100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Mothlight / Stan Brakhage


USA / 1963

Stan Brakhage was an American abstract filmmaker and perhaps someone who could fall into that modern day category for the uncategorisable – ‘outsider artist’. He had a long and varied career, making films right through from the 1940s to his death in 2003. Largely ignored or dismissed in his heyday, like many true originals he only gained wide recognition years later and is now considered one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century experimental film making.

After attending art college in San Francisco, Brakhage moved to New York in the mid 1950s where he associated and collaborated with renowned avant garde film makers and musicians such as Maya Derrin, Jonas Mekas and John Cage around the underground beatnik scene. After spending a few years in increasing depression as his early films met with little recognition or reward, he moved to Denver where he met his first wife, the writer Jane Wodening.

The following years were spent largely penniless and ‘off grid’ in an isolated log cabin with his new family, and his films from this period developed into widely acclaimed and influential works. Engaging with powerful primal forces of nature, love, grief, birth, sexuality, relationships, family life and his deep introspective examination of his own humanity and emotons, Brakhage’s work also contains psychedelic and mystical aspects in that it relates to ideas of mythology and altered states of consciousness between sleep and waking.

Jane insisted that Brakhage be present at the birth of their first daughter Myrrenna. In a coping mechanism to avoid fainting, the nervous and squeamish Brakhage decided to film the event, the result of which became Brakhage’s perhaps other best-known film Window Water Baby Moving (1959). Most of this was filmed by Brakhage but Jane, initially very shy about the idea, also took the camera to capture her husband’s reactions. The resulting film is one of the greatest portraits of the intensity of this intimate and profound experience, the joy, fear, pain, love, beauty, physicality and lifechanging primal spirituality of childbirth laid bare.

Like a lot of the films of Len Lye and Norman McLaren, Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight used a form of ‘direct cinema’, in that no camera was used. Where Lye and McLaren scratched and painted images directly to onto the film stock, Mothlight differed in that it used the technique that Brakhage created and was perhaps best known for, which was a form of cinematic collage, pressing natural objects and gluing them between two strips of film. The objects chosen had to be thin and translucent, to allow the passage of light, such as here, moth and insect wings, beetle legs and leaves. This resulting film stock collage was then contact printed at a lab to allow operation through a cinema projector. Brakhage later reused the technique to produce The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981)

Years later in 2002 in an interview with Bruce Kawin, for By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 1, Brakhage explained the inspiration for Mothlight coming to him while observing and being saddened by moths burning to death in a candle.

Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the cande light, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me. I don’t have enough money to make these films, and … I’m not feeding my children properly, because of these damn films, you know. And I’m burning up here… What can I do? I’m feeling the full horror of some kind of immolation, in a way.

After spending some time unsuccessfully following live moths with a camera, Brakhage instead focused on the dead moths:

Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.

James Peterson, in his (1994) book Dreams of chaos, visions of order: Understanding the American Avante-Garde Cinema, states of Mothlight that it belongs “to a new class of films, those that direction attention away from the screen and to the physical object in the projector”.

Mothlight is an original experiment for sure, winning many awards at festivals, and somehow transcending its primitive technique to powerfully communicate a creepy sense of horror, sadness and fear in its depiction of the moths wings thrashing around as they flail themselves to death in the candle heat. In many ways years ahead of its time and like no other film before or since, this ultra short short has a strange hypnotic fascination and unique beauty, and we have all seen many cutting edge contemporary title sequences for horror films etc influenced by its strange scratchy ragged beauty.

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!