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October 13 – November 11, 2017

Stan Brakhage's Metaphors On Vision

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. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green"? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."

So begins the classic Metaphors on Vision by Stan Brakhage (1933 -2003). First published in 1963 by Jonas Mekas as a special issue of Film Culture, it stands as the major theoretical statement by one of avant-garde cinema’s most influential figures, a treatise on mythopoeia and the nature of visual experience written in a style as idiosyncratic as his art. By turns lyrical, technical, and philosophical, this is a collection to be shelved alongside the commentaries of Robert Bresson and Maya Deren, Sergei Eisenstein and Nagisa Oshima. Yet despite its historical importance and undeniable influence, the complete Metaphors has remained out of print in the US for over forty years.

In conjunction with the republication of a new, definitive edition Metaphors on Vision by Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry, the Harvard Film Archive joins an ongoing series of Brakhage screenings that will take place at cinemas, festivals, and museums across the globe from September 2017 to February 2018.

Here is Metaphors on Vision: it is a collection of writings on the film and, in particular, on the film as Stan Brakhage sees and makes it. Yet more significantly it is a testament of what makes mythopoeic art. Mythopoeia is the often attempted and seldom achieved result of making a myth new or making a new myth.

When Brakhage began to write Metaphors, he had made some fifteen films. Most of them (from Interim in 1952 to Flesh of Morning in 1956) were in the part-neo-realist-and-part-dream-vision "psycho-dramatical" genre. Since then they have become classics to young film-makers continuing that tradition; but by 1958 (the year of his marriage) Brakhage had begun to move toward mythopoeia. He was feeling the limitations of dramatic form and sensing that film could do more than reveal the personality of an actor/subject. Simultaneous to this was the making of Anticipation of the Night, the first American film about and structured by the nature of the seeing experience; how one encounters a sight, how it is recalled, how it affects later vision, and where it leads the visionary. By making the film he came upon a simple but startling discovery which is central to his aesthetic: if vision is the highest value of film, then the camera (and
its man) must allow visions to occur rather than force them (by script) upon subjects. The depth of his conviction in regard to this principle and the rejection of Anticipation by many avant-garde artists and critics previously well-disposed towards his work inspired Brakhage to formulate an Apologia by way of Metaphors on Vision.

In the three or four years of composing the five initial chapters Brakhage's writing grew from polemics to a method of clarifying his discoveries in film-making and freeing himself "thru writing" to make new ones. About fifteen more films were made during the making of Metaphors on Vision. Among them were the Prelude and Part I of his magnum opus Dog Star Man.

In the period between finishing the first five chapters and writing "Margin Alien" Brakhage had made himself, and thus his work, open to incorporate the literary traditions referred to in that latter chapter. In so doing without ever letting allusion interfere with vision he made Dog Star Man a truly mythopoeic film. During this time he came to accept and rejoice in the humble position of the artist as Plato sees him in Ion; that is, as one link in a chain connecting the Muse and the final audience. Brakhage became a mentor to young film-makers and a co-inspiring contemporary to artists in his own and other media. Just as his personality and work inspired a freeing process, and indeed works, in others, he was able to further his own development in answer to their letters and talks. Thus "Respond Dance," an amalgam of recent letters of his edited to be read as a single run-on statement, represents his stage of creative development and the state of his mythopoeia at the time Metaphors was finished. – P. Adams Sitney, 1998

The Harvard Film Archive presents the first of two programs celebrating the reissue of Stan Brakhage’s visionary manifesto and meditation on cinema Metaphors on Vision. Both will feature prominent filmmakers and curators who had important relationships with Brakhage, and who have been invited to curate their own individual evenings of works from the filmmaker's dauntingly vast oeuvre. This season we welcome evenings programmed and presented by filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler as well as celebrated curator Mark McElhatten. The celebration will be launched with a talk on Friday October 13 at 5pm with Ed Halter at the CCVA bookstore, which will have the new edition available for sale.

The Dead and The Riddle of Lumen preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Photos courtesy the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.

Special thanks: Marilyn Brakhage, Fred Camper and the Academy Film Archive.



Introduction by Nathaniel Dorsky & Jerome Hiler
Friday October 13 at 7pm

The Lyric Lens

When Stan Brakhage was twenty-four years old, having already completed ten 16mm films in the relatively conventional avant-garde style of psychodrama and pursuit, he embarked on a filmic adventure that brought him close to his own suicide and upended the basic syntactical rules of cinema as they were known to the world. All that was wrong or inadmissible became the very fabric of his expression. Jump cuts, out of focus scenes, shaky hand-held shots, flare outs, intimate personal subject matters, underexposures, overexposures, repetitive motifs, rhythms based on the movement of the eye, surface scratchings, visible splice lines, and, topping off all that, no sound whatsoever. The camera itself became the explorer, the protagonist. The filmmaker was released from being a recorder of dramatic representation and permitted to find and promote the pure energy of cinema itself as poetic mind. In short, Anticipation of the Night must be considered one of the greatest revolutionary acts in cinema's short history. Filmmaking before and after became a different thing. The individual could now be cinema itself. The very body or muscle of the maker could be expressed and felt.

The second set of two films we are showing tonight were made thirty years later. Stan met his first wife, Jane Collom, while making Anticipation of the Night. Three decades and hundreds of films later, Stan's marriage was dissolving and he was entering into a new relationship with Marilyn Jull, soon to become his second wife. It was during their courtship that they planned a number of car trips around the United States. With great exuberance and joy, Stan entered into the making of the four-part Visions in Meditation. This evening we will screen parts two and three, the second of which is a sound film made to accompany the music of Rick Corrigan. In these films we can witness the full maturity of Stan's camera as investigator and emotional measure. The complete union of subject matter and form is manifest. This wholeness of expression, where form is the meaning and meaning is the form, is a great joy to behold. One additional background note worth mentioning: P. Adams Sitney has pointed out, in part two of Visions in Meditation, that the haunting qualities of the abandoned Mesa Verde cliff dwelling parallel Stan's own abandonment of his family. – Nathaniel Dorsky

All films by Stan Brakhage.

Anticipation of the Night

US 1958, 16mm, color, silent, 40 min


Visions in Meditation #2:
Mesa Verde

US 1989, 16mm, color, silent, 17 min


Visions in Meditation #3:
Plato’s Cave

US 1990, 16mm, color, 18 min


Preceded by a talk at 5pm with Ed Halter at the CCVA bookstore, which will have the new edition available for sale.

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Introduction by Mark McElhatten
Saturday November 11 at 7pm

The Book of Wonders

Seemingly poles apart, Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) and Méliès (1861-1938) were two independent spirits, explorers of multiplicity, dissection, starry realms, panoramas of the interior, metamorphosis and decay. In vastly different ways, they composed for a radiant screen, abandoning the usual notions of accepted perspectival space. Elevated vision playing along the optical fault lines where we trick ourselves into seeing things that don't exist, exist but “are not there” or habitually blinding ourselves from the full range of possible human vision. Exploring the mythic and the everyday, both filmmakers touched the boundaries between life and death, plumbing the depths of the subconscious, evoking terrors and natural splendors that summon childhood perceptions. Brakhage admired Méliès ' films for their rhythmic integrity, and as investigations into semblance and actuality—revealing the nature of our unstable apparitional reality, life in flux. – Mark McElhatten

All films by Stan Brakhage, unless otherwise noted.

The Dead

US 1960, 16mm, color, silent, 11 min


Baron Munchausen’s Dream (Les hallucinations du baron de Münchausen) - excerpt

Directed by Georges Méliès
France 1911, 16mm, b/w, silent, 5 min

Print courtesy the Academy Film Archive.


Commingled Containers

US 1997, 16mm, color, silent, 2.5 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.


The Garden of Earthly Delights

US 1981, 35mm, color, silent, 1.5 min


The Kingdom of the Fairies (Le Royaume des fées)

Directed by Georges Méliès
France 1903, 35mm, tinted b/w, silent, 16.5 min

With its highly developed use of superimpositions, dissolves, multi-plane cinematography and hand coloring, this fairy tale is one of Méliès’ most elaborate and exquisite creations. Print courtesy Lobster Films.


The Loom

US 1986, 16mm, color, silent, 43.5 min

Dedicated to Robert Kelly. A multiple-superimposition hand-painted visual symphony of animal life of earth. The Loom might be compared to musical quartet-form (as there are almost always four superimposed pictures); but the complexity of texture, multiplicity of tone, and the variety of interrelated rhythm, suggest symphonic dimensions. The film is very inspired by Georges Méliès: the animals exist (in Jane's enclosure) as on a stage, their interrelationships edited to the disciplines of dance, so therefore one might say this hardly represents "animal life on earth"; but I would argue that this work at least epitomizes theatrical Nature, magical Creature, and is the outside limit, to date, of my art in that respect.
Stan Brakhage

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Introduction by Mark McElhatten
Saturday November 11 at 9:15pm

Luminosity Ecstasy Trauma

Brakhage's films address and celebrate the materials of film speaking through emulsion, light, intermittency, color, texture, the cut, silence and the primacy of vision. Robert Kelly reminds us if Brakhage—a great in-person anecdotal storyteller—forbids story and plot in his film, he essentially includes a kind of narrative as a field or condition that allows multiple forms of identification and expression. 

The Weir-Falcon Saga and Murder Psalm show, to some degree, vulnerable children under siege riddled with medical and psychological dilemmas subject to counseling authority. The Weir-Falcon Saga explores a child's spirit of play and relative sense of self invaded by fever. Murder Psalm, one of Brakhage's most unique films, is strong medicine. Sprung from a dream of matricide, it blisters with the electricity of transgressive energies. A beautifully orchestrated crazy quilt composed from scientific and educational films, processed television and cartoons, this negative regenerative myth is a dark and ferocious Dostoevskian version of the found footage collage film. Brakhage again explores the jagged strata of identity, the structuring of memory and myth, the sieges waged by an asphyxiating dominant culture against individual consciousness, and the undreamt of betrayals that lead to transformative affliction and saving exodus.

Made by hand painting on IMAX film, The Dante Quartet expresses the anguish of separation, the dissipation of a marriage and a vision of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven informed by Dante and Rilke. – Mark McElhatten

All films by Stan Brakhage, unless otherwise noted.


US 1986, 16mm, color, 3 min. Soundtrack by Joel Haertling


Loud Visual Noises

US 1987, 16mm, color, 3.5 min. Sound version with Joel Haertling compiling music created for the film by Die Tödliche Doris, Zoviet France, The Hafler Trio, Nurse With Wound, Joel Haertling and I.H.T.S.O.


Agnus Dei Kinder Synapse

US 1991, 16mm, color, silent, 4 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.


The Weir-Falcon Saga

US 1970, 16mm, color, silent, 29 min


Murder Psalm

US 1980, 16mm, color, silent, 18 min


Zone Moment

US 1956, 16mm, color, silent, 3 min

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.


Christ Mass Sex Dance

US 1991, 16mm, color, 4 min. Soundtrack by James Tenney

Print courtesy Canyon Cinema.


The Riddle of Lumen

US 1972, 16mm, color, silent, 13 min

Print courtesy the Academy Film Archive.


The Dante Quartet

US 1987, 35mm, color, silent, 6 min


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