A luminary of the American avant-garde cinema, Brakhage made many camerless films, including Mothlight (1963), wherein the images of dead moths, foliage, and Mylar seem to reanimate the dead insects. Brakhage’s virtuosic hand-painted films provide exemplary cases for investigating the delicate balance of artist intention and subjective reception, and productively complicate the act of comprehending the moving image. There is a pronounced tension between what Brakhage’s painted films are putatively “about” and the difficultly in locating specific readings. This tension is exacerbated by the filmmaker’s dense web of literary, geographic, spiritual, representational, and artistic allusions, positioned in titles and at times phrases or single words scratched into the emulsion of his films. Brakhage sees in film the opportunity to push away from the index and the capturing of imagery toward the production of new sights and new ways of seeing.
Brakhage repeatedly stated that his painted films were attempts to represent two kinds of seeing. The first is hypnagogic vision, or optical feedback that occurs from within the structure of the eye itself. Rather than responding to the stimuli of light on optic nerves, this closed-eye vision is similar to what results when the retina is excited due to pressure put on the eyeball (from, say, rubbing one’s eyes). Related to this are phosphenes, or the experience of seeing light without light actually hitting the eye.
Another mode that Brakhage sought to re-create or represent was “moving visual thinking,” or “a response of the entirety of the body to the environment, and very subtly so,” a “continuous streaming” of color and shapes that cannot be readily identified or named. Brakhage held that this mode of seeing was more of “thought envisionment” than representational sight–the realization of the imaginative exercise described at the beginning of his book Metaphors on Vision (1963). Brakhage’s painted films, therefore, are not abstractions, but representations of these fleeting modes of sight.