Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Poetry and Prophets

Cinema, like any religion, is not without its heretical prophets. Proselytizing against the conservative uniformity of a universal (Catholic) cinema, the heretics of the New American Cinema and the underground avant-garde sought the rebellion and common, individualized (Protestant) priesthood of a new poetic counter-cinema. With the zealous devotion of Martin Luther and Jan Hus, these cinematically Protestant filmmakers and theoreticians, including Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, released a collective manifesto of revolutionary art in the 1950s and 60s, finding many converts (and still finding them, myself included), who were (and are) moved by the power of the personal and the deconstruction of the corrupt, old, and dogmatic in their filmic equivalent of Luther’s “95 Theses.” Through this new poetic counter-cinema, the avant-garde reformists fought for the voice of the individual, the value of inner truth, and the dissolution of repressive cinematic norms. Exalting the subjective, Brakhage, Mekas, and their fellow prophets dissected the Temple of Hollywood and Commercial Cinema, building in its place a house of filmic worship where individual interpretation and subjective truth were The Truth and the way to visual salvation. I find myself most fulfilled by this mode of filmic practice, and my knees rest before the altar of visual subjectivity and deconstruction, in pursuit of cinema.

The roots of this cinematic heresy are firmly grounded in the denouncement of objective and absolute reality and the adoption of individual, inner truth. As Stan Brakhage declared, “The ‘absolute realism’ of the motion picture image is a 20th-century, essentially Western, illusion” (204). Brakhage’s assessment is the cornerstone of poetic counter-cinema. The assumption of objectivity in the photographic image rests on an assumption of perception: reality lies outside the eye, beyond the mind, and in an objective state. Brakhage, ever the skeptic, pointed out that this idea of perception is a construct of false regulations and asked the filmic believer to “imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic” (199). This is the subjective eye, disregarding the imposition of objectivity or collective reality. The personalized eye was further idolized by Brakhage, who fervently proclaimed, “Let there be no cavernous congregation but only the network of individual channels, that narrowed vision which splits beams beyond rainbows and into unknown dimensions” (200). The Catholic Church of Cinema held the objective truth of the image highly, but Brakhage sought to split this mass by deconstructing its assumptions and suggesting a path of individual visual exploration toward Truth. The journey for visual Truth took a new inward direction, involving, “hallucination,” “dream visions,” and “the abstractions which move so dynamically when close eyelids are pressed” (Brakhage 199) because these experiences were “actually perceived” (Brakhage 199) and were as real as the objective or absolute notions of reality espoused by traditional, repressive, and dogmatic Catholic cinema. This is the rock on which the film poem is built. Jonas Mekas, one of the founders of the New American Cinema movement, clarified the connection between subjectivity and poetic filmmaking, assessing that “Man, as an individual, goes through stages of growth. Today, the stress may be on the physical adventures, emotions, life outside, naturalistic events; tomorrow, the same man makes another step, and turns inward and begins to follow the events of his unconscious and he follows them through their intricate, but quite logically plotted, causal development (story) lines – as in poetry.” (315)

The cinematic application of this inward, subjective pursuit culminates in “a poetry where the filmic syntax achieves a spontaneous fluidity” (Mekas 47). This fully realized poetic cinema creates a new method of individualized filmic expression “where the images are truly like words that appear and disappear and repeat themselves as they create clusters and blotches of visual meanings, impressions” (Mekas 47). A new subjective expression, a cinematic prayer, results from this inward excursion into expanded visual territories, as practiced by the disciples of Mekas and Brakhage, as well as the prophets themselves.

Brakhage’s film Mothlight (1963) exemplifies the poetic principles of the subjective Protestant cinema, while also utilizing necessary counter-cinematic techniques of deconstruction to attack “ the very narrow contemporary visual reality” (Brakhage 203), in which there is faith in objectivity, “needing both explosions and earthquakes for disruption” (Brakhage 203). A four-minute visual representation of the life of a moth, Brakhage’s film exudes the reality of the imagination, the dream, and the visual experience of the closed eye. Brakhage is forced to create, from a completely subjective base, a divulgence of his own internal ideas of what a moth’s life is like, since there is certainly no way to gain a moth’s eye view except through complete fictionalization. Mothlight finds its poetic syntax in visual patterns and rhythms of light. Blades of grass and periods of empty rest become visual punctuation to the juxtaposed images of moth wings, insects, and foliage. The arc of the film is visually traceable and its plot is viscerally impressionistic, as in a vivid memory, a product of internal, subjective reality. Equally as important as the subjective, poetic quality of Mothlight is the rebellious nature of its plastic construction and the counter-cinematic implications of the film’s manipulation of cinematic materials, deconstructing the Catholic objectivity of cinema in the name of subjective presentation.

Jonas Mekas described the need for counter-cinematic techniques in his theoretical musings, stating, “There is no other way to break the frozen cinematic conventions than through a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses” (1). Mothlight certainly wrecks the dogmatically accepted notion of film through its manipulation of cinematic plastics and heretically unorthodox visual style. Most basically, Mothlight is a film made without a camera. The film is a visual experience consisting of collaged organic materials (insect pieces, dirt, foliage) carefully organized on perforated tape, then made into prints that are visible when ran through a projector. This method of display so confuses the cinematic expectations that the viewer begins to call into question the necessity and function of the camera, the film, the photographic image, and the projector in creating a cinematic experience. The reality of Mothlight is completely deconstructed to the point that the very plastic elements of cinema are observed and stripped of their universally sacrosanct qualities. The repressive conformity of traditional cinema is abolished, making way for the reconstitution of filmic sensibilities within the realm of subjective, poetic expression. Brakhage, a master of such deconstruction, advocates numerous methods of plastic manipulation and experimentation, en route to finding a clean visual slate upon which cinematic poetry can be written without obtrusion. Brakhage’s suggested methods of subjective rebellion include “spitting on the lens or wrecking the focal intention,” “speeding up the motor,” “slowing the motion while recording the image,” “hand hold[ing] the camera,” “over or underexpos[ing] the film,” and “us[ing] filters of the world, fog, downpours, unbalanced lights, neons with neurotic color temperatures, glass which was never designed for a camera” (Brakhage 201). Through these defacements of immobile cinematic statues, the individual is set free to interpret and express the holiness of visual reality, unrestricted, according to his or her own subjectivity, the only reality one can truly vouch for. The language of cinema is translated into one that each individual knows and can speak in, leaving behind scraps of monolingual, archaic (Latin) norms and advancing the visually faithful to a revolutionary inner, subjective filmic Truth. The priest class of filmmakers is liquidated and a new universal priesthood of filmmakers arises.

In the poetic counter-cinema prophesied and practiced by Brakhage and Mekas, I find the immeasurable joy of subjective cinematic discovery. The deconstructive film poem allows for an internal visual search of great depth, unfettered by restrictive norms or methods ignorant of the true breadth of visual experience. Discovering my filmic Truth, the most valid of all for myself, is analogous to the pleasure of personal spiritual or philosophical awakening. The visual mediator of imposed objectivity and reality is erased and I become directly coalesced with filmic experience. Constantly in propulsion toward my own sense of film and pure visual expression, I heed the warning of my heretical prophet Stan Brakhage, and I attempt to “negate technique, for film, like America, has not been discovered yet” (201). Perhaps the discovery of film will coincide with the discovery of self; then again, they may be one in the same.

by Brandon Colvin

Works Cited

Brakhage, Stan. “From Metaphors On Vision.” 1963. Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 199-205.

Mekas, Jonas. "Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971." New
York: Macmillan Company, 1972.


Brandon Colvin said...

We're experiencing a dearth of comments.

Jackie Clarkson said...

This is such a great piece.

Anonymous said...

Well, it looks like I'll have to bump up the Brakhage shorts in my queue. Nice essay.

James Hansen said...

For sure! What does it take to get some comments these days!

Brakhage owns.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Hey Brandon,
I must admit that I know next to nothing about Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, which is why I have been a bit slow in commenting. That said, I found this to be a incredibly intelligent and engrossing piece of writing.
I am frankly blown away by the passion and insight you bring to your pieces...great stuff, and I will make sure to watch more from both of them.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks Jeremy!

If you ever need to borrow some Brakhage, I've got the Criterion set, so I can hook you up.

Also, the library has Mekas' book "Movie Journal," and I think it's the best book of film criticism ever published. You should check it out.