This essay kicks off another new column here at Perpetual Nostalghia: Experimental Lunch. The primary goal will be to write about shorter experimental films that can be viewed online, perhaps on a lunch break, and to provide context and commentary.
Mothlight (1963) - dir. Stan Brakhage
Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight1 is a perfect example of what the average person probably imagines an “experimental” film to be: images flash past in a flurry of abstract shapes and colors, it has no plot, and there is ostensibly some grand, philosophical meaning latent in its flickering images of bugs, plants, and other organic bits. It also serves perfectly as an introduction to some of the central ideas and pleasures of experimental film viewing, such as pushing the boundaries of film language, exploring new perspectives, and examining the medium of film itself.
The initial idea that would become Mothlight had its genesis when Brakhage witnessed a moth fluttering around his workspace one night, prompting him to consider the motion of a moth in flight and what it might see. Shortly thereafter, he noticed moths dying by self-immolation in his home’s various light sources, so he decided to create a work inspired, “...by moth flight, thoughts about, feelings thereto.”2 He says of the film:
"Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me. I don’t have enough money to make these films, and ... I’m not feeding my children properly, because of these damn films, you know. And I’m burning up here... What can I do?” I’m feeling the full horror of some kind of immolation, in a way."3
His response to this grief was simultaneously philosophic and pragmatic: he began gathering up the bodies of dead moths (and other insects) along with bits of grass, flowers, and other natural detritus and pasting them between two strips of mylar editing tape, creating an organic, linear collage the width of a strip of 16mm film. Working quickly and intuitively, adopting a desperate moth-like method of his own, Brakhage soon had three rough “movements” and a coda. After completing his work of arranging and gluing, he anxiously ran the strips of mylar through a contact printer to create a projectable 16mm print: a film created without the use of a camera.
Here’s where some of Mothlight’s deeper themes come to light, as it were. The moths that Brakhage saw dying, Icarus-like, in the bulbs and candles of his house are reanimated, however briefly, by the light of the projector. This momentary reincarnation achieves an astounding degree of beauty when you consider that the image on the screen (if you are watching the film projected from a 16mm print) is like seeing a ghost: the film-image has a tangible relation to the original organic matter that ran through the contact printer 50 years ago, with a beam of light as the thread tying them together.
In his gallery talk at the Hirshhorn Museum, Glen Dixon drew a link between Mothlight and this poem by Don Marquis. Brakhage’s attempt to convey, as he described it, “What a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black,” has strong resonance with the dichotomy Marquis’ poem sets up: the opposing desires to seek momentary beauty and to live safely and comfortably, if unexceptionally. At just over three minutes and containing no images that last more than a single frame, Mothlight is clearly representative of the former desire; it is itself a kind of self immolation, as the images will eventually give way (again, only if seeing it on film) to the pure, white light of the screen after the reel runs out and the last frame of film has left the projector gate.4
These additional depths afforded by 16mm film viewing shouldn’t stop you from seeking out the film in whatever form you can find it, however. On a purely structural, visual level, it still calls attention to the circumstances under which it was created and the nature of film itself no matter the viewing medium: the images still flutter in their own moth-like way 24 times a second,5 perhaps foolishly, in an attempt to create meaning - a universal statement about the moving image if there ever was one. Finally, even in a degraded quality transfer on YouTube, you can see and appreciate the textural multitudes present in Brakhage’s materials, whether insect wing, flower petal, or raw earth. Perhaps the most basic takeaway that Mothlight affords is one of its most important (and one of Brakhage’s central goals), which is to urge the viewer to look more closely, and with renewed curiosity, at the everyday.
For some other writing and info on Brakhage and Mothlight, check out these links:
Fred Camper at La Furia Umana
Senses of Cinema
Fred Camper for The Criterion Collection
Paul Arthur for The Criterion Collection
Nicole Brenez and Adrian Martin at Rouge
A Downloadable PDF of Brakhage's book Metaphors On Vision
1 - I recently saw Mothlight projected in 16mm, running on a loop as part of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Over, Under, Next - a great exhibit on the art of collage which also includes Bruce Conner’s Report and a number of Joseph Cornell boxes.
2 - This quote, along with most of the others found in this essay, comes from a letter Brakhage wrote to Robert Kelly while working on Mothlight, which can be found in his book Metaphors On Vision, which is available to download in PDF here.
3 - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothlight
4 - It may also be worth noting that there is one more (quite obvious but easily forgotten) added benefit of viewing Mothlight on film: the sound of the projector itself, which is reminiscent of beating wings and would also noticeably dissipate (though not stop completely) when the reel runs out.
5 - OK, OK, so a bad video transfer on YouTube is going to be at something more like 29.97 frames a second as opposed to film’s 24, but you get the idea.