Stan Brakhage; A Twenty Year Retrospective
November 5. 8 pm
Reflections on Black (1955) Anticipation of the Night
The Dead (1960)
Fox Fire Child Watch (1971) Door (1971)
November 12, 8 pm
In Between (1955)
Flesh of Morning (1956) Wedlock House: An Intercourse
Three Films (1965)
The Horseman, The Woman, and The Moth (I968)
The Animals of Eden and After (1970)
The Wold Shadow (1972)
Preliminary Notes on Stan Brakhage and His Films
Stan Brakhage has often been called "one of the most prolific film artists in the United States." This is certainly true.
In twenty-two years he has made about forty hours of film of the most intense kind. As of 1975 we can count almost 150 titles. But, except for Stan and Jane Brakhage, James Broughton, and P. Adams Sitney, I suspect few others have seen all of the Brakhage films (although vast numbers of persons have seen more than one). And now, with some withdrawn from distribution, it may be impossible to see the total body of his work.
During the past year PFMI has made a modest effort to explore this mine of material with screenings of 25 of the 32 Songs (four evenings in April), and, in August, seven films from the twenty-year period 1954-74 (Desistfilm, The Wonder Ring, Loving, Cat's Cradle, Fire of Waters, The Machine of Eden, and Aquarien). With the present cycle of fourteen more films from the period 1953-72 we have thus uncovered more than the tip of the iceberg. (The epic Dog Star Man and the three "Pittsburgh Documents" and The Text of Light are all in the film collection of Carnegie Institute's Museum of Art; because they can be screened there I have not attempted to present these pivotal films at PFMI.)
But much of the Brakhage-berg remains to be explored: for instance, the four-and-a-half hour Art of Vision, the two hour Scenes From Under Childhood, the six-part "Sexual Meditations," and the four-part Lovemaking (in the University of Pittsburgh collection).
Brakhage's work in cinema must be understood if we are to understand the development of American avant-garde film since 1950. Unlike Bruce Conner (A Movie), Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), or Michael Snow (Wavelength) who made films that were emblematic— to external observers—of developments in independent cinema, Brakhage has occupied for decades a position more central and influential but less visible. Only with Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Mothlight (1963) has Brakhage made films that the
general spectator can label as "pivotal," i.e. combining an innovative approach to unfamiliar material. But for film-makers, and persons avidly interested in the avant-garde, Brakhage has made, often every year, major works that are part of an extensive mosaic that is one of the cinema's most notable achievements.
While his films often deal with a limited range of subject matter— life in and around the Brakhage home in the mountains of Colorado— their import is cosmic. In the every-day domestic activity of his household Brakhage has found the cycles of life and death, love and fear, consciousness and oblivion. More than this, however,
Stan Brakhage has found light, light as a primal energy that transforms and infuses all matter, an energy that has made all things fit subjects for the contemplation of Brakhage's eye, Brakhage's camera, our eyes. It is no accident that Stan Brakhage thinks so highly of Kenneth Anger's work in cinema. The God of Morning that Anger calls Lucifer appears in Brakhage's films too— as Phos, Lumen, Star, Fire, Sol . . . nor is it an accident that Brakhage often speaks of "gathering light" in the film-making process. He might well echo Vachel Lindsay's awed response to the cinema:
One can . . . watch the sword-like stream of light till he is dazzled in the flesh and spirit as the moth that burns its wings in the lamp. But this is while a glittering vision and not a mere invention is being thrown upon the screen.
Brakhage's work is "central" in several ways. To begin, he has been linked by personal friendship and shared aspiration to most of the other film-makers in the avant-garde. A partial list would have to include Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Joseph Cornell, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Willard Maas, Ian Hugo, Larry Jordan, Bruce Conner, Hollis Frampton, Ken Jacobs, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Bruce Baillie, Michael Snow, Jordan Belson, and Peter Kubelka. Brakhage's relationship with each of these has been different and the extent to which there has been "influence" is problematic; but the fact that there has been long-standing communication between Brakhage and these others is not in question.
Nor is Brakhage's interest in the film-artists of the past in doubt; he has composed essays and delivered lectures on, among others, D.W. Griffith, Georges Melies, Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisen-stein (the proceeding four in The Brakhage Lectures), Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Jean Vigo, Jerome Hill, and Christopher MacLaine. Brakhage may be geographically isolated in the mountains of Colorado, but his frequent plane flights to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, as well as his cross-country wanderings in the 1950s, have placed him at the center of an intricate network of concerned artists. His written correspondence with young film-makers and aspiring critics, into the 1970s, is legendary. His interests in poetry and music are almost as extensive. One can only wonder what Brakhage would have become had he been born into the eighteenth or nineteenth century before the invention of cinema.
In his 1963 book Metaphors on Vision he describes one of his primary goals, the reeducation of the spectator
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.
This "adventure" is what his films consist of.
How would Brakhage describe his own work? Of Anticipation of the Night he says
The daylight shadow of a man in its movement evokes lights in the night. A rose bowl held in hand reflects both sun and moon like illumination. The opening of a doorway onto trees anticipates the twilight into the night. A child is born on the lawn, born of water with its promissory rainbow, and the wild rose. It becomes the moon and the source of all light. Lights of night become young children playing a circular game. The moon moves over a pillared temple to which all lights return. There is seen the sleep of innocents in their animal dreams, becoming the amusement, their circular game, becoming the morning. The trees change color and lose their leaves for the morn, they become the complexity of branches in which the shadow man hangs himself.
P. Adams Sitney, one of the best commentators on Brakhage's work, believes
Anticipation consists of a flow of colors and shapes which constantly intrigues us by placing the unknown object next to the known in a significant relationship, by metamorphising one visual statement into another. Whenever Brakhage shows a shot for a second time, it gains new meaning through its new context and in relation to the material that has passed during the interval.
This issue of context is central to Brakhage's work. It explains how he can make so many different kinds of films from such similar material. More important, it is what his films are about: the eye of the spectator wrenched out of its accustomed orbit, ennabled to apprehend what habit and custom have made it blind to.
Note: this writer is preparing a comprehensive bibliography of Brakhage's published writings in nationally accessible books and periodicals. It will be available from PFMI early in 1976.
These screenings are supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.