I taught another session of my Experimental Films as Writing Prompts class at Hugo House last night. This one we looked at some films by Stan Brakhage. At the outset of the class I admitted that I had no idea what the hell was going to happen, how they would react to the shorts I was about to show, or whether the session would prove to have any value whatsoever. Essentially our session on Brakhage was an experiment itself, with our brains and eyeballs as test subjects.
I’d decided to start our session with a film created without a camera, Brakhage’s “Moth Light.”
My students were intrigued. We discussed how one’s mind tends to supply a “soundtrack” that syncs to the visual rhythm of the film, which I demonstrated by drumming on the table with my fingers. Watching this film again I started thinking that this must be sort of what it’s like to look at the world from the point of view of an insect, its lifetime compressed into mere days, a mad scramble for food amid blades of grass and blasts of pollen and leaves.
I tend to start thinking of lots of seemingly unrelated things while watching a Brakhage film. They’re memory triggers, evokers of dimly remembered vignettes from the toddler years. I catch myself and a scolding internal voice tells me to pay attention, but the more Brakhage I’ve seen the less this voice intrudes.
These tangential memories and images have become one of the great pleasures of these films for me. The films beg the brain to find patterns and figures within speedy blobs and streaks. This is certainly the case in the next film I screened for my class, the first three installments of the “Persian” series. In each short, reds, blues, and golds battled in violent bursts, a corroded rainbow pulsing with light and anger. “Persian 1” felt the most “filmic” of the three, with a sense of vertical flow. “Persian 2” produced a zooming sensation of being alternately drawn toward and repelled from the screen, adding depth to the verticality of the previous short. “Persian 3” was a study in symmetrical, ink blot figures resembling faces or pelvises. After our initial viewing of these three shorts we went back and froze various frames, exclaiming as we saw shapes that suggested Satan’s head, swords, animals. The films became an amped-up version of cloud-gazing. (Earlier tonight, I showed “Persian 2” to my young children, who immediately, without provocation, started calling out things they saw in the cascade of colors and shapes. “I see people!” my son exclaimed.)
From there we moved on to more “representational” films by Brakhage, if I may be allowed to even use the word. The class was a bit disappointed, I think, by “Duplicity III,” which was created in 1980 and features images of children dressing up and performing at a Halloween pageant interspersed with superimposed footage of trees, dogs, and a deer. It reminded me a little of the short films from 1970s-era Sesame Street, albeit a Sesame Street film brought to you by the letters L, S, and D.
“Duplicity III” provoked feelings of half-remembered scenes from childhood, so that became the writing prompt: Half-remembered Scenes from Childhood. More than one participant wrote about their dad. We moved on to the finale of the class, “Murder Psalm.”
Composed of found footage from educational films and cartoons, negative images of what appear to be headlights on a freeway, closeups of television, and scenes from an autopsy, “Murder Psalm” is a provocation, an anxiety-inducing comment on cruelty and its biological impetus. That’s my take on it, anyway. A girl is splashed by a ball that’s thrown in a bird bath. An animated mouse frantically runs down a city street waving a billy club. Department store windows display the words “LIFE” and “Maternity.” A cadaver lays on an examination table, its cranium emptied of its brain. Washes of pink and gray, barely discernible images of horses, a wagon wheel. Disembodied hands point to various places on an anatomical model of a brain. The little girl, dressed like Little Red Riding Hood, runs through a menacing forest. The film makes only the sense that the viewer brings to it. Watching it again, it struck me how much trust Brakhage invested in his audience, how unshakable his faith must have been in our visual intelligence.
The film provoked strong reactions in the class. I asked them to latch on to an image or a sequence and use that as a starting point for a piece of writing. One woman chose the strange black dots that moved, almost insect-like, in pairs, producing a wonderfully rigid poem. Another student drew a parallel between the concavity of the birdbath with the red ball floating on it and the hollowed-out skull of the body on the examination table. The class ended with a lot of lively discussion, with me feeling that our experiment had been a great success.
Next week’s class is going to be all about Kenneth Anger and rituals.
Here’s another clip, just for fun. (But If you want to experience these films in a decent way, check out By Brakhage Vols. 1 and 2 from the Criterion Collection.)