The Philosophical Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes: The Silent Films of Stan Brakhage

James Michael Magrini


The qualities of great works of art, their profundity, their insight into the human condition, are epitomised in Brakhage's films, which are, I argue, from the beginning related to and inseparable from a philosophical attitude toward existence. His films emerge out of an authentic 'existential' mode of attunement, a mind-set wherein the potential for human transcendence is framed and filmed within its intractable relationship to death, the most extreme possibility of non-existence. Brakhage not only views existence in a philosophical manner, beyond this, he engages in philosophical inquiry in a fundamental way through the medium of film. The films arise from and respond to what Karl Jaspers views as the ultimate source of philosophy, namely, 'the will to authentic communication,' which embraces 'wonder leading to knowledge, doubt leading to certainty, forsakenness leading to the self.' This amounts to the philosophical struggle to arrive at a sense of metaphysical coherence and existential familiarity, i.e., the precarious undertsanding of belonging to the world in communion with others. This essay seeks to elucidate and detail, through a series of interpretive gestures, the philosophical themes present to Brakhage's silent films by way of a reading that emerges from the phenomenological-ontological tradition in philosophy. In doing so, I hope to interpret Brakhage's filmic art as conveying a legitimate source of human understanding, which contributes to our interpreting and discoursing about the world and our lives in new and revelatory ways.


Brakhage; Experimental film; Phenomenology; Heidegger; Levinas; Hermeneutics

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