This article was originally published in MFJ No. 35/36 “The Millennium.”
I offer the following as a kind of reader’s guide, an illustrated “script” of my film Clepsydra (1992), with a nod to the inspiration of its making, Stan Brakhage’s Murder Psalm (1981). In the relative absence of any ongoing critical/analytical body of writing on experimental film in most journals today, I would invite other filmmakers to draw similar maps to their own films or the work of colleagues they admire. This is a (revised) reprint from an article I wrote for Meteor Film Journal (Vienna) some years ago, when the editors requested an essay that took as its starting point a single frame of film of my own choosing.
What does it mean to meditate upon one frame of film? Certainly grammatical and structural analogies have been applied before. Does the ontology of the motion picture frame, for example, have any equivalence in the other arts: word/sentence – brushstroke/painting – note/phrase? What is the relationship of one frame culled from a film strip to a photograph? An interesting note: almost all “stills” that one finds in film history books and publicity packets are actually not blow ups of single representative frames, but are, in fact, shot by a unit photographer; they are, therefore, closer to the aesthetics of actual still photography than the 1/24th of a second frame event of a motion picture continuum. Publicity stills are often “first generation”: the mis-en-scene is posed, frozen, as the “animation” of the lived world is suspended for the singular, cryonic instant of the shutter blade opening and closing, like some guillotine of time (“off with their heads”)… Cine-stills are originally shot in full view of the three dimensional world, but are always framed with the idea of movement (camera, subject or both) and always contain the tension of a moving possibility. Cine-frame blow-ups are second generation, rephotographed from a two dimensional strip sequence; they are discreet units of a total spatio-temporal composition, often conceived in motion, in the context of someone doing something in “real time” (like talking, fighting, chasing, eating, smoking, lovemaking, or dying, which constitute much of the time “taken up” in most movies). The relatively slow shutter speed of 24 fps cinema creates frames that are often unstable (“blurred”) from camera and subject movement, leaving comic book whisks and whooshes that trail past people, cars, trees… Looking at the the ontological differences between photographs and motion picture frames may lead us, in part, to the answer of why the aesthetics of still photography and the cinema are so radically different. Those of us who teach filmmaking know the extent to which this is true, as we are always retraining students who have studied photography into really understanding the difference between the nature of the photographed moment, the snap, and the altogether different perception of the cinematic moment. It is uncanny how the formal tensions of the cine-frame often fall apart as art when considered “in the light” of the aesthetics of the still photograph (and one is hard-pressed to recall many examples of a cine-frame that actually works as a stand alone, photographic work of art). Perhaps we can imagine some aesthetic twist on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle might be in play when it comes to considering the cine-frame as art: As soon as we look at it, try to capture it, stop it, locate it, it is gone… or perhaps the single frame merely lies in some vampiric state of suspended animation, waiting patiently in its coffin for blessed night, the closing of the shutter, a brief respite from the burning lamp of the sun, only to be pulled down into the aperture and out of the clawed life between projections (or do they leap, like paratroopers from a plane?), to then be lit by the sun for one brief shining moment (but not left in Heaven’s Gate long enough to be burned to a crisp), as yet another Icarus waits for another eclipse, just above…
Like Stein’s Oakland, perhaps there really is no “there there”. The cine-frame exists as a field of potential energy (though to the “naked eye” it has all the appearances of a calm, lucid stasis, “still”, unlike the hidden rotary drum that desperately tries to keep the illusion of a video frame for the deceived viewer on “pause”, spinning for all its worth like a mouse on a wheel, scanning across the screen like a moving sandpainting…The cine-frame’s only aesthetic life lies in its potential, in its relativity to memory (the frame before) and prophecy (the frame after); its existential condition could be defined as always in the state of becoming, or emergence, as Barthes would have it:
Photograph does not have: the screen (as Bazin has
remarked) is not a frame but a hideout; the man or woman
who emerges from it continues living: a “blind field” constantly
doubles our partial vision. Now, confronting millions of
photographs, including those which have a good studium, I
sense no blind field: everything that happens within the frame
dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond. When we define
the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only
that figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not
leave : they are anesthetized and fastened down, like
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
The screen as a hideout. I dream of Martin Arnold’s Passage A L’Acte (the very title invokes the peculiar ontology of the cine-frame, “passing into action”), of Scout (aptly named), struggling to leave the kitchen out the back door, leave behind the time/space prison yard of the movie itself (see Barthes, above) and burst into independent life, freed from any apparatus, tearing against her given morphology of discreet, precisely ordered and pre-determined single frames, her paternal, mathematical inheritance, which have all been (apriori) scripted by the puppetmaster (Arnold). Like some Frankenstein monster, the cinema is stitched from pieces of dead matter (Hollis Frampton used to say that the cheek and jowl clippings of Argentinian bulls provided the best gelatin for Kodak), and is then charged into life by bolts of lightning (the projector lamp), is loved by its maker (Dr. Frankenstein, the filmmaker), only to be sent off to be misunderstood and ultimately pillaged by the screaming local villagers, torches in hand, finally to be cast away on some ice flow for eternity, shivering from cold indifference… (well, perhaps I get carried away a bit here…). Along the lines of Arnold’s discoveries, I urge the reader to visit (and re-visit) Ken Jacobs’ (incredible) Nervous System, which is the great flickering portal to what has been left out of much of the cinematic exploration these last hundred years:the secret society between the frames….
In many ways, the unit of the single frame provides the basis for the aesthetics of all my filmmaking. The films were all made “one frame at a time”(using an optical printer), so that I have had a hand in seeing, considering, and creating every single frame of film in the act of re-photography (which are scrutinized at frame level once again on the Moviscope during the editing process). When peering down the dark and lonely hallway of the optical printer camera, gazing at the beam-splittered shunted light, awaiting the beautiful ballroom entrance of every pulled down frame, one must continually struggle against the seduction of the fascinating single image. It does seem to me that this a real deathtrap for many filmmakers who hop on the optical printer – the temptation to fall in love with individual frames, like Pygmalion, caressing and elongating beautiful frames to linger in time (please…stay…) through enticing but often problematic strategies like the “freeze-frame” (repeating the same frame over and over), “cropping” (Saul Levine: “Optical printing is for people who couldn’t get it together the first time…”), “slo-mo” (most sequences that are step printed beyond a 3:1 camera to projector ratio often feel “dead in the water” to me, somehow losing an essential cinematic life pulse at that rate of redundancy – a noted exception being Ernie Gehr’s uncanny Eureka, among others). Original photographed moments, often teeming with life, are frequently rendered by the printer into analysis, so that we are no longer in an aesthetic present tense, but are made passive by watching the watcher watch …We see what the filmmaker has already seen and noted, we now know what they have already known… we begin having a secondary experience rather than a primary revelation. Seems to me that one must, therefore, strive to retain the idea of the frame as a field of potentia, in a temporarily frozen but melting intertia (“a body in motion tends to stay in motion…”), and not as a singular, substantiated fact…to imagine the frame as verb, say, rather than noun. When I scrutinize a film for my classes on an analytic projector or VCR, I try to be careful not to over-emphasize the aesthetic potential of the single frame. I will run sequences in slow motion to study rhythm, compositional strategies, and juxtaposition, but will try to avoid the temptation to linger in the art museum of any individual frame (and my museum guard, Walter Benjamin, keeps warning me to stand some distance away from the radiating aura of the singular, priceless art object). I do, however, often use the single cine-frame as an ongoing inspiration to re-imagine the whole sequence…or the entire film. Indeed, one would hope that something of the packed aesthetic integrity of the entire film may be found in consideration of any frame, Blake’s grains of sands….
I have chosen this particular frame (figure 1) to start my analysis because it is somewhat emblematic of my entire body of work. Most of my films have been a hybrid of original and found footage, where the images are “treated” through various chemical and optical means, and then woven, through editing and printing, into a unified visual/thematic field, where it is often difficult to distinguish between what is found and what I have originally photographed. They often feel onieric in nature, as I rather desperately try to defeat the denotative designs of Kodak, Bolex, and the lens maufacturers (with their sharper image catalogues…) by cajoling the images into the realm of the connotative, the poetic, by obscuring (repressing) the vision with an organic ambiguity, “lighting out” into territories of abstracted representation, moving ostensible photographed moments toward a formal semblance of human feeling (see Langer, Suzanne K., Feeling and Form). The found footage elements in my work are often transfixed in the process of making (images are borrowed and reinstated without resorting to the po-mo necessities of irony, a common mode of address in many found footage films a.c., after Conner…I take as my inspiration Conner’s Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Valse Triste as models of “found sincerity”…). A kind of electro-chemical alchemy can sometimes spin hay into gold, transubstantiating the mundane into the allegorical and symbolic (like the Young Girl depicted in this frame, or the Bicycle Rider in Remains to Be Seen). The chemical/optical treatments (seen here in the metallic, welted surface texture) often evoke natural, elemental rivers of feeling and empathy with the “narrative”(water seems to show up sooner or later in almost all of the films). I have chosen this frame to stand for the entire film because it exists at 12:00: all about to begin (or could it be the end of the cycle, all having finished?), all potential, anything can happen, but….
What she does with the clock standing before her, her passage into action, becomes the locus of the film’s meaning.
Circles and Waters
The scene that this particular frame depicts occurs in variation three times throughout Clepsydra. The young girl faces the outsized clock (looking away from the camera), grasps the base of the large hand (note that the small hand does not appear until the last third of the film, when the entire scene turns to negative), and begins to pull it downward, toward the right, clockwise (is coercing time forward really wise?)…We begin the inevitable cycle around the circle, as the girl, with her back to the future, re-enacts the Sisyphisan labor that she is emblazoned to repeat every time this film is projected (and doesn’t the word “projected” imply a thrust through time as well as space, a pre-diction?). An image of eternal recurrence, of sands of time measuring “days of our lives”, a time to reap and sow on and so on…The pulling of the clock’s hand (or is this, in fact, a camouflaged resistance?) to 1, then 2, finally around to 12 mirrors the pull down movement of the “claws” and the maltese cross-movement of the cinematic apparatus, articulating wild “rivers” of emulsified time into civilized, discreet, agreed upon units, the peculiar, rational division of the photo/graphed world into manageable, twenty four/per second “frames”…The emulsion, which is laid across the base like a waterfall (random events in an unending procession), now becomes subdivided into architecture, and happenstance will cake into narrative, and repetition becomes ritual. And the young girl learns how to be “on time”: on time to say good-bye to her father, on time for her birthday party, on time to say goodnight, on time to go upstairs to bed, on time…(note how in figure 1 the big hand and its base rhyme with the “pigtails” of the girl’s hair.)
A clepsydra is a waterclock, a way of ordering existence (like cinema itself) by reigning in irrational, entropic, irresistible forces into the realm of immovable mathematics, logics and concept. The etymology of the word clepsydra is, in fact, the hidden poem of the film: “clep” (as in cleptomaniac – one who steals) and “hydra” (water). To steal water. To rob life. The film is a repressed dream of incest memory, of ritual, of the learned behavior of the innocent, of succumbing…A waterfall runs over the entire film and acts as another emulsional layer, a vertical stream of consciousness, a mimesis of the film riverrunning through the projector, a falls…The film contains another layer of falls over falls, as the chemically stressed surface of the treated film strips becomes an active and participating intelligence, reacting organically to its own unfolding narrative, akin in my imagination to Tarkovsky’s Ocean Being in Solaris…but the film itself seems helpless to do anything but occasionally mask its own latent dream content, veiling and submerging the inevitable unfolding of the narrative…Water (nature, uncontainable, slips through our “hands of time”) and Circles (man-made image of perfection, world without end). I think of Clepsydra and its predecessor in the dark night of the soul of repressed memory, Stan Brakhage’s Murder Psalm. Circles and Waters.
Clespsydra begins with a dreamer (figure 2). A boy is dreaming (as the maker begins to dream the film). The camera lifts up into his dream, as we see the silhouettes of partygoers walking off into the night, about to attend a “masquerade party” (figure 3). A waterfall dissolves in like a curtain, interrupting the narrative flow with a vertical one – this gesture reoccurs throughout the film as a metaphor of repression, the blocking of unwanted memories. We then spy the girl saying good-bye to her father, as he is presumably off to work. She enters the house and begins her episode with the clock. With a brief nod to classical Biograph cross-cutting, we are to witness the initiation of the girl into her first understanding of time by analogy (the source material is educational, How to Tell Time…), paralleled with men and their daily timepiece checks in the world of labor. The girl enters a room with nothing in it but a clock and a pie. She passes the handless, enlarged clock in the background, as she sits to contemplate the pie (figure 4). The father waits for the bus, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a “pocketwatch” (figure 5). The father boards the bus (he is “on time”), as the bus driver checks his watch in a strange, Hitchcockian insert (noun), the foundation of the narrative machine, suturing elliptical time/space units of things into the illusory continuum (figure 6). The girl stares at the pie and recalls her last birthday cake, another circular object which becomes a marker of time by yearly ritual (figure 7). A boy runs to catch the bus (unlike the father, he has no watch – and he is late…) An extreme close-up (from the waste down) of the girl being lifted by a man, as she holds onto his shoulders. The birthday cake dissolves into a shot taken from behind the untoward, blackened image of the bus driver – we are now passengers on the bus, being taken for a ride (figure 8). The girl fingers along the crease of the already sliced pie, intimating a private knowledge of her own body, hinting at the release of “four and twenty blackbirds…” (figure 9). The hand of the clock is lying on the floor, just beyond the pie, in a detached tumescence (figure 10). The girl looks away from the pie toward the outsized clock – a flowing river interrupts the camera tilt as it reveals 12:00 “high”…The clock appears in imagined scale as a man’s torso, the vertical hand becomes an erection as it might appear in a child’s repressed memory (figure 11). The river overtakes the image in a horizontal counterpoint, and, through a dissolve, the carousel of horses appear (figure 12), moving right to left along the same current – the carousel itself another kind of giant clock mechanism in the film, screaming horses in lieu of hands...a waterfall turns the positive space of the sine-waved carousel awning into the negative space of a sky over a passing landscape, scalloped by trees and supported by the flats of suburban houses (figure 13). The motion of the carousel induces a rhyming suggestion on the cut that the houses are actually moving in front of a stationary camera… this tracking shot becomes a repeatable “establishing shot” for all the domestic scenes in the film, as the outside facades of the houses mirrors the masked dancers of the interior, and we wonder, in passing, just what goes on behind closed doors… Horses emerge once again from the waterfall, then recede…
We now come to the frame in question. 12:00 (figure 1). The beginning of the cycle. It is midnight – when the line is drawn in the sands of time for Cinderella, when her fantasies of royal coaches and Prince Charmings will devolve into rotting pumpkins and scattered mice…The girl reaches up and grasps the base of the shaft, pulling the big hand down toward the 3. Midway through the pulling of the clock-hand, she switches the position of her own small hand, so that it becomes a slight caress underneath the weight…she moves from active to passive in mid-gesture. The clock-hand now becomes a potential spear, an impalement, but there is no resistance, her eyes are closed (figure 14). A memory is triggered of her father reaching into the closet (the camera angle masks his face, such that he is now Any Father) to retrieve a gift, a birthday gift, a “time-piece” (figure 15). We return to the girl holding the end of the shaft as it points toward 3 – she stares at the hand, then closes her eyes, falls deep into a somnambulist’s trance (figure 16)…decapitating dreams recalled from Frank Perry’s David and Lisa well up in memory… an offering is being made to the daughter of a gift, an “alarm clock”…Cut to another insert of the clock hands moving forward in accelerated time, without her help this time, the hands coming alive, “telling” time by their own self-regulated pulse (figure 17). She looks up at him and smiles, handing back the gift, so that he may show her how it works…a waterfall interrupts, melting into carousel horses tethered to their poles, mouths opened as if in warning…We then see the disembodied, emotionless face of the father for the first time, in close-up, for a brief moment, not looking toward the daughter, but away, off screen…(figure 18) A waterfall interrupts, offering a glimpse of the bus in transit…
Girl at the clock moves the shaft from 3 to 6, stops for a moment, ponders this “half-past” position (figure 19), then actively moves the hand, onward toward the 9 (now 3/4 through the cycle), so that the “hand” becomes an “arm”, a weapon (“arms”), pointing away from her body, extension rather than penetration… A return to the father’s hands holding the alarm clock; then the waterfall reveals, for a very brief moment, the image of an older woman looking back at us (the young girl grown up?), as if we are the screen of some future movie (this one?), a reversal of the spectator role that we have previously assumed….we are being “watched”…The waterfall overtakes her image, brings us out to the exterior, tracking past the outer face of private homes, one after the other, as the black grains that hold the illusion of representational pictures threaten to lose their molecular bonds and break up, objects disintegrating back to their original silver bromide state, back to the random nature of flowing water, entropy….a close-up of oblong mirrors from the canopy of the carousel, in motion from left to right, dissolves to a cracked, embered silhouette of a boy trapped inside a swinging cage (rhymed with the exact same shape of the carousel mirrors), rocking to and fro, as if he is trapped inside some kind of gigantic clock mechanism, or cam…(figure 20)
Dissolve to a close-up of the young girl (figure 21), sleeping, veiled by the waterfall, or, perhaps, running sands (“Mr. Sandman, send me a dream….”) – she does dream – she is lifted up by an unseen man (a plaid skirt is seen, hoisted); on the cut, the camera then reverses this vertical pull by panning down her body, stopping where both hands are holding a black book (figure 22). This book is then carefully placed in a drawer, private, hidden, kept in a secret place…a diary?…a daily recording, a confession, a note-in-a-bottle to her future self… We are back to the clock-hand piercing at the 9 position (quarter to), a momentary gesture of empowerment (figure 23). Various images recycle, until we return to the final movement back to 12:00, as the texture of the coagulated image threatens to obliterate the mise-en-scenery completely. When she reaches the apogee of the cycle, the waterfall descends into a rushing veil of tears, which is suddenly parted like a curtain by the girl as adult, as she heads into the rushing waters of the silvered screen (and I am momentarily reminded of Dorothy/Garland, older than her years, gasping as Toto (all) grasps the curtain to reveal Oz/God as a hapless shaman from Kansas, a fake, another man with a clock-offering for the one with a broken heart…) (figure 24)
Here, beyond the parted curtain, the story turns to negative, the players wear their masks (as photo-negatives of humans seem to bring out the uncanny, mask-like qualities of our faces) for the final somnambulist waterdance. Everyone moves with a languid inevitability.
Already established motifs begin to reoccur:
– The girl sleeps (figure 25).
– The clock reads 12:00 (now with black circle and white hands – figure 26).
– The riderless, black carousel horses are in stasis, waiting for the clock to begin (this montage recalls the opening of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, as the city sleeps, then awakens to the start of another day of labor and leisure, the machines beginning to crank up in a shiny, rotary vision of the promise of proletariat paradise…) These Trojan horses begin to move, ever so slowly, like a zoetrope revolving into cinema (figure 27).
– The girl pulls the hand down to 1, as if she’s pulling the lever which starts the carousel…
cut to the tracking shot of tract houses, as if the world itself is spinning on its axis before a static camera (figure 28).
– A man, who has been evidently reading his evening paper, glances at his wristwatch to check the time (figure 29).
– The girl, now adolescent, sleepwalks up the stairs, trailed by her own ghost (her shadow in negative), moving inexorably to the appointed time…(figure 30)
– The hand is pulled to 2 (figure 31).
– The plaid skirted body is lifted (figure 32).
– Close-up of a single carousel horse, silently screaming (figure 33)
– The man blows up a birthday balloon, a cultural emblem celebrating child-clock in years, engorging the “rubber” into full circle (figure 34).
– The doorknob to the bedroom is turned clockwise by a hand that reaches out from the subjective camera (figure 35).We are now culpable, as we shift in perspective from spectator to first person participant. We walk into the room, fling a piece of clothing on the bed, approach the desk, see the diary, open it up , violate its sanctity…
– The horses scream, but no sound is heard (figure 36).
– The girl is sleeping…. is she aware of us as she dreams? (figure 37)
– Girl (in dreamscreen) pulls the ghost hand of clock to 3 (to the first person position: “me” – figure 38)
– The doorknob/clock is manually turned once again…repetition is ritual, everybody seems to be helplessly dreamwalking through this (figure 39).
– A masquerade – the girl pulls a horrifying pumpkin mask over her own negative-masked face (sleepy, hallowed)…the pumpkin is to be her face to the outer world (“saving face”), an amulet needed to survive midnight and after, when all coaches will begin to turn back to pumpkins…(figure 40)
– The diary (now in white) is safely put away again, into the drawer (figure 41).
– Hand is moved from 3 to 4 (figure 42).
– Girl walks up the stairs once again as the diagonal of the staircase is rhymed with the same angle as the clock-hand at 4, as if this is the appointed time (figure 43)
– Hand moved to 6, the diary is discovered by a girlfriend, its latent secrets held up, opened to disclosure (figure 44), an argument ensues, cut to:
– The tracking shot of anonymous homes and an empty town (figure 45 – This cutaway to exterior at the point of greatest interior domestic tension recalls Ozu’s use of this psychological device, the reticent camera which has to look away and break intimacy out of a subtle discretion, a humility…)
– The masquerade continues, as she dances with a boy her own age (figure 46)
– The man, as if reacting, sucks the air, the life, out of the balloon (figure 47) – this is an optical reversal (in terms of both time and composition) of figure 34. He is the Thief of Water, Thief of Air. Clepsydra.
– Called, the girl leaves the party to walks up the stairs, once again, as if in a trance…. an inflated balloon is hanging from the upper right side of the frame. She is followed by her ghost shadow (figure 48).
– With white rains pouring down, the dream girl moves the clock-hand, with great deliberation and resolve, back around to the 12 for the last time (figure 49). She removes the clock hand, leaving the clock “faceless” for a moment (Wild Strawberries ). She picks up another hand and replaces it onto the clock at 12:00. A moment of empowerment, of choice.
– But the cycle appears to start over again as the girl sleeps, the doorknob turns, and
the boy runs to catch the bus, “just in time”, as the doors close…there is, finally, nothing he can do (figure 50).
– The horses scream in close-up (figure 51).
– A young woman appears and “watches” – us – this film? – is this the future self of the young girl, unleashing this torrent of memories? (figure 52)
– She parts the curtains as a man passes her by (figure 53), the parallel lines of the parting curtains match dissolving to the divided panes of a window, as a boy helplessly watches, the waterfall turns to raindrops on the window, like tears on a face…(figure 54) The window pane (pain) that separates them is, after all, made up of slowly dripping sands, an invisible hourglass, another clock.… Older now, she carries an open umbrella for protection from the rains (figure 55). Her young girl self, her adolescent self, herself as the young woman watching this film, herself as the older woman who walks away from us in the rain – all of them converge into the vortex of the final image. The young girl finally leaves the House of Usher (us/her) with its clocks, watches, and hands. She has learned her lesson about time. And, as she closes the door behind her, one last clock appears with the lilt of door’s shadow – a sundial (figure 56).
Circles and Waters. I see the Red Riding Hood figure of Murder Psalm (Stan Brakhage, 1981), paralleled throughout the film with the epileptic child entranced at the fire of waters in a fountain, both girls running from the satanic Big Bad Wolf in his various circular guises: the headlights of negative cars (his eyes, “the better to see you with, my dear…”), the westward ho-ing of circling wagon wheels, manifesting destinies, spinning tales of worlds in perpetual motion (“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!”)…Wheels of war machines marching in time, impossible cartoon murders with Bitzered-iris closings, like squinting at a chosen prey with lust-filled eyes, the spinning saws of autopsy removing real skull, the red ball thrown by the boy into the waters of the fountain interrupting the trance of the young girl with a cruelty rarely matched in the history of cinema…The half circles of plastic brain hemispheres shape-rhymed with emerging negative tunnels…round cartoon sweat drops create “streams of consciousness”, the rains bring forth lightning which strikes down Riding Hood into epileptic seizure, unconsciousness, or death, as man-made lightning has strewn charred casualties of war across beaches and “foxholes”… all lie prone at film’s end.
Watching Clepsydra and Murder Psalm in a single screening illuminates many common themes and tendencies. Both films weave found and original footage into unpredictable tropes (note that the use of found footage is quite rare in Brakhage, with some notable exceptions being Dog Star Man, 23rd Psalm Branch, Visions in Meditation: Mesa Verde). Both films explore the nature of the decayed surface and the mortality of film emulsion (induced in Clepsydra, an inadvertent gift of old, discarded lab castaways in Murder Psalm), which often interrupting the latent content of the “narrative” with surface play of veils and curtains, metaphors of individual or collective repression (the continuous reappearance of the waterfall in Clepsydra, the garish, yellowed television “snow” hinting at “bad reception”, the rotted emulsions and cine-flares ofMurder Psalm , flattening the image into a modernist resistance of the screen as window (as Brakhage’s cartoon mouse on the runs along the Z-axis, the road to nowhere, all hell breaks loose behind him in a mad rush of Renaissance perspective, a brilliant comic parody of western man’s domination of space…)
Both films (made by adult men) depict allegorical figures of Young Girls (the Waters), as they are about to acquire (or inherit) the cumulative knowledge of Man-Kind (the Circles). In Murder Psalm, the Red Riding Hood figure is raptured by a vision of the dancing waters, which is suddenly and violently ruptured by the ball/circle, thrown by the classic typage from all our childhoods of the Taunting Boy….the man-made circle drops like a bomb, displacing nature, as ancestral wagon wheels and chariots have trampled through puddled, bloodied landscapes, rolling over lost, defeated cultures, in the name of progress, civilization…The Doctor (in a white lab coat, similar to the autopsy uniforms) is about to show her a man-made model of her brain, about to induce an irreversible loop of self-awareness (just as the father in Clepsydra offers the acquisition of time, and therefore the uncanny, human knowledge of one’s own mortality)…the scientific, logical analysis of cause and effect, the rationalization of vision, the systemic, public need to codify and demystify the hermetics of private fancy, disclaiming the enchantments of childhood and the daily epiphanies of the innocent, accelerating the loss of intuition to bring the end of poetry. In Clepsydra, the final image is something of a prayer. Leave the house, and close the door behind you.
I refer the reader to Marjorie Keller’s wonderful book about images of children in Brakhage, Cornell, and Cocteau The Untutored Eye. The chapter on Murder Psalm, is the best published writing on this film that I am aware of, and contains illustrations of some of the shots that I refer to above. I would also point to Stan Brakhage’s Time on dit…, published in the summer 1995 issue of Musicworks (a Canadian musical quarterly), where he writes beautifully on Clepsydra and issues of childhood.
Clepsydra is available for rental through Canyon Cinema Cooperative.
Murder Psalm is available through Canyon Cinema and the New York Filmmaker’s Cooperative.
Phil Solomon is an experimental filmmaker and an Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest work is a feature length series of films entitled The Twilight Psalms.
Written by Phil Solomon
Disclaimer: This page is for your personal use only. It is not to be duplicated, shared, published or republished in whole or in part, in any manner or form, without the explicit permission of the publisher, author, and copyright holder(s) of the images.