Avant-garde Film-Makers
Look Across Space and Time

Catalog for a film series, September 4 to 7, 2001,
organized by Robert A. Haller. Catalog text by Haller.
Illustrated, French/English publication available in late August 2001

Between 1925 and 1975 a small group of independent/avantgarde film-makers addressed some of the central issues of human identity in terms of the science and art of our era.

Where do we come from? What is our future? What is our relation to nature?

In the years since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 the cultural assumptions that undergird all of European and American thought have been shifting. From biology to ethics, from theology to physics, the certainties of the past have been eroding, giving way to new perspectives that in turn encouraged varieties of fundamentalism hostile to conclusions reached by the scientific method.

This conflict is with us still, with shrill critics of evolution and geology and astronomy seeking just two years ago to rewrite school curricula in Kansas. (Now, in 2001, that political struggle continues under the mask of "intelligent design.") This perceived conflict of science and human values haunted the twentieth century, and may continue in the twenty-first.

Friederich Nietzsche gave voice to these fears in 1882 when he wrote "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? ... Are we not straying through an infinite nothing?" Nietzsche wrote this with irony, but also with a strong sense of the anxiety of his time—and the times to come.

In selecting an astronomical metaphor Nietzsche chose the branch of science that would change the most in the coming years. Astrophysics would be transformed in the next century, with Earth's horizons unchained.

Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and their colleagues did not regard the deep ranges of space and time with this apprehension. Rather, they looked out into the night and found wonder mixed with mystery, answers to old questions, and more questions to be answered. The film-makers discussed in this project share their curiosity and that sense of wonder. From Oskar Fischinger to Ed Emshwiller, from Jim Davis to Stan Brakhage to Jordan Belson their answer has been that infinite oblivion is not our destiny, but that instead a larger, more rewarding vision of man's place in nature is before us. That it is a vision giving meaning and dignity and joy to the experience of being human. That cinema is a privileged place where this wider, deeper vision of the cosmos can be given full expression.

In 1610, in his The Starry Messenger, Galileo Galilei wrote of how he "constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby ... my basis being the theory of refraction. First I prepared a tube of lead, at the ends of which I fitted two glass lenses, both plane on one side while on the other side one was spherically convex and the other concave." In the subsequent paragraph Galileo writes of his "wondering delight" in looking at the moon, the planets, and the fixed stars through his telescope.

Reading Galileo today one is reminded by how similar his reactions were to those of our more recent ancestors in the 1890s at the time of the the invention of what was called the cinematograph, the motion picture camera. Images distant from the eye of the observer are brought close by both instruments, inspiring "wondering delight," with the consequence of altering the mind-set of the observer. In the preface to The Starry Messenger Galileo speaks of his discovery of four moons of Jupiter (which he proposed to name after his patron, "the Medicean Stars"). These moons "complete their orbits with marvelous velocity ... about the center of the universe: that is, the sun."

This was Galileo's first published embrace of the Copernican model of the solar system, and set him on a collision course with the prevailing vision of mankind's privileged place in the cosmos. In moving into this forbidden area —where he ultimately had to deny his discoveries or lose his life—Galileo joined a select company whose understanding of celestial motion finally moved the minds of man. But there is a cost for discovery.

"O brothers, who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West, to this so brief vigil of our senses that remains to us, choose not to deny experience .... you were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge."

Dante Alighieri wrote these words in his Inferno two hundred ninety years before Galileo, reporting the fate of Ulysses from the Eighth Ring of Hell. To differ with the ideas of church and state was to court attentions of the most disagreeable kind.

New Horizons

The horizons of science, especially physics and astronomy, expanded with unprecedented speed with the onset of the twentieth century. In 1783 the British astronomer William Herschel concluded that the solar system (and earth) was part of a vast star cluster he called the galaxy. In 1918 the American Harlow Shapley showed that the solar system was located about half way out on one arm of the Milky Way galaxy, finally ending any illusions that Earth or the solar system was central in the universe.

In 1938 the German physicist Hans Bethe showed that the source of the power of our Sun—and all stars—was the nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms. Bethe thus ended one of the most enduring riddles of all physics, disposing of such notions as gravitational shrinkage as the source of solar energy for millions (and we now know) billions of years.

Stars do die, when their supply of hydrogen is exhausted. Then a new process begins, which ends with the formation of elements we know on our planet, iron and oxygen and sulphur and the hundred other elements of the periodic table. When an exhausted star reaches this point it explodes, seeding space with the building blocks of planets in solar systems to come. (See the back cover of this catalog.) Out of stellar ashes come worlds like our own.

In 1928 Edwin Hubble discovered that the visible universe was expanding. In all directions galaxies were receding from each other, and the speed of this recession grew as their distance from each other increased. The cause of this movement was unknown, but the mystery of its existence became a question of fundamental importance for the remainder of the century.

In the 1950s two scientists, George Gamow and Fred Hoyle, became public figures by proposing competing theories of why expansion was taking place. Gamow argued that mathematical analysis of the expansion led back to a primordial event in an incredibly small space. Hoyle proposed that there was no primordial event, that expansion was driven by the continuous creation of matter in deep space. Subsequent evidence has tended to favor Gamow's position.

All of this, and more, took place against the background of Albert Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. His proposals that space and time were a continuum, that the speed of light was absolute, that matter could be converted into energy, compelled scientists to reconsider the apparent verities of our eyes and senses.

By 1950 the world view of 1900 had shifted so much that the citizens of Earth had become citizens of the galaxy. Not only was the Earth not the center of the universe, but now the Sun had been displaced too, and even our galaxy of a hundred billion stars had become just one of billions of galaxies. The depths and vastness of space had grown so much that it was as if Nietzsche's sponge had "wiped away the entire horizon."

For the film-makers discussed in this catalog this galactic perspective was integral to their vision as artists. Davis and Belson, for example, spoke of cosmogenesis in their films. Brakhage and Emshwiller counted among their friends astrophysicists and rocket scientists. For all of them, the frontiers of mankind were far beyond the atmosphere of Earth.

Oskar Fischinger

"Look in the night at the stars, the blue depth of space, the Milky Way as you see it from a high desert plateau, when the stars almost become a mass of glowing material, radiating matter from one end of the horizon to the other, a luminous mass radiating alive glowing and there may be Jupiter the planet [,] or Mars or Venus wander[ing] around in that glowing radiating mass and the Moon may be somewhere between and shooting stars shoot across that fast illuminous radiating infinity of the outer world of endless space." [Footnote 1]

These notes were dashed off in the 1940s by Oskar Fischinger. Interspersed among doodles and telephone numbers, this was not a polished piece of writing, but it clearly shows how interested he was in the cosmos.

Much earlier, in 1927, he described a new film as "an intoxication by light from a thousand sources ... A happening of the soul, of the eyes, of the eyes' waves, waves, wave streams, Sun flowing, a level vanishing, a sudden eruption, an awakening, ceremonial, sunrising, effervescent, Star rhythms, star lustre, a singing , surf breaking over chasms, a world of illusions of movements of lights, sound and song tamed...." [Footnote 2] While this has more to do with religious cosmology than science, Fischinger's images would very soon relate more to science than before. In 1928 he was engaged by Fritz Lang to design and execute the spaceflight and lunar backgrounds for Lang's The Woman in the Moon. (Some of Fischinger's astronomical research books were still in his library when I examined it in the mid-l990s.) His concern with accuracy can be seen in the film, which includes an "Earthrise" image forty years before the Apollo astronauts saw the same view from the surface of the moon.

But important as it was to make the Lang film's backgrounds, the crucial event for Fischinger was his forced bed rest following the completion of Lang's science fiction drama. As work on the film ended, Fischinger broke an ankle, was ordered by his doctors to stay off his feet, and in the weeks of 'idleness' he made the initial sketches for a variation on his earlier abstract imagery. In the twelve Study films that he would make between l929 and 1932 Fischinger orchestrated patterns of abstract figures, lines, arcs, and spheres of light, all flowing in conjunction with selections of classical music. These images played out against a black field evocative of the night sky. Clearly they were artificial, but that did not lessen their effect on spectators: he was conjuring an image of the cosmos that was immense but ordered, streaming with energy.

As he later said of his paintings, Fischinger, sought to pry "loose from the Darkness of non-existing possibilities little works of art." [Footnote 3] Audiences embraced his films, often seeking them out in preference to the features they accompanied.

Recall the context of these films of mathematical precision, of Brahms and Mozart made visible:

  • the global depression and mass unemployment,
  • social violence in Germany in general, led by the Nazis,
  • a crisis of faith under the bewildering impact of modernity,
  • the conversion of cinema from silence to sound.

Welcoming the possibilities of technology, making sensually pleasurable films that were more like music than dramas, Fischinger was an innovater with a positive posture. His Kreise (Circles) of 1933 was the first film made with a three color separation process. A year earlier he had been composing artificial sounds by drawing them, rather than making recordings. Fischinger's sensibility found expression in the cosmic vision of science and in the unique expressive language of cinema.

Jim Davis

On the other side of the Atlantic, and fifteen years after Fischinger entered cinema, Jim Davis in New Jersey made a similar discovery of the power of light in the dark abyss of the movie screen.

Born in 1901, Davis was a painter who moved from cubism to treating ways to depict movement across time, first in painting and then in photography. In 1941 or 1942 Davis noticed how sunlight was refracted as it passed through glass and plastic. By 1945 he was presenting light concerts for his friends, but then decided he should record, and eventually enhance his visual experiments by designing them as films. From 1946 to 1972 he made scores of motion pictures, many of them depicting the primal "flow of energy" made visible in refracted light. To his delight audiences found in his movies visions of subatomic or stellar forces. Davis said of his films that "their meaning is of the future, and may lie in the realm of kinetics, or in that of optics. Their meaning may ultimately be nuclear. " He believed he was exploring "unperceived aspects of the physical universe" and "unrecognized potentialities in the human imagination." [Footnote 4]

This was a time of great excitement for Americans who cared about sicience. Davis began to make films in 1946, just one year after the birth of the atomic age, and it had a special significance for the residents of his New Jersey town. Davis lived in Princeton, nearby Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Davis encountered Einstein on several occasions, even photographed him in 1954, shortly before the great physicist's death. Davis also understood the arcane mathematics that were Einstein's language (especially George Reimann's geometry).

A teacher of modern art at Princeton, Davis knew modern science: "Most people seem to feel that these moving forms of color suggest the movements in interstellar space, the hidden depths of the sea, the growth of cells, etc....I myself am very conscious of the relationship betwen these films and the new worlds that the modern scientists are now making visible to us by means of high-powered microscopes, telescopes, and other new devices." [Footnote 5]

For Davis his imagery was as much metaphoric as concrete (he was making films five decades before similar images came to us from the Hubble Space Telescope or the electron microscope). What he found to be most remarkable was how the flowing currents of energy, whether as refracted light, or as movements in water and air, so resembled each other. This theme of patterns of flowing energy—all around us, but so little noticed—appears in many of his films. Davis would photograph autumn leaves floating in New Jersey streams, and show them impelled by the same forces he found in sunlight (Jersey Spring). Similarly, in Like a Breeze, the reflections of rippling flags seen in a fountain reveal abstract "shadows" beneath their immediately visible images.

In his spoken comments on his films Davis rejected simple terms like abstract, and realistic, usually insisting that his images had a concrete basis. In the long interview at the Archives of American Art he even rejects comparisons of Jersey Spring with his films of light in space. But for this writer the parallels are too strong.

Metaphoric and concrete, Davis's images of light in the darkness are something more, something bordering on mystery. His currents of light do not flow from any identifiable source—like a star—and they cohere as if they were material. One could be tempted to think that Davis was seeking to depict a plasma, but we can not be sure he knew about this form of matter/energy.

Critical response to Davis' films was not wide, but from some it was insightful to a high degree. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright admired them, and invited Davis to Taliesin to screen them. Margareta Akermark at the Museum of Modern Art was another ardent admirer. Howard Thompson of the New York Times grasped how Davis engaged with both science and art. In October 1956 he wrote a personal note to Davis commenting on a private screening of his just completed Becoming: "The writhing, anguished beauty of your picture—the awful, pure spirituality of science meeting the unknown head-on, to me conveyed exactly the same thing [as Carl Dreyer's film]". [Footnote 6]

One of the films that Davis felt was his most important was initially titled Processes, and then retitled (with sound) Impulses. On June 28, 1960 he wrote an outline explicitly describing his intentions (such an outline was quite rare).

"This film is a kind of music made to be looked at.
"It is intended to express those creative processes from which all things evolve.
"The opening sequence suggests the birth of the sun, and it is followed by effects of light—the source of all energy.
"Then a sequence which suggests fertilization is suceeded by a sort of water-like movement—because everything comes from water.
"Next, a form slowly emerges, and starts its struggle to develop. In the attending sequences it becomes more and more complex until at the very end, it is about to manifest some particular thing." [Footnote 7]

In this document that Davis chose to deposit with the Archives of American Art he declares the tenets of his art: "music to be looked at," "creative processes from which all things evolve, " "the sun ... the source of all energy," and "everything comes from water."

Davis clearly understood the notion that the matter in our bodies comes from the ashes of burnt-out stars. In his last years he twice made films asserting that when we die a part of us will return to the vast gulf of space. In his Death and Transfiguration, and its sequel Fantastic Dances, Davis merges bodies with the currents of energy that flow through the universe. For Davis this was very personal: his failing health made him conscious of his mortality while his art proposed an answer, that he would be "part of a never ending flux, a continuous process of becoming."

Stan Brakhage

While there were no initial connections between Fischinger and Davis (Fischinger apparently never saw a Davis film, and Davis did not see a Fischinger until ten years after he started making films), Brakhage did know Davis. Indeed, Davis was a kind of model for Brakhage. With his ascetic devotion to film-making, his reluctance to engage in self-promotion, and his pursuit of what Brakhage most admired, Davis's "pure play-of-light" [Footnote 8] the Princeton artist had a lasting impact on the younger film-maker from Colorado.

Brakhage is a film-maker from the next generation: Fischinger was born in 1900, Davis in 190l, Brakhage in 1933. But the gap in film-making was not as great. Brakhage's first film was made in 1952, six years after Davis' initial motion picture. Brakhage encountered Davis in the mid-1950s in New York, but apparently did not see the older artist's films until several years later. That moment, around 1960, was at a pivotal time for Brakhage, because he had embarked on a new kind of cinema in 1958 (in Anticipation of the Night "I got rid of drama as prime source of inspiration") and was filming—and editing—his first epic, Dog Star Man, which was released in five parts between 1961 and 1964.

Dog Star Man is a cascade of images organized around the trek of a woodsman ascending a mountain. But to reduce the film to a "story" or "drama" is to misrepresent it. The first several minutes of the film include these brief, rapidly edited shots among hundreds of others:

  • monochromatic planes of color (with a surface texture)
  • flames
  • flares of light
  • twisting, stretching surfaces (made with a turning anamorphic lens that distorts space)
  • cells
  • solar prominences
  • eyes
  • the moon (or a breast)
  • blood corpuscles
  • the afternoon sun
  • a tree superimposed on a solar prominence
  • the moon in the night sky

Images of nature, irrespective of scale, are spliced together with such speed and visual coherence that notions of distance (physical or psychological) are erased in service of a cosmic vision. Birth, death, struggles, landscape, scientific documents, textures of skin and hair and grass and bark all collide in this lyrical, mythic anthem for Man in a torrent of images that exceed the capacity of words.

For Brakhage this was a pivotal work. Early in his career he had declared that his objective was to "Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced...but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception." Dog Star Man looks inward at what had obsessed Brakhage, and also forward, as a film of the space age.

Ten years after he completed Dog Star Man he was filming in the office of a friend, Gordon Rosenblum. Because it was secure, Brakhage could leave his camera set up over time. When he returned after a lunch break he discovered that his tripod base had slipped, the camera had tilted down, and was pointed at an ashtray in a pool of sunlight. What he saw when he glanced through the reflex lens was a hitherto unimagined landscape of light—shifting with the movement of the sun and shining with the colors of the spectrum. Of course he recognized that this realm was part of the geography that Jim Davis had been exploring for decades, but different in that instead of clouds of light there were streams of color. In Davis the masses of color are always in focus, but only selectively so for Brakhage.

While Brakhage's films do not develop from drama, they do proceed from nature, whether it be from his family, or from the larger cosmos, as in Dog Star Man. (Davis too felt he was exploring nature, not abstraction.) In The Text of Light we find Brakhage revealing phenomena of light that he had spoken of years before he made The Text of Light, such as observing discharges of light just before rain showers. With their shallow depth of field, Brakhage has made visible in his films an intensity of perception (his) that would otherwise pass (by us) unnoticed.

The glowing vistas in cut glass seized his attention over the next several months. Citing William Blake he could "see a world in a grain of sand." Every day he crouched over the ashtray—straining vertebra to the point where he had to use a cane for the next year. Ultimately he caught 71 minutes of this new world with his camera.

Wendy Brabner and Gerald Barrett have described The Text of Light in their book on Brakhage:

"The ashtray reflections create a strange and beautiful aurora borealis world of their own. The imagery is primarily abstract, consisting of out-of-focus colors, specks and swirls of light, and blurred forms. Yet a very strong sense of landscape is created out of all of this—specifically, layers of landscape, as seen in previous Brakhage films .... 'Mountains,' 'trees,' 'sky,' and 'clouds' are all glimpsed. Additionally, there is the counter-creation of new worlds: outer-space landscapes, spinning planets, star showers, suns, and moons. ... Light changes recall blowing wind (fast) or ocean waves (slow)." [Footnote 9]

In a verbal tangent to his Text of Light, Brakhage's next film (also 1974) was The Stars Are Beautiful. This was his first sound film in seven years. We hear his voice relating 37 poetic (and other) explanations of the night sky. Here are a few:

"5) Sparks from a train of God's thought.

8) The stars are the loopholes into 256 dimensions.

13) The sky is the dead, decaying body of God; the stars are glittering maggots.

16) The sky is a lens of air magnifying a single atom of itself.

22) The sky is the low-water beach on which are left phosphorescent plankton which will grow to be enormous beasts.

25) The stars are clear sounds; the sun a magnificent silence ....

30) The sun, moon, and the stars are the footprints of God ...." [Footnote 10]

Brakhage returned to the kind of imagery in The Text of Light in l995 when he made the film Comingled Containers. Like The Text of Light it dives into a refracting medium—in this case water—for very close-up pictures of specks of light transformed into polyhedral formations. He made this film on the eve of a cancer operation, not knowing if he would make another. Fortunately it did not become his testament; he has produced yet another torrent of films—most of them hand-painted— in the subsequent years.

Roman Kroiter and Colin Low: Universe

"In all of time, on all the planets of all the galaxies in space, what civilizations have risen, looked into the night, seen what we see, asked the questions that we ask ...?"

With these words Universe ends, climaxing a soaring voyage from Earth through the solar system and out to the space beyond our galaxy. Made in 1960 for the National Film Board of Canada, this 28 minute black and white film is as stunning to look at now as it was when it was first shown—before any astronauts reached orbit, before any of the Ranger, Pioneer and Voyager space craft visited our sister planets.

In 1965 when Stanley Kubrick was preparing to make 2001: A Space Odyssey he tried to hire the special effects team of Universe to work on his film—Wally Gentleman, Herbert Taylor, and James Wilson. Only Gentleman was willing, but at the last minute fell ill so he did not join the 2001 team. [Footnote 11]

Kubrick did make one connection that stayed. Douglas Rain, the narrator of Universe became the voice of HAL 9000.

The scientific accuracy of the film is impressive. The planet Venus, the film explains, is a mystery, which was as much as was known in 1960. In the case of Mars the film commits its only significant error: changing surface patterns are not due to changes in vegetation. Otherwise the film is admirable in what it says, but is awesome in what it shows us, and in what we hear, the music by Eldon Rathburn.

"Universe depended upon a seamless integration of three different techniques—animation art work, models, and controlled light patterns—and was a triumph of invention," Deirdre Boyle has written. "The three-dimensional special effects created required motorized cameras with relative speeds, a phenomenally coplicated affair that would have been impossible using only single-frame animation. One scene—the explosion of a Super Nova—required 40 pieces of art work superimposed with 'staggered' fades so that 8 drawings were on the film simultaneously but at different exposure levels." [Footnote 12]

Ed Emshwiller

"I am very much involved in evolution, progressions...." [Footnote 13] And, Emshwiller could have added, movement. His films are notable for their gliding cameras, continuously changing foregrounds or backgrounds, shifting perspectives. His years as a science fiction illustrator opened him to new visual ideas, while he omnivorously read Scientific American for its news and analysis of change in biology, chemistry, and physics.

Like Stan Brakhage he knew astronomers and physicists—the debate between Gamow and Hoyle about the expansion of the universe is one example—that informed his work.

A large part of his work in cinema was not visible in the United States. He made films for the United States Information Agency that, by law, could only be shown outside the country. Project Apollo was one of these (it took 25 years for the film to clear legal hurdles for US exhibition; Anthology recently restored it for screenings). He made an early film about computers for the Canadian Braodcasting Company, and that film —The Quiet Takeover—was not seen in the US either. And he made films on commission for private companies, like Springs Mills, that financed his personal work, and provided visual material for it, but never were available for viewing outside corporate circles.

More directly than any other film-maker in this project, Emshwiller wrestled with the significance of man in the context of the human species, relating to the sheer physicality of flesh and blood and sexuality and death. When he originally proposed Relativity to the Ford Foundation it was to do "something that deals with subjective reality, the emotional sense of what one's perception of the total environment is—sexual, physical, social, time, space, life, death." [Footnote 14] He could have been thinking of Nietzsche's horizons.

He finished and released the film in 1966. In Relativity he briefly resorts to words (which he usually avoided) to present the vast numerical arena in which we exist.

"Take a number. Make it round. It is estimated that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Our galaxy contains more than 100 million stars. On our planet there are over a billion male humans. On our planet there are over a billion female humans. A man ejaculates over 200 million sperm during intercourse. A woman releases over 400 ova during her fertile period.

"Take a number. Make it one. Which one? The age of the universe is estimated variously to be from 6 to 15 billion years. The age of life on earth is estimated between 2 and 5 billion years. The earliest man lived 1 million years ago. Early civilization began 6,000 years ago. There have been 60,000 generations of man. There have been 560 generations since the Egyptians invented writing.

"Man's life expectancy has increased to 70 years. Seven years equals 2,208,990,000 seconds. One second is to a man's life-span as a man's life-span is to the age of life on earth. The subatomic particle Eo disintegrates in one quintillionth of a second. The approximate diameter of a proton is one-tentrillionth of a centimeter. Eighteen quadrillion two hundred and eighty-eight trillion protons laid end to end would form a line equal to the height of a man. A proton is to a man as a man is to the distance of earth to Alpha Centauri.

".... The life-span of a giant sequoia is 4,000 years. The age of the earth is 5 to 6 billion years. In 7 billion years the sun will be a white dwarf. The temperature of the earth will be 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero."

Where does man stand in Emshwiller's cosmos? In torment and elation with the opposite sex. In a brief moment of time, on a small niche of space, and capable of grasping the vastness of space and time from which he emerged—with more confusion than humility, but unceasing curiosity.

In 1970 in Film With Three Dancers Emshwiller was able to take up a discarded part of his original plan for the Relativity project. One part of it had been to penetrate "space in a kind of flying camera, a dream of flying, a kind of sensual, sexual imagery where you were constantly going into an unknown space...." [Footnote 15] With Three Dancers he filmed his sensual, sexual imagery with a flying camera, entering into the images of the bodies of his dancers, slipping into their subjective sense of the body as self-contained worlds.

Sunstone in 1979 is a brief (3 minute) evocation of the Sun as pioneer film-maker Georges Melies might have portrayed it if he had possessed the electronic tools that became available to Emshwiller in the the 1970s. Like Bill Morrison and Jerome Hill Emshwiller saw models of the universe in the development of cinema .

Shortly after he made Relativity Stanley Kubrick approached Emshwiller, asking him if he would help to make 2001. Emshwiller declined, because he was making a Project Apollo film for NASA, and Image, Flesh, and Voice for himself. Image tackles some of the social issues that had also been part of the Relativity plan. Together, Relativity, and Image, Flesh, and Voice, and Film with Three Dancers constitute a trilogy.

Charles and Ray Eames: Powers of Ten

This is a film of such elegant simplicity that it transcends its apparent subject of scale. It consists of 42 equal exponential steps, upwards from a couple on a lawn outside Chicago to the edge of the observable universe(1025) then back down and into the hand of a sleeping man, to a proton in a carbon atom(10-16), each step by a power of ten. It is an epic journey comparable to those of Relativity and Universe, but understated with a plain-spoken narrator (Philip Morrison) and an engaging score by Elmer Bernstein.

Two versions of the film were made by Charles and Ray Eames. In 1968 the film was eight minutes long, and titled A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. In 1977 the nine minute version was titled Powers of Ten. A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.

The concept for the film came from Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps by Kees Boeke, a 1957 book originally designed for junior high students.

Jordan Belson

Like Oskar Fischinger, Jordan Belson approached film with one foot in Eastern religion and one in modern science. Of one of his earliest extant films, the 1961 Allures, Belson has said: "... a combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena—all happening simultaneously. The beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way" (all quotes from Youngblood [Footnote 16] ).

Belson's works fall into several phases: the 1940s, the years l950-62, and a third phase that began in 1964 with Re-Entry. The title speaks to not only Belson's return to film-making after a hiatus caused by economics and artistic choice, but also to the return to Earth of astronaut John Glenn on February 20, 1962.

The sense of wonder felt by the astronauts made a lasting impact on Jordan and the other film-makers of the 1960s. Recall Ed White's words after he became the first American to step outside his spacecraft: "I don't want to come back, but I'm coming ... It's the saddest moment of my life."

Over the next nine years, up to Light in 1973, Belson completed and released the eight films in whose "amorphous, gaseous, cloudlike imagery" waves of color swirled and streamed around central, circular forms that evoked planets and stars and emotional states that voiced both inner states and celestial forces. As early as Allures he had treated cosmogenesis as a theme, and this use of starbursts, coils and spirals of energy, light flares and flashes recurrs in Samadhi (1967) and Cosmos (1969) and World (1970).

In 1983 Belson was engaged by Philip Kaufman to make the special effects for The Right Stuff, and he was able to make thousands of feet of the imagery he had struggled to film earlier in his life. As this catalog goes to press it has been announced that he is releasing his first new film since 1973 in the fall of 2001.


Visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since the 1950s radio telescopes have joined optical telescopes in exploring the sky, with major instruments at Jodrell Bank in England and Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Perhaps the most impressive radio telescope is the multiple antenna Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico (it has been a featured location for both Peter Hyams' 2010 and Contact, the film made from Carl Sagan's novel about the reception of messages from an advanced civilization in deep space.

Steina (also known as Steina Vasulka) made her two channel videowork The West at the VLA in l983. In addition to the 27 radio instruments at Socorro, she interweaves images of Native American pueblos and the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon. The Anasazi people (c. 1100 A.D.) are known to have been fascinated with the astronomical events of their time, making visual records of lunar and solar positions and of other celestial events, including the appearance of the Crab Supernova. The West is a meditation on mankind's abiding interst in the sky, both ancient and modern.

The video installation consists of two different tapes, each 30 minutes long, which can be played on two or more monitors. Steina prefers an array of 22 alternating monitors, which can be organized in a circle, or as an arc, or as two parallel lines. More interesting than this architectural arrangement is the way the tapes were made. All of the footage was made with motorized cameras revolving 360 degrees around fixed positions ("I was very intimidated about using any kind of manual movement," Steina said, "because it seemed to trivialize [the material])." Much of the footage was recorded with her "Allvision" camera system that has a spherical mirror mounted in front of her video camera lens. The mirror occupies a bit more than half of the picture frame, so that we can see both behind the mirror-camera assembly, and ahead of the camera (all around the edge of the mirror). We see forwards and backwards as well as looking at astronomical materials made 900 years ago, and in our own era. We look forward and backward in space, and in time.

"I was trying in this work to depict nature—to sing the glory of nature.... There is no way that you could take this overwhelming beauty and [put] it into a little box successfully...." Woody Vasulka made a four channel soundtrack for The West but it did not shape the visuals of the work. "Usually, visual material wants to go forward. In film and video-making you don't want to see the same image twice—you don't want repetition.... but in music, everything is always repeated. If you think of any large form or small form, even a song, it is repeated in different texts. It is very common in music to take several themes and weave them together. I didn't have that in mind, but it works out in retrospect." [Footnote 17]

Time as an Island

When we talk about time we usually refer to the present, the moments we live through each day. In the case of cinema, everything we look at on the screen was filmed in the past. There may not be a reference to its pastness, but it is always—unlike live theater—something filmed yesterday or the days/years before. One of the first legends about cinema is about how Georges Melies' camera jammed, and when he developed his film he saw one man turn into another in the intervening time when his shutter stopped, and when it, unjammed, started up again. Time could be edited, manipulated, changed.

When we look out beyond the Earth we are also looking into the past. When Galileo looked at the moons of Jupiter in the seventeenth century he looked at light which had crossed about 370 million miles and was more than 30 minutes old (the delay remains the same, today, when our respective orbits are closest). To look up is to look into the past.

It happens that because they are alike in this respect, and because time can be manipulated in cinema, the motion picture is an especially effective way to share ideas about time.

Jerome Hill, one of the founders of Anthology Film Archives, spent his whole life in the cinema—filmed as a child by his wealthy family, then making films himself, even winning an Academy Award. At the end of his life, aware that cancer was about to kill him, he made a knowing, pioneering film about his own life—one of the first autobiographical films. As much as his film was about himself, it was also about the art of cinema, from the Lumiere brothers (Hill had personally known one of them) up through the 1960s. Film Portrait is about change, in Hill himself and the ways he depicts change in his film. Near the end of the film he talks about these different kinds of changes, while showing us images he had filmed decades before:

"At the beginning of this film we were talking about time—time past and time future—but there too we ruled out the present. What is this ephemeral present about which one cannot speak? Does it exist? For me the only real, valid present is the eternal moment, seized and set down once and for all—that is the creation of the artist.

"Through cinema time is an island."

The paradox, of course, is that the artistic product becomes part of the past as well. But for Hill what is most precious, and for us as well, is that through cinema we can roll back the clock and revisit what was, and in the beam of the film projector it becomes the present again. For Hill this was a kind of triumph over death (he completed Film Portrait in 1971, and died in November 1972).

Chris Welsby's 1974 film Seven Days compresses time. It is built around the cycles of night and day, with the camera position determined by the factor of whether the sun was visible or hidden by clouds.

"The location for this film was by a small stream on the northern slopes of Mount Carningly in south-west Wales. The seven days were shot consequtively and appear in that order. Each day starts at the time of local sunrise and ends at the time of local sunset. One frame was taken every ten seconds throughout the hours of daylight. The camera was mounted on an Equitorial Stand which is a piece of equipment used by astronomers to track the stars. In order to remain stationary in relation to the star field, the mounting is aligned with the Earth's axis and rotates about its own axis approximately once every 24 hours. Rotating at the same speed as the Earth, the camera is always pointing at either its own shadow or at the sun...." [Footnote 18]

Of all of what we see in Seven Days the most remarkable is how the rotation of the Earth becomes visible; what escapes our everyday notice becomes a revelation as our planet rotates beneath the camera. In impact it is like the photographs made by astronauts showing the curvature of our world.

Monika Pormale is a Latvian artist born on the day Jim Davis died, and who was intrigued by his journals, and then by his films. In her The Flow of Energy, which was first screened in Riga in 2001 in the exhibition "Contemporary Utopia," she explicitly invokes his notions about the central importance of light, but in her case the light is electronic, in a videotape. Her tape, dense with energy, was presented alternating with Davis' Death and Transfiguration, at times seeming like a live-time observation from a radio telescope. Her juxtaposition of film and video in the same "room" in the gallery sparks notions of how different images of pure energy can be in film and video.

Bill Morrison

" cinema we have this moment that we're not aware of, and this is in a way what we have in life too[,] the inability to grasp a moment, and this is I guess what I find sad, and in a lot of my films people find sad, and I think that's sort of the core of what I'm getting at." [Footnote 19]

"they used to ask me what it felt like to see all of those paper rolls the first time. Well, I told them I felt like Balboa when he climbed over the last hill and he saw the Pacific Ocean. I don't know whether they got the point or not but I felt like I'd found forever there in that thing."

Morrison's The Film of Her casts a fictional story atop a crucial moment of cinematic archaeology. From 1894 to 1912 some 3,000 films were submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright. The films were submitted as contact prints on paper rolls. By 1920 they were largely forgotten, locked away in a storage room at the Library. In 1942 Howard Walls discovered the rolls and began the process of duplicating them onto modern safety film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Then the project was wrested from his hands by Kemp Niver who succeeded in obtaining a congressional appropriation in 1958 (with leadership from Senator Kuchel of California): all of the films were saved on 16 mm safety film. In hundreds and hundreds of cases they were unique survivors from the first two decades of cinema and shaped our historical understanding of the medium.

Morrison relates his story against this background. An unidentified curator (who performs some of what Walls did) discovers the paper prints, and searches through the collection for an erotic film called The Film of Her, which he saw many decades earlier: the film becomes a quest into time and memory, his and also ours, a recovery of the past that it would be very hard to replicate in any other medium.

"I use the origins of film just because we have that as a starting point in cinema—it is relatively recent .... it's very powerful for that, because then you can say the origins of cinema are like the origins of memory, or they're like the origins of evolution, or they're like the origins of death ... because in this way cinema mirrors subjective experience ...." [Footnote 20]


1. Oskar Fischinger quoted in William Moritz, "The Films of Oskar Fischinger," Film Culture, No. 58-59-60, 1974, p. 182. [Return]

2. Ibid, p. 177. [Return]

3. Fischinger quoted by Ida Catherine Rigby, The Milton Wichner Collection. Long Beach Museum of Art, l98l. P. 30. [Return]

4. Davis quoted in First Light. New York: Anthology Film Archives, l998. P. 85. [Return]

5. Ibid, p. 24. [Return]

6. Howard Thompson to Davis. Letter in the files of the Archives of American Art. In an interesting aside Thompson asserts that the film does not need a soundtrack, but compares the impact of the film to the first movement of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, "a full scale 'echo' of all you were offering us." [Return]

7. Archives of American Art. [Return]

8. Brakhage, Stan. "Time ... on dit" in Jim Davis: The Flow of Energy. New York: Anthology Film Archives, l992. P. 26.[Return]

9. Brabner, Wendy and Gerald R. Barrett. Stan Brakhage: A guide to references and resources. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., l983. P. l70. [Return]

10. Brakhage, Stan and Jane. Narration for The Stars Are Beautiful. In Brakhage Scrapbook. Collected Writings, 1964-1980. Ed. by Robert A. Haller. New Paltz: Documentext, 1982. Pp. 138-41. [Return]

11. Geduld, Carolyn. "The Production Calendar" in Stephanie Schwam and Martin Scorsese, The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. New York: Modern Library, 2000. P. 4. [Return]

12. Boyle, Deirdre. Parallel Realities, Northern Dreams: Some Thoughts on the National Film Board of Canada. Toronto: NFB, c. 1995. [Return]

13. Ed Emshwiller remarks in l969, in Intersecting Images: The Cinema of Ed Emshwiller, New York: Anthology Film Archives, l997, p. ll. [Return]

14. Intersecting Images, p. 19. [Return]

15. Ibid., p. 19. [Return]

16. Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. New York: Dutton, 1970. [Return]

17. Quotations from Steina taken from materials she supplied this writer in 2000. [Return]

18. Welsby quoted in Chris Welsby, Films, Photographs, Writings. Arts Council of Great Britain, undated (c. l982). [Return]

19. Morrison quoted in Exploding, May 1999, no. 2. [Return]

20. Ibid. [Return]

Individuals Cited in Text

Belson, Jordan. (1926- ).
American artist and film-maker. Belson made his first film in 1947 and at least 35 more subsequently. Reclusive and wary of film distribution, Belson has not released a new film since 1973, but as this catalog goes to press it has been announced he will present a new work in 200l. In 1982-83 he made very extensive footage for Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff; that reservoir of film has apparently been the source of many unreleased films made in the 1980s. Reference: Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema. New York: Dutton, 1970.

Bethe, Hans Albrecht. (1906- ).
German-American physicist. In 1938 he worked out the nuclear process by which hydrogen is converted to helium and generates the energy of the sun. Subsequently worked on the US atomic weapons project in World War II, then a US negotiator with the Soviet Union on controlling nuclear testing. Nobel Prize in physics in 1967.

Brakhage, Stan. (1933- ).
American film-maker. Since 1952 he has made over 200 films.Teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder. References: Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980. Ed. by Robert A. Haller. New Paltz: Documentext, 1982. "Stan Brakhage: The Text of Light" (transcript of remarks at the premiere of the film on Oct. 26, 1974), Cantrills Filmnotes, April 1975, No. 21-22, pp. 33-53 See also Gamow.

Davis, Jim. (1901-74).
American painter, light sculptor, film-maker. Began making films in 1946, completing approx. 35. Reference: Jim Davis: The Flow of Energy. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1992.

Eames, Charles (l907-78) and Ray (1916-88).
Industrial designers and film-makers who married in 1941. Made educational films with the aim of making science and design understandable to the broad public. Reference: Philip and Phylis Morrison and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. Powers of Ten. About the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero. New York: Scientific American Library, 1982.

Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955).
German-American physicist. In 1905 published a paper on quantum theory which won him Nobel Prize in 1921. Also in 1905 he articulated the special theory of relativity, including the equation E = mc2. In 1915 he published his general theory of relativity. Moved to the US in 1930. Became a resident of Princeton at its Institute of Advanced Study. Became US citizen in 1940. Photographed by Jim Davis in 1954.

Emshwiller, Ed. (1925-90).
Abstract expressionist painter, science fiction illustrator, film and video-maker. Began making film experiments in 1952 but did not exhibit to public until 1959 with Dance Chromatic. Space and time are themes in most of his films as in his science fiction paintings. Reference: Intersecting Images: The Cinema of Ed Emshwiller. ed. by Robert A.Haller. New York: Anthology Film Archives, l997.

Fischinger, Oskar. (1900-67).
German film-maker and painter who emigrated to US in 1936. Began making films in 1919 or 1921. His innovative methods executed by a very small staff won him acclaim in Germany, but hostility from American studios. His film-making effectively ended in 1947 with Motion Painting No. 1, but he had already taken up painting as an alternative means of expression. Was an inspiration to west coast avantgarde in America. Reference: Moritz, William. "The Films of Oskar Fischinger," Film Culture, 1974, No. 58-60, pp. 37-188. Moritz is preparing a full-scale book.

Galileo Galilei. (1564-1642).
Italian astronomer and physicist. Promoted quantitative experiments, studied movements of pendulums and falling bodies, built a telescope in 1609, observed the geography of the moon and measured the rotation of the sun; in the book Dialog on the Two Chief World Systems he embraced the Copernican model of the solar system in 1632 but was compelled to recant by the Inquisition in 1633. At his death he was buried in unconsecrated ground, finally received recognition from Pope Paul VI in 1965. Reference: Discoveries and Opnions of Galileo. Trans. and edited by Stillman Drake: New York: Anchor Books, 1957.

Gamow, George. (1904-68).
Physicist born in Russia who emigrated to the west, and the US in 1934. Revised understanding of stellar evolution and studied nucleic acids' impact on enzymes. Friend of Stan Brakhage while at U. of Colorado, with whom he collaborated on the film Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself (l962). Out-takes were used in Dog Star Man. Popularized the "Big Bang" theory and disputed with Fred Hoyle. References: The Birth and Death of the Sun . New York: Viking Press, 1945. One, Two, Three ... Infinity. Viking Press, 1947. The Creation of the Universe , Viking, 1952, Matter, Earth, and Sky, Prentice-Hall (publication supervised by Jim Guiher, relative of Jim Davis), 1958.

Hoyle, Fred. (1915- ).
British astronomer. Teaches at the University of Cambridge. Conceived with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold the Steady State Theory of the Universe. Reference: Frontiers of Astronomy. New York: New American Library, 1955.

Hubble, Edwin. (1889-1953).
American astronomer. At the Mount Wilson Observatory in California he confirmed the existence of other galaxies (1923), then later in that decade that the universe was expanding. NASA's great space telescope is named in his honor. Reference: Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale E. Christianson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Kroiter, Roman . (1926- ).
Joined the National Film Board of Canada in 1949, directed his first film in 1952. Collaborated with Wolf Koenig as well as Colin Low. In 1967 he left the NFB to establish a company that developed the Imax movie system.

Low, Colin. (1926- ).
Low joined the National Film Board of Canada in 1945, and has collaborated on about 200 films, including a 48 frames per second Imax film, Momentum in 1992 for the Seville World's Fair. In 1996 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada and in 1997 won Quebec's Prix Albert-Tessier.

Morrison, Bill. (1967- ).
New York painter turned film-maker ("wanted to transport my viewers spatially, as well as spiritually"). The Film of Her (1996) was his eleventh film; his first was Reserection in 1989. Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000. Reference: "The Paper Print Collection and The Film of Her," The Moving Image, Spring 2001, nol 1.

Pormale, Monika. (1974- ).
Latvian artist and designer. Made videotape The Flow of Energy in 2001 in tribute to Jim Davis. In 1999 she made the videofilm Horizons, and in 2000 the installation After the Wall.

Sagan, Carl. (l934-96).
Planetary scientist, teacher, advocate for space exploration, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. Collaborated on such spacecraft as the Voyager, wrote (with Ann Druyan) and produced the television series Cosmos in 1980. A founder of the Planetary Society, Sagan was uniquely comfortable and agile as a force for public policy in the sciences, promoting the search for extraterrestrial life, and opposing nuclear weapons. References: Carl Sagan's Universe edited by Yervant Terzian and Elizabeth Bilson. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson. New York: John Wiley, 1999.

Shapley, Harlow. (1885-1972).
American astronomer. At Mount Wilson Observatory in 1918 he studied the distribution of globular star clusters, correctly deduced that they indicated the core of our galaxy, and thus identified our solar system's location far from that center. Shapley also corrected estimates of the size of our galaxy, and this assisted the subsequent work of Edwin Hubble. Director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1921 to 1952. Authored influential books about the cosmos in 1950s and '60s. References: Of Stars and Men: Human Response to an Expanding Universe. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. The View From a Distant Star. Man's Future in the Universe. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

Steina (Vasulka). (1940- ).
Violinist, video artist, often collaborating with husband Woody. Reference: Steina and Woody Vasulka, Videastes. 1969-84: 15 Annees D Images Electroniques. Paris: Cinedoc, 1984.

Welsby, Chris. (1948- ).
British landscape film-maker; also a photographer (1969- ). Welsby's first film was the two-screen Wind Vane in 1972.

GALAXY has been funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the National Film Preservation Foundation, Benjamin Greenfield, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the continuing, enlightened support of James and Elizabeth Guiher. The idea for this project was born in 1954 when my father showed me the moons of Jupiter through his telescope, and in 1969 when I had my first discussions with Ed Emshwiller.