Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision (1963) is a key film book by a filmmaker — along with others including Maya Deren’s An Anagram of Ideas on Art Form and Film (1946); Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense (1942) and Film Forum (1949); Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer (1972); and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time (1986). Like these other books, Metaphors on Vision puts into words a kind of cinema that’s so sui generis it feels like its own universe, one that subsequent artists travel through. Metaphors maps out a fresh perspective on film and filmmaking.
Jonas Mekas — that godfather and perpetual nurturer of avant-garde cinema — first published Metaphors as a special issue of his and his brother Adolfas’ magazine, Film Culture, which was designed by George Maciunas. Long out of print, Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry have republished it, bringing it back into the public consciousness once more. And boy is this an extensive overhaul of the original!
First, it contains a facsimile of the original layout, complete with the typewriter lettering and the brown cardboard material it was printed on. Second, the 212-page book features the restored and corrected text as well as extensive notes and an introduction that was featured in the 1998 French edition — all written by P. Adams Sitney, the editor of this book, a friend of Brakhage, and one of the preeminent scholars on the artist. In conjunction with the re-publication of the 54-year-old book, institutions around the world — in New York City, London, Paris, and other cities — are holding events centered on Brakhage and screening his films from this month through February 2018.
Metaphors On Vision, Brakhage’s first book, is highly peculiar for a fully fleshed out credo on cinema, for it contains a variety of forms from prose poetry to scripts and script fragments, sketches and letters. And no matter the mode of writing, each text is rife with puns, laced with references, and encrusted with metaphors. If this is your first time with Metaphors, it may be best to start at the back of the book, for there you’ll find Sitney’s introduction to the French edition. In these two pages, he lays out what the book does chapter by chapter, while also providing crucial context on what was going on in Brakhage’s life during the book’s publication.
While writing and compiling the texts for Metaphors, Brakhage underwent a transitional phase. He had just finished fifteen psycho-dramatic works — from “Interim” (1952), to “Flesh of Morning” (1956) — and, in 1958, completed “Anticipation of the Night,” a mythopoetic work that didn’t rely on characters, narrative, or drama, but on imagery created by the unfolding of the actions and events Brakhage intuitively captured at the time of recording. Metaphors, years in the making, would explain this new mythopoetic phase of filmmaking that reached a peak with Dog Star Man (1961–1964), an epic, multi-part series of films concerning chaos and creation.
Metaphor’s first and titular chapter begins with these oft-quoted lines:
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.
What Brakhage advocates for is a cinema unshackled from verbal language and the dramatic arts. This is a cinema of pure perception, one that attempts to forgo what the human eye typically sees in everyday life. And Brakhage’s cinema is one that keeps coming back to fundamental topics such as, in his own words, “birth, sex, death, and the search for God.”
The chapters that follow “Metaphors on Vision” flesh out and expand the ideas laid out in the first. In “My Eyes,” Brakhage writes about an eye unencumbered by consciousness, logic, and word-based comprehension. This eye of the camera is all seeing and doesn’t focus, categorize, or label. In the chapter “State Meant,” a collection of statements and letters, Brakhage lets the reader see the progression of his thoughts over the course of his career, from the beginning up until the publication of Metaphors. “Respond Dance” is another assortment of correspondences with such people as filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, Jonas Mekas, and Sitney. One of the more insightful letters is addressed to poet Robert Kelly on August 22, 1963. Here, Brakhage talks about making “Mothlight” (1963), that entrancing four-minute short consisting of projected dirt, foliage, and smashed moths. He says it was structured with three movements and a coda in mind.
As the years go by, the influence of Brakhage’s thinking, writing, and filmmaking becomes ever more palpable. Filmmakers consciously and unconsciously use the discourse, principles, and techniques espoused by Brakhage and his films. Filmmakers like David Fincher and Peter Strickland have paid homage to his work. The former mimicked the scratched-in film stock lettering that Brakhage used for his films in the memorable opening credit sequence for Se7en (1995). The latter referenced “Mothlight” in The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Recently, David Lynch paid homage to the short, among other canonical avant-garde works, in the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
There have also been filmmakers who mix up Brakhage’s influence in the genetic makeup of their films and can be seen anywhere from the avant-garde, to art house and documentary cinemas. Although he has said in a 2016 interview that he hasn’t watched many of Brakhage’s films, Philippe Grandrieux is one of the more striking art house filmmakers following in Brakhage’s footsteps. Grandrieux is fascinated with the human figure and the way in which it transforms, metamorphoses, and transmogrifies. In his film Sombre (1998) for example, a shot of the woods taken from a speeding train, through editing, morphs into the main character’s hair blowing in the wind. Moreover, Grandrieux frequently focuses on body parts, and often when they are in motion. His key shots, routinely going in and out of focus, are those in which people dance, the body becoming blurred lines and curving shapes.
Terrence Malick is another director dealing with birth, sex, death, and the search for God in his films. Starting with The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick began fragmenting and refracting his films with the help of a corps of editors. His shots of trees, babies, and wildlife, much like Brakhage’s, are guided by natural lighting. With The Tree of Life (2011) and the films that followed, Malick created works that don’t create myths, but take on mythic qualities.
In the realm of documentary filmmaking, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel made Leviathan (2012), a film that has been compared to Brakhage’s work. This immersive film plunges you into the texture and feel of a Massachusetts-based trawler. Using GoPro cameras, the filmmakers capture the fishermen’s profession from an assortment of perspectives, both clear and opaque. At one point early on in the documentary, the camera is strapped onto the head of a worker. And at another point, the camera leaps in and out of the ocean with the fish nearby, or soars with the seagulls in the sky.
Whether they know it or not, different filmmakers share particular qualities in Brakhage’s work. In the introduction to Metaphors’ French edition, Sitney compares Maya Deren’s film theory to Brakhage’s. He writes “Deren’s theoretical argument had been formal and classically reasoned, addressed to intellectuals. Brakhage’s was a poetic exorcism of his theoretical preoccupations.” Hopefully, this new publication of Metaphors, along with Brakhage’s 300 films, inspires and takes possession of the bodies and minds of today’s and tomorrow’s artists.
Metaphors on Vision is now available from Distributed Art Publishers.