Cinema as Divine Light: An Introduction to Brakhage
“There is no innocent eye,” writes Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art. “[It] always comes ancient to its work, obsessed by its own past.” According to this view, the eye is a compromised gatekeeper, one whose discernments reflect the particularities of the beholder and their social environment more than any objective reality. These “obsessions,” in artistic terms, are formal, narrative, reliant on naturalized significations and predictable meanings that exist within a well-ordered compositional logic.
Goodman’s ocular pessimism — the belief that the eye must necessarily carry the burden of its history — has been disputed by numerous artists who seek to undermine the centrality of the inculcated eye, reclaim the organ’s “innocence,” and trouble cultural assumptions about the predominant logic of art.
Nineteenth-century English art critic John Ruskin argues that “the whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify.” What the struggle for ocular innocence entails is a cessation of the interpreting mind (which is too often at the mercy of machinic modes of exegesis), and a disruption of the semantics and semiotics that have naturalized and hierarchized certain interpretative modes over others. Elaborating on Ruskin’s point around a century later, filmmaker Stan Brakhage writes the following paragraph in Metaphors on Vision (1963):
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the beginning was the word.
The ocular model Brakhage outlines in the above passage dichotomizes constructivist forms of interpretation, which argue that “perception is indirect in the sense that we usually depend on internal processes instead of direct perception,” with a “bottom-up” form of processing in which surface details captured in our visual field exist autonomously from our sense-making processes. Brakhage employed a “bottom-up” aesthetic in his art which sought to free what he viewed as a boundless, almost spiritual desire for creative expression from the restrictive dictates of filmic convention — to “untutor” the eye. Nevertheless, Robert Kelly’s view that Brakhage’s Dog Star Man is “mind at the mercy of eye” is misleading, since it may give the impression that his films are shallowly aesthetic works. This is not the case. There was a conscious political agenda guiding Brakhage’s work which sought to “offer a touchstone in the expression and sharing of [one’s] own singular vision through film.”
Brakhage’s catalogue is itself an extended adventure in perception, a quest for new forms of meaning-making within the filmic medium. His work has a reputation for being difficult and patience-testing, but this is true only insofar as it clashes with the dominant methods of film narrative promoted in mainstream productions. His aesthetic practice is often based around the manipulation of the actual celluloid film strip — painting on the surface, scratching and otherwise defacing it — to create a flow of seemingly disconnected but nonetheless meaning-laden signifiers which contrast with more sclerotic modes of filmmaking that have been naturalized over decades through a profit model championed by industrial-scale filmic productions. The soothing modes by which industrial film production (what Adorno and Horkheimer call “the culture industry”) acculturates the eye to its stylistic conventions has created a situation in which, as Gareth Evans writes, “the eye can become affected by a cultural languor [and] our visual experience [can] stagnate…determined by a consensus on how reality should be seen and understood.”
Brakhage’s films aim to disrupt this hegemonic reality by offering a new understanding of filmic art unaffected by any “cultural languor.” His approach is similar to that which Ezra Pound and the Modernists pursued in the early twentieth century when they sought to “break the pentameter” — to disrupt the cultural languor surrounding poetry. Both Brakhage and Pound were influenced in their respective projects by premodern theological philosophy, a peculiar inspiration for artists seeking to revitalize their forms but one which can nevertheless introduce a captivating strangeness when transplanted to the modern context. Guy Davenport summed up Pound’s aims thusly: “find what is best in the past and pass it on.” In this regard, Pound borrowed from a dizzying variety of figures and traditions, most relevantly premodern theologians including John Scotus Erigena (800–877) and Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253). In his eleventh-century treatise De Luce, the latter theologian posits that light is the “first form,” and thus the godliest, and all corporeal matter is an extension of its divine glow.
Brakhage was introduced to the light philosophy of Grosseteste through the work of Pound, whose Cantos had a profound impact on the filmmaker’s artistic formation. Brakhage often asserted that “All that is is light,” reworking a quote from Grosseteste, who argued that corporeality is divine light reflected back onto itself and given material contours: “Light in a bind,” as Brakhage said.
The process of cinema is itself, like Grossteste’s understanding of light as “the first form” emanating from a central point, given shape by the projection and expansion of illumination. Richard Ashrowan writes that “Grosseteste’s notion of light animating prime matter, can be seen as a direct analogue for the relationship between light and film matter…[Light] hits the filmstrip, enters its material body and imprints itself within physical matter.” He adds: “This goes to the heart of the cinematic experience, wherein tiny images on filmstrip are thrown by means of light into dimensions of immense proportion. This capacity for expansion, central to the whole apparatus of film, mirrors Grosseteste’s cosmogony.”
Brakhage once said that “thought is illumination.” Thought, in other words, is the divine light that provides form to cinematic expression. In his dazzling catalogue of work, one sees a filmmaker working toward a new understanding of cinema, a reworking of the craft which decenters industrial conventions and inaugurates a model of film in which the “illuminative sight” of the filmmaker and the materiality of the film strip itself dictate form. The ultimate goal — which Brakhage pursues through a self-reflexive approach common to the New American Cinema, through an appreciation for the materiality of the art, and through a syncretic Modernist approach influenced by Pound and the premodern light philosophers — is an “untutoring of the eye,” a revolutionary approach to cinema which emphasizes formal innovation over complacency with existing forms.