Filmstrips from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), courtesy the Estate of Stan Brakhage and fredcamper.com.
To coincide with the republication by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry of Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, out of print for nearly forty years, BOMB Daily presents the following excerpt—a letter from Brakhage to the poet Robert Kelly describing his work on the groundbreaking film Mothlight, which Brakhage made without a camera, instead affixing bits of material directly to film strips. The notes at the end are provided by avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney as part of this new, definitive edition of Metaphors on Vision.
To Robert Kelly,
August 22, 1963
I have been working almost entirely on Mothlight these days and finding it THE most difficult film to finish, at least per length (about 100’) I’ve yet been involved in (I had to pause after involved to decide whether in or with should follow; and this ambiguity illustrates my difficulty with the film itself—a difficulty engendered by the creation of a whole new film technique, a new niche into which few of my previous working techniques will function adequately enough to leave me free to be myself, to be, myself, adequately functioning instrument for the film’s simple passage thru me … technical considerations, as conscious thoughts, making me be by myself, eventually beside myself, at every turn; so that “involved with” would describe a great many of the moments in the making of Mothlight, tho’ I have always had sense enough once past eventu-or-crisis-ally to follow The Dance rather than take over as I was often tempted.)
Long after I’d begun making strips of film, with no thought other than creating a frame at a time in relationship to all other frames within a given strip (the length of Mylar1 I’d cut off, rather arbitrarily, before beginning to stick a given collection of parts of a plant or plants, etc., onto it), the words came to me: “As a moth might see from birth to death if black were white:” and shortly thereafter the title: Mothlight. Up till then I had thought-up the title: Dead Spring: growing out of a simple pun on the process, the material involved, and the simulation of life which the eventual unwinding of this film would create of the material by way of this process, etc. But these new words, in their coming to me, made me aware of the extent to which the movements of this film were inspired by my previous thoughts, observations, and study (most recently D’Arcy Thompson’s Growth and Form) on the flight of the moth and moth sight, etcetera. I have been very involved with moths since a curious incident in early winter 1959: I was working on Sirius Remembered—it was late at night and Jane [born Mary Jane Collom; now Jane Wodening; married Stan Brakhage in 1957; divorced in 1987] had gone to bed—I was sty-my-eyed sinking into sty-meeeed in all self-possession when suddenly Jane appeared holding a small dried plant which she put down on my working table and, without a word, left me—and I soon began working again and then noticing that the plant was shifting and that I had, without thinking, been picking up whatever its flattened petals, and sometimes its stem, had seemed to be pointing to; but as soon as I took notice of this interaction my relationship to this plant broke down into speculation, etcetera, until I stopped working altogether … the next morning, much to my surprise, Jane had no memory whatsoever of having brought me the plant; and the following night I returned to my work table, and the plant thereon, in a struggling-to-be-open, preventing opening, frame of mind … in midst of attempts to work, what must surely have been the year’s last moth, and a gigantic multi-colored beauty at that, began fluttering about me and along the work table, the wind of its wings shifting the plant from time to time and blowing away all speculations in my mind as to movements of dead plants and enabling me to continue working and, later, to notice that I was again often, but not always, moving in relationship to plant-points and moth-moves and, in fact, every moving thing within the workroom; but finally I got hung-up like they say, on the moth itself, its movements, particularly when it began settling first on one then another strip of film hanging beside me … the next day I photographed this moth in extreme close-up as it fluttered against the window glass, with the specific idea in mind to use those images in Dog Star Man (which I already have) and Jane and I were referring to the moth as “The Moth Queen” and were quite excited by the entire several days’ events (which naturally distracted from continuing work on Sirius Remembered) … by the third day I was beginning to worry about the moth; and we agreed that night to let the moth outside, as it was warm weather; but that night when I went to the workroom I found the moth dead on my table beside the dried plant and, on closer inspection, found that the head of the moth was as if sliced almost completely off, swinging as if hinged to the body, and that the body itself was completely hollow inside … both plant and moth remained on my table, without undue attention but constant inter-relation, until the end of the editing of Sirius Remembered.
Stan Brakhage working on Dog Star Man: Prelude. Photo: Robert Benson.
So, when moth words recently came to me I began thinking of this film as being dedicated to “The Moth Queen” and knew it to be inspired (as have many movements in other work since 1959) by moth flight, thoughts about, feelings thereto; but I tended to take the words too literally; and, as an example: I began thinking that Mothlight must begin with the unraveling of a cocoon and end with some simulation of candle flame or electric heat (as all moths whose wings were being used in the film had been collected from enclosed light boxes and lamp bowls) and, while it bothered me to think of painting on an otherwise purely collage film, I began to plan to create a black flame (to literally emphasize “if black were white”) at the end of the film. Well, to make a long story short, no matter how hard both Jane and I tried we could not find a single cocoon (let alone the twenty to thirty I had thought I needed) and the search touched off violent quarrels between Jane and I and dramatic statements of outrage at “nature’s stinginess,” etc., and other nonesenses and none-suches so totally out of key with the spirit of all our working together on the rest of the film that I am amazed and ashamed at my stupidity in retrospect. Finally I found a cocoon in a blade of grass with a spider on top of it. I thought: “That spider must be eating the insides thru some hole it’s made in the cocoon”: and, with much righteous feeling of indignation, shook the spider off. Then, with very little feeling at all, I proceeded to unwrap the cocoon along a strip of the sprocketed scotch tape. Much to my surprise, the cocoon was full of spider eggs, or at least what I quickly assumed was spider eggs, and not a caterpillar, or semi-moth, or moth at all; and I realized that I had committed the first (and last) intentional destruction of life in the making of Mothlight by my actions and that I would have done so no matter what had been inside the cocoon, it was a sobering moment in which all the false path I’d been insisting on was revealed clearly. I gave up, as gratefully given sacrifice, both cocoons and candle flame in that instant.
Then I began to have disturbances over the fading of the flowers packed within strips of Mylar, devised elaborate schemes for making many strips of flower patterns at once, rushing them to the lab, and getting them printed before they could fade. All such schemes failed. The fresh flower strips would not run thru the printer. Only later did I realize, after a week of remonstrances similar to those during cocoon search, that the colors hardly ever faded completely away and that the fading process was leaving intricate patterns of incredible beauty creating sensations of depth of dimension such as I have never seen on film before.
Filmstrip from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), courtesy the Estate of Stan Brakhage and fredcamper.com.
But the former concern then touched off a fear that the film wasn’t going to be printable at all. This almost broke me down completely so that I couldn’t even bring myself to continue editing the strips I had let alone make any more. Finally, however, I approached the film with only the thought in mind of letting the total form of it pass thru me just so that Jane and I could view it at least once (before all flowers had faded completely) in the little table viewer; and, from that viewpoint, found myself easily editing what is easily the most perfectly formal work I have yet made. It quickly fell into three sections, each containing a specific set of what I might call “round-dances” (I did spell out “rough-dances” rather than “round-dances” indicating the actual looseness of this original editing)2 for lack of a better term; but when I had completed the three movements the work appeared to me as unfinished. I simply could not bring myself to even thinking, at this time, of making more strips; and I stumbled out onto the front porch in a state of terrible dejection. Almost immediately a large moth fell at my feet, fluttering wildly. I said, to Jane: “What’s that?” in a stupefied voice to which she immediately replied: “Its death dance.” It fluttered for fully twenty minutes before our dog ate it. So, I went back to work again, composing what might be called “a coda” to the work. Then we looked at it thru the viewer and became so excited that I found faith enough to pick clean about 10,000 sprocket holes, tear open thick sections and carefully slice plant forms, twigs, etc., in half, and intersperse every 6 feet of film with 3 feet of leader (to enable the printer, or printing machine/to run smoothly and adjust itself periodically.) Finally I found myself in the blacked-out printing room at Western Cine,3 with all my |above| full-failing anger and bad faith, as above, directed at and tortured by machinery. The printing machine looks like something out of a 1920’s German science-fiction movie, its sprocket claws hand-filed to perfection, its machinery set to tolerate very little deviance in film widths, etc. There was finally nothing for me to do but pray, and certainly not to pray to the machine but just to pray. We sat in the dark while the printing machine supplied the most nerve racking atmosphere imaginable by setting off a series of sputters and clicks which kept building up in intensity to the full burst of its warning buzzer (which sounded exactly like those warning buzzers in spook houses which accompany the display of papier-mache monsters revealed in burst of garish light) which only discontinued when 3 foot strips of leader were being printed. When I saw the developed film, the next day, as was to be expected certainly was: that is: the strips were every now and again printed so that a set of sprocket holes were visible sliding back and forth at the edge of the picture. As these sprocket holes were printed with a regularity more specific than anything else in the picture, or than anything intended, they tended to draw the attention completely away from the developing forms of the film; and no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that they could be disregarded, left in the film, I knew it wasn’t so. Worse yet, those original strips were so battered by being printed crookedly that there was less likelihood they would be run thru the printer than there had been before. The case seemed entirely hopeless, whatever damage to the total form irreparable; and this did crack me up and break me down altogether, which was all to the good: viz: I was forced to accept any personal defeat left in my relationship with the film. I came home, last night, and resolved, with Jane’s marvelous, patient encouragement and remindfulness of your Enkidu4 statement in that morning’s letter and of, thereby, our deep working processes of all these years, to re-edit the total form of the film in the light of the strips of film which were free of sprocket holes. I began work and, lo and behold (and what meaning those words have for me today) discovered that of the 7 strips sprocket hole marked: (1) was of abalone shells (which had been more or less forced into the film which otherwise has no material except from this area) which could be cut, leaving the total form intact, IF I would but remove the piece of spider cocoon as well, (2) could be removed without impairing the total spiraling in-and-out development of the first section BECAUSE it constituted an entire spiral and no more than that AND had been creating an unbalanced spiral on the in development, (3) occurring in the second section constituted THE ONLY un-developing, or backward running, them of that section which did not thematically balance its co-responding in-coming piece at the beginning—the removal of both pieces unquestionably improving the form of that section, (4) being THE only case in section two where poppy forms were not replaced, in the un-wind by pansy patterns, AND a divergent piece anyway, (5) and (6) constituting an entire part of section 3, and not one hair over/even tho’ to accomplish this the printer machine had to stay out of sync thru an entire piece of leader AND return in sync during the run of a Mylar strip AND said part of that section being the only one which I included because “it is so beautiful” and I had no other place where it could conceivably fit, and (7) being removable from the coda without the slightest alteration of the form.
Amazing, isn’t it—even after all these years of dedication of letting, as you put it: “the prima materia of film, the Visual, constitute its own ‘story.’”
And so, we now have given, are receiving, a 100’ film (less than 3 minutes length) of indescribable beauty and perfection.
1. Mylar is the trade name for a thin, strong polyester film used in film editing. Brakhage used 16mm Mylar editing tape, with sprocket holes and one adhesive side, to sandwich leaves and moth wings in creating Mothlight.
2. The cover of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field (1960), designed by Jess, shows children in a round dance. Two years after this letter, in 1964, Kelly would publish his own Round Dances.
3. The film laboratory in Denver that printed most of Brakhage’s films.
4. Enkidu is the central figure of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 1800 BCE). He is a wild man raised by animals who becomes civilized through a sexual encounter and eventually wrestles with Gilgamesh, the urban warrior king of Uruk. The hyphenated form of his name emphasizes its etymology as “Creation of Enki.” Enki was the Sumerian god of wisdom, magic, the sea, and craft, with associations with the Underworld.