Mothlight (1963)


My Favorite Movie

When people ask me what my favorite movie is, my first response is always peevish: Do you ask chemists what their favorite element is? “I like tungsten so much better than molybdenum!” After I settle down, I’ll usually argue Mothlight by Stan Brakhage. Made in 1963, Mothlight is less than four minutes, but one of the great masterworks of the cinema, distilling so much of what makes the movies magical. The film might not even count as a real movie: it is not shot on film stock in which receptive plastic is exposed to light. Instead, Brakhage took white film leader and squished moths and leaves onto it, and then re-photographed and projected that. Thus, Mothlight is a motion picture that never saw a movie camera. In the age of digital cinema, when Pixar makes films on computers, this does not seem all that impressive, but in 1963, it was a theoretical advance of great significance.

Mothlight is an allegory of cinema, to use experimental film scholar David James’ elegant phrase. Brakhage takes that which is alive (moths and leaves), murders them, and then uses the motion-based magic of cinema to re-animated them, that is, bring them back to life. Indeed, almost all cinema does exactly this. When I show my students a film made in 1895, say the Lumieres’ Lion at the London Zoo, we see a living being, yet one who has long since died. However, through the magic of the cinema, we cannot make a distinction between this moving lion captured in 1895 and a lion filmed yesterday. For all practical purposes to us as movie viewers, the cinema has brought back to life a lion from 1895. Indeed, cinema from 1895 and beyond is our only access to all beings from that era, animals and humans. We can see what they looked like, how they moved, and what they might have dreamed.

Beyond this theoretical exploration of the ontology of the cinema, Mothlight is an exquisitely beautiful aesthetic object. A panoply of geometric shapes flit on the screen in front of us for nearly four minutes. Indeed, the film could be profitably considered an adaptation of a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting. When I stand before a painting such as “Full Fathom Five,” a Pollock drip painting from the late 1940s at the Museum of Modern Art, I see a jumble of lines of paint that form a three dimensional image of chaos, with material objects buried into the paint on the canvas (screws, washers, and the like). When I watch Mothlight, a similar ballet occurs between my focus on shapes and geometries and the actual objects (wings, moth bodies, grass, and leaves).

Experimental film scholar P. Adams Sitney likens the 1960s American avant-garde filmmakers to the early 19th century Transcendentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson famously imagined himself walking in the forest transformed into a “transparent eyeball,” seeking to eschew human religion to directly access God in nature. When in the hands of a great artist, the cinema can approach such a Romantic ideal. Natural history cinema, an attempt to use technology to allow us impossibly close access to the animal world, has developed traditions of how to film animals (always without humans, generally within an anthropomorphic relationship in which animal families are presented as understandable via human models). Without paying much attention to this traditional referentially, Brakhage shatters it utterly. His “transparent eyeball,” his camera’s lens, records a brutal human intervention, the ripping apart of the natural body to get it to sit still for the camera.

And yet, compared to the abuses of for-profit natural history cinema, Brakhage’s film seems oddly compatible with the goals of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. While that group would indeed take issue with Brakhage’s moth snuff film, how mild its assault seems in comparison with the about to be released Coca-Cola polar bear movie. In traditional Disney True Life Adventures fashion, the trailer for that film announces that it will teach us about the importance of family. The arrogance of this is beyond the pale: at a time when human intervention via global climate change is melting the polar ice caps, threatening every polar bear on the planet (forcing them to march tremendous distances in search of food and shelter), Brakhage’s squishing of moths seems like child’s play.

And consider the falsity of the polar bears movie. A hyper-technological cinematic apparatus invents computer generated polar bears such that we might pat ourselves on the back for how human familial relationships serve as the model for all of nature. For his part, Brakhage takes these seemingly un-filmable moths, kills them, but then poetically and in a sublime way, makes them come to life again before our very eyes. Such is the stuff that dreams are made on. If that doesn’t serve as justification for my favorite film, I don’t know what could.

– Walter Metz