Images: Andrew Coram (Place of Desolation) from the film ‘Maldoror’, produced by Duncan Reekie and Karsten Weber (2001).
“Really, I mean it’s wonderful to live. And what worries me the most is that so much of the time I don’t want to live, and then I try to figure out why. Why not?”
(from a 1974 interview, Remarks Following a Screening of The Text of Light)
(nostalgia) 1971, Hollis Frampton
“I take some comfort that my entire physical body has been replaced more than once since it made this portrait of its face.”
From (nostalgia) 1971 by Hollis Frampton. In this film Frampton incinerates his own photographs, one by one, over a hotplate. The personal biographical narration (written by Frampton but narrated by filmmaker Michael Snow) for each photograph relates to the next photograph in the sequence, rather than the one in view. He did not incinerate these photographs with the contagion of a match, but with a hotplate, a slow heat as if rising from the depths of the earth, forcing combustion, decay, dissolution into vapour and carbon. It is one of the most existentially melancholic films I have seen.
The Pirate & The Crystal Ball - The Incredible String Band (circa 1970) - a sequence from their film “Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending” directed by Peter Neal. I fear there are few who will truly appreciate the complete genius of this film. It fills me with a strange kind of longing, something quite beyond nostalgia.
Three film stills from Fathomless (1964) by Jim Davis, an astonishing display of coloured light in movement. Davis worked in special kind of way - an alchemical experimentation with light - his films are edited from filmed sequences of light refracted and reflected through coloured plastic sculptural installations. Davis would focus light from the sun using a mirror (or sometimes lights), projecting the light through various translucent coloured sculpture mobiles. He would then film the light refractions as they played themselves out on a screen.
But Davis considered light to be actually substantial - he felt his films were not really psychologically abstract or physically immaterial, but were reflections of fundamental natural forces, they were, in his words “suggestive of the causal properties of nature”.
Davis also felt that there was “something sacred, secret, that no human should know or see” in these forms, which hints toward a metaphysical intuition. This connects us to ideas of the ‘light of creation’, the alchemical/cabbalistic notion of light being a primary emanation of the divine, an intermediary substance between spirit and matter. That matter, without being impregnated with celestial light, could not in fact exist. And perhaps this is what Davis intuits - light as the primal form, pre-material.
Maybe this is, indeed, fathomless.
Note: the amazing films of Jim Davis are not available online, but can be got on DVD through the BFI or RE:Voir.
Three sequential film stills (a moth wing) from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963)
In his films, Brakhage aimed to engage what he termed the “optical mind”, something William Wees describes as “seeing as a physiological, nerve-centred event”. Brakhage sought a visual language in his films that he considered belonged to a pre-thought stage of perceptual experience. And he was fascinated by moths. In an interview with Bruce Kawin (2002) about Mothlight he said “these crazy moths are flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me.” At first he tried to film moths on the wing, but this he found impossible (something I can testify to). So he collected moth wings from the dead he found in lampshades, “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.” Brakhage wrote the following annotation to Mothlight: “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.” Mothlight is a strange film, but it sums up so much of the actual ‘mothlight’ experience for me. The drawing towards the light, the astonishing perceptual beauty and fragility of the moths themselves, the tragic quality of their behaviour around light, their death by light, and finally their transformation through the eyes, hands and intellect of humankind.
In 1963, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage released Mothlight, made in part by pressing moth wings between two clear strips of film and then projecting this as a film print. An interesting aspect of this film is that the moth wings, as can be seen from the filmstrip image, often run over two or more frames. Even in this seemingly unimportant detail, the work challenges the idea of the film frame as a means of sampling and fixing reality. Brakhage’s images in Mothlight do literally break out of the frame. Our imagistic reality cannot be contained, neither in thought, nor in frames.