I remember a summer night, decades ago, when I discovered that if I closed my eyes really tightly, I could create a movie in my own head. Scrunching my face as firmly as I could, I'd wait for the stars and flares and kaleidoscopic patterns to explode across the screen of my eyelids. At some point I realized that it worked even better if you pressed down on your eyes with your fingers for as long as possible. And it was different every time.
I didn't keep the habit up for long, figuring it couldn't be good for my nearsightedness. But those early visions come back to me every time I see "Yggdrasill Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind," a 1997 film by Stan Brakhage, the most important and influential maker of experimental films of the 20th century. "Yggdrasill" will be shown Saturday as part of a 75-film Brakhage retrospective at the National Gallery of Art that began last weekend. In "Yggdrasill," as in many of the mostly short, mostly silent works that will be shown in the series, audiences can see Brakhage's cardinal interest in -- indeed, obsession with -- capturing emotional, psychological and even physiological states on film. (Brakhage has described his own work as trying to capture "closed-eye vision," as good a description of my youthful experiments in seeing as any.)
To make these vibrant, deeply expressive works, Brakhage swings the camera to and fro, pressing the lens up against what he's photographing so that the camera itself, usually a recording device, becomes a physical extension of the filmmaker, an instrument of intuition and the subconscious. Brakhage also turns the film itself into a plastic medium, scratching, painting and marking up the emulsion, using tape to fasten objects to it, and otherwise manipulating its surface to create works that are more akin to music, poetry, painting and sculpture than what people have come to understand as movies.
With few allies along the way, for the past half-century Brakhage, 69, has been holding the line for non-narrative film in the face of a movie culture that has increasingly come to be tyrannized by narrative. From cinema's first flickerings, when the ephemera shown in cafes and music halls still reflected their roots in magic shows, pantomime and vaudeville, it didn't take long for the medium to be co-opted by marketers and big business. As the first mass entertainment medium, film quickly went from evanescent spectacles to an increasingly elaborate means of storytelling. The thing itself -- the miracle of luminous motion -- became a means to record essentially static theatrical productions and, later, reenactments of popular novels.
By 1912, a nexus between Henry Ford's assembly-line production practices and audiences' craving for stories featuring newly minted stars created a rationalized, script-centered movie industry. The master of modern production was Thomas Ince, whose mysterious death was at the center of Peter Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow" earlier this year. Inceville, the director's movie studio, perfected the now-standard system whereby producers commission writers to create scripts for stars, attaching directors less for their artistic vision than for their ability to execute what is on the page and bring it in on time and under budget.
Today, it's not uncommon for a big-budget motion picture to be worked on by more than a dozen screenwriters, each one bringing a particular expertise to the project. One may be good on nailing a solid three-act structure, one may be hired to inject "whammy" moments of suspense or action, one comes in to provide the jokes, one "polishes" what is by now a thoroughly stale enterprise to make it sound fresh. All are overseen by the bean-counters in the front office, who are less concerned with art than with weekend grosses. All the while, everyone who tinkers with the script is quoting jargon about "arcs" and "beats" that they no doubt picked up at one of the myriad script-writing workshops that are held throughout the country on any given weekend, like so many Amway recruiting conventions.
It's this emphasis on the script -- not as an artistic template but as the armature of the cinematic-industrial complex -- that has rendered most movies so visually inert, so emotionally impoverished, so spiritually dead (and, ironically, so incoherent). True to their roots as cultivated by Thomas Ince and his cohorts, most multiplex movies today are simply a means to sell something, whether it's a star, a soundtrack, a video game or a television show. (Or a new technological system of the cinematic-industrial complex itself: Back in 1893 Thomas Edison used movies to market his new invention, the Kinetoscope, much the way George Lucas today is using his "Star Wars" movies to tout his company's digital filmmaking and projecting processes.) Remember Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" when she said it was the pictures that had gotten small? She was right: Movies today have become little more than shots of people talking, a series of medium shots and close-ups that will translate easily to the formats where the studios really make their money: video, television and DVD.
And on those DVDs viewers will often hear the star or director intone the most cherished line in the movie industry: "It's all about the story." It's become Hollywood's most oft-repeated piety, even outstripping "It's all about the work" as the hoariest interview chestnut.
After all, there's no arguing that across time and culture and place, a human universal is the love of -- even a deep, hard-wired need for -- a good story. We've always needed stories to make sense of a random world: Look at the plethora of speculative filler that has rushed into the vacuum of real information about the local sniper attacks. We're a society obsessed with stories, our own and everyone else's, gobbling up urban legends, conspiracy theories and daily Web diaries of total strangers, flipping in mesmerized fascination from Oprah to the Osbournes. Narrative is now ubiquitous, its principles applied to everything from restaurants and retail merchandising to cultural institutions and cognitive science; it wouldn't be surprising to attend a plumbers' convention and see a seminar on "My Toilet, Myself: Integrating Discourse on Copper Piping With the Client's Narrative Self-Construction." Hey, it's all about the story.
But what if the story isn't all? As true as it is that humans will always impose narrative where there is none, it's just as true that the most meaningful moments in human experience defy narrative explanation or apprehension. Think back to Sept. 11, 2001: Before there was time to impose any kind of sense on an essentially senseless moment of loss and grief, most of us went to two art forms, music and poetry, for refuge. In time, it came to be all about the story: about Osama bin Laden, the tick-tock of the run-up to the day's events and their aftermath, the individual portraits of the victims, the testimonies of witnesses and survivors. But the act itself and its emotional impact will never adhere to strict narrative conventions. It shouldn't.
Which brings us back to Stan Brakhage, who more than any other film artist in history has consistently and faithfully tried to free cinema from the tyranny of narrative. Put another way, he has tried to make movies that acknowledge and address the whole of human experience, including its stubbornly un-narrative qualities. Since 1952, when he began, Brakhage has created more than 350 films, each one an investigation of cinema not as a vector of story but as a way to investigate the meanings and emotions and synaptic hiccups that occur on the margins.
The series at the National Gallery, called "I . . . Dreaming: The Visionary Cinema of Stan Brakhage," will include the filmmaker's most famous and influential works: "Window Water Baby Moving" (1959), a document of Brakhage's daughter's birth and a hypnotic meditation on birth and nature; "Mothlight" (1963), which was made by pasting leaves and pieces of moth wings directly onto the film; "The Text of Light" (1974), a meticulously constructed visual tone poem of fractured light; and "I . . . Dreaming" (1988), a film that incorporates text scratched onto the film's emulsion, as well as that rarity in a Brakhage film, a soundtrack. (Some other greatest hits that will be shown in the 10-program series are "Desistfilm," "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" and "Prelude: Dog Star Man.") Although many of the films are purely abstract and open to interpretation, the series reveals Brakhage's cardinal themes: Birth, death, nature, marriage, sex.
Brakhage, who recently moved to Canada after years in Boulder, Colo., rarely uses sound in his movies. For him, film is most pure as a visual, not aural, medium; sound, he has said in the past, is merely a distraction from the musical organization of images on the screen. Inspired by such musicians as Charles Ives, John Cage and Edgard Varese (with whom the filmmaker studied as a young man), not to mention the painting of Pollock, Rothko and Kline, Brakhage composes his films with an unerring visual ear for the rhythm and rhyme of images, from the pendular camera movements and recurring ovoid shapes of "Window Water Baby Moving" to the staccato eye-blinks of "Yggdrasill." As the avant-garde filmmaker Phil Solomon said in the 1998 documentary "Brakhage," "You can hear every cut in a Brakhage film."
As exhilarating as most of his films are, Brakhage's work can also be impenetrable, and if viewers don't happen to be in the mood to use those parts of their brains that Brakhage is interested in engaging, then his films can be maddeningly opaque, hermetic, obscure, academic. Of course, these are the terms most often used -- usually in tandem with "elitist" -- to dismiss abstract art, whether it's on the wall or on the page. Such epithets are meant to flatter and glorify the un-curious and the anti-intellectual at the expense of viewers -- or readers or listeners -- who aren't afraid to have their curiosity rewarded with occasional moments of frustration or confusion. Those who prefer their art safely representational have the security of knowing they'll rarely be confounded; on the other hand, they may not get to experience those occasional moments of connection, clarity and even bliss that occur when one encounters an artist's pure, if abstract, effort to communicate the ineffable.
Brakhage himself has never liked the term "abstract" or "experimental" to describe his work. He prefers the term "poetic," which is apt, considering that his films are such antidotes to the prose that has co-opted his chosen medium.
In a film culture and culture at large that seem increasingly dismissive of anything that can't be contained in a beginning, middle and end, it's not only radical but heroic to make work that dares to suggest that sometimes truth can be found between the lines.
"I . . . Dreaming: The Visionary Cinema of Stan Brakhage" is co-sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran and will run at the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 1. Saturday's program will begin at 12:30 p.m. All films are shown in the National Gallery's East Building Auditorium at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Admission is free. For more information, call 202-842-6799 or visit www.wpaconline.org or www.nga.gov