Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Mothlight (1963)

Mothlight (1963)
Directed by:  Stan Brakhage.

What is one to make of a “film” like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? At under 4 minutes long, it is the shortest “film” on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? top 1,000 list, and isn’t really a film at all. Film implies the use of a camera, and Brakhage didn’t use one to make Mothlight. Instead what he did is take physical objects – most often moth wings, but also blades of grass, leaves, bark, dead insects, etc – and pressed them between two clear pieces of Mylar film, and than used an optical printer so that what he made could be projected.

The result is a four minute film that is unlike anything you have ever seen before – or since, really. Viewed on the Criterion Blu-Ray, Mothlight certainly looks different than any other film – and I’m not talking about the what you see, but rather, how you see it. Brakhage’s technique means that images come out differently. Most film, of course, is really a collection of still photographs of the same thing as they move – so each individual frame gives you the entire picture. But because of how Brakhage made the film, each frame is only a fraction of the “picture” – one image – say a moth wing – is split up on many different frames. Even though the film is now transferred to DVD, and hence there are no real frames at all anymore, the strange quality of the images are still there. Having never seen Brakhage’s film on film, I’m going to defer to the experts – who have seen Brakhage’s film both on film and DVD – when they tell me the Criterion disc gets this effect right.

The film, which has no soundtrack, is mesmerizing to watch. I really don’t know what else to say about it other than that, but the images are strange, and fly by so quickly much of the time that you only capture fragments of them at even given time through the film (and I watched it several times in a row).

Does Mothlight mean anything larger than it seems however? I’ve heard theories that Mothlight is a film “about life from the moth’s point of view during flight” – but I’m not sure I buy that, because, well, it doesn’t look like what I would think a moth’s point of view would look like (why would a moth being looking at its own wing?). I’ve also heard people say that Mothlight is about “death and decay”, and that makes more sense, since everything we see is dead, and in some sort of decay, but then again, I’m not sure showing dead things necessary means the film is about “death”. It just means, your showing the audience dead things.

Would I be completely wrong to suggest that at least part of the reason why Brakhage made Mothlight is to see if he could make Mothlight? I’ll admit, that when it comes to avant-garde filmmaking, I am pretty far away from an expert – often times I seem to completely miss the point (for instance, I have no idea what Brakhage was going for in all his art collage films of rapidly edited abstract art paintings he made in the 1980s). But before Mothlight, Brakhage made films like Cat’s Cradle (1959), which is an odd film to say the least, where you have to watch and try to figure out the relationship between the four human, and one feline, characters in his film, as it first appears to be little more than the morning routine of two couples, before it slips into the subtlety erotic. Perhaps what Brakhage wanted to do with Mothlight was simply make something completely different – a different way of making a film, with a completely different visual aesthetic
But, like I said, I’m hardly an expert on Brakhage. I’m slowly making my way through the Criterion Discs of his work – watching a film here and then when the mood strikes me, because I think if I were to sit down and watch the entirety of these discs in one sitting, I would eventually become numb – not because of the films themselves, but because of the epic length of the discs (all told, unless I miscounted, the discs include 53 of Brakhage’s over 400 films, ranging from 9 seconds to 74 minutes in length – so his epic, 4 hour The Art of Vision, is not included here). And don’t worry, I’m not going to review most of the individual films.

Getting back to Mothlight itself, I don’t think it has to mean anything deeper than its visuals, which like I said are mesmerizing. They are a good enough reason to spend 4 minutes watching Mothlight. At that length, what possibly do you have to lose in trying something completely different?

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