2 The fictional narrator of the Arabian Thousand and One Nights, who saved her life and eventually became the queen of Persia by telling King Shahryar an unfinished story; the following night she would complete it and begin a new one.
3 Confucian sticks: I Ching divination sometimes entails casting forty-nine yarrow sticks to generate hexagrams.
4 Brakhage plays on conflating the so-called seven fine arts—painting, sculpture, poetry, music, drama, dance, and architecture—with the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, gluttony, and envy. In an interview with Christopher Luna made in 1998, he said:
[Film] doesn’t hold a candle to poetry, or music, or architecture, or sculpture, or great prose, it doesn’t hold a candle to Don Quixote or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, or dance even, OR to name the bottom of the pit, still photography… I believe it is an art, and so it’d be what, the eighth art or something, but I have no proof of such and it’s expensive and it’s driven me crazy. I can absolutely understand Orson Welles when asked what did he think of his life in film said “My life in film has destroyed me! It’s ruined my whole life!” All the same, I have been true to that, as well as I was able, to what was given to me to do, that is to make films, that had some claim to aesthetic value. I tried to be clear about that in all my life.[Stan Brakhage: Literal Motion: An Interview by Christopher Luna (Bootstrap Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2001), 12; ellipsis in transcript]
5 Perhaps an echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Experience”: “I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.”
6 In the Decline of the West (1918–1922, two volumes), Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) offered a theory of world history as a downward spiral.
7 In the era of sound cinema, cameras recorded and projectors ran at twenty-four frames per second. Most 16mm projectors also had a slower speed (16fps) for showing silent films (originally shot on variable-speed cameras, ranging from 14fps to 20fps).
8 Les Sylphides (The Sylphs): Brakhage is using the title of a well-known ballet blanc to stand for the typical romantic “pure ballet.” Les Sylphides was choreographed in 1909 by Michel Fokine to music by Frédéric Chopin. It was performed widely in the years preceding World War I.
9 Georges Méliès (1861–1938), a stage magician who purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, made more than one hundred films between 1896 and 1913. He is often credited with inventing film editing, cinematic superimposition, stop motion, dissolves, time lapse, and hand-colored films.
10 There is a dense concatenation of references to the study of origins in this paragraph: Curt Sachs, Sigmund Freud, James George Frazer, Genesis, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and conventional phrases.
11 Musicologist Curt Sachs (1881–1959) actually refuted the theory of the imitation of birds’ mating calls as the origin of music in The Rise of Music in the Ancient World (1943), while in his World History of the Dance (1937) he discussed fertility dances as rain charms.
12 Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” James George Frazer (1854–1941), Cambridge University professor of social anthropology, wrote The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890–1915, twelve volumes), in which he made the now-classical distinction between magic (the attempt to manipulate events through formulaic means) and religion (the invocation of spiritual assistance).
13 Brakhage is alluding to the Roman Catholic devotional prayer cycle to the Virgin Mary (the Rosary), to the Mother Goose nursery rhyme “Ring-a-round the rosie, / A pocket full of posies, / Ashes! Ashes! / We all fall down,” and perhaps to the speculation that the rhyme originated in the Great Plague, when “posies” referred to herbs kept to ward off the first signs of the disease—a rose-colored rash.
14 To prevaricate. Its origin refers to the hunting practice of beating bushes to arouse birds. George Gascoigne: “He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds” (1572).
15 Paradiso 33:116–31. Dante sees God manifested as three interlocking circles (the Trinity), within which the face of Christ (nostra effige) appears.
16 Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1912–23) begin with the line “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?” (Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?).
17 The Night Watch (1642): Perhaps the most famous work of Rembrandt van Rijn, properly entitled The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out.
18 Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), American Abstract Expressionist painter.
19 Perhaps an allusion to G. W. F. Hegel, or even Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer if we understand “The Brains” as plural (as the subsequent sentence indicates). More vaguely, “The Brains” sarcastically refers to academic intellectuals.
20 In 1956, Bing Crosby popularized George Giefer’s 1898 ballad “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,” a comic song about a pair of pants accidentally left behind when Mrs. Murphy used her chowder pot to do a washing. By calling the chowder “collegic,” Brakhage extends his contemptuous diatribe against academicians.
21 Apparently, Brakhage refers to Lawrence’s friend Eric Kennington, who illustrated his Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926). I have not found a source for the story of the Arabs’ incomprehension of Kennington’s drawings.
22 Robert Flaherty wrote in “How I Made the First Motion Pictures with Nanook of the North” (Sunday London Referee, September 2, 1934):
My task was to make Nanook understand what I intended to do. My first difficulty was that he didn’t even know how to read a picture. The first pictures I showed him meant no more to him than many curious marks. It was only when I showed him some pictures of himself which I had made as tests—I had him look at himself in the mirror and then at the photographs—that I got him to understand what a picture meant.
Quoted in Robert Christopher, Imaging the Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 187.
23 Hermann Rorschach, the vice president of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society, first published his account of inkblot tests in his book Psychodiagnostik (1921). He initially designed them to diagnose schizophrenia. By 1960, they had become the most widely used projective tests to determine the unconscious forces in personality.
24 Max Factor, a cosmetics company, initially specializing in theatrical and then cinema makeup, dominated the color-TV and color-film makeup market, and in the 1950s sold a wide range of household deodorants, shampoos, lipstick, etcetera.
25 An allusion to the Lumière brothers’ film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895).
26 An allusion to the final shot of Edwin S. Porter’s film The Great Train Robbery (1903).
27 Brakhage frequently uses dance as a metaphor for poesis. He is not referring to a specific film, sequence, or technique of Griffith’s, but to the complex of innovations he brought to his filmmaking. It is likely that Brakhage adopted this metaphor from Robert Duncan, who employed it throughout his career in discussing the play of sounds, images, and ideas in poetry. See “Introduction to the French Edition,” in the present volume.
28 CinemaScope was an anamorphic widescreen (2.55:1) process produced by 20th Century Fox in 1953 in response to the economic challenge of television. The trade name quickly became colloquial for all competing widescreen processes.
29 The International Business Machines Corporation was synonymous with advanced computing in the Sixties. In 1956, an IBM 701 checkers-playing program that learned from its failures was demonstrated to the public.
30 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”
31 Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) made a series of photographs (Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, June 15, 1878) proving that a running horse lifts all four legs off the ground. It was rumored to settle a bet made by Leland Stanford, the owner of the horse who commissioned the experiment.
32 In Greek mythology, Pegasus was the divine flying stallion (with wings) captured and ridden by Bellerophon.
33 Schlieren (German for “streaking”) photography, invented by August Toepler in 1864, records the airflow around objects moving at supersonic speeds.