Letter from Stan Brakhage to James Broughton (11/10/1971)

November 10, 1971
Dear James,
I spent the last two days writing a long letter on aesthetics to Annette Michelson. I’ll xerox a copy and mail it to you Fri. when I go to town. It’s a beaut! — several year's thought condensed and intelligently powdered. Annette will, I think, make a good correspondent with regard to thought-lofticals. A brief phone conversation with her prompted the clearest logic I've managed yet respecting my newest work. It is, of course, the rejection of that work (reports coming in from all over the country) which lights up those thoughts within me...coming out now as glow-eyed dragons.
This morning I’m very aware of what I didn't get into that letter to Annette.. .the tales of the dragons!; and I know you are among the few people who would clearly understand some of 'The Pittsburgh Stories' and appreciate the Magic involved; and while I haven’t yet taken to grabbing wedding guests off the streets, I do have an adventure to relate which is as strange as The Ancient Mariner's. Full up a toadstool, Great Elf, and let me share with you another man's Vision which was shared with me.
I don’t even like to use that word "Vision" in relationship to the event I’m about to describe -- an appearence seems more apt, I'm coming to regard Visions as springing from Dreams, of both the dry and night varieties. Appearances come with a solidity and also do not seem to be tied to the wishes of the visitant. Visions are more related to every other quality of seeing. Appearences are more-than-less imposed upon one.
Thus many events I chronicled in "Metaphors on Vision" and called Visions (with the capital "V") were more actually what I now call Appearences.
The occurnnce of both Visions and Appearences have heralded major turning points in my work. Occasionally the descriptions of same by other
men have affected me no less much; but surely the most remarkable case of another man’s Apparition changing my whole life is that of the effect of Mike Chikaris' visit from Garauel Johnson,
A year and a half to two years ago, Mike woke up one morning to the usual view of bright in-streaming sunlight. He was at this tine already a photographer with The Pittsburgh Press, was giving his very best to that institute, even tho’ that 'best' was seldom used in print, struggling all the some to maintain highest photographic standards within himself both on the job and off — in short, sustaining what is called "a madness" in American Culture which one is either supposed-to grow-up out-of (a disillusioned step-at-a-time)or else is expected to give ’insanely’ into until one joins 'the jobless; becomes known as ’artist’, etc. Well, you know Mike (or at least have met him); so you know how he's still walking the nerve-tight 'rope' of his integrity — crazier than you and me put together, James ... dear Kike — "what nerve!", as one would say from either side of the ’balance’ he's maintaining.
This particular morning, Mike sat come time watching the sun’s progress, himself fully awake and sitting up in bed. Suddenly Samuel Johnson appeared before him. He knew instarter than the full visual appearance that it was Sam Johnson. The apparition was wearing tweed coat vest and pants composed of yellow and red thread gleaming beautifully in the light of the sun streaming through his costume. He said: "When I was alive I knew that men could
make works of art out of earth, air, water ... out of grains of sand, etc...;
but I never did It because I knew no one would then appreciate it." Then Samuel held out his left hand, arm stretched straight before him and revealed an egg shaped mass of material in an invisible container — "like
glass, only more transparent”, says Mike; and as Mike began looking into this egg form he began to Immediately feel himself pulled as if into it amidst swirls of the stuff of The World. He became frightened; and the apparition vanished immediately. (The Appearance is, I think, most distinguished by its "dis-"...the suddeness and completeness with which it ceases to exist.)
Several months later I first met Mike at the Pittsburgh Airport when he and Sally Dixon picked me up to take me to my hotel room and then to The Carnegie Museum for my lecture-showing there. I felt an affinity with both of them immediately; but, almost os immediately, I felt something more — an aura of Magic... strong as ozone (though# not at all a smell), as gripping as a deja vu (though not at all associated with The Past — more like premonition of The Future), Mike began to talk about his more adventurous assignments with the newspaper; and somehow the seeds for the making of the film "eyes" were already planted in that car-ride to my hotel room. That night, at the premiere showing of "The Weir-Falcon Saga", "The Machine of Eden" and "The Animals of Eden and After", I mentioned in my lecture my several years' wish to photograph some of the 'bogey-men' of this civilization: doctors,
politicians, military men, police, etc.; and Mike picked up on those cues immediately and offered assistance, through his newspaper connections, to get me into a patrol car. BUT, the REAL Magic had been somehow settled long before we 'pinned' it on these 'subject matters*. The Police were simply the subject of the committment binding us — a convenience; the visual form of the film-to-be and all the Magic of that formality occurod 'between the lines' of our relationship...occured instanter than any talk.
. It is difficult to write about Magic; and there are very few people besides yourself, James, whom I could write to about all this. A great many talk "Magic" these days; but they are almost all involved in use thereof in a way that implies debt...i.e. they ask for it and thus inherit all Faust's problems. Most of the other folks these days will pay ANY price to bar Magic altogether from their lives; thus they inherit the same, or very similar, debt. Debt means 'black' however you arrive at it.
It was on the second visit to Pittsburgh (when I photographed "Deus Ex") Mike told me about his Apparition; but I immediately felt as if he'd already passed its essentialities onto me, embodying 'the message' in his very being, prompting ('between the lines') all my increasing inclinations to develops what I am now calling 'an invisible art' or 'assumptive art'
(both terms hatched in my letter to Annette Michelson), The direction threads its way back to the beginning of my film-making, shows up most explicitly in "Window Water Baby Moving" (at least large sections of it), declares itself as "a direction" in the 4 progressive 'steps' of "Lovemaking" and, in fact, in the increasing visual 'simplicity* of the sections of "Scenes From Under Childhood" and especially the 2nd Chapter of "The Book of Film" which is those three films ending on a image of the moon, beginning with "The Weir-Falcon Saga". There are other examples throughout my work; but it is true that in the last 4 or 5 years I've been divesting myself of all elements in my work which would make a visible container of the art of them -- Sound (as I never managed anything but an effective use of it, often 'arty'), Paint and other chemicals (all use of them having been to express the inner, ego-centered, vision of myself), multiple exposures and other specific lab. effects (used mostly in my work to show that 'mix' of inner and outer seeing), Eisensteinian Editing (used by everyone to re-arrange The Event according, at best, to the laws of memory, the tyranny of re-membering, etc.)
Well, I have taken Mike’s Apparition os my own ’instructor' (or at least 'encourager') too. It is perfectly clear to me why Samuel Johnson doesn’t mention ’’fire" among the elements — I mean, one has to assume Sam knew he was talking to a greek... thus the abscense of one of the 4 classic elements in his speech has to be very relevant — Fire is, of course, the stuff with which both Mike and I create. Taking San’s statement as explicit formula, this abscenee of "fire” explicates clearly the way in which the three named elements are to be taken -- (that is, it makes clear Sam was not encouraging Mike to environmental art’, the wrapping of miles of coastline in celephane or somesuch). The key, for both Mike and myself (and soon many others, I’m sure) is the invisibility of the container.
Samuel comes to Mike because he’s most following in the tradition of Boswell — the Boswell of "London Journals" and that whole origin of the newspapers in ’’the journal’ ... that Herodotus-like beginning of news reportage — i.e. that a man would only report on what he'd seen with his own eyes, and in his own most personal way, out of his private journals. Mike has been Boswellian enough with me, certainly, in his UN-'coverage' of my working processes making "eyes" and "Deus Ex", with his thousands of photographs most personally made. You cannot find a better ’Pittsburgh Journal’ than among the hundreds of thousands of pictures he's taken in the course of his work and private life there.
Well, this is but a start in telling you 'the Pittsburgh Story' -- the Magic side of it; but I most especially want to share these events and this Appearance with you because of your statement the other night on the phone that you now wanted to make a film more in the direction of these newest works of cine. You’ll note especially the comments I make apropo "the tradition of The Lumiere Bros." and "Comedy" in my letter to Annette. The threads of this 'new' aesthetic (with its Lumiere roots at the very beginning of Film) woof their way thru the happy warps of all your earlier work: and that you should now come at it via The Document (and we must get rid of that "ary" at end "document") thrills me!
Looking forward, then, to a "That is That" from you!; and you will be getting a clear statement about "This Is It" and "Loony Tom" and "The Golden Positions" AND your poetry soon as I get it all together for my lecture on you at Chi. Art Inst. Suffice it to say now: you're Great; and you know
it! But, in the spirit of Gertrude Stein's answer to the question "what does an artist most need?", let me borrow her statement and give it to you: "Oh
Priase!, Praise!, Praise!"
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