BEAT CINEMA 3
Films of Stan Brakhage, 1955-1959
Friday, March 28, 2003
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Special thanks to Jeff Hunt and Oliver Smith
Flesh of Morning (1956)
Reflections in Black (1955)
Gnir Rednow (1955) (co-directed with Joseph Cornell)
Centuries of June (1955) (co-directed with Joseph Cornell)
Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?
– Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision
Stan Brakhage was born in an unwed mothers’ home in Kansas City, Missouri, on January 14, 1933, and soon adopted by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage. He briefly attended Dartmouth College before going to San Francisco to study with the filmmaker Sidney Peterson, only to find Peterson had left. He stayed long enough to take in some of Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema series (including attending the premiere of Christopher Maclaine’s film “The End”), and to observe the early flowering of the Beat Generation as it manifested in North Beach. He also began making films, though by his third film, made at age twenty-one, he “still wasn’t convinced I was a filmmaker...I was a poet who also made films. That was how I thought of myself. I was Denver’s Jean Cocteau.” The ambivalence over his artistic direction soon disappeared, but the overt poetical influence remained.
In the mid-1950s, Brakhage left for New York, where he became increasingly well-regarded among the burgeoning experimental film scene which centered around the work of Maya Deren and the organizational efforts of Jonas Mekas. Contact and collaboration with Joseph Cornell is regarded as a turning point in Brakhage’s move from an intense, “psychodrama” style of filmmaking to the more visually abstract (though no less subjectively personal) filmmaking style he began to develop.
His work in the 1960s, including the epic film Dog Star Man, solidified his standing in the international film world, and though he struggled financially throughout his career, he was finally able beginning in the late 1960s to support his family through teaching, first at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then for twenty-two years at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He became something of a fixture in Boulder, giving public lectures and holding many screenings both of his own work and films from his vast private collection.
He retired to Canada in 2002, shortly before becoming ill with cancer that his doctors believed may have been partly caused by the coal-tar dyes he used in his filmmaking. Brakhage died on Sunday, March 9. The day before he died, he told his wife Marilyn, “I’ve had a wonderful life. Life is great.”
Among the few public comments Brakhage made on his childhood was a catalog of psychosomatic illnesses developed to defend against his mother, “who adopted me to save [her] marriage; and I failed.” Undoubtedly, this was at least partly responsible for Brakhage's fascination with the cinematic depiction of corporeality. The process of childbirth, the decaying corpse of the family dog, an autopsy, acts of lovemaking, and childhood sexuality are depicted on screen with an urgency at least as bracing as the images themselves. “I think art is the expression of the internal physiology of the artist,” he once told an audience, and in his case, this specifically meant the physiology of seeing, the concern at the very core of his work. The Text of Light, The Art of Vision, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, Metaphors on Vision, Mothlight, Reflections in Black, Anticipation of the Night: these titles, each from a landmark in Brakhage’s career, attest to the primacy in his work of the raw act of seeing.
This physiology of vision was as personal as everything else in Brakhage’s filmmaking. He once described the visual sensations he experienced at times of “crisis”: not only seeing in regular “three-dimensional logic” but also “patterns that move straight out from the inside of the mind through the optic nerves...spots before my eyes, so to speak...in intensive crisis I can see from the inside out and the outside in.” His vision of vision also included dreams – both of the day and night variety ("what the memory throws up in its brain movies into your consciousness") – as well as hypnagogic vision phenomena, and the "closed eye visions" produced by the optic nerve when one rubs one's eyes. In a continual quest to put on screen his very personal way of seeing, Brakhage developed shooting and editing styles of extreme density and speed, used negatives of his footage, superimposed multiple images, scratched on the film surface, and even – in one of his most famous films, Mothlight (1963) – pasted moth wings and other insect parts between strips of clear leader. Eventually, he abandoned photography almost entirely in order to paint directly onto the film, creating completely original films that bring to mind a kinetic version of abstract expressionism – though Brakhage insisted that his work was not abstract, that it was as literal a representation of his own process of seeing as he could make.
Tonight’s program focuses on Brakhage’s 1950s output: two very early films, two collaborations with Joseph Cornell that marked a turning point in Brakhage’s career, and finally, two key works which marked the first flowering of Brakhage’s mature style.
Flesh of Morning belongs to the experimental film genre known as “psychodrama.” In his book Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney identifies several characteristics of the psychodrama, including the filmmaker’s use of him/herself as main actor and protagonist. Within American experimental film, this tendency dates back at least to Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), possibly the film which most influenced the early American avant-garde. Visually and stylistically, Flesh of Morning is reminiscent of Deren’s film (even its title seems an onomatopoeic homage). As in Meshes, the filmmaker plays a protagonist who undergoes what Sitney calls a “highly personal psychological drama,” resolved amidst much sexual tension. Both films also share a very developed visual sense of daylight as a sort of waking dream state, and a very effective contrast of indoor/outdoor space.
Both Flesh of Morning and Reflections on Black are unusual for Brakhage in the use of “characters,” even clearly autobiographical ones. This feature of the psychodrama was of course derived from classical Hollywood and European cinema, and it was to play a decreasing role in Brakhage’s work starting almost immediately. Reflections was the first film Brakhage made after moving to New York, and is the story of a blind man in the city and a series of sexual encounters imagined by him as he walks the streets and climbs the stairs of his apartment building. This film contains one of the first examples of Brakhage’s “film-scratching” technique – he scratched patterns on the surface of the blind man’s eyes, and one small part of the film consists entirely of scratches on the surface of the film, an explosive visual effect.
Soon after moving to New York, Brakhage got a call (via film critic Parker Tyler) from Joseph Cornell, the American surrealist best known for his “boxes,” small constructions which housed ballerinas, Medici princes, and other obsessively cataloged and collected items. A passionate scholar of the disappearing past, Cornell wished to make a film of the elevated train on New York’s Third Avenue before its destruction. He supplied camera, film, editing equipment, and two train tokens, and Brakhage made Wonder Ring, a study in movement and rhythm, and his first film made entirely without actors or storyline. Much as in Christopher Maclaine’s film Scotch Hop, the absence of storyline had a liberating effect on the filmmaker. Brakhage was freed to explore the purely visual aspects of film. (Interestingly, from this point the use of sound became rare in his work, and he began to film more in color.) Later, Cornell modified Wonder Ring in order to make it projectable forward, backward, or upside down, and titled it Gnir Rednow (the correct title is actually Wonder Ring in mirror image).
Centuries of June takes its title from Emily Dickinson. Brakhage described the film in the Film-Maker’s Coop catalog:
This film comes to exist because Joseph Cornell wished, one fine summer day, to show me the old homes of his beloved Flushing. One of them had been torn down and another beside it was scheduled for demolition. In torment (similar to that which had prompted him to ask me to photograph the Third Ave. Elevated before it was destroyed) he suggested we spend the afternoon preserving “the world of this house,” its environs. It would be too strong a word to say he “directed” my photography; and yet his presence and constant suggestions (often simply by a lift of the hand, or lifted eyebrows even) made this film entirely his. He then spent years editing it, incorporating “re-takes” into the film's natural progress, savoring and lovingly using almost every bit of the footage. And then he gave it to me, “in memory of that afternoon.”
The shots of children playing nearby the house are a poignant echo of both artists’ obsession with childhood – as metaphor, as mythology, as stage of life and state of mind.
By the time of Loving, Brakhage was progressing rapidly. As Sitney points out, he soon moved from being the protagonist in front of the camera to the protagonist behind the camera – presenting a subjective style of seeing which became the subtext (or overt subject) of all of his later work, no matter what was in front of the lens. Sitney credits Brakhage in this stage of his career with the invention of the “lyrical film,” in which
[the] long receding diagonal which the film-makers inherited from the Lumieres transforms itself into the flattened space of Abstract Expressionist painting...the lyrical mode affirms the actual flatness and whiteness of the screen, rejecting for the most part its traditional use as a window into illusion.
Also characteristic of Brakhage’s style at this time are the sweeping camera movements and rapid cutting of Loving, which depicts the outdoor lovemaking of two of his friends, the composer James Tenney and the artist Carolee Schneemann. Close-up shots of the branches of trees both echo and contrast with the intimacy of the couple, who are often seen as images of virtually indistinguishable body surfaces. The film’s structure seems intuitive, but is highly effective and there is a great momentum to it.
This sense of structure reached a whole new level in Window Water Baby Moving, in which Brakhage documented the birth of his first child, with his wife Jane. Moving back and forth chronologically from shots of Jane bathing during her late pregnancy to the moment of birth, he creates a masterpiece of emotional involvement which is all the more effective for its complete absence of sentimentality. The brief shots of a joyous, shell-shocked Brakhage seen after the birth were taken by Jane Brakhage, who took the camera from Stan’s hands while she was still on the delivery table.
As memorials and tributes began to appear on the web the week after Brakhage’s death, I was reminded just how many filmmakers and viewers had been inspired not only by Brakhage’s films, but by the man himself. My own contact with Brakhage, though brief, was vivid. Living in Boulder in the early 1990s, I attended lectures in his “History of Avant-Garde Film” class. His reputation preceded him; he was an imposing presence. But he was quite generous in sharing his enthusiasms about all stripes of experimental film, telling stories about film pioneers – he knew everybody, from Deren to Keaton – and above all, explicating the films themselves. I know now that it was this experience that gave me the eyes to see these films, taught me to trust my sense of the images on the screen. Brakhage’s best films work in the same way: as an invitation to see with one’s own eyes, an “adventure of perception.”
Program notes: 2003 Andy Ditzler
minor revisions 2005
back to Film Love
Andy Ditzler 02/05/2011