Director: Stan Brakhage
Production: Color, silent, 16mm: running time: 48 minutes.
Producer: Stan Brakhage.
Brakhage, Stan, Metaphors on Vision , Film Culture Inc., 1963.
Renan, Sheldon, An Introduction to the American Underground Film , New York, 1967.
Brakhage, Stan, A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book , Frontier Press, 1971.
Sitney, P. Adams, Visionary Film , Oxford and New York, 1979.
James, David E., Allegories of Cinema , Princeton, 1989.
Peterson, James, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order , Detroit, 1994.
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Arguably the central film in the Brakhage canon, Anticipation of the Night (1958) inaugurated a radical change in experimental filmmaking techniques and aesthetics. Prior to this film, American experimental cinema employed either a "Trance" (or "Psychodrama") model, as established by Maya Deren ( Meshes of the Afternoon ), Kenneth Anger ( Fireworks ), and Sidney Peterson and James Broughton ( The Potted Psalm ), or a "Graphic" model, as established (in different forms) by Mary Ellen Bute ( Tarantella ), Harry Smith ( Early Abstractions ), and Len Lye ( Colour Box ). The Trance/Psychodrama approach emphasized surreal, dream narratives of psychological revelation in which the filmmaker typically performed as an on-screen protagonist. This protagonist experienced a literal and metaphorical journey of self-exploration built upon representational imagery that alternated between objective and subjective perspectives. The Graphic approach featured animated, abstract images often hand-applied directly onto the film. The film itself functioned as a scroll which could be "unwound" at different projector speeds or by hand.
In Anticipation of the Night , Stan Brakhage abandoned both models (or perhaps more accurately combined both models) and rejected aesthetic norms for an intensely personal and extremely subjective expression of self that emphasized the various "visions" of the filmmaker. This "Lyrical" approach teasingly appeared in earlier Brakhage films (such as Reflections on Black, The Way to Shadow Garden , and Wonder Ring ) and would reach full expression in his 1960s films (such as Thigh Line Lyre Triangular , Window Water Baby Moving , and Dog Star Man ), but Anticipation of the Night stands as the first fully realized Lyrical film and a paradigm of the model. Working as a "diary" in which Brakhage recorded the events of his life and his feelings about them, Anticipation of the Night ushered in a new experimental model which synthesized a Romantic mythopoesis and the reflexive Modernism of Abstract Expressionism.
P. Adams Sitney, one of the central figures of experimental film criticism and author of the seminal text Visionary Film , explains that Lyrical cinema:
. . . postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are what he sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision. In the lyrical form there is no longer a hero; instead the screen is filled with movement, and that movement, both of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a man looking. As viewers we see this man's intense experience of seeing.
This boldly original technique of expressing the impression of sight via an abstracted, first-person point of view resulted in a very poor reception when Anticipation of the Night was first shown (reportedly causing a riot at the 1959 Brussels World Fair). Yet according to Sitney, the great achievement of Anticipation of the Night is exactly this emphasis; its distillation of "an intense and complex interior crisis into an orchestration of sights and associations which cohere in a new formal rhetoric of camera movement and montage."
In Anticipation of the Night , Brakhage created a film of self-exploration and psychological revelation that did not depend on a journey metaphor, a linear narrative structure, or an on-screen protagonist (although vestiges of these Trance conventions are noticeable). Brakhage strove to communicate a "totality of vision" (what he saw, perceived, felt, imagined, and dreamt) through a complete identification between himself and a "liberated camera." Using a constantly moving hand-held camera, unfocused images, under- and over-exposure, random compositions, distorting lenses and filters, flash frames, varying camera speeds, fragmented time and space, "plastic cutting," and in later films, the scratching, bleaching, and painting of the film stock, Brakhage equated the process of filmmaking and the abstraction of reality with the expression of his emotions and imagination (much like the "action painting" of Abstract Expressionism). James Peterson refers to these techniques as a type of "personification strategy" where the film's manipulation represents the filmmaker's consciousness. Anticipation of the Night "personifies" Brakhage's mental state in terms of a purely visual, subjective cinema.
A "difficult" and ambiguous film, Anticipation of the Night does not readily lend itself to an adequate description that can do justice to its poetry; its abstractions and ideas need to be experienced and pondered. Notwithstanding, Brakhage offers an excellent summary that manages to capture the emotions and themes of the film. Writing in Filmwise (1961) he says:
The daylight shadow of a man in movement evokes lights in the night. A rose bowl, held in hand, reflects both sun and moon-like illumination. The opening of a doorway onto trees anticipates the twilight into the night. A child is born on the lawn, born of water, with promissory rainbow, and the wild rose. It becomes the moon and the source of all night light. Lights of the night become young children playing a circular game. The moon moves over a pillared temple to which all lights return. There is seen the sleep of innocents and their animal dreams, becoming their amusement, their circular game, becoming the morning. The trees change color and lose their leaves for the morn, becomes the complexity of branches on which the shadow man hangs himself.
Yet even Brakhage's description fails to convey the play of textures and light, the excitement of motion, the endearing innocence of children and nature, the giddiness of a carnival, and the nonnarrative simultaneity caused by his fragmented "hyper-editing."
In Metaphors on Vision (which Brakhage began writing while developing the Lyrical mode), Brakhage discusses the psychological and artistic context of Anticipation of the Night. He explains how the film was to be his last about "fulfilling the myth of myself;" that it would function as a way out from the style and themes of the Psychodrama. The journey and suicide of the filmmaker/protagonist marks an end of Brakhage's early cinema and the start of a new artistic approach (much like Godard's "end of film/end of cinema" at the close of Weekend ). More personally, Brakhage admits to a type of depression which colored the film (and provided its title): "pit seemed as if there was nothing but night out there, and I then thought of all my life as being in anticipation of that night. That night could only cast one shadow for me, could only form itself into one black shape, and that was the hanged man." Brakhage tells the story of how he accidentally hung himself while shooting the final sequence and what this revealed to him. "I was sure that I had intended for months to finish the editing of Anticipation of the Night up to that point, go out in the yard, climb up on a chair camera in hand, jump off the chair, and while hanging run out as much film as I could, leaving a note saying 'Attach this to the end of Anticipation of the Night' ."
Sitney's acclamation that Anticipation of the Night was the "first American film about and structured by the nature of the seeing experience; how one encounters a sight, how it is recalled, how it affects later vision, and where it leads the visionary" may deny the influence of Mary Ellen Bute, Jim Davis, and Marie Menken, but it does stress the importance of light and "untutored" or "innocent" vision in Brakhage's subsequent work. Brakhage explains this importance in the often quoted opening to Metaphors on Vision :
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each objected encountered in life through an adventure of perception. . . . Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color.
Anticipation of the Night began the examination of this world of intense personal visions and subjective filmic expression.
—Greg S. Faller