942 (84). The Art of Vision (1965, Stan Brakhage)

screened December 22 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center TSPDT rank #677 IMDb

In some ways, Stan Brakhage's 4-plus hour magnum opus isn't so much an epic of experimental cinema as the most intensely comprehensive horror movie that hardly anyone has seen. It's a horror of metaphysical proportions: its five-part structure takes universal elements of existence and renders them into a symphony of shock visuals inducing a state of alienated perception.  Brakhage's exhaustive vision summons a bracing repertoire of filming and editing techniques, including whip pans, color tints, lens distortions, and scratched and painted frames. Assaulting and enthralling, this technique calls attention to the celluloid medium existing almost independently of the real world, and impels an ethos of seeing for seeing's sake.

The Prelude launches a barrage of images of the natural world chopped and decontextualized into a stream of organic gibberish. It's a ruthless effort to deprogram viewers from their anchoring in narrative and divorce vision from cognition, replacing meaning with the sheer sensory power of image-in-itself.  It's somewhat puzzling that he follows this brazen opening with Part I, which teases a basic narrative of Brakhage arduously scaling a snowy mountain, suggesting a symbolic struggle of everyday life. Part II returns to a more abstract representation, intercutting shots of an infant with flashes of the world around it: the bewilderment of childhood, naked and exposed to a fearsomely vast universe.

Part III, the most wildly sensual section, can stand on its own as one of the longest and strangest sexual acts ever committed to celluloid. Sex is conveyed not through literal intercourse but through lingering close-ups of skin and hair, lurid orange and blue tinted glimpses of naked flesh writhing in fluid, and nauseating shots of guts being torn apart, conveying both a physical and emotional rending of self in the throes of erotic passion.  It's charged with both excitement and dread, horrified and inflamed by sex as an act of both love and violence.

Part IV seems to end over and over in a relentless loop, repeatedly showing Brakhage hacking away at a tree with an ax, existence as a restless cycle of debilitation slowly winding down to death, while flashing to distorted shots of body parts, landscapes and scratched and painted celluloid. In the end, there is only the work as a remnant of life's toil and suffering, whose value amounts to nothing more than fiery embers eagerly consuming its own existence.

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The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Art of Vision on the TSPDT list of 1000 Greatest Films:

Annette Michelson, Sight & Sound (1992) Jonas Mekas, Sight & Sound (1992) Michael Tolkin, Sight & Sound (1992) Paul Arthur, Village Voice (1999) Yoel Meranda, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Stan Brakhage, 37, a husky hypochondriac who lives with his wife and five children in a log cabin in Colorado, has radically rewritten movie grammar. By fragmenting his films into frames, Brakhage has established the frame in cinema as equivalent to the note in music; whereupon he proceeds to make films with frames the way a composer makes music with notes. His Art of Vision, an attempt to do for cinema what Bach did for music with his Art of the Fugue, is an ambitious example of what Brakhage calls retinal music. One problem: to watch the violently flickering flick for 4½ hours, a spectator would require steel eyeballs.

- from "Art of Light & Lunacy: The New Underground Films," Time Magazine, February 17, 1967

The Art of Visionis a film that can change our whole ideas about the relationship of seeing, perception, and emotion with the preoccupations of the mind and the subconscious. The immediate effect of seeing the film for the first few times is to discover oneself infinitely more sensitive to the meanings inherent in our perceptions of the physical qualities of everyday objects. To put it bluntly, Brakhage has shown the value and meaning of real seeing. The manner in which we perceive the physical structure of the world around us determines our view of that world. This is the principle on which all great films have been based. But it has never been clearer than in The Art of Vision.

- Fred Camper, from his indispensible introduction to The Art of Vision, first published in Film Culture 46, Autumn 1967

The Art Of Vision, which is made up of Dog Star Man , has a rather elaborate structure of relationships, and it is these interrelationships that make up the content of the film. The basic action is Brakhage himself portraying a woodsman with an axe, climbing a mountain with a tree, followed by his dog. He plants the tree, then tears it down and chops it up. But the things that are filmed mean far more to Brakhage. He has said, "I saw the whole forest in relation to the history of architecture, particularly religious architecture, at least in the western world. Sensing structure, architecture, history of the world emerging, I began seeing prismatic happenings through snow falling, etc., and in relation to stained glass windows, for one example." Another example of symbolism is the white tree, of which Brakhage said: "There are other kinds of white trees (there can be a silver tree) but if it's a white tree, then in the mind it's a dead tree." During the film, Brakhage journeys up the mountain, this is another gesture of symbolism, perhaps of conquest or exploration. His battle with the dog possible represents man coping with beast. The man is Brakhage himself-- he is his own alter ego. This symbolic complexity, of which Brakhage has a reason for every fragment, is combined with an attempt to illustrate the dream process. Apart from the natural abstraction of hand painting, everything else in the film is "hyperconscious." In essence, "The Art of Vision" is composed of the sum total of Brakhage's own accumulated experience from what he sees and how he lives, to what he has read.

- Pip Chodorov with quotes from Film Is by Dwoskin pp. 150-151, posted by Roger Raymond Jr.

Really when I had the sense of being finished with this work was when the four and one-half hour work got a title separate from the seventy-five minute Dog Star Man composite. That happened when I visited the Kellys. We looked at all that material in order I had given it. The morning after we had seen the whole thing, [Richard] Kelly said at breakfast: "It seems to me you ought to read a life of Johann Sebastian Bach." We took another couple of sips of coffee, and I thought, "Un-humm, well, that would be a good thing to do." Then suddenly he came out with: "Well, to get that sense of form whereby a whole work can exist in the center of another work, or spiral out into pieces in another work, as in Baroque music, and that second arrangement be another piece entirely." I said: "Well, you mean like - but that isn't exactly what happens in The Art of the Fugue, but something like that." Suddenly he came out with: "Why don't you call it The Art of Vision?" Immediately that seemed to me a completely perfect thing to do.

- Brakhage, interviewed by P. Adams Sitney. Published in Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000. Published by Oxford University Press US, 2002. Page 204.

An art of vision possible in a medium that has dominated our century and that herewith frees itself from dependence on all other art forms. Film has tended, even in the most experimental contexts, to be a composite of literary and plastic arts, dance and music, the eye at the mercy of intention, culture, pretense, and imitations. Now Brakhage's Art of Vision exists utterly free of all that. It is a totality of making so intense it becomes a systematic exploration of the forms and terms of the medium itself. To explore the form without exhausting the form: A definitive making in any art is the health of the whole art, of the arts. Art in its oldest sense is skill, skill of making; The Art of Vision is the skill of making seeing. The Art of Vision, The Art of The Fugue, a presumptuous comparison only so long as we accord film only evidential value. This film makes immediate the integrity of the medium. Climax of the edited film, a new continent of the eye's sway. Mind at the mercy of the eye at last.

- Richard Kelly, "On the Art of Vision." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James. Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32

What interested me most about "The Art of Vision" was the effect the repetition of the images had on my mind. It was, in itself, a metaphor for seeing.

When an image is repeated many times, superimposed with different shots, and each time put into a totally different "context" by the shots preceding them, it is impossible to not realize how our seeing is affected by the state of our brains. The experience of the image is completely different each time it is shown and to realize of our ability to experience such different feelings towards the same "thing" is simply mind opening.

"Dog Star Man" is one of my favorite films, although I have seen it only on DVD. I also had the chance to inspect it frame by frame many times, which I'm sure added a lot to its pleasure. Watching "The Art of Vision" was completely different partly because of what I have mentioned above.

Also, I knew a bit about the film's structure but for some reason I thought the last reel of "Dog Star Man" would climb to a climax at the end, the individual rolls followed by more and more complicated superimpositions. I was wrong, of course, Brakhage knows much better than that. The sense of that amazingly beautiful 4-reel superimposition decomposing helps the film blend into the daily life, something very rare in cinema.

- Yoel Meranda, posted on a_film_by

About Stan Brakhage

The center of Brakhage's theoretical discourse was always the poetics of vision. In his later formulations, he used the phrase "moving visual thinking" to denote the incessant moiling of the optical matrices that ground all acts of seeing (even in sleep), which he repeatedly insisted are prior to and beyond the reach of language. His first dramatic act of artistic self-incarnation, at the age of seventeen, was to throw away his glasses. Here's what he told interviewer Scott MacDonald:

One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said, "Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn't even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head." ... I wasn't trying to invent new ways of being a filmmaker, that was just a byproduct of my struggle to come to a sense of sight.

- P. Adams Sitney, from his eulogy for Brakhage, Artforum, 2003

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."

To see is to retain- to behold. Elimination of all fear is in sight - which must be aimed for. Once vision may have been given - that which seems inherent in the infant's eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify signts - an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see.

But one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot. Yet I suggest that there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.

- Brakhage, from "Metaphors of Vision." Published in Religion, Art, and Visual Culture: A Cross-cultural Reader, edited by S. Brent Plate. Published by Macmillan, 2002. Page 46.

Brakhage's great subject was light itself, its infinite varieties seen as manifestations of unbounded and unrestricted energy and its concretization into objects representing the trapping of that energy, and his great desire was to make cinema equal to the other arts by using that which was uniquely cinematic — by organizing light in the time and space of the projected image — in a way that would be worthy, structurally and aesthetically, of the poetry, painting, and music that most inspired him. The subtleties of his work, the intricacy with which he used composition and color and texture and rhythm, resulted in films that

Chartres Series
strip from Chartres Series courtesy: The Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper (www.fredcamper.com).

virtually demand multiple viewings. The best known and most important of avant-garde filmmakers, he was also in my estimation among the half-dozen greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium — and, as I believe time will establish, one of the very greatest artists of the 20th century in any medium.

His central achievement is often seen as the personalizing of the medium, his transformation of the projected image away from the relatively neutral record of the world to which documentaries aspire to an expression of an individual's emotions, ideas, dreams, fantasies, visions, eye-music, closed-eye seeing, and nightmares. To achieve this transformation he marshaled — and in some cases pioneered — a daunting panoply of techniques, from out of focus and over and under exposure to rapid editing to painting directly on the film strip to anamorphic distortion to collaging objects directly onto celluloid to heating raw stock before exposure. Hand holding his camera allowed him to transfer his own physiology to film, through a controlled use of jiggle that suggested his pulse and heartbeat.

But "personal" cinema is in some sense too easy: almost any film student can figure out how to use imagery and editing to express an emotion, and Brakhage always meant to present much more than the affections. More significant is the way that his films elude predictability. There is, of course, none of the arc of anticipation created by conventional narrative, but his films are also less predictable even than those of most of his colleagues. At the moment that a few seconds of a Brakhage film appear to be establishing a pattern, he breaks the pattern, and his purpose in doing so was not simply to be contrary. At the center of his ethos is a desire to create a filmic parallel to what Gertrude Stein, a major influence, called the "continuous present." His films don't present themselves as a mappable terrain each part of which helps one understand the other — and in that sense his work is the antithesis of Peter Kubelka's, though they admired each other's achievement — but rather they continually locate, and relocate, the individual viewer in the perceptual instant. While the paragraph about trying to imagine childhood vision that began his first book, Metaphors on Vision, is his most-often quoted statement, less often mentioned is the desire, expressed in that same paragraph, to try to experience everything in life as "an adventure of perception." But "adventure of perception" is what his films aspire to: his avoidance of predictable forms places the viewer at the center of a figuring-out process that will not only be different for each viewer but is never intended to lead to a fixed conclusion.

One small detail of Brakhage's work that all too often gets left out is that his films are stunningly, even ravishingly beautiful. It's no easy or static prettiness that he was after, but the kind of beauty that cleans out one's sensorium, that seems to scour one's sight all the way from the cornea to the optic nerve, that reorients the very way one sees. Brakhage's films serve as eye-training, both for seeing other films and as an opening onto more imaginative ways of seeing the world. If I had a friend who wanted me to teach him how to look at films, and unlimited access to an archive of world cinema, I'd begin with a couple of months worth of Brakhage.

- Fred Camper, Senses of Cinema

Brakhage has moved... through the climate and space of Abstract Expressionism, severing every tie to that space of action which Eisenstein's montage had transformed into the space of dialectical consciousness. Brakhage posits optical space as the "uncorrupted" dwelling of the Imagination which constitutes it. Dissolving the distance and resolving the disjunction Eisenstein had adopted as the necessary conditions of cinema's cognitive function, he proposes, as the paradigm of contemporary montage style, an alternative to Intellectual Cinema: the Cinema of Vision.

- Annette Michelson, "Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura." From Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Edited by David E. James. Published by Temple University Press, 2005. p. 32 p. 36

One result of superimposition, collage, painting, negative imagery, fast cutting, anamorphic photography, and swish panning was the flattening of the visual field. In demoting photographic depth from the norm to the exceptional instance, Brakhage pushed the filmic image in the direction of the most ambitious painting of his older contemporaries, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and others without yet embracing their commitment to abstraction.

- Ted Perry, Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Published by Indiana University Press, 2006. Page 107.

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