Painting On Film: A (Mis)Understanding of the Abstract

[This a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Olly Beaton. There will be several more to come this week. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome.]

One of the emerging experimental techniques of avant-garde films of the postwar period involved directors etching directly onto film rather than using a camera. This concept was heavily influenced by the rise of abstract expressionism in western art, notably through artists such as Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky. Their paintings often offered no clear representation of anything, and demanded that spectators searched the images to find their own meanings. Likewise, these films neither followed a narrative structure, nor contained any characters, and often lasted less than a minute. Through analysing Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949), Stan Brakhage’s Rage Net (1988) and Brakhage’s Eye Myth (1967), we can begin to appreciate the purpose of such films, even if it will prove impossible to draw any conclusive understanding of them.

As was common in much of Norman McLaren’s work from the 1940s, Begone Dull Care was concerned with making “abstract films to interpret the spirit of music” (Curtis, 174). David Curtis noted that McLaren first started drawing his own soundtracks because he could no longer afford sound transfer equipment after spending six months in New York but in doing so, he “made this concept [of hand-drawn sound] concrete – more than just an experiment” (176). Whilst one of McLaren’s few contemporaries, Len Lye, was judged to be “so intoxicated by his image-surface that music appears somewhat secondary to the image” (Curtis 176), McLaren collaborated with the jazz musician Oscar Peterson to compose a song and plan the relationship between sound and image meticulously. Although the resulting film demonstrates a coherent correspondence between image and the change of sounds, the relationship between the two is never predictable. The below image shows one of the variously sized symbols that flash on the screen in time with the plunk of the double bass when most other lead instruments are intermittently silenced.

Figure 1

Later in the film, this blood red background changes to blue. Likewise, the piano motif that reoccurs throughout is usually accompanied by a pattern that rolls up or down the screen but the colour and pattern of this rolling image are never identical, and seem to change in relation to the musical motif that comes before or after it. In the two examples of such rolling patterns below, it is interesting to note the possible resemblance to autumnal leaves in Figure 3, something that viewers may or may not identify as they watch.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Some believe that shapes such as those in Figure 1 could be vegetables. Equally, others might think that the same shapes are more akin to Chinese lettering. In the same way that the shapes in expressionist paintings can be interpreted in many different ways (such as Kandinsky’s Composition 8 in Figure 4), the viewer can only interpret McLaren’s ‘interpretation of the spirit of music’ in a manner that is consistent with their own interpretation of the spirit of the music. Thus, when William Moritz described the film as “non objective art and visual music, recontextualised” (107), this recontextualisation refers to the art being interpreted in terms of the music and vice versa.

Figure 4

Whilst the nature of the music in McLaren’s project makes explicit the motive behind Begone Dull Care, the fact that Brakhage’s Rage Net and Eye Myth are 39 seconds and 9 seconds long respectively, as well as being silent, makes their motives more difficult to understand. The composition of his images is similar to that of Jackson Pollock’s art (see his Convergence – Figure 5). However, Pollock’s technique of flicking paint onto the canvas must have left his control over colour limited to a certain extent, whereas Brakhage has described in detail the variety of colours he was able to deploy when he was painting a lettuce:

“For color [sic] (“Magic Markers”, dyes, india inks), I choose greens, yes, but vein them with yellows and ruffled shadow-black, applying isopropyl alcohol on a twisted pointed Kleenex to thin dye lines, smudge the tones, or (with alcohol flicked from a thumbed toothbrush) create circles to dab into partial-circle-curves…”  (Brakhage, Painting Film 62)

Figure 5

Despite this, Rage Net poses the viewer problems since each individual has their own personal associations with ‘rage’, whether it be a certain colour, speed or both. The film’s mesh of colours includes reds, yellows, greens, white and black (Figure 6).

Figure 6

The speed of the changing image accelerates from the start, peaks in the middle and then slows towards the end. Whilst we could try to argue that the range of elements on show might cover some part of everyone’s association with ‘rage’, it must equally be recognised that it could also evoke completely different emotions, depending on the viewer. Although this could only ever be a representation of Brakhage’s associations with ‘rage’, it is in the same way that McLaren’s images can only be his own representation of his interpretation of the music. Brakhage summarised this perspective in an interview:

“A work of art must have a life in society; once the artist has finished making it, it belongs to others. But he never made it with the idea of taking it into society… a work of art is made for the most personal reasons – as an expression of love” (Brakhage, Eight Questions 114).

In this case, Brakhage’s rage is in fact derived from the rage he felt at going through his divorce, so the viewer must not forget that what is on screen is entirely personal to the director. The colours will have been carefully chosen as personal projections of the breakdown of his relationship with his wife, maybe to the point that certain patterns or colours might reflect an item of clothing that she wore.

This idea of personal filmmaking can also be found in Eye Myth, which took Brakhage a year to create despite its 12 second duration. The first few frames are blank white, which could be interpreted as sunlight before the eye closes. Thereafter, the constantly changing colour palettes evoke images of what we all see when we close our eyes, with the brighter ones suggesting the sunspots that we see when we look towards the sun with our eyes closed (Figure 7). The periodic momentary blackouts might be understood as a representation of blinking.

Figure 7

Until the final couple of seconds of the film, you could be forgiven for thinking that Brakhage was successfully representing something that all humans do and can therefore understand.  However, the emergence of a seated man (Figure 8), who Jeremy Heilman believes to then disappear back into the commotion before re-emerging in a city street, makes each individual viewer “construct a narrative around it [the man]” (Heilman).

Figure 8

In keeping with his aforementioned quotation about how he makes films with no intention of taking them into society, only Brakhage knows what this man represents, whilst the viewer is left to create his own unique interpretation.

By cutting out the camera completely, the development of etching onto film was an ingenious way of expanding expressionist art into film. Whilst the meanings of abstract films remain as ambiguous as those of expressionist art, the visual soundtracks of McLaren allowed for yet another new level of musical expressionism to be explored, whereas the opportunity for diverse ranges of images in quick succession challenged any screen illusions that had gone before, and were among the first films to make people genuinely question what it was that they were seeing on the screen.

Works Cited

  • Brakhage, Stan. “Eight Questions”. Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980. Ed. Robert A. Haller. New York: Documentext, 1982. 113-117. Print.
  • —. “Painting Film”. Chicago Review. 47.4 (2001): 61-64. Print.
  • Curtis, David. “Locating McLaren”. The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video. Ed. Nina Danino and Michael Mazière. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. 174-180. Print.
  • Heilman, Jeremy. (24 June 2003). Eye Myth (Stan Brakhage, 1967). Retrieved from
  • Moritz, William. “Norman McLaren and Jules Engel: Post-Modernists”. A Reader In American Studies. Ed. Pilling, Jayne. Sydney: J. Libbey, 1997. 104-111. Print.

Works Consulted

  • Brakhage, Stan. “In Defense Of Amateur”. Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980. Ed. Robert A. Haller. New York: Documentext, 1982. 162-168. Print.
  • and Scott McDonald. “The Filmmaker As Visionary: Excerpts From An Interview With Stan Brakhage”. Film Quarterly, 56.3 (2003): 2-11. Print.
  • Cawkwell, Tim. “Beyond the Camera Barrier”. The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video. Ed. Nina Danino and Michael Mazière. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. 184-187. Print.
  • Le Grice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond. London: Studio Vista, 1977. 17-31. Print.
  • -. “Problematising the Spectator Placement in Film”. The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video. Ed. Nina Danino and Michael Mazière. London: Wallflower Press, 2003. 22-30. Print.
  • Rees, A.L. A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: BFI, 1999. 56-75. Print.


  • Begone Dull Care. Dir. Norman McLaren, 1949.
  • Eye Myth. Dir. Stan Brakhage, 1967.
  • Rage Net. Dir. Stan Brakhage, 1988.

© Oliver Beaton 2010

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