Monthly Archives: October 2012

Brakhage and “Lighght”

Brakhage’s films are often associated with the Black Mountain College poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. In this post, I’d like to interrogate Brakhage’s use of light through the poetry of another poet: Aram Saroyan. In 1965, Aram Saroyan caused national upheaval over his NEA award of $750 for the following poem: “Lighght”

One single word, “light” misspelled. It is my contention that this word is charged with Brakhage’s philosophy of light as discussed in Wees’s article. Brakhage said,”All that is is light.” This ontological statement frames his film, “Anticipation of Night,” as a liminal experience between being and not-being, between dark and light, between child and adult life and death. This film, in addition to “Reflections on Black,” “Mothlight,” and “Black Ice,” probes the hinge between light and dark, using dreams and hallucinations, damaging film strips, close ups of diaphanous insect wings, etc. Brees’s film “A Man And His Dog Out For Air” uses line drawing to explore light in the realm of animation, vacillating back and for between figuration and abstraction. And Keen’s “White Lite” uses apparent negative images to invert the viewer’s light experience during the film. These are films, as Wees says, not only made with light, but about light.

Interestingly, Saroyan’s “Lighght” poem contains cinematic qualities reflected in Brakhage’s work. Saroyan says, “the crux of the poem is to try and make the ineffable, which is light—which we only know about because it illuminates something else—into a thing. An extra ‘gh’ does it.” The poem exists as light, in that the reader requires light to see it. Yet, as with Brakhage’s work, the poem is also about light. The extra “gh” extends the duration of the word, reflecting on the temporal qualities of the viewer’s experience with light. Films discussed: Stan Brakhage, Anticipation of the Night, 1958 —- Reflections on Black. 1955 —– Mothlight. 1963 —– Black Ice. 1994 Robert Bree, A Man And His Dog Out For Air, 1957 Jeff Keen, White Lite. 1968


The cinema of Maya Deren seems to anticipate Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome. In their figuration, the rhizome is opposed to the linear, arborescent model. The rhizome is a concept of multiplicities, that resists organization and embraces heterogeneity and interpenetration. In my mind, the rhizome is linked to Maya Deren’s “Meshes.” In “Meshes of the Afternoon,” Deren subverts narrative reality with creative editing, camera angles, and psychological associations with symbols such as the key, the knife, and the ocean. Deren’s cuts imply connections between heterogenous images and concepts, a key tenet of the rhizome. The “mesh” of her title suggests an associative net or spider web that connects all concepts in the film. Even Deren’s “Choreography for a Camera” plays on the associative connections generated by the movement of the camera.

Indeed, we may see the rhizome as the paradigm for the early American avant-garde. In Anger’s films, we experience the pleasurable aspects of the rhizome. Bodies intermingle and concepts intertwine in both “Fireworks and Eaux d’Artifice.”

Menken’s “Lights” and Maas’s “Geography of the Body” echo the rhizome in their displacement and defamiliarization of the subject. The multiple points of light in Menken’s film illustrate the heterogeneity and decentralized nature of the rhizome, while Maas’s close-ups of the human body defamiliarize the body and cause each image to intermix with the next.

Rhizomes in the Afternoon

Flâneur with a Movie Camera

In these early city symphonies and documentary films of the Soviet avant-garde, we find the city itself as stand-imotor modernity. The filmmakers turn their cameras to their contemporary moment like the Baudelarian flâneur as described by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur is a wanderer and observer. In the 19th century the flâneur strolled the streets of quintessential modernist cities like New York, Paris, and London, return home only to record the images of the day with pen and paper. In the 1920s and 30s, Dziga Vertov and others seem to emerge as a more instantaneous version of the flâneur. Rather than waiting to record the images in writing, the filmmakers are able to document their wanderings as they happen, evoking a sense of immediacy. 

The flâneur does not wander in straight lines, nor in temporal sequence. In Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” the flâneur, the eponymous “Man,” is a collage/montagist, collecting and arranging is hosts and images without regard for narrative or temporal sequence. When the flâner turns the camera on the city, he finds complexity and unity. Fittingly, Strand and Sheeler’s film borrows from Whitman, the American flâneur, wandering the country and rejoicing in Democracy. Such democratic ideals emerge in Grierson’s documentary of a fishing trawler, as the filmmaker does not discriminate in subject matter but rather embraces the laborer as appropriate for artistic treatment as are kings.

Pure Cinema vs. Synchromy

I continue to be preoccupied with the tension between early filmmakers attempting to “purify” cinema of the influence of the other arts and those who embrace the influence of visual, theatrical, and musical arts. This tension seems to play itself out once again in the films of Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute, and Norman McLaren.

Much of Lye’s early work seems to aspire to the condition of pure cinema. The “direct cinema” technique featured in “A Color Box” attempts to foreground the surface materiality of the celluloid medium. By circumventing the camera altogether, Lye reduces cinema to its barest form. The hand-drawn images in “Tusalava” and the overlays in “Trade Tattoo” seem to follow the same approach: reducing the possibility of interpretation from the perspective of any exterior artistic paradigm.

In contrast with these 3 films, “Free Radicals” seems an outlier. Though the earlier films feature music, “Free Radicals” is most clearly understood as a representation of music in visual form in the way the white lines on the black background correspond to the rhythm of the drum music.

Bute and McLaren’s work, like “Free Radicals” (and Fischinger and Ruttman before) seems to embrace what Kittler calls the “media link” between recorded sound and film. Indeed, the term “Synchromy,” employed by both Bute and McLaren, gestures to this fact. Synchromy is the cousin of Symphony: the chrom (color) supplants the phon (sound). What is left, the “Syn,” implies that the chrom with adhere to forms akin to musical symphonies. Such is the case for “Escape,” “Boogie Doogle,” and “Synchromy(ie).”  Interestingly, the main titles of McLaren’s “Boogie Doodle,” written in 8 languages, correspond to a descending musical scale (do ti la sol fa mi re do).

I’m not sure what to make of the “Spook Sport” film. This one is much more representational than the others (even if the referent is fictitious), and seems more akin to Looney Tunes and Casper the Ghost than the abstract films we’ve seen before.