I saw Stan Brakhage's Text of Light at Anthology Film Archives last night as part of their Essential Cinema Series. At 67 minutes long, the film is in its entirety a study of light refracted from an ashtray. Pure color, sparkling, shifting. I saw slight transformations of shapes; rhythms kept and then abandoned; repeating themes and patterns of horizon-like color, star-twinkling, dusk after-images. And after awhile I began to see mimetic imagery---faces both male and female, full bodies in coats, the distinct face of a cat, the sky, cloud cover, smoke (perhaps from a cigarette in the ash tray?) and ash. But I can't say for certain whether these were photographed images or something my mind's eye conjured to dance upon the abstracted light. Light asked to perform feats of aesthetic wonder.
Fred Camper, an expert on Brakhage's films, explains that Brakhage:
discovers metaphors for landscapes in the patterns of reflection and diffraction: rivers, volcanoes, and mountains are suggested by images so delicate theyâ€™re worthy of J.M.W. Turner. The film is simultaneously a vision of the world's creation and an inner landscape of spatial and light effects organized almost as if light were music.
For awhile I wondered about the filmmaker's realtionship to light. He asks it to represent shapes and images on to a surface of film and then to replay these again from the film onto a screen (and for the viewers last night watching in the Maya Deren Theater, "the brightest screen available worldwide" according to Anthology). Something all filmmakers do, but for the most part, taking this relationship with light for granted. Brakhage conversed deeply with light, asked it to tell its stories, sing its songs and dance its dances. Brakahge explains:
What I began doing was always holding the camera in hand. For hours. Clicking. Waiting. Seeing what the sun did to the scene. As I saw what was happening in the frame to these little particles of light, changing, I would shoot the camera very slightly. If you want to know how slightly you have to realize I was never photographing in an area bigger than this fourth fingernail.
I was surprised by how vivid the color came across. The reds and yellows, so strong and warm. And the deep divulged by the blues and violets seemed endless. And yet, that is not telling the whole truth---for in creating movement in this film, in making it a film that had rhythm and pacing, that felt like watching a piece of music by Messiaen, he used color depth, too. Not just color selection from the spectrum, or where it originated on the screen, but whether it was a shallow, foggy representation of color, or whether it had the deep vivid feeling that grasped at and jumped into our eyes, our minds and our hearts.
Receiving an email today from Marshall Yaeger, inventor of the Kaleidoplex, I began to think of the imagery in Text of Light as being something akin to a kaleidoscope, but a kaleidoscope in time, more fractured, malfunctioning, more organic. A kaleidoscope where the light itself had a say in what was to be seen.
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