Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Moth grass film living: on watching Stan Brakhage's cinema bizarro

Alternate cinemaor “experimental cinema” are conditional terms, one man’s “alternate” often being another man’s “practically mainstream”. (Some feedback I got for this story said that the people profiled weren't non-mainstream enough.) But there are some filmmakers whose position on the scale is beyond argument, and one of them is the American Stan Brakhage, whose work I have recently been watching with a mix of trepidation, fascination and (on occasion) despair.

Brakhage, who made well over 300 films (most of them under 10 minutes long), is routinely described as an avant-garde, non-narrative director, but that doesn’t begin to convey some of the things he did – how he set out to overturn conventional ideas about how a film should be watched, and even what a film is. To take just one example, his three-minute-long “Mothlight” was not made by recording things with a camera; it was created by manually sticking grass, stems, petals and dozens of moth wings (from insects that had burnt to death by flying towards candles) between two strips of clear film and then running the thing through an optical printer. That may seem a random, self-indulgent thing to do (and indeed, “self-indulgent” is a lazily accurate way of describing much of Brakhage’s work), but he put into the process all the care and thought of a painter adorning an immensely long canvas – he wanted a very specific effect on the screen when the film would be projected at 24 frames per second.

I settled down to watch “Mothlight” (and a few other Brakhage films, including the similarly constructed “The Garden of Earthly Delights”) with only very basic background information, but I did read Fred Camper’s notes on how to ideally watch a Brakhage film. “Try to approximate the conditions of a cinema as much as possible,” Camper writes, “One should sit fairly close to, and perhaps at eye level with or even lower than, the screen. The projected film image has, in its clarity and colours and light, a kind of iconic power that is key to Brakhage’s work, and it’s important to try to see whatever monitor one is viewing these films on in a similar way.” He points out that Brakhage made most of his films silent because “visual rhythms are crucial to his work” – and so, it’s important, while viewing them, not to be interrupted by talk, the phone ringing, and other distracting sounds nearby.

Feeling very much like a student going through pre-examination rituals, I darkened my room, sat on the ground at a distance of around three feet from my 36-inch plasma screen and reached for my notebook – before realising how idiotic it is to try and scribble notes while watching a three-minute movie made up of hundreds of subliminal images, none of which is on screen for more than a fraction of a second. (You have to see the whole thing through, then try – with hindsight – to make sense of the experience in words. Perhaps see it a second and third time. And resist the impulse to keep pausing frames.)

Watching, it became obvious why this eerie, hypnotic film would lose much of its effect if seen on (say) a computer screen with many visual and aural distractions around. Trying to describe the experience is daunting. The first images are extreme close-ups of translucent brown objects: if you know the back-story, you can tell that these are moth wings, but even with no prior information it is soon possible to guess that the many dark shapes flickering on and off the screen represent insect forms and motifs. Shades of brown give way to splotches of green - for the odd second or two you can see reasonably vivid images of stems and grass, their green almost filling the screen. The rhythms of the images change constantly: at times they rush by (appearing to race at the camera, like moths hurtling towards a light) so fast you feel breathless and disoriented; at other times you can make out identifiable patterns (mainly leaves) that merge into each other, and this can be reassuring.

What is the purpose of all this? Some viewers might say it is a form of visual gibberish. After a first viewing I felt that way too, but watching the film a further three or four times – having become more accustomed to its weirdness of form – I found it strangely moving. Unfolding on the screen is an impression of relentless organic activity (and it is identifiably organic, even though there isn’t a single held shot of a whole insect or plant). “Mothlight” may be constructed entirely of dead matter coldly pressed between film strips, but the projection and the speed gives these elements a dazzling, otherworldly life, and the extreme close-ups can even create the illusion that the veins in the insects' wings are pulsing with blood. Besides, if the human mind is incapable of making precise, ordered sense of what is happening on the screen, well, that’s only appropriate: how many of us know what a moth’s life or a leaf's life is like?

(Yes, that probably sounds like a cop-out - in the sense that one can probably make a similar observation about ANY random jumble of images - but I'm being honest about my impressions and how they changed over a few viewings. And I have no problem admitting that I found at least a couple of Brakhage's other films utterly incomprehensible or boring or both.)

Another of Brakhage’s best-known works, “Window Water Baby Moving” – an 11-minute filming of the birth of his first child – is more explicitly about the creation and emergence of life; it’s a lush, lyrical film, and more narrative-driven. (The plot being: “A baby is born.”) But I thought “Mothlight” was equally poignant in its own way. When the dead moths and the dead flora dance on the screen for those few minutes, it is a testament to the regenerating power of film (very old movies are, after all, made up of long-dead people brought achingly alive in front of our eyes). I was also  reminded of those beautiful six or seven seconds in Chris Marker’s short film La jetée (made almost entirely of still images) when we see movement for the only time: a woman waking and looking straight at the camera, “coming alive” for a few precious moments.

[Will be watching a few more Brakhage films soon - but not TOO soon. First, Ek tha Tiger and Khiladi 786]


  1. You make alien (to me) topics so engaging, I wish I had more school teachers like you! :)

    An enjoyable read, as usual.

  2. "First, Ek tha Tiger and Khiladi 786"

    Wait! What? Seriously!!!

  3. Thanks for writing this. I love whatever little Brakhage I've seen - including this - and this is a pretty direct emotional response you've put into words.

    By the way - since incomprehensibility, fascination, multiple viewings and experimental cinema all find their ways into this post - hope you someday write on Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (which I can't get out of my head).

  4. Radhika: thanks! But I wish I had had more school-teachers like the Goan gentleman who regularly told us in a thick accent "If you can't do, you're a gaandu."

    Rajesh: Half-seriously. An hour or so of Brakhage does put one in the mood for a slightly friendlier type of incomprehensible movie.

  5. Sudipto: is that another Salman film? Love the sound of it!

  6. Can't figure if you're jesting. But anyway:

    The only way of getting it is torrents. Or maybe if you have a friend who's part of the Om cult. :D

  7. Sudipto: I was jesting. (To whatever extent one dares jest about anything involving Salman.) But no, I haven't seen the Om-Dar thing.

  8. Completely agree with Radhika . Lovely writing .
    And just because I am a cynical , world-weary Youtube junkie who looks for everything and anything on that site , I searched for mothlight too , not to watch it of course (that would seem an insult now that I have read this piece) but to read the comments . Here , see for yourself if you have the time and patience , esp the 1st Top comment (Huge grin).

    But I wish I had had more school-teachers like the Goan gentleman who regularly told us in a thick accent "If you can't do, you're a gaandu."
    OK , that is really strange and being from Goa myself I can imagine no Goan man , tall or short , fat or thin , saying something like this :)

  9. Prashila: yup, those comments are funny all right, but I really hate the thought of anyone watching this on YouTube. (Plus, from looking at the running time on the video, this isn't even the "complete" film.)

    And you'll have to take my word about Mr Tony Pacheco of St Columba's. I wasn't a favourite student of his - in fact I doubt he ever registered my presence - but the quote mentioned above is one of my three guiding principles (the other two come from Groucho Marx and from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

  10. Sudipta Bhattacharjee4:43 PM, December 13, 2012

    Salman and Akshay immediately after Brakhage? Somewhat like a Maharaja Mac after 'El Bulli' - no? :-)

  11. "If you can't do, you're a gaandu."

    Thank you. That is the newest addition to my favorite quotes!

  12. That was really nice, Jai. I've seen a few Brakhages (though not in Campervision). They're some sort of stunning, but it's difficult to know what one's gained from them after they're done.

  13. OH surely , watching Mothlight on YT would be like driving a Ferrari on a road in Bangalore . But is there some Brakhage film or feature that is a little more ... I don't know , accessible ? I am really interested but afraid I don't yet have the focus to understand and appreciate something like Mothlight .

    And ...I am sure Mr Pacheco will be proud to know that :) though I am pretty sure he never really understood that word , much like a lot of us Goan kids growing up back in the 90s :). OK , I'll stop before I turn this into one of my nostalgia driven rants.

  14. Prashila: I mentioned "Window Water Baby Moving" in the post - much more accessible, and easier on the brain, than "Mothlight".

  15. Ha ha ha ha ha....funny thing that Pacheco used to say. I can imagine a Goan saying something like this...Don't know if you have heard of a funny Goan politician by the name of Mickey Pacheco, who was arrested for slapping a govt officer or something like that...