Mothlight and The Aroma of Tea

Posted on 18/03/2011



Stan Brakhage makes pretty things with dead stuff in Mothlight (1968)


written 4/3/2011


By my own admission, I hadn’t any idea who Stan Brakhage was until I was introduced to the above (Mothlight, 1968), a silent film (although probably more a ‘sequence’) consisting of dead plants, bugs and dirt sandwiched between two pieces of 16mm and run through a projector.

Pretty ingenious, really.

That brief, rather lazy spiel does the film a grievous injustice, really – both aesthetically and emotionally – but by the same token, I would not blame or criticize a viewer for deeming Mothlight, at least on first viewing, as being an exercise in style, with no bearing on structure or narrative. There is definitely a sense in which it is merely a piece of very beautiful, very clever film-making that is more reminiscent of something seen in a gallery than it is of anything seen in a cinema.

There is however, something more in the film, and it has largely to do what a viewer subconsciously brings to it, mainly in terms of structure and narrative.

About one minute into the film, one begins to notice patterns in it.

Fleeting changes in colours or prolonged patches of colour that seemed to last more frames than others, evoking a mood or ambiance.


Sequences that seemed to focus on the insects themselves and their properties, whilst others seemed to focus on the more organic elements of what Brakhage has assembled in the piece; his way of making us consider this image, or this idea, at this particular time.

Obviously, Brakhage hasn’t simply thrown down these objects down at random and said “Done! I’m a genius!”; there is certainly order within the piece, and there is a certain sense of structure within it, and whilst it’s scenes are not necessarily obvious, they are there. In the same way that any film is made up of a string of scenes – each one relating to the last or asking it’s audience to consider a certain thing at a certain time – Mothlight is the same.

The actual content or purpose of those scenes is even more interesting, because it is almost entirely determined by it’s audience.

Narrative and how effective it is in a film is as much dependent on it’s audience and their own experience as it is on it’s authorship and execution. In much the same way as any relationship between two people works, the two parties are not mutually exclusive; they give and take from one another. The film’s success – narratively speaking – is dependent on the willingness of an audience to find coherency within it; to find it’s own sense within it’s chaos.

The rewarding part of the film is actually doing just that.



Although I do like Mothlight and am very admirable of it, I still deem it to be a bit of self-indulgent wanking on the part of Brakhage. In that sense, it immediately reminded me of this film, The Aroma of Tea by Michael de Wit, who I think is a Dutch animator (he won an Oscar for something).

I came across this during a late night SBS odyssey and thought it was immediately struck by the soundtrack and the sense of movement in it. At first I saw it entirely as an aesthetic experience, but then it began to strike me as being something of a road film, or maybe even a location film.

It’s definitely not a favorite, but I still find it interesting.

Posted in: Semester 1