Letter from Stan Brakhage to Annette Michelson
In continuation then of our phone conversation several evenings ago...; and I will try to tract some shifts in perception of my most recent film works, keeping in mind that "aesthetics" means simply "to perceive" (my underline), and thus that the works them -elves did not spring from these following considerations anymore than that a baby chick springs from some scientist's analysis of the embroyo. It is as an intensive viewer of my most recent films that I come to understand certain ’directions’ of filmic growth, certain new definitions of the art of cinema; in fact, two of these new films ("eyes" and "Deus Ex") prompt ways-of-seeing so extremely different from most of my earlier work as to constitute a counter-measure in the field of aesthetics.
"One must talk about everything according to its nature, how it come3 to be and how it grows."
— Herakleitos, trans. Guy Davenport.
I was being cautious when I wrote "constitute a counter-measure" — "the counter-measure" might be more accurate; for the instant I shift that emphasis, I can trace this aesthetic ’direction' counter-clock-wise all the way back to the beginning of my film-making; and I can in fact trace it all the way back to the beginning of the history of motion pictures.
I am going to have to be ridiculously simple about these matters, or this letter would immediately take on the proportions of a very large book. Accept my simplicities then, please.
Any possible aesthetics of Film begins with the ability to perceive some films of The Lumiere Brothers; .Even the earliest movies from the Edison studio, as well as all his ’black box’ flics, rarely involve the viewer in perception. There is very little within the Edison product which can be more than seen with the eyes, very little to be grasped by any total consciousness. Edison’s toys are simply ’in the works'. They do not tend to work on and on within the imagination as do those of Brothers Lumiere. At the beginning of Film, thus, we have at least one exemplified distinction between any possible Art of Film and sheer Artifacts. The Shears, however, are not as sharp as one's intellect might like. The threads of Art possibilities root themselves in Edison’s workings as ’hangovers’, one might say (any piece of an Edison toy which hangs out of the product of itself). But at least we feel that the roots of many Lumiere films are solidly rooted in the imagination and that, thus, there are branch,'. S of one’s perception of their films, leaves moving in wind's one did not blow into those works of oneself (ie., one didn't have to puff them up into an aesthetic) AND an occasional very real flower (if we can take those breath-giving instants, when one's body involutarily sighs inward, as such) and once in a while an absolute toad (if one can credit the definition of poetry as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them").
Alright, then, along came George Melies, whom we’ll now credit as the first essential innovator of Film, meaning that he was the first whose very essence is affect. Cut of his own disturbed inner (imaged!) nature, George \- ; .Artist
as magician) shared 'a world’ of Film. His films were so reflective of his most personal state-of-nerves, so effectual thus, as to avoid Affectation alto-
gather; and, as is usual in these cases, he was solidly grounded in a specific tradition of The Arts at large. He grew within a very intellectually-fenced field of consideration (no! — one should really call his’grounds' a highly-walled garden, a cloister amidst a reconstructed mediaeval castle located somewhere between Sienna and Florence.) George's 'world', including the life he lived exterior to it, can be ### 'read' as the last unwritten chapter of the Legende des Siecles. He inherited Hugo’s tattered 'fin' and kept it fluttering another 15 years or so in the light of 'movies', in the very eye-teeth of the belated popularity of Impressionism. George also got a rather v/orn New Art cape or two from England; and he even borrowed the invisible spectacles of Zola several times (his Dreyfus film and moments in many works such as
"Paris to Monte Carlo", the beginnings and endings of his
fantasy films, "Trip To The Moon", etc.) I mean, George tried to cover all the aesthetic’bets' of the time. I find his spectacles 'more ’framed' by Sola than The Lumiere Bros. because he invented those particularities of detail which styled their beginnings and endings as Realistic (for very much the same reason as a ghost-story writer often makes his hero one who absolutely refuses to believe in ghosts).
The basic distinction I'm here-after making between The Lumiere Bros. and George Melies is that the former accepted the machine-invented 'world' of film and proceed to discover the intrinsic possibilities of The Art of Film; whereas George Melies was the first film-maker so obscessed as to have to follow along a line of thought-sight, to pitch his inner visions in relation to those of all others in the late Romantic grab-bag, The Decadents,
The Symbolists, and even the Pre-Raphaelites (who gave him his 'ticket#' straight back to that major western perspective crisis at the birth of The Renaissance)...thus George finally taking unto himself the whole intellectual
history of western art.
You can always tell that a thesis is becoming too simple-minded when it starts leaning on distinctions between "intellect" and "emotion"; and I shall therefore proceed to make my distinctions in the Herakleitos-sense (as trans. by G.D.) between "intelligence" and "understanding":
"Let us therefore notice that understanding is common to all men, Understanding is common to all, yet each man acts as if his intelligence were private and all his own."
______ "Knowledge is not intelligence."
"I have heard many men talk, but none who realized that understanding is distinct from all other knowledge."
Without any particularly knowledgeable study of western arts, George assimilated the historically timely trappings to hang his own tortured innards upon (the best metaphor we might find to illustrate this particular angst of creation be Michelangelo's image of his own flayed skin painted into the
hands of the traditional Saints 'marching on',thru religious history, to the far wall of The Sistine Chapel.)
The Lumiere Bros. understood cinematography at scratch, the whole intrinsic possibility of Film as distinct from every other medium; but they were 'underwriters' as well -- rooted in the central possibilities of The Art of Film, its "common-laws", so to speak. Some of their images haunt, tho' the 'ghost' of this haunt is totally invisible to most aesthetes table-rapping and crystal-gazing at these films. The Art of The Lumiere Bros. is invisible, i.e. exceedingly transparent, to the normal means of western aesthetic Intel-
licence. And yet, sons of their images haunt! Enough said!
George Melies' art proclaims itself as such: Art! Tho' George himself
never made any particularities of this 'claim’, his works promote themselves with art-historical winds and absolute wings at every turn, re-dream the dreams (as George dreamed them) of the works of many previous men, hang upon the ledges of all previous knowing, all Melies-thought answering earlier thought. He too acted "as if his intelligence were private and all his own"; but he acted within that privacy of The World ' s intelligence, which always springs from inner conflict, always distorts what is phenomenologically given, always distinguishes itself"from ontology or the science of being" (to quote the dictionary, Am. Coll., on the subject of "phenomenology").
- The Lumiere Bros. more simply solidly were, in the more-than-less settled bourgeois and science-worshiping ’world’ of the late 19th century. When they 'took to thought' it was much as theologians of an established religion might fuss the numbers of angels on the head of a pin. Intelligence might have been thought-of, by them, as a common tool akin to Knowledge itself — thought and counter-thought simply the means of honing this tool. Knowledge, of course, would then mean "reference", Intelligence "reverence", etc. They would have found, and did find, personal distinction in "that understanding" which "is common to all men," The possible Art of either of then, or any of their cameramen, is to be found centered upon the occasion of this common understanding.
Their predecessors in the history of western arts are not often subject to/for or of aesthetic discourse. Consider the relationship between The Lumiere Bros. and, say, Jan Vermeer (perhaps the first painter to use camera optics) and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. What these men may be said to share is both a similarity of life-style AND the natural tendency in their works for The Art of them to remain invisible, or nearly so! All aesthetic discussion of the paintings and films of these men tends to break-down #### immediately as like/dis-like argument; and in the course of critical writing, one cannot do much more fancy-effete writ with the works of them than to wax rhetorical in admiration (the normal bourgeoisie response) or wane scientific in exploration of the _craft of each. Their Poetry ’kin’ are most often named "Anonymous" or else are women.
George Melies was the first aesthetically recognizable artist of Film. .
He began the search for Film’s relationship to all other arts. That search "rummaged ALL the visible and audible ’connections' intelligence could manage in more-or-less the fallowing order: Theatre, Painting (composition
only via theatrical ’flats’), The Novel (via affinity with Sola, Balsac, etc.) Poetry, The Dance, Painting, again (this time, about mid-40s, the ’whole hog' of it) Music (mid-50s now that the ’silent film’ reasserts itself) and then Sculpture and Architecture (with this mid-sixties 'structuralist' movement.) George, of course, only got as far as The Novel. All his films are, for instance, Poetic-enough; but none are shaped consciously by the art of language. George's Dance is entirely within-the-frame. Several subsequent film-
makers have tried two or more of the other Arts as prime sources of inspiration.
I have exhausted all of them for myself (with the possible exception of Architecture which wears me out).
The Lumiere Bros., of course, began with Still Photography. The ’magic’ was, then, ALL in the movement of these Stills. It still IS. The Art of the Lumiere films is as invisible as this ’stillness’. What more is there to say? Well, a great deal of course because so very little has been said or written about — what shall we call it?: the invisible art? ... Of — ah, yes! —
Film (happily accurate word!)
Ah well, Annette...(it is the morning after); and what have I got? — 'hung-over', so to speak: all the ’air' within the 'grab-bag', now that the 'toys' and conspicuous Art-works have been dumped upon the table of our consideration. What's left? Just us ghosts! To put it simply (far too simply!), among the many other duels of western arts, we have a 'cold war' going on between the self-proclaimed Arts and those that rather seek to conceal themselves as such. George Melies represents the former in Film; and The Lumiere Bros. the latter; but one should really say "the works" of these men, aside from the conscious intentions of the men themselves; for George certainly did not bother himself much about being proclaimed An Artist and The Lumieres certainly didn't "seek to conceal" any possible Art.
As long as I'm giving film-works a personality of their own distinct from the maker's (and each work certainly has one thus), I may as well bestow a personality on Film itself, that 'infant' of all forms of human expression.
The natural 'inferiority complex' of Baby Film has, I think, caused most filmmakers to work along George's line of creation, to fortify each work with a stack of historical references, to cause each individual film to
bristle obviously with tricks of the aesthetic trade...at least those filmmakers that were at all concerned with any such thing; (and even Hollywood directors continually feel the need to 'have their fling' at making an Art Film every now and desperately again). This proclivity almost always takes its cues from the fin de siecle, (comes out Hollywood-wise as 'dream sequences' and expressions of 'madness'); and then it works its way backward thru to the early stages of Romanticism, (the happy lovers permitting the Hollywood camera to go soft and tricky, etc.); and it forwards itself to the graveyard of Surrealism (after a proper funeral service, Hollywood-style, amidst The Symbolists — Freud ministering!) It is perfectly clear to me now why Parker Tyler thought me blasphemous when I broke the Surreal-barrier with "Anticipation of the Night": he was, and still is, amidst a religious service.
All this time, we have had almost no film art criticism at all; and what little there has been has been devoted to The Obvious in Art . Film Criticism, as a historical personality, suffers an even greater 'inferiority complex' than Film itself,
We have all, of course, 'missed the boat' that this 'Rock-a-by-Baby' most naturally inhabits. But don't, please, misunderstand me -- in that meantime, great works of film art#(or Art if you like) have been created; and some of them have been beautifully#'(or dutifully) criticised; and the relationship of Film of almost all other Arts has been established; and enough of this has been perceived to have created a solid Aesthetic of Cinema. I use "Cinema" to end that sentence, because it is that aspect (springing from the Greek "cinematographer" = "writer of movement") which has been most clearly established... not that aspect which I am calling Film. (We'll let Edison and Hollywood, etc., have they term "movies", "motion pictures", and so forth.)
But!, how are we to criticise or write about 'the invisible'; traditionally only Poets are considered capable of that. And that tells us precisely what we need: Aestheticians who work directly with the art of language! And yet, if even Vermeer and Chardin have lacked critical attention?. . . not to mention Le Nains, for instance; (and I did not mention them, even though# they'd have made a nice brother-pair alongside The Lumieres, because their paintings more readily raise the question of genre-art -- a subject that will merit a whole letter-in-itself some day). Well, but of course perception of Vermeer and Chardin has hatched some of the very greatest Aesthetic writing we have ever had — very few pieces, but each exceedingly fine.
Our finest admiration of Vermeer springs to a life of its own in Marcel Proust’s "Remembrance of Things Past”. The finest technical writ on hie works is prompted, naturally enough, by the fuss over Han van-Meegeren’s fake Vermeers. And there is a lesson for us in that. Certainly no one could have been fooled by van Meegeren’s clumsy ’30s'-poster images IF there had been sufficient perception of Vermeer’s technique.
Let me quote two brief examples of Aesthetics coming to terms with Chardin. You’ll note the same two extreme tendencies I mentioned earlier, the first example waxing with Admiration, the second a rather nicely wan Scientific analysis of technique. First Proust:
"Chardin has taught us that a pear is as much alive as a woman, and an ordinary jug can be as lovely as a jewel. This painter proclaimed the divine equality of all things before the spirit which beholds them and the light which enhances them.”
The second is by Diderot; (and it is important to realize that the more objective — and contemporary — approach to the area of any ’invisible art’ very often begins with such words as "magic” and a declaration of inability on the part of the reviewer):
"There is a magic in this art that passes our understanding. Sometimes thick coats of colour are applied one above the other so that their effects seep upward from below. At other times one gets the impression that a vapour has been floated across the canvas, or a light foam sprayed over it. Draw near, Everything becomes confused, flattens out, disappears, but step back and everything takes shape again, comes back to life."
(Both these quotes are from Georges Wildenstein's excellent book: "Chardin").
I find the above two quotes a kind of 'pliers' whereby one might come to grips with ... let me find a term other than "invisible" — assumed art!
As things stand now, "presumed" is, sadly, the more accurate term. Herakleitos says that "only movement can know movement"; and it is the principal# of language movement which can most closely express appreciation of motion pictures. Gertrude Stein would have made a wonderful movie critic. Any poetic involvement with grammer can technically perceive Cinematography. But Film? — ah . . . that involves ’writing between the lines', so to speak. Only the subtlest linguistic humility (a quality foreign to most art critics) could make an assumption manifest. I know this is true because at every splice in the direction of what I now call Film, I have had to "Extinguish pride as quickly as you would a fire" (to borrow Davenport’s Herakleitos again).
From the very beginning of my work all my films have contained that assumptive art working invisibly throughout; but most of these earlier works have been well hung-over in the tradition of Melies, etc. Some, however, have rested their aesthetics more upon the natural reproductive magic of Film than upon its theatrical-painterly-new-poetic-jigs,etc. It was usual for me, in those days, to worry about whether such film was an art at all. Take "Window Water Baby Moving", for an example. Surely the proven greatness of this film is not to be found in the inter-cut bath-tub and/or all those recapitulatory flashbacks throughout. These are fine-enough in themselves, structually solid, and all-of-apiece with the total work; but "Window Water Baby Moving" in all these times of its showing has proven that the heart of its matter is more subtly located than I had# ever imagined. For another example take "Lovemaking": surely the first sequence, with all its flashes of subjective reaction- prompted
by the various anguishes and lusts of the film-maker, does not begin to approach the greatness of sequence #4. "Loveniaking"s beginning is as sadly limited as "Anticipation of the flight’s" end — and for the same reasons! "Lovemaking" night be taken for a ’key’ to the considerations of this letter, because it progresses rather directly from a Melies-oriented tradition all the way over to an aesthetic much more akin to The Brothers Lumiere, The four films of it constitute four distinct steps in this progress; and while editing the last two sequences I shuffled my beads of sweat with the following prayer:
"The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity," ...
(from Canto LXXXI, Ezra Pound)
The term"film documentary," a very few of the works so designated, has carried the impulse of The Lumiere Bros, most carefully through all other film Faustianisms. The second carriers;’ of that impulse are those few "film comedies"which achieve a wholeness (os distinct from 'wholesomeness’).
You'll notice that Documentary and Comedy are 'fields' least well represented in The Anthology Film Archives.
Think of The Document in Art; think of it as that concept Document has shaped 20th century poetry. It is The Document which Ezra Pound seeks to contain part/parcel as "The Cantos" — not within and not 'with reference to', but The Document unto itself . . . "The Cantos" a "portable British Museum", as Wyndom Lewis quipped — all those documents crucial to man’s well being.
Then for contrast think on Gertrude Stein’s "Tender Buttons". Think on Charles Olson’s linguistically existant Gloucester and his creation of himself/"Maxiraus". Let anyone who thinks "Maximus of Gloucester" is to be found with reference to the relics of Charles or Gloucester Mass. go waste their time searching for what might have been "buried behind" where "Lufkin’s Diner" once was. They’d do better to think on Pushkin’s definition of Poetry: "To hold life cheap for
But how could we have for so long over-looked Film's play in these Documentary fields of 20th century aesthetics. Marcel Duchamp himself made Film Documents to show us'the visual’free of'viz.' Viking Eggeling showed us; tho' we insisted upon calling it’abstract'. Len Lye showed us, in the teeth of Grierson's use. Every documentary film-maker worth an art-to-art talk has had at least one foot on that ’ground’; but maybe the other foot of his work has most often been too "ary" for consideration. Parody in documentary film has often prompted a straighter Art (of the Lumiere sort) than pompous sincerity — take Luis Bunuel's parody of 'the travelogue’ in "Land Without Bread" as an example, or that parody-upon-itself which the U. S. Govt. imposed upon John Huston's "Battle of San Pietro".
Comedy had to ### premise itself upon double-visual-entendres from scratch, had work out of an invisible art to keep the heavy-handed aesthetics of this century from interfering with 'the laughs'.
These thoughts of mine are all after-the-fact of coming upon a counter-
revolutionary aesthetics taking precedence in the viewing of my most recent works, especially in viewing the development of ay work-in-progress:
"The Book of Fils”. The first chapter of that ’Book': "Scenes From Under
Childhood”: premised one level of its development upon the changing per-
ception of a child growing up. The first section of 'Scenes’ begins with foetus vision (as re-membered by me from dreams) and progresses through various sight-memories of what I can only call 'tactile vision'. (This is being far too simple; for I must emphasise that "Scenes From Under Childhood" is essentially a memory-piece, its 'sights' then set upon how this growing-up is REMEMBERED when prompted by the images of the children I have fathered growing-up around me. I don't understand why everyone has been confused about this: IF I’d intended to create a drama pretending the camera
was Baby, in the film, I'd obviously have shot from the floor, etc.) But, generally speaking, there is a level of that film which tracks development of sight, works its way (by Section # 4 of ’Scenes’) thru to a more normal shared perspective on the phenomenological ’world'..visual "understanding... common to all men." — some more akin to the assumptive Art of The Lumieres.
Chapter 2 of "The Book of Film" is composed of throe works ending on an image of the moon: "The Weir-Falcon Saga", "The Machine of Eden" and
"The Animals of Eden and After". This Chapter, then, takes the concept of Dream (remembered Bream, note!) head-on. The childhood dreams most readily remembered are usually those which spring out of illness and (for me at least) premise themselves around some confrontation with possible Death — thus usually drawing on specifically Religious arch-types, etc. "The Weir-Falcon Saga" exists as that first stage of illness wherein a fevered-waking-state and simple-dreams mix. "The Machine of Eden" seeks to work-out a clear Biblical story (the first story!) using only the particular objects and environs available to the patient-child. "The Animals of Eden and After" reclaims ’health' as ’sights' "common to all men" but charmed by the completed (in "Machine") synthesis of dream-and-waking vision. "The Animals..." develops a whole myth (even religion, complete with morality) with these charged particles of normal daily living. There is, of course, very much more going on in all three of these films; and I am only tracking the cost technically optic development of these works; but it is worth noting (in this context) that The Anthology Film Archives has rejected both "The Machine of Eden" and "The Animals of Eden and After",
The films I have made in Pittsburgh ("eyes" and "Deus Ex") represent the most obvious UNobvious Art of all (except perhaps the last two sequences of "Loveasking" and that third Pittsburgh, film I am now working on). There is perhaps no aesthetic way to'get at them' except through a careful comprehension of The Document. I tried to give some hint of this by quoting Olson in my blurbs on those films; but I think people just thereby wonder why I’m not Imitating Charles and/or why films aren’t poetry or somesuch. "eyes" is complete without any reference to Pittsburgh or Police, let alone Pittsburgh Police. "Deus Ex" is complete without any reference to West Penn. Hospital. After going to all this trouble to conceal The Art of either of them, I'll be damned if I’m going to sit here and type it all out (as if that were even possible); but some careful thought along the lines of Proust or Diderot,as quoted above, would yield a great deal.
How can I be clear about the Aesthetics we are exactly lacking at this time? Ah, I have it — one little example: after "Lovemaking" was completely edited and printed, I went on spending close to $1500. more at the lab. to get the varieties of flesh-tone (for even Symbolic reasons, for god’s sake!)
and the variations of those tones (and in fact the hues of everything within the film) intermingling visually/musically with eachothor; and I don’t think there’s one blessed viewer on earth whose ever troubled himself to look for anything so beautifully subtle as that in my work; certainly no one has writ-ten word one about it! The worst of this sadness for me is that Time will not treat my works as kindly as it has those paintings of Chardin. The variagated hues of my films begin merging the instant the film is processed, color chemicals breaking down, etc.
I went to some similar expense with both "eyes” and "Deus Ex". I can just hear most film aestheticians screeching that I have given up The Nobility of Art or somesuch (as Ruskin might have defined it) in order to dabble in qualities of colored light and/or to make Document of Police, etc. That’s the point!:
The Document will render Policemen (and much else) more visible precisely because that’s the ONLY reference "eyes” has to them and/or anything: That is
what makes of it An Art; and the art too must thus be as ’transparent' as possible (invisible IF possible) so as NOT to stand in the way of this Document’s charge. Oh, if you knew the trouble I went to to variously tone each image of "Deus Ex” and to harmonise those tones into the subtlest visual music, to lighten and darken those shots imperceptably. Well, the tones are *impercep-table” alright: nobody but me has really seen ’em. The Art of ”eyes” and
"Deus Ex” is "invisible” alright: people are beginning to doubt its existence
at all in those works. And take movement: in my earlier works the camera
normally rushed across the face of the earth in obvious swoops of — what did Grierson call it?: . . ."an aesthetic of jerks." Now the basic rythm structure in my films hardly be seen except at the frame’s edge; but do look for
it there, and follow its development, if you tend to doubt the# intelligence affecting film’s mood, etc. WHAT...more can I say? — ;
"The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see.”
(D. W. Griffith)
"Damn your taste, I would like if possible to sharpen your perceptions, after which your taste can take core of itself ..."
"Wisdom alone is whole, and is both willing and unwilling to be named Zeus,
"Wisdom is whole: the knowledge of how things are plotted in
their courses by all other things,
"God is day night winter summer war peace enough too little, but disguised in each and known in each by a separate flavor."
(Herakleitos, trans. Guy Davenport)
Well then, that tradition I’ve herein located as beginning with The Lumiere Bros, and as called Film does tend to illuminate ’the world’ as a reflector (not being ANY part of that "mirror held up to nature" but rather oddly MOST opposite to that reflective concept); and neither Art nor the maker’s craftiness can be permitted to stand in the way of the direct beams of this qulity of work; in fact, the film-maker himself must be’invisible’. Robert Duncan's sense that the poet's "I” must never arise in the poem, for ’this false "I" usurps the place of the "I" that we all are' has proven very helpful to me these last few years — I remind myself of it very often while working on these new films.
It is lata in the evening; and I am 'bone tired'; but like a dog who's been 'worrying' a bone all day, I'm loath to give up this talk at you (ah, would-to-god we could be sitting a discoursing this — sons happy zig-zag of it back and forth between us), What prompts the plaintive notes of this letter is wish for new perceiver of new work (as well as a good deal of old work in the history of Film.) I think a little visible Aesthetics wouldn't hurt "the invisible Art"##. What's a haunt without a house, or a grove of trees, or a living human being? We need some young film people who know in their bones that "Great Film is simply light charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree" (to paraphrase Pound) and who don't have any prejudices about the direction of its beaming — aren't stuck-on reflective intelligence . . . aren't prejudiced against 'common sense', etc; (I don't think P. Adams Sitney can ever possibly qualify — Ken Kelman certainly never.)
Am I asking too much? Of course I am; (and I do not mean to 'put-down' these good men, P. Adams and Ken, who have done so much for the perception of Cinema that it would be wrong to ask more of them: they, and many others, have
anyway a lifetime of work just mining the mitiers familiar to them). But the neglected strain of illuminating films (there's another term for it — The Filmic Art of Illuminations . . . ah, no, too pompous — shows how tired I’m getting) . . . the neglected strain of what-cha-ma-callit needs critical at-tem, needs appreciation, needs WORDS.
Have at it, Annette. Write back at me; and take another look at those FILMS,.those films, those dryyyyyy films.