Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker by Stan Brakhage

Stan Brakhage died of cancer induced, he says in an interview on the Criterion Collection’s DVD anthology of 26 of his films, By Brakhage, by the dyes he used to hand-paint many of his avant-garde films. He left a body of work that includes nearly 400 films ranging in length from nine seconds to four hours, as well as numerous lectures, essays and books. The present collection of “Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker” (as the editor, Bruce McPherson, has subtitled the book), are all but two of his contributions to the quarterly Toronto magazine Musicworks, written between 1989 and 1999. As a child, Brakhage was a musical prodigy, grew up aspiring to be a poet, and was influenced by Abstract Expressionism as a young man in New York before turning to filmmaking. These depths of influence and aspiration are all represented among the essays in Telling Time.

In addition to his wide-ranging interest in (as poet and founding editor of Sulfur Clayton Eshelman calls it) “the whole art,” Brakhage was also, apparently from the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, interested in healing the rift between art and science. Many of the essays here, like so many of his films, reflect that interest, and reveal a mind striving to understand how it is that embodied consciousness produces creative works. Brakhage’s writing is far from perfect: his style is hobbled by an adherence to an avant-garde philosophical and modernist-cum-post-structuralist syntax that muddies the waters of his vision. But it is easy to forgive the stilted writing style as waves of brilliance roll over the reader, providing a breath-taking view of a sincere mind ardently calling from the holistic depths where science and art are finally reunited.

Perhaps the best place to begin to describe Brakhage’s vision of a healed marriage of art and science is where he does, with poetry, and specifically with a trio of lines from Charles Olson:

Of rhythm is image.

Of image is knowing.

And of knowing there is a construct.

For Brakhage, the ur-image was “the very beat of the heart.” Brakhage’s remarriage—and the prefix is needed because Brakhage, so very widely read, saw that the breakup occurred only, at the very earliest, in the Middle Ages—is, to repeat, of the “whole art”—poetry being inseparable from music and in turn inseparable from the visual arts—and biology. Thus the beating heart is a rhythm-image “down to each cell,” cells “which surge to various agreements of variably complex pulses always at subtle odds with clock or metronome…, so that finally each pause of eyes, and the mind’s ‘take’ of in-coming light is as the eyes’ cells need (or knead) it” and “have it ‘by heart.’” Here is a grand remarriage indeed—the needing knead of desirously aesthetic cells! Or, better, though less poetically, Brakhage’s is a holism of homegrown science and handmade art. Still startling in the 21st century is the film Brakhage made in the ’60s, Window Water Baby Moving, of his wife giving birth. Startling now, controversial then, but always embraced and shown as an educational film by home-birthing clinics.

The word in that title, “Moving,” is a key term in Brakhage’s theoretical thought. Though his column was called “Telling Time,” time is only ever relative to motion: time is the “false notion of… absolute abstract regulator.” Brakhage is in full post-Newtonian love with Einsteinian relativity. “The first ‘movie’ might be said to have been the extreme slow motion of shifting star configurations which shepherds watched and chronicled from generation to generation….” This is perhaps hardly surprising for a man who embraces rhythm as image and who thought, as he tells us over and over again, at 24 frames per second. Image, then, is not only rhythm, but also light, and humans, forever “terrified by The Infinite… reduc[e] all light display into Narrative Dramatic form (with, as Aristotle finally froze it, ‘beginning, middle and ending’).” The poetry (from Greek poiétés, a making) of the heartbeat has no definitive beginning or end when viewed in the endless cycle of reproduction: we say, “the child is father to the man,” but really, the mother is node in the ever-on heartbeat matrix.

And thus Brakhage’s rejection of narrative form (and, by default in our culture, his rejection of commercial success) and his bracing embrasure of the dance of light. No “diamond” of narrativity “will ever be shaped by sparkling meat brain; and all attempts at such crystallation [sic] of flowing thought process tend to produce some made thing reminiscent of ice jam-up, rather than any object reflectively worthy of the moving lights of the mind which made it….” Narrative and time, then, are right out the window because “the heart can no longer… be represented rhythmically ‘1-2-3-4.’ The brain has been trained to think ‘classical,’… but: it is wet, flexible, and intrinsically non-repetitive, yet structured responsibly variable—i.e., as a system of corollary variation (most usually mistaken as repetitions).” The heart, the brain: are these not musical organs? They certainly are for Stan Brakhage. “All human expression,” he insists, “has to be based on bio-logic.” The body, in other words, is not to be understood as the “biological reception of impulse from the external world”; the body is the source of (to use the paradigm of all bio-aesthetic words) inspiration. The brain, the heart, the breath—all are “responsibly variable” to self, other and world: a feedback and –forward looping of bio-aesthetic processes.

World, self and other: there is always some “ ‘third’ thing” for Brakhage, “which is intermediary between at least two senses” or processes: “the eyes, say,” as link between brain, self, and world, “give birth to a song.” This is quintessential Brakhage, his heartsong, as revealed in his many films of stained glass-song in motion (e.g., the nine-second Eye Myth, the breath taking Black Ice, as well as so many others—I urge the reader to indulge her or himself in the Criterion Collection’s By Brakhage). But this “third thing” might inspire a critic/reader/viewer of Brakhage to investigate his philosophical depths. For the “third” was a key term for the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

Peirce’s semiotic, already revising Sausure’s dualism before Sausure was even working, rested on the notion of a triadic relationship between sign, initiator (or speaker/maker) and interpreter. Brakhage, though he neither (at least here) mentions Peirce nor uses the word “semiotic,” indulges us in a sort of hermetic semiotics: the heartbeat of man-world inspires the man to make art for the world—and the world, in turn (in turn simultaneously, as Brakhage insists on the feed-forward of all processes), is the animal-man. (I say “man,” but I suspect Brakhage would insist on some non-gender specific complexification of that idea—a complexification seen in a moving strip of film full of diagonals/horizontals, as if to say: nothing-is-ever-so-simple….) The Olson triad of rhythm—image—knowledge-construct is a hidden Peircian depth to Brakhage’s thinking- and feeling-human’s poetics, and one that speaks to the truth that “Life itself is ONLY personally perceptible.” Or, to quote Brakhage quoting Gertrude Stein (as he loves to do), and putting this idea poetically: “I came to Cézanne and there you were, at least there I was…”

If a triadic semiotic is a hidden depth in Brakhage, what is overt is his fascination, throughout this collection, with teleology, with the biological ur-source of human art-vision. “The eye and the brain,” he writes, “are only two organs in the human body which extend identical cellular links to each other: the eye, therefore, can be considered the surfacing of the brain.” First, a word on his emphasized can: I suspect he is responding to the traditional neuroscientific premise that synaptic processes only flow signals in one direction. Brakhage, though, was prescient: in the current (December, 2004) issue of Scientific American is an article about “the brain’s own marijuana” which suggests that the endocannabinoids form a neural matrix that allow the transfer of signals in what can only be described, in Brakhagian language, as feed-forward and –back loops of information.

Just as fascinating in the eye-brain context, though, is Brakhage’s insistence on “hypnagogic” imagery. The reader can easily induce the very images Brakhage sees: press your fingers gently against your closed eyelids and enjoy the (as they’ve been called) “eyelid movies.” These eyelid movies are a result, Brakhage says, of “(1) the various brain-cell forms, (2) the inter-connective [i.e., eye-brain nervous] tissue formation, (3) the optic-cell receptor shapes [rods and cones] as well as (4) the transformative shape-shifting which is implicit in the entire feed-forth-and-back process.” Stan Brakhage, latter-day Leonardo, home-brewing a science to explain and understand his (and others’) art, and yeasting it all with a frothy poetic sensibility—a marvel! But again a hidden depth in these pages: Brakhage, in discussing what are commonly called “eyelid movies,” and that he refers to as the hypnagogic “ur-cathexis or ‘the first investment’ [playing here on the etymological meaning of “cathexis”] in what comes later to be known as memory” is connecting cave- and rock-art of “primitive” peoples with the “avant-garde.” For, indeed, some anthropologists (namely Lewis-Williams and Dowson, in their 1989 article “The Signs of All Times”) suggest that “entoptic [literally “inner view”] patterns” arise spontaneously within the central nervous system as a part of the eye-brain cellular loop, and form the basis of images seen in Paleolithic and other, later, rock- and cave-art. These images are the spirals, cross-hatchings and starbursts that so fascinated the filmmaker-as-painter Brakhage in his search for a “phoneme phenomenology.” “[T]here are visible patterns intrinsic to humans which occur with such frequency throughout our Art record, or picture History, wide world over, that one is tempted to think these aesthetic forms originate as cellular manifestations, as process of sparked cell shape, as aggregate process of such, without any particular respect for input from the visible world.” In other words, as Brakhage quotes Blake, “There is a world in a grain of sand,” and that world is the organism itself, self-stimulating itself into consciousness. And here Brakhage turns to Merleau-Ponty, who wrote (in Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language) that “[t]he same relationship exists between babbling and language as between scribbling and drawing.”

Brakhage, finally, does not tell stories in the traditional sense. Or, maybe, it is precisely a tradition of storytelling he engages in, a tradition that is primal and that exists beyond all cultural constructs of narrative arc. For, despite his disavowal of narrative, he does tell a story, a story of a grand vision arcing from the brain-in-formation to the mature brain as maker of art and memory in motion that is “witness to another order.” As Brakhage quotes Merleau-Ponty, who in turn was thinking of Edward Sapir’s Language, “language has no organs. All the organs that contribute to language already have another function…. Language introduces itself as a superstructure, that is, as a phenomenon that is already a witness to another order.”

Brakhage, to conclude, gives a call to action for artists and scientists. Let us heal this damaging breech between our venues of investigation. Let us celebrate the emergent property of consciousness, this amazing rhythm that arises as a sum so much greater than its constituent parts, and sing, with the bushy-headed, fuzzy logician Stan Brakhage, the eye-songs of a new bio-aesthetics.

This review was originally published in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, vol. 5, no 3, Dec. 2004, University of Wales Aberystwyth, Dept. of Theatre, Film and Television Studies

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