Moth, grass, film, living

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 07, 2012 21:01 hrs

pDescriptions like &ldquoalternate film&rdquo and &ldquoexperimental film&rdquo are relative terms &mdash one man&rsquos &ldquoalternate&rdquo being another man&rsquos &ldquopractically mainstream&rdquo &mdash but there are some filmmakers whose position on the continuum is beyond argument One of them is the American Stan Brakhage whose work I have been recently watching with equal parts trepidation and fascination Brakhage who made nearly 400 films &mdash most of them under 10 minutes long &mdash is routinely described as a non-narrative director but that doesn&rsquot begin to convey what he actually did &mdash how he set out to overturn conventional ideas about how a film should be watched and even what a film isppTo take just one example his three-minute-long emMothlightem was not made by recording things with a camera it was created by manually sticking grass stems petals and dozens of moth wings from insects that had burnt to death by flying towards candles between two strips of clear film and then running it through an optical printer That may seem a random self-indulgent thing to do but he put into the process all the care and thought of a painter adorning an immensely long canvas &mdash he wanted a very specific effect on the screen when the film would be projected at 24 frames per secondppI settled down to watch emMothlightem and a few other Brakhage films with only very basic background information but I did read Fred Camper&rsquos notes on how to ideally watch a Brakhage film &ldquoTry to approximate the conditions of a cinema as much as possible&rdquo Camper writes pointing out that Brakhage made most of his films silent because &ldquovisual rhythms are crucial to his work&rdquo and so it&rsquos important not to be interrupted by distracting soundsppFeeling like a student going through pre-examination rituals I darkened my room sat on the ground at a distance of around three feet from my 36-inch plasma screen and reached for my notebook &mdash before realising that it&rsquos idiotic to try and take notes while watching a three-minute movie made up of subliminal images that only last a fraction of a second As emMothlightem began it became obvious that this spooky hypnotic film would lose much of its power if watched on say YouTube on a computer screen Describing the experience is daunting The first images are extreme close-ups of translucent brown objects if you know the back-story you can tell that these are moth wings but even with no prior information it is soon possible to guess that the many dark shapes flickering on and off the screen represent insect forms and motifs Shades of brown give way to splotches of green for the odd second you can make out extreme close-ups of what look like leaves or stems The rhythms of the images change constantly at times they rush by or appear to race at the camera so fast you feel breathless and fearful at other times you can make out distinct patterns that merge into each otherppWhat is the purpose of all this Some viewers might say it&rsquos visual gibberish After a first viewing I felt that way too but watching the film a further three or four times &mdash having become more used to its weirdness of form &mdash I found it strangely moving Unfolding on the screen is an impression of relentless organic activity and it is identifiably organic even though there isn&rsquot a single held shot of a whole insect or plant The film may be constructed entirely of &ldquodead&rdquo matter but the projection and the speed give these elements an otherworldly life Another of Brakhage&rsquos best-known works emWindow Water Baby Movingem &mdash a filming of the birth of his first child &mdash is more explicitly about the creation and emergence of life but emMothlightem is equally poignant in its own way The moths and the flora dance on the screen for those few minutes and it is a testament to the regenerating power of film even a reminder that all old movies &mdash even mainstream ones &mdash are made up of long-dead people brought achingly alive for our eyeshr pp alignrightstrongJai Arjun Singhstrong emis a Delhi-based writerem a hrefmailtojaiarjungmailcomjaiarjungmailcoma  p

More from Sify: