more than meets the eye: the videos of Tran T. Kim-Trang

Metaphors on Blindness

Metaphors on Blindness

Jesse Lerner
There is a strain within experimental filmmaking in the United States, the practice variously known as the Essential Cinema, the New American cinema, visionary film, expanded cinema or critical cinema that takes vision as one of its central topics. This grouping of films, now canonized due largely to the efforts of writers including P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas (in his capacity as the Village Voice’s film critic) and venues such as Anthology Film Archive, a body of work updated annually by the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar, privileges vision as one of the medium’s primary topics. That Tran T. Kim-Trang’s video work (The Blindness Series, 1991-2006), which is often presented in the contexts of the festivals, micro-cinemas and museums that champion this filmic avant-garde, should take blindness as a theme suggests either a continuation or an inversion from this dominant thematic within experimental film. By reading Tran’s work through that of Stan Brakhage, arguably the Essential Cinema’s paradigmatic practitioner and most impassioned believer and spokesperson, both the shared and divergent agendas of these two projects comes more sharply into focus. 

There is of course a broad range of themes associated with this North American avant-garde, ranging from low-rent poetics of Jack Smith’s ecstatic B-movie divas to Bruce Conner’s collaged atomic detournement and beyond, but the question of vision, typically framed in terms of the romantic quest of the male, modernist hero searching to recover the lost innocence of an unprejudiced sense of sight untainted by culture, achieved a centrality in the decade of the 1960s. Though structural film challenged this emotional pursuit with its cool rationalism, and subsequent tendencies have further complicated and expanded the overall picture, this remains a persistent and privileged concern. While Brakhage is closely associated with this project, he is by no means unique. Nathaniel Dorsky explains that the film medium itself can be understood as metaphoric of the process of seeing: “We view films in the context of darkness. We sit in darkness and watch an illuminated world, the world of the screen. This situation is a metaphor for the nature of our own vision.” The question of vision thus resonates beyond the cinematic work or theoretical discourse of any one individual practitioner, and speaks to the fundamental conditions and challenges of the reception of experimental media arts.  At their best, these are films that invite (or dare) us to see differently, to look anew, more closely and more thoughtfully, and to rethink the familiar conventions of representation and perception.  Nonetheless, the prevalence of the theme of vision is in no small part a reflection of the efforts, both as a filmmaker and as a writer, of one of the outstanding practitioners within “the Essential Cinema”—Stan Brakhage, who has been characterized, and not without reason, as “the preeminent figure in American avant-garde filmmaking.”

Brakhage opens his Metaphors of Vision with an oft-quoted passage that not only evokes a sequence from his Anticipation of the Night (1958) but more importantly articulates the central theoretical project that informs so much of his work:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye that does not respond to the name of everything, but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word”.

This quest for the unprejudiced, pre-linguistic vision of the “untutored eye” can be understood as Brakhage’s life-long project. For the sake of manageability, this essay will address neither the entirety of Tran’s blindness series nor the whole body of experimental films pertinent to the visual, but rather aims to read one tape from the series of videos, Ekleipsis (1998) through the discourse of vision and the visual articulated by Brakhage in his writings and through one (admittedly uncharacteristic yet highly relevant) example of his filmmaking, the first section of his two-part silent short, 23rd Psalm Branch (1966).

As Fred Camper has stated, Brakhage’s call for the pursuit of untutored, preverbal vision is not a naïve one; six lines down from the opening quoted above, there is a disclaimer: “… one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot.” And yet, his recurrent project as a filmmaker might be characterized by what follows: “there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.” There is, at the root of this, if not an antagonism between language and seeing, at least a primacy claimed for the visual. In contrast to language-based theories of film, which had yet to make their influence felt within the English-speaking academy at the time of Metaphors on Vision’s publication (1963), the visual is understood as functioning according to its own, more protean system of meaning. William C. Wees, in his perceptive reading of Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch, points out that any number of thinkers, from Aristotle to Rudolf Arnheim, concur with this assertion of the visual’s primacy. The voice-over narration of Tran’s Ekleipsis makes reference to one of these complementary positions, that of Freudian analysis with its emphasis on the process of verbalizing, of articulating the traumas within the context of the psychoanalytic therapy. Quoting Freud, one of the video’s narrators reads aloud:

Hysterical patients are generally of the 'visual' type. Once a picture has emerged from the patient's memory, we may hear him say that it becomes fragmentary and obscure in proportion as he proceeds with his description of it. The patient is, as it were, getting rid of it by turning it into words.  When this work has been accomplished, the patient's field of vision is once more free and we can conjure up another picture.

Translating images into words, psychoanalysis maintains, we can work through our traumas and rid ourselves of these troubling visuals. As we articulate the traumatic events of the past, these images fade and break apart. Again, the relationship is not so much antagonistic as it is one of language supplanting a certain type of disquieting image, in this case, through the talking cure. Elements of the psychoanalytic model are not at all alien to Brakhage, whose Film Biographies, David James has noted, recurrently relies on the narrative of canonic artists heroically prevailing over the enduring impact of early traumas, though the “cure” is achieved through image making, rather than speech.  Though it never articulated explicitly, Brakhage suggests that traumas can be overcome by visualization rather than verbalization. These psychoanalytic concerns bear a particular relevance to the 23rd Psalm Branch, the second part of which ends with a kind of homage to Freud in the form of a pilgrimage, in the company of Peter Kubelka, to the Viennese home of the founder of psychoanalysis. Ekleipsis, in contrast, does not find many answers in psychoanalysis, and quickly moves on to explore other explanations for the prevalence of hysterical blindness.

In spite of Brakhage’s stated desire to pursue a pre-linguistic way of seeing the world, his engagement with language is in fact deep and complex. On the simplest level, this engagement is the basis of his role as teacher, author and advocate for media arts; of his generation of experimental filmmakers, it is probably his contribution as a writer and lecturer that is the most extensive and influential. But beyond this, language enters into the films themselves into any number of ways. Poetry served as an important model and point of reference for filmic structure, and throughout his life Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Michael McClure and Gertrude Stein all functioned as sources of inspiration and, with the exception of Stein, friends and comrades in arms. Poetry provides a model for a filmic structure that does not rely on narrative, causality and Aristotelian unities. For the most part the Brakhage films themselves however are entirely devoid of both written and spoken language; the vast majority are silent films, and eschew intertitles or any other text on the screen, with the exception of a characteristic hand-scratched signature and title. The use of the written word is only one of the features that makes the first part of Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch stand out as exceptional in his body of work. 23rd Psalm Branch makes extensive use of written text, deployed using a variety of strategies—words scratched directly onto the film’s emulsion, footage of the filmmaker’s own hand engaged in writing a letter to his wife, text shot off of a television screen and shots of fragments of printed pages, this last element extracted from a volume of poetry of Louis Zukofsky.[12] Further, if his work generally embodies what Paul Arthur characterized as “an unspoken desire in American avant-garde film to exist outside of history, to operate in a realm of aesthetic expression that elided any recognition of a socially shared past,” then this particular short is atypical in its direct references to both the Second World War and the war that was at the time (1966) escalating in Southeast Asia. These two exceptional qualities of the film are not merely coincidental, but can be understood as causally linked: faced with a series of traumas—societal, world historical, and as the film makes clear, personal as well—the principle of the visual’s primacy fails, or at least falls short and must makes way for written language, a writing cure, to enter along side the images both as another graphic element on the screen and as a bearer of meaning.  

The elements of texts that appear on the screen make it clear that Brakhage made this film in the midst of a period of despair and distress. “I can't go on,” laments the maker, scratched in black leader, “I must stop.” The images and other sentence fragments and phrases point to the source of his anguish. Flashing frames reveal corpses, beautifully hand-colored yet nonetheless horrific. A lone word legible on the television screen, “Nagasaki,” evokes for the North American not so much a city as the nuclear bomb and the devastation it wrought. Another more revealing written fragment is more cryptic, but has been convincingly glossed by one of Brakhage’s interlocutors: 

Take back
Beethoven’s 9th, then
he said 

William Wees identifies this as a reference to Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, in which the central character, Adrian Leverkühn, enters into a personal crisis after witnessing the illness, suffering and death of a small child. If God permits this kind of torment, the character speculates, then He should revoke the beauty of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The two cannot or should not co-exist. Brakhage’s text hints at a similar dilemma, modified for times of war: how do we understand, create or celebrate beauty when it coexists not simply with tragedy on an individual scale, but with the collective, mass brutality of battles, death camps and bombings? Might the horror of it all move us, like the women of Ekleipsis, to shut down all together and stop seeing?

The images of 23rd Psalm Branch reinforce this suggested reading. The endless succession of corpses, repeated explosions, emaciated prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, rows of marching soldiers and images of dictators all point to the origins of Brakhage’s trauma. His own anecdotal account of the film’s genesis sheds further light on this. In the Sixties, Brakhage moved with his young family to the remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains. Newspapers were not available in the area, he relates, and the family would rarely listen to the radio. But news of the outside world nonetheless insinuated its way into this insulated enclave by way of the television, and in United States of the late sixties, news from the world often meant news from Southeast Asia: 

I found I couldn’t deal at all with Viet Nam. I’ve never been there; I haven’t seen any imagery that presents it in any way that’s as close to whatever Vietnam might be, as it is to Strindberg or Max Reinhart. But, all the same, when you have a machine that comes in the form that television does, where the image is carried by the light directly to the eyes, that is, not reflected, and where language is composed of moving dots and particles, such as is the case of American TV, the effect psychologically that I began to feel was like I was so close to memory recall, to when an image is remembered from a person’s own experience.

The intrusion of the War into the Rocky Mountain log cabin retreat thus occasions a series of refusals and denials. The first of these pleads ignorance on the basis of a lack of direct knowledge of the matter. Without the lived experience of the Vietnam conflict, without being actual eyewitness to the horrible events of war, how might the filmmaker begin to address this? By means of displacement, the topic becomes “memory recall,” more specifically, his own childhood memories, not of war itself, but of viewing newsreels of World War II, the kinds of archival images he appropriates and intervenes within through painting and otherwise defacing the emulsion’s surface. Brakhage’s own children, present in this film fleetingly, and so often central in of the films from this period, become surrogates for his own youth, reliving the societal poisoning as witnesses, in spite of their father’s best efforts, to massive devastation carried out in their name. In moving from the content of the images to the subject of memory recall, an engagement with political life is rejected in favor of an interior exploration of private consciousness and of the visual mechanics of memory. 

There is another blind spot here that is not solely Brakhage’s, but rather one shared by all of his compatriots. While the war in Vietnam raged on in Southeast Asia and on the Brakhage family television set, the conflict progressively drew in its neighbor Cambodia. If in the United States the conflict in Vietnam was characterized by public debate, popular dissent and the mass media’s constant dissemination of images of the vast destruction wrought, then the Cambodian conflict was, at least prior to April 1970, distinguished in contrast by secrecy and government concealment. Before Brakhage had finished this film, Cambodia had begun to allow North Vietnamese soldiers to use their country as a safe haven for attacks against the South. This in turn set the stage for the tragic series of events that unfolded: the U.S. secret bombing, the destruction of the nation’s agricultural base, the 1970 CIA-orchestrated coup d’état, and the eventual rise to power of Pol Pot and subsequent calamities of mass murder, forced labor and starvation. While the destruction of Vietnam was broadcast into the Brakhage home, causing domestic strife and private distress, the devastation of its neighbor remained unseen, witnessed by the Cambodian women of Ekleipsis but out of the sight of the North American public who funded it all.

As the quote above suggests, Brakhage’s discomfort with the larger social context and specific visual content of this work of his is directly linked to a prevalent, and by that time dominant, technology of the visual: television.  He states:

I could make a film about anything in the house, it seemed, that touched me, except, I couldn’t deal with the television set. And it wasn’t just the object itself, but that it was our only specific connection to Society with a capital “S” or something we were expected to be responsible for … television, represented, was that something of the war was being presented to us and we were directly responsible for dealing with it.

Rather to confronting that responsibility and wrestling with its implications, Brakhage turns his attention instead to the mechanics of the apparatus itself. Though the two technologies referenced produce moving images, they operate in significantly different ways: television set emits light that travels directly to the eye, while film is projected onto a white screen, which then reflects light to the eye of the viewer. If film is for Brakhage a metaphor of vision, and the Bolex an extension of the eye, then the cathode-ray tube of the Sixties era television monitor is here a metaphor for memory. Significantly, Ekleipsis also takes the process of visual memory as its subject matter. Again the dominant visual strategy is one of appropriation; the video uses found images, taken from television and from feature films like The Killing Fields (1984), conventionally (some would say “correctly”) focused, exposed and composed, and without the interference of overlaid coats of paint or ink, to suggest what might have been the last things seen “correctly” by the Cambodian survivors of Khmer Rouge brutality prior to the onset of hysterical blindness. Unlike the 23rd Psalm Branch, the memories are not in the first person, but rather in the third, the private reserve of a group of individuals the maker has herself never met or interviewed. The content is then necessarily speculative and tentative: what these women might have seen or might remember. The thrust of inquiry moves from the individual consciousness to the political crisis that is its context and on to a possible resolution, reversing the movement of Brakhage’s retreat from political crisis to interior contemplation.

Tran’s strategy is to fragment and isolate the archival images in repeated sequences interspersed with black. The result aims to replicate the visual memories of the Killing Fields survivors as the voices of the work’s soundtrack contemplate the root causes of their medical and psychic condition. The technique is strikingly similar to the 23rd Psalm Branch, which also makes extensive use of hypnotic, nearly stroboscopic fragmentation of the moving image through the interspersed sequences of black leader. Characteristically, the strategies that Brakhage deploys in order to make the archival images his own include applying paint and ink top on the emulsion, scratching the film—just a few the techniques associated with his signature style. As with his other hallmark techniques—superimpositions, over- or under-exposed footage, the placement of colored glass in front of the lens, the use of out-of-focus footage—Brakhage has claimed these are motivated by his own imperfect eyesight. His interest in vision springs from a physical deficiency, one that rendered “normal” vision impossible for him. In an interview with the avant-garde cinema’s most tireless scholar, we find this exchange:

Scott MacDonald: How bad were your eyes?
Brakhage: Pretty bad, actually. I had a bad astigmatism. I was walleyed: that is, my right eye was always adrift and didn’t focus well. I had to really struggle to come to focus. I couldn’t take focusing for granted. And much of what you and others have described as my experimentation is just a part of my scrambling to come to an understanding of how you achieve sight. Something that other people just have naturally, I had to earn. One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said: ‘Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn’t even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head.’ In knowing poets, I was discovering that many of them stuttered, couldn’t speak easily at all… 

This physical disability is then presented as the point of departure for the filmmaker’s challenge to traditional representation, making him acutely sensitive to vision, just as the poets’ stutters make them more attuned to the word. Rather than seeking to “correct” his vision to conform to a universally accepted norm, Brakhage suggests this defect informs and motivates his use of specific strategies—the use of superimpositions or out of focus images—and more generally to his approach to filmmaking, forcing him to struggling in order “to come to an understanding of how you achieve sight.” 

Tran’s Ekleipsis takes as a point of departure a group of Cambodian refugees residing in Long Beach, California, women who are afflicted with what is called hysterically blindness. In other words, these are individuals who are physiologically capable of sight, but for whom the trauma of the Pol Pot atrocities has led to what has been characterized as a psychosomatic blindness, often only in one eye. The situation inverts the experience Brakhage describes: not faulty eyes making possible extraordinary vision, but rather normal eyes incapable of any vision whatsoever. Several film scholars have suggested that the encounter with Charles Olson’s thinking was formative influence in the maturation of Brakhage’s understanding of vision, and indeed, the frequent references to Olson both in Metaphors on Vision (which includes an extended extract from a letter to Jane Brakhage in which the filmmaker describes his first meeting with the poet) as well as elsewhere in his writings allow the reader to trace these connections.  In an interview with Bruce Kawin, Brakhage states:

The poet Charles Olson taught me to accept the vision that’s been given to you, including your various aberrations. That was what he credited my heroics the most with, where he was praising me for heroics that I had, he felt, more than any other artist he knew had accepted the given limitations of my...not just my vision, but much else of my health, and so on.

But the influence of Olson is more than the lesson in self-acceptance that Brakhage characterizes here, it is an intellectual debt that influenced the theoretical development of Brakhage’s thoughts on vision. In his prescriptive essay Projective Verse, Olson states that in poetry, “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception,” in the ongoing contact between nature and consciousness. This conviction informs Brakhage’s theory of vision, and his claims to be a documentarian; his camera simply records his vision, his eye’s interactions with the world. “I document the act of seeing … I have added nothing.” The eye takes on a role comparable to that of breath for Olson, the embodied “biological imperative” that inescapably shapes this interaction.

But the 23rd Psalm Branch in particular owes another, more specific debt to Olson. Brakhage’s own hand is seen writing on paper: “”The war is as in thoughts patterns are—as endless as precise as eye’s hell is!” Again, Willian C. Wees’ gloss proves helpful; he identifies this line as a paraphrase (though with a significant shift of emphasis from words to sight) of Charles Olson’s poem “In Cold Hell, in Thicket,” which reads, in part:

precise as hell is, precise
as any words …

If, as Brakhage states, “war is as …  thought patterns are,” then the effort to stop the war is ultimately a private act, one that must seek to reform the patterns of thought rather than the behavior of nation states. The concluding images of children playing war-like games with sparklers again suggests this aggression springs from deep-seated, destructive drives that are rooted in psychology and socially reinforced, not from any specific political circumstances. Using the theories of Bruno Bettelheim, Marjorie Keller’s close reading of Brakhage’s Murder Psalm (1980), a film that takes the violence of children as its central theme, suggests the same. Society perpetuates its culture of violence by indoctrinating each subsequent generation in its destructive values. If there is any hope for an alternative to this unending cycle of cruelty, it lies in our heads, not in diplomacy, activism, civil disobedience, or marching for peace. Brakhage regarded the peace demonstrations that were then engaging so many with particular suspicion, as he felt these replicated the same mass psychology of the wars that they ostensible opposed. But the alternative that Brakhage proposes is even less satisfactory.

In 1967, as the United States spread Agent Orange defoliants on Cambodia forests and the Khmer Rouge joined a peasant rebellion against the government, Brakhage stated, following a public screening of the 23rd Psalm Branch:

Jane and I are sure that the war is over, as far as we’re concerned, and I don’t mean that in any facile sense. I mean it deeply, like Allen said it. Eight months, ten months before me, he managed in Wichita, Allen Ginsberg, to say very deeply, ‘I, Allen Ginsberg, declare that the war is over.’ Now, the only difference between me and Allen is that I don’t declare it, I say, Jane and I have decided that the war is over. And she would probably say … Oh, I talk too much, the war is over and here are Songs 24 and 25.

Alas, Brakhage’s statement has none of the power of what Austin called “performative speech.” It is, instead, a declaration of his intention to continue the evasion, to go on with his aesthetic project (Songs 24 and 25) at the price of social engagement. Unfortunately for the women on Ekleipsis, the war was just beginning, and no such evasion was possible. 
Jesse Lerner is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles.  His short films Natives (1991, with Scott Sterling), T.S.H. (2004) and Magnavoz (2006) and the feature-length experimental documentaries Frontierland/Fronterilandia (1995, with Rubén Ortiz-Torres), Ruins (1999) The American Egypt (2001), Atomic Sublime (2010) and The Absent Stone (2013, with Sandra Rozental) have won numerous prizes at film festivals in the United States, Latin America and Japan, and have screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Washington’s National Gallery, and the Sundance, Rotterdam and Los Angeles Film Festivals.  His films were featured in mid-career surveys at New York’s Anthology Film Archives and Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional.  He has curated projects for the Mexico’s Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and the Robert Flaherty Seminar.  His books include F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (with Alexandra Juhasz, 2000), The Shock of Modernity (2007), The Maya of Modernism (2011), and The Catherwood Project (with Leandro Katz, forthcoming).

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