“What the hell did I just watch?” was a common utterance after an experimental film in cinema studies class. It’s also exhilarating to hear from fellow students who wanted to make or critique film, but had been exposed to Steven Spielberg or other filmmakers of the blockbuster ilk. You’re in class to discover how historically consecutive filmmakers came up with the wild explosions and the odd camera angles that elicit feeling from the image or image from the feeling. More often than not, these budding filmmakers and reviewers would leave class emboldened to explore the world of sound production, editing, cinematography, etc., because film became more than just the movie: it became mostly about the journey from idea to screen.
That journey is a recurring theme in most of my critiques. Whether a film is good or bad, the influence it might have on future filmmakers is palpable in the textures and constraints of those future films. Stan Brakhage’s work had a deep impact on me purely for his personal approach to the craft. To him, his films were art, like a painting made to move.
Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me. I don’t have enough money to make these films, and … I’m not feeding my children properly, because of these damn films, you know. And I’m burning up here… What can I do?” I’m feeling the full horror of some kind of immolation, in a way.” -Brakhage, wiki
To make Mothlight, Brakhage collected hundreds of insect wings, petals, blades of grass, pollen, and leaves and meticulously pressed them together with tape and then fed that tape into a projector.
“Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.”
The word visceral is overused these days (as is eviscerated – heck I misuse it all the time – language evolution, baby), but Brakhage took the detritus of nature that was once alive, and viscerally made it fly, live, and move again through the light of the projector. It’s made even more surreal to realize that this technique made actual objects the film itself and thus are made alive as we view the film. The film is only about four minutes in length, silent, and put in 16mm.
The only thing you hear is the soft crackle of the tape as the objects roll by. A mind might wander and hear the crackle as the flutter of wings, the pop of petals as a flower blooms, the slight flick as a moth gets too close to the fire, or the final dusty vestiges of the film’s inhabitants. These aren’t ghosts of things once real, these are flora’s antiquities roaming a projector’s lights. These things are real.
What catches me every time I think of and watch this film are Brakhage’s own struggles with poverty, isolation, and depression. Although he was surrounded by supporters of his work, there was also derision of his process, and a continual search for a connection in his eccentric authenticity. He had a genuine search for expression and this film is a testament to that. Mothlight was birthed from the mind of artist wanting to convey a captured moment. He saw the sad state of these forgotten jewels of nature and in them saw his own mortality. Anyone else would have simply dusted or cleaned. Brakhage saw the metaphor beyond the instant, and expressed it in visual poetry using light as the descriptor and sequence as an almost never-ending coda in this work. It’s takes the narrative form of film to a whole new level. Instead of making a movie, Brakhage posits a series of visuals as statements. What the statements are is the purest dialogue between filmmaker and the audience: This is the beauty of death. When you stop viewing, they become trash again.
Where will your mind take you?
I couldn’t really cling to anyone during film class when it was shown (for it was quite an emotional reaction I got of such a simple film), as one does at a date when seeking comfort or shielding from a stressful view. I contributed to the discussion a bit, but from what I remember I left class that day wondering why the film clung to me. What’s sadder than to know that the objects that Brakhage put on that film do not exist anymore? I then extended that thought by envisioning all the old films and all the old music I hear. Those people don’t exist anymore. The laughter, the screams (hello Wilhelm), the actors, the sound people, the cinematographers, the filmmakers, etc. most of them are dead, yet they still entertain us. They still elicit emotions and we, as the viewers, recreate their visions in our heads upon the viewing.
Thus, Mothlight stands as a great example of a seminal filmmaker merging visual art and its language and making them the allegorical simulacrum of all of our eventual fates. It’s gorgeous in the viewing and emotionally gripping in its rendering.
Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (excerpt)
It would behoove me to mention that Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (which will be analyzed at some point here), had a bigger impact on my psyche, but seeing as I’m working on holiday reviews Mothlight stood out some how. For now, stay tuned for my analysis of Die Hard in our next instalment of J and J Christmas film series.