Stan Brakhage: Mothlight, Death & Cinema Resurrection

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stan brakhage mothlightStan Brakhage’s Mothlight is an experimental testament to the broad interpretation of “anything” in Holis Frampton’s quote, “It seems that a film is anything that may be put in a projector that will modulate the emerging beam of light.” For Mothlight, Brakhage used dead moths, flowers, and glass in order to create an entirely camera-less movie. The result is a visually daring film that highlights the filmmaker’s style and theory.

The film can be seen as a prime example of Brakhage’s attempt to overcome the conventions and stereotypes of cinema and the act of seeing. As the director famously wrote in 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.

Mothlight is essentially this “adventure of perception.” Out of the context of the film’s title or Brakhage’s commentary, it is hard to discern any “objects” or put linguistic labels on the images seen. Thus the film achieves the director’s desire to transcend the shackles of language and conventional “compositional logic.”

This compositional logic refers to the the way we recognize objects in everyday life, but also about the conventions of cinema, which Brakhage challenged radically with Mothlight and his other works. According to zoologist Andrew Parker and his light switch theory, vision first appeared 543 million years ago, and was responsible for the great life diversity that appeared during the Cambrian explosion. The McGurk effect, on the other hand, showed the dominance of vision over the other senses and the sensory illusions that this can cause.

Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight: Expressionist Cinema

Mothlight depicts an almost primordial image of abstract expressionism outside of the linguistic realm, and extends vision to non-human terms. It is the natural tendency of the moths to strive towards the light that ultimately causes their destruction. But it is the film light that causes their resurrection.

The film is expressionist because “reality” is not reflected or captured with a camera. Instead the images are created through the camera-less manufacturing of the film’s content without any reference to the “real world.” Jean Luc Goddard said, “Every film is a documentary of its actors.” However, Mothlight probably less so, as in its lack of “real-world”-roots or actors it is closer to animation.

Mothlight: About Death, Transience & Cinematic Resurrection

Although somewhat difficult to pin down diegetically through the viewing of the film itself, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight explores the filmmaker’s recurring theme of death. Yet another example of how the digital age of DVDs and Netflix transforms the meaning of cinema, the hint comes from the director’s comments about how the movie was made, taken from his DVD anthology volume 1:

Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.

Inversely to how Chris Marker used still images to depict the idea of lifelessness in La Jetee, Brakhage used the illusion of cinematic movement to breathe life into the dead moths. Mothlight’s fast “editing” and short duration enhance the themes of death and transience.

But as Brakhage revealed in the same interview, Mothlight for him could be an allegory about the struggles of the artist to create films:

I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candlelight, 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.

This comment adds a new layer of meaning to the film by drawing a parallel between the moth and the artist burned by the light of his own cinema.