PRINT January 1973

Stan and Jane Brakhage, Talking

Tape One

Frampton: Last night you said you would like to make something beautiful . . . and get away with it.

Brakhage: What does one mean by ‘get away with it’?

Frampton: Things that are beautiful are seductive, are they not?

Brakhage: Ah, yes, you’ve worried me for some time by saying that The Riddle of Lumen was the least seductive film I’d ever made . . . until I realized that you meant I’d gotten away with it. Seduction is what the people who steal beauty use it for. What I mean in getting away with it is that I want to be able to get all the excitement, the absolute ecstasy at times . . . and I feel confronted by anything that I’ve photographed or even been moved to begin to think of photographing . . . get all that excitement and intensity all the way over into whatever I make. That’s what I mean by getting away with it.

Maybe that’s too simple. Let’s think of it a minute in terms of something somebody else got away with. Sergei Eisenstein got away with the short cut. He used every trick in the bag to get away with it. For instance, the machinegunner. There was a reason for the short cut: it was approximating the machine-gun. Bullshit. That was the excuse whereby he could get away with a quality of vision that was closer to the ecstasy of what his own eyesight must normally have been. Similarly, in that same shot, not only did he have the machine-gun as a context to lean on, but he was intercutting two or three distinct scenes. He kept repeating—I can’t even remember exactly—do they repeat exactly: 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3 or do they go 1, 3, 2; 1, 3, 2?

Frampton: No, there’s a transposition.

Brakhage: If there is, then he’s really getting away with something. Because there is no reason there should be. So he was confuting reason. What he was relying on was that the normal sequence of pictures is 1, 2, 3—a scene following a scene and so on. He was relying on repetition, and relying on that to make motion, the trickery of motion. We have a repetition of cuts, every single 16th of a second; and every shot encounters something almost like itself. All he did was to space two or three scenes apart from each other. So he got away with expressing something that was normal to his vision. And how do we know it was normal to his vision? Because of the persistence with which he expressed this thing, and because of the lengths he went to to make it acceptable. Even socially acceptable: look at all the words he wrote about it.

With every artist it’s a case of trying to get something of what’s really intrinsic to his being, and separable from all social senses of what other human beings are, out into the general air. I can’t beat, as a basic maxim, Robert Duncan’s statement: I exercise my faculties at large. In the same way other men make war, some make love; I make poetry—to exercise my faculties at large. It’s like hoity-toity the way it’s put. Really what it means is that young men and women are faced with an impossible contradiction between their own intrinsic loneliness, and their own absolute dependence upon others. To make themselves imaginable within the general airs of all the other imaginations that others have accepted of themselves—they’re forced to accept an equivalent. It’s either that, or madness, or death, or total withdrawal, or a bitter eccentricity . . . and all the various other alternatives every artist toys with.

When I was a certain age, and when the glasses and the fat of me were a solid manifestation of my own removal from everything around me that I was so dependent on, I lost weight and threw away the glasses. When I threw away the glasses I literally could not see to cross the street safely. That meant I had accepted other persons’ sense of sight—it didn’t mean I couldn’t see. I mean the ways in which I was seeing weren’t acceptable, and therefore they weren’t acceptable to me. I had no other equivalent for any of them in any of the books or pictures. Everyone else had an easy referential relationship with Renaissance perspective.

Frampton: You’re saying that the spectacles designed to give you corrected perspective were, as we say, rose-colored glasses?

Brakhage: If they had worked, they would have been. But they didn’t work. The assumption that anything mechanical like that will work, is based on the idea that seeing is mechanical and other people are trying to see according to those glasses. Why I couldn’t cross the street safely, was that no one had given me the idea that there were ways in which I could make myself safe in crossing the street, just as surely as that shared, ‘acceptable’ form of making yourself safe.

Frampton: That you could see with the eyes you had?

Brakhage: Yes, perfectly well. The one place where I did see in relationship to all other people’s seeing was the movie house, from the beginning, glasses or no.

Frampton: Did you take off your glasses when you went to the movies?

Brakhage: Yes, but when I first took them off, the screen was just muggy shapes and blurs. I was struggling to re-see. But people in the movie house, with or without glasses, are on a much closer plane than in the general phenomenal world, because there is a system for sight that even with glasses, apparently, I could accept. In fact, it’s a system that’s more suited to someone with glasses than not because it’s a system that passes through lenses.

Frampton: Now, you’re at this end of 20 years of work which pretty well does establish the primacy of a vision of your own. You have survived the necessity to get something out . . .

Jane: There’s the need to make more, each year . . .

Brakhage: Well, people have also made a large case for beauty as terror. Assuredly the dragon must look beautiful to St. George when he finds it, because he’s there to do it in. And he dances with it in so doing. But he can only dance with it if he kills it . . . and that sense of beauty hangs like a very dark shadow over at least the first half of the 20th century. And I think my growing disinterest in that sense of beauty has a lot to do with why I’m embracing so many aspects of the 19th century, over the last several years. In the 19th century there was a much more direct relationship with beauty, and it became fearful. One wonders why. Certainly we understand why, socially. It’s just as simple as this: no honest, decent, socially involved man is going to sit around painting roses while an obvious misery is destroying the world in front of his eyes. It’s impossible. He either puts on blinders, or removes himself to a garden; or he becomes essentially a social artist. And to the extent that he’s unable, because of his obsession and his own primary needs, to become a social artist, he immediately opts for discovering the beauty of the monster that confronts him. Not an unworthy task, in fact one of the more favored in Western history, is the confrontation with the dragon—to be slain. But what interests me now is that I envision a way in which that dragon can be confronted, and danced with, without killing it. Everybody deeply involved in the social scene jumps all over me (and everybody else that says any such thing) because they think that we mean to get along with the Devil, or to help the dragon slay people, and that’s not what I mean at all.

Jane: What’s the dragon?

Brakhage: Well, the dragon is the ashcan of the Ashcan School of painting. The dragon is the tortured and screaming faces of Germans in German Expressionist painting. The dragon is the waste of city landscape.

Jane: So you’re not doing in the dragon?

Brakhage: Well, I think in a way I am. I think going to Pittsburgh was confronting the dragon in his den. I didn’t go to Pittsburgh to photograph the city as the Emerald City of Oz, or to make a cathedral of it like Feininger. I walked straight into a police car, and then a hospital, and then the morgue. And this had to do with the city as an image of death, or as a vast graveyard of sensibility.

Frampton: The dragon has often been emblematic of what is unwarranted and surprising, and thus undesirable, in perception and in imagination.

Brakhage: Kenneth Anger embraces the dragon, except that he has made it, as he’s said, just a maligned god. I mean if Lucifer is to be taken as a dragon, as most people would, then Kenneth would say, no, no, this is the god; it’s Jehovah who’s a dragon. Certainly one of the first things you can say about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are beautiful. They are unashamedly beautiful; and when they are terribly frightening, or awe-full, they are so because they exist in the lavish beauty of Kodachrome, used in its most unembarrassed fashion.

Every artist, in some way, is trying to get around this dilemma, which really is a 19th-century dilemma. What did Eisenstein have to start with, to celebrate? Heroics! He was confronted by a mass of people, which for most. of the history of the world is a pretty ugly apparition in any form in which it occurs. He made this the hero. He strung people out in the most incredible patterns, across vast landscapes and around city streets, in order to create an image of the heroic mass. There’s a contradiction!

Another question the artist runs up against—the prime one—is to find a way to make manifest to the general air his own socially unacceptable particularities. Then the artist starts confronting ways in which his culture is unacceptable. By ‘his’ culture, I mean, say, the culture of Lump Gulch, which I have so far found no way to transport to New York or San Francisco. And by this I’m not just meaning to be able to give that vision to others, or not even primarily that. I’ve found no way yet to reconcile my living here, in relationship to my dreams of the city; nor those dreams in relationship to the cities as they are, those specific cities I’ve known in New York, San Francisco, and, of late, Pittsburgh.

So there’s Eisenstein (who presumably, if you look at those young pictures of him, had a normal bourgeois upbringing) confronted with the ordinary 19th-century leanings toward the dramatic heroic, forced to use as his material, first of all by his own decision and then later by the decision of the Politburo, the ordinary mass. That’s something he had to reconcile. He had irreconcilable elements enough to tear a man apart, if he can’t forget them. His only means of having both these elements in the same air with him self and his proclivities was to make an image. That was probably, on his part, very much a conscious collective image. So there actually is the artist working for the state. But obviously he couldn’t do it if he wasn’t on the goddamn spot himself.

Frampton: The spot being the problem of reconciling his own particularities with what had been presented to him as how one was supposed to be?

Brakhage: It’s two how you are supposed to be’s. One, the primary one, is from his childhood. Then there’s his own personal revolt, which puts him in the way of being representative of the other.

I think anytime any artist is working, he’s working with material that’s so disturbing to him, it’s just like a scientist picking up pieces one of which might be distilled radium. Haven’t you had that sense when you’re putting two pieces of film together, that it might burn you to a crisp?

Frampton: Absolutely.

Brakhage: That sounds too much, though, like the condition is heroic.

I’m always in terror that I’ll never be permitted to make another film. You know, the real danger is that I’ll start believing the role I’ve created for myself, or that others have created for me, and that this will become such a viable and totally acceptable role in the world that I’ll start living it, and then there’ll be no need to create anymore. Why should there? I mean then I’ll have a place in the world, like everybody else. The trouble is that if that had happened to me just naturally between the ages of one and six, or even by the time I was 18, I probably wouldn’t be an artist. I’d be going around in the world fulfilling my role. But it didn’t. The film is a byproduct . . . and a very useful by-product. Hopefully, if it is an art, then it’s a useful by-product in the sense that I can use it again and again to re-experience.

Frampton: As a magical amulet to hang around your neck, to ward off evil?

Brakhage: I don’t know. Maybe people who make objects feel that way about it. But how can you feel that way about film, which is a continuity art? In film, the closest metaphor is the thought process, so “remind myself” would be the most correct way to put it, because film has the ability to be closest to thought process in its continuities.

Frampton: Just by virtue of its being continuous?

Brakhage: Yes. I do think that the way people name has a lot to do with it. I think that kino has a lot to do with Russian cinema.

Frampton: The name means move, it means movies.

Brakhage: Cinema means something a little different, it has that tendency, in the world-language, to be going on to imply cinematographer which means writer of movement. And I think that kind of distinction, while it’s small, grows from its small acorn across the span of 50 years and takes a very strong effect.

Film is our word. That’s how independent makers distinguish themselves from the pros, Stan Brakhage, Window Water Baby Moving, 1959. who make movies. So it’s ghosts we’re after, as a group, although every single one of us is changing that continually, and at some point it will be so thoroughly changed that the word ‘film’ won’t be used anymore, or it will be changed and after 25 years we’ll drop that word.

Again, it’s a question of“ making place.” And then there’s this aspect of it that I begin to be aware of. I become aware, at a very early age that I’m not sharing the world of vision that I’m supposed to in order to exist in the general air with all the people around me. What a terrifying situation! What to do? OK then 20 years later I begin to be perfectly aware that the place I’d made for myself, and the altering of sight that occurs absolutely contingent with that, is similarly embarrassing young kids all over the world and just those I would most sympathize with.

Well, I’ve brooded on this on dark nights. I can never quite bring myself to say, “Ah fuck it, that’s their problem” . . . which is the extent to which I am ‘social’ . . . and it worries me.

Frampton: That’s because it has been your problem.

Brakhage: So an awful lot of this talk we do, and a lot of the writing and the teaching, and an awful lot of the study, has been to try to find some way to slip this goddamn knot altogether. There is the kind of man that goes out to level all the buildings that interfere with the new landscape, that he and some few others envision. Eisenstein had a lot of that fire in him too. I feel him trembling at times, always on the edge of wanting to cut the Gordian knot. He was stubborn. He was a good stubborn man. It all holds together once you begin to see him as human. He’s also very toughened by the time the Politburo is telling him how to live. He’s used to evading that since he was six or so . . . people were, telling him how to live or fuck or whatever so he’s toughened. And that’s another thing all artists seem to share—something has toughened them. Usually it’s that they don’t fit, so they’re in a tough spot. Right from scratch. Then, something that they’ve embraced in their not fitting not only doesn’t fit with the society around them but is obviously enough to get their heads cut off. If everyone realized what is perfectly true, that they don’t fit . . . if each person realized how distinct and unique he or she is, well, then, art would become normal everyday expression. And people would swap their artifacts or works of art or their words as naturally as they now swap slogans that are handed to them by the State. Art is personal in the making and it is personal in the appreciation. All that I try to do in my lectures, and when I teach in Chicago, is demonstrate my personal appreciation. The outside social hope is that it will inspire others to demonstrate theirs, or at least to have theirs. That if I can do it, then anyone else can make up his own Eisenstein. I made up my Eisenstein, or at least the Eisenstein that was real to me at the time of writing that essay on Eisenstein. [“Sergei Eisenstein,” The Brakhage Lectures, Chicago, 1972.] Having done that, anyone else can. Mine is certainly unique and personal . . . which is why it gets attacked. Consider the level of the argument against it—that I am in it, that I am visible in it. Ken Kelman said, about the essays in general, that I had done a good job of fitting into the shoes of other film makers, but that always a big Brakhage toe sticks out!

Frampton: Let’s extend this a bit. If everyone is free to make up his own Eisenstein, then everyone’s likewise free to make up his own Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage: Right. Absolutely right.

Frampton: In this case we have a little help from Stan Brakhage?

Brakhage: Now there’s the trouble with artists being living. That’s why people so much prefer for artists to be dead, because anybody free to make up his own Stan Brakhage can give me the feeling that I have not found any kind of place in the world. Having done that I will naturally explode or fight back or argue or scream or cry or do something embarrassing.

Frampton: You’re saying that there are thousands of Stan Brakhages, but they’re all in other people’s heads . . . which leaves you in an embarrassing position.

Brakhage: It may be so, that’s preferable to everybody agreeing on who Stan Brakhage is, and then beating Stan Brakhage over the heads of the coming generation, which is the thing normally that’s done. I had my own head beaten bloody by Sergei Eisenstein, whose work I loved, and in whose tradition I was working, absolutely lineally, to spring my own traps. And the horror that that is happening now, with my work, to another generation, a younger generation of people, really sits heavily on my sore head.

Frampton: It has also been used, for as long as I’ve known your work to beat you yourself over the head. After Anticipation of the Night you were beaten over the head with the psychodramas.

Brakhage: Well, that’s always very confusing too. Here again we have Eisenstein and the Politburo. I guess he never lived down Battleship Potemkin. What to do about that? It happens because people have such a narrow view of person, because most people are trapped in a narrow view of themselves, which they’ve been forced into by social expediency. Not by social necessity. I do not subscribe to the despair of the old Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, for instance. But it is expedient to regard anything narrowly.

To put it simply: in the name of “progress,” an extensive view of human personality has been almost destroyed as a possibility of consideration for most people. There’s really no problem in seeing that the same man who made Anticipation of the Night then made Dog Star Man, then made Scenes From Under Childhood, and is now doing the films that I’m doing. There’s really no problem with that at all, because you have one absolute surety to go on, and that’s style. I had thought to emphasize that by signing those works. It takes me hours to scratch on film: By Brakhage. Certainly since Desistfilm that’s been there as a possibility for most of my films. If I can sign checks while leaning on a steering wheel, while sitting at my desk, while I’m raging, while I’m sad, while I’m happy, while I’m writing quickly, while I’m working slow . . . and all these checks obviously bear the signature of Stan Brakhage, which is absolutely defensible in a court of law by a handwriting analyst, and is immediately obvious to most people on sight, then why is it that most people have so much difficulty recognizing style in art?

Frampton: I think it has to do with a constricted definition of style that has arisen particularly with regard to the plastic arts, in the last 20 years or so: that it is not something that can be as various as the signature of one person, but that it is as fixed as the same signature repeated exactly by a forger.

Brakhage: What you’re saying is that there’s such a degree of forgery in the world that it has made style suspect.

Frampton: I wrote recently that style is the adoption of a fixed perceptual distance from the object. That was in connection with 19th-century photography, and I used Julia Margaret Cameron as an example but I had very much in mind any number of painters of my own generation, who are very careful to demonstrate constantly a step-by-step continuity in their development, from one work to the next.

Brakhage: That’s interesting to me because I used to know my continuities like the alphabet. I knew not only the orders of the films made, but I knew almost to the month and certainly the year when each film was completed, when the shooting was done, or editing or whatever. Since we’ve moved here, to this location in the mountains, that’s ceased to be so. I can tell you when the first two or three films were made when we came here; and I can tell you the order and the months of the last six months. But I cannot really differentiate any of the rest. That’s interesting. So I’m thinking that for a while there was that determination to hold each step in mind and build a progression, as if I were making a ladder.

Frampton: Is it something that happened in your work because you came here? Or was it simply because of the time in your life?

Brakhage: I think both. For many years I was thinking I was getting out of something. There were steps in the direction of finding my place in the world. This place, after all, carries the exactitude that we have lived here eight years now. That length of time I never lived anywhere else on earth or anywhere near it. So that I’ve found my place in the literal physical sense.

And I’ve become aware that I’ll never find my place in the world . . . and that all that I can do is keep making elbow room in the general air. I can toss out some metaphor for this aspect of myself and some metaphor for that, but it’s unending.

But that hasn’t anything to do with the creative act. What I mean is, that I feel as if the creative powers use my social embarrassment, and whatever else is useful, to permit the making of the work; and I feel that in an equal degree while I’m working on something, making place for the particularities of my vision, and my thought processes, my own physiology, in the world. So that’s an absolutely poised shared experience: a dance, you could say, between my sense of myself and something that I don’t know anything about . . . or a mystery.

Frampton: The verb make comes up again and again—make place, make sense, make a work of art, make love—with two implications I think. First, as taking an active posture toward something. And second, with an implication that things that must be made have a kind of half-life, that unless they’re continuously restored and regenerated, we run out. Why do we say make love for instance? Suggesting that it has to be remade . . .

Jane: Maybe it does.

Brakhage: I completely believe that.

Frampton: Like a radioactive substance that gives out energy and is diminished and needs to be augmented.

Jane: Making your image!

Brakhage: Yes, which is always very important to me; after all that’s how I got into this in the first place. That’s how they, if there is any they, dragged me into this.

Well, there is a “they.” I just don’t know if this unnameable likes to be referred to as a “they.” I am very clear that I receive instructions from the outside. I have had no question about this since I was editing Cat’s Cradle; and certainly since Sirius Remembered I have had no question about it. At times I have questioned it—but I have had no questions about it. It’s made me think about younger artists a lot; and I think the young depend very much, not only on a lot of instructions, but depend on drama. As I get older, I don’t depend on drama.

In fact, I begin to have a sense that I understand something of what it is to be an old artist. And it’s something so simply wonderful as being granted responsibility for what’s been given you to do . . . as distinct from being charged continually with forces you have absolutely no control over. I’ve seen many artists begin to make this transition. I’m watching Paul Sharits begin to make it, for instance. Actually in S:TREAM:SS:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTIONED, Sharits presented us with the voices of the Muses, literally on the sound track. Having done that, he had certainly a more comfortable relationship with them. The relationship, in getting older, is a less dramatic relationship with what some men call the Muses, and much more . . .

Frampton: What we used to call intercourse, in politer days?

Brakhage: Yes, I think so. A shared responsibility, maybe. Do you know the story about Paul, and how he came to that sound track on S:TREAM:SS:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTIONED? That was the sound he heard while working on some film—not I believe, this one—when he was sitting late at night in his little room in Baltimore. And he couldn’t stop the sound, it kept coming back. There are infuriating aspects to the voices of the Muses which were captured beautifully for us by Rameau in that piece called The Conversation of the Muses. In fact, people should really listen both to the sound track on S:TREAM:SS:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTIONED and that piece by Rameau. There can be no question, while we may not know what it is we’re talking about—‘Muse’ may be only a very inferior term—that there is something that artists share. Some refer to them as whisperings, some as outright visions, some as sounds, or ways in which sounds in the surrounding atmosphere gang up and produce effects on their nervous systems. It’s a pity no one ever thought, to ask, say, Eisenstein about it.

Frampton: He would have felt constrained not to answer.

Brakhage: Yes, he probably would have. But, it’s surprising. You’d think that certain men would never give any answer in relationship to anything that is the contemporary experience of something. And then they surprise you. For instance, I can believe that Eisenstein might somewhere have left some such statement, because I have seen D. W. Griffith’s statement (and I am paraphrasing it, but I am very close): all that I really want to do is make you see. Now, that’s about the last statement in the world that I ever would have expected to share with Griffith. And the only change I would make in it is the obvious one: I would change the word make. But he was, after all, very involved with social drama . . . he wanted to make people see. And, look, in the very beginning we have the implication of Muses in film—in Méliès work, in no uncertain terms, however humorous the context.

But of course people really haven’t accepted film as an art form yet. And until that becomes a general assumption, we’re certainly asking too much to expect people to consider how the Muses operate in relationship to the creative act in film. But actually, in the 20th century, it’s embarrassing to mention these things, because everybody’s so concerned with the social usability of art; there’s nothing very usable about what most people would regard as madness. Thinking over how I work today, and how I used to work, and what slight difference there is. . . it goes along with the whole change in my life. When I was younger, I really couldn’t find much significance except in a dramatic confrontation. It isn’t an older person’s sense of living to be dependent on drama. As you get older you see the damage that it does, for one thing, and you feel it more. Then, the minute you begin giving up pieces of that form of knowledge, then you discover so many others. I shouldn’t say you, that means I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say. I discover many other ways to be informed, and many other ways to elbow myself, my physiology, a little place in the world, than through dramatic confrontation. And as I do so my whole life changes incredibly. The work process doesn’t depend on dramatic confrontation. This is why it isn’t important to me anymore to know which film came when.

Again, some men were not permitted that. We were talking about style earlier, and you said there have been so many forgeries in the world that people are no longer cashing esthetic checks on the basis of style. Consider this though. Who are the forgers of Méliès? What are their names? When you say Méliès you get, right away, a sense of style. Now tell me, who’s forged that style? We’re not talking about the grammar he’s left, or the things he’s given socially; we’re talking about style. Come on, give up! No one has!

Frampton: I do. You’re right.

Brakhage: The closest you come. . . and you have to leap all the way . . . is Jean Cocteau. And I certainly wouldn’t call him a forger of Méliès. He’s just the only one who picked up on Méliès’ style sufficiently to let it quiver in his work every now and again.

Frampton: I heard a demurrer from you, Jane.

Jane: I don’t think he forged Méliès at all.

Brakhage: No, I didn’t mean that he did. I only meant that he was sufficiently aware of Méliès’ style.

Jane: You shouldn’t have said that he did.

Brakhage: All right, let’s take another one. Let’s take the big chief in the line-up, Sergei Eisenstein. Who forged his stuff? Same thing: no one. Now let’s cap it. Who’s forged Stan Brakhage’s style? O.K., a lot of names come suddenly to mind as possibilities. But I’m sure they did with each of these men, in their time, because at the time something is being made, the style is not seen or perceived clearly enough to distinguish the forgeries.

In fact, we know that there were many forgers of Méliès: And there were forgeries upon forgeries, and the forgers became much more successful than Méliès, and that’s how he was beat out. We know that . . . but where are they? Nobody could even bear to look at them 20 years later, or we’d have a few of them around.

Frampton: What a paradox this is: the Master ends up in the candy store and the forgers go into oblivion!

Brakhage: And we know people’s sensibilities change incredibly. For instance, Edison lined up a string quartet on the Carnegie Hall stage, in front of a supposedly experienced audience, and had fake strings on all their instruments, and fooled the audience with a cylinder recording of a quartet played while they went through the motions. No one could pull that stuff today.

Frampton: But then it also seems unthinkable that people in France and the Soviet Union ran around behind the screen to look for the actors in the Lumiere films. They were black and white, for God’s sake.

Brakhage: And people recognized themselves in Méliès’ Dreyfus Trial—people who’d been to the trial took it as a newsreel footage and recognized themselves among what was actually a crew of actors. That’s the whole basic trick . . . which brings us to another interesting point. We are in a continuum. Now that we see that forgery only operates within a time-bound context, and therefore can’t be anything more than a brief distraction from what an art is—or from what the style of the man who made it is—then we come to the question: what about a lineal tradition?

My big problem has been, all these years, that no one has recognized that I (and all my contemporaries) are working in a lineal tradition of Méliès, Griffith, Dreyer, Eisenstein, and all the other classically accepted film makers. Why not? Why are they unable to recognize that? I took my first cues for fast cuts from Eisenstein, and I took my first senses of parallel cutting from Griffith, and I took my first senses of the individual frame life of a film from Méliès, and so on. Why has it taken so long for anyone to recognize this as a lineal tradition? Why did we all have to go through that terrible embarrassment of the late ’60s when we were presented to the world as though we sprang full-blown, completely new, from an LSD dream? Why is it that those men who studied the grammar, even of Griffith and Eisenstein, were so slow in recognizing that? In fact, most of them still don’t and would rather curl up like the Wicked Witch of the . . . North?

Jane: West!

Brakhage: . . . in a pool of black smoke, than acknowledge that lineal tradition.

Frampton: We live in a ‘heroic’ culture. We live in the midst of ‘masterpieces.’

Brakhage: Do we?

Frampton: Well, we certainly don’t.

Brakhage: I think maybe there’s a simpler explanation: that they never were really looking at the person or the personal style of Eisenstein.

Frampton: Which is to say, they never looked at the films.

Brakhage: Exactly. They never looked at the art of the films.

Jane: What were they looking at?

Brakhage: The trickery. And the “social significance,” as it’s called. Well, to be graceful about it, maybe this is the only use most people have for art. In fact, one could let them have it that way, if they weren’t so mean about it. I don’t particularly care, for instance, if people really don’t want to interest themselves in obsession or vision.

I used to care a lot. But I guess I was beaten in my arguments with P. Adams Sitney, years ago. He just simply did not want to close his eyes and see hypnagogically, so that he would have some sense why I was hand-painting film a frame at a time. Finally, I’ve made peace with 77 that. Why should he, if he doesn’t want to? But on the other hand, as long as he and many others busy themselves with pronouncing to the world what we are, what the artist is, then there’s bound to be a continual fuss in the relationship between us.

Tape Two

Brakhage: It’s my problem, at the moment, that I am once again, or let’s say especially for the first time, trying to make a portrait of Jane. This is after years and years of Jane’s image being central to film after film after film. And this is weighted with the problem that every now and again Jane will say, well, you’ve never gotten an image of me. So here I go for the first time—again.

Frampton: Why is it that he can’t make a portrait of you Jane?

Jane: He just uses me.

Brakhage: Oh, boy, now I’m in trouble! The whole women’s lib movement at this instant descends on me like a puddle of Harpies!

Jane: I’ve just been doing something like having a baby, or minding the kids, or standing around or something. And he just photographs a woman having a baby, sweeping the floor, or making a bed. It’s the making of the bed, not how Jane makes the bed or what Jane does with it.

Frampton: Jane, you have to realize that, from the outside, you are presumably the most profoundly differentiated and individuated woman in the history of film—and, probably, one of the most completely differentiated persons in the history of art.

Jane: Hmm. You really think so?

Frampton: You can look it up in the goddamned library, Jane. Of course you are!

Jane: Where? Who said that?

Frampton: I said it. Then you cut your long hair off and fucked it up.

Jane: There, that’s just what I mean . . .

Brakhage: I think that’s probably why she cut off her hair.

Jane: That’s right!

Frampton: You felt, then, that you had no life outside of your cinematic myth, that you were becoming a movie star, in fact, that kind of object.

Jane: Yes, an appendage.

Brakhage: I’m sure Saskia must have felt similarly, Saskia who was asked to dress in all those fancy costumes so that Rembrandt could paint her as this, that and the other. He used himself in that same sense.

Jane: I didn’t resent it. I just feel that that’s the case, that’s how it is.

Brakhage: I’ll be the first to say bullshit.

Jane: That was years ago that I did care, and now I don’t, and now you can make the goddamn film because I don’t give a shit.

Frampton: I’d like to remind both of you that am the interviewer here.

Jane: What kind of rights do you have here?

Brakhage: Why don’t you whip your camera out and make another film, Bride of Critical Mass? No, let me finish what I was going to say. I think actually what it is—I think everybody will recognize this as a truth—is that you just want more. And that’s perfectly reasonable, and I am willing to comply . . .

Jane: I don’t want anymore.

Brakhage:. . . because I have that necessity. I have never been able to make anything for you or for anyone else, actually. I’ve tried to make children’s films for the children. At times I’ve really felt I would swap everything else I’ve accomplished to be the Hans Christian Anderson of film. But I cannot commission a children’s film from myself. I’ve tried to make films for Jane, and they always fail very quickly and I throw them away. In fact, they’ve never been seen. But she, rightfully, always wants more and more. This really is her inspiring function in the creative process.

Frampton: Do you feel this way about his portraits of other people, Jane?

Jane: Scenes From Under Childhood is maybe really a thorough thing. But that’s the only thorough thing I can think of, unless the Pittsburgh films, which are documentary, and therefore more objective, so the cops can be seen as “out there.” Most of his stuff is inward.

Frampton: You have always the feeling he’s making a portrait of himself?

Jane: Yes.

Brakhage: I agree.

Frampton: That’s why you say you’re simply part of a pretext for that self-portrait. Has the case ever been otherwise for an artist?

Jane: Yes, that’s a good question.

Brakhage: I can state it better than that. Has the case ever been otherwise for any human being, ever?

Jane: So I quit complaining, because I felt that that was not something that he could do.

Brakhage: You see, to accomplish that feeling that you designate as “out there,” with relationship to the images of the police in eyes, the clearest way to accomplish that is in drama. And drama is where the art completely and totally lies in order to state a truth. If we’d been making drama films all these years, and you were an actress, then there would be many images of you that would seem “out there” in the sense that the police do in that film.

Frampton: You do have a film between you which very precisely mimes the Aeschylean drama, and that’s Wedlock House: an Intercourse, in which the camera is tossed back and forth like the stichomathy in Greek argument, and the camera is the impersonal messenger that brings everybody bad news.

Jane: We did that in Scenes From Under Childhood too, in one of the last parts.

Brakhage: We were “acting,” as all people do when they quarrel. To the extent to which we act, we give the appearance of being “out there.” The Pittsburgh police were, surely, continually acting. In fact an enormous part of their job is to act; so it is with doctors, with all public servants.

Frampton: So it is with teachers. We know as teachers the classroom is a great theater.

Brakhage: Certainly. So to the extent that we have ever been acting, there’s a sense of a presence “out there.” But that to me is the same as what got me, and every other artist, into this in the first place. The act, the general shared public act, is, for some reason, not possible, to a man or woman. And if that man or woman still chooses to attempt to relate to all these others in their social acts, he or she is then forced to make his or her own act, an act that will accommodate the necessities of the person. And there is a beginning of an art.

There are two interests in art. Robert Duncan is curiously always very dedicated to the theatrical act. This is why he was so fascinated with Ingmar Bergman, for instance. He was interested in that sense of making, that you “make it up,” with all kinds of conscious trickery, into a vast lie which is then so removed from ordinary living experience that it serves as a truth, a truth which carries the feeling that it is “out there.” I’m not against this way of creating. In fact I guess this is where I started—I started with drama. For instance Janis Hubka probably recognizes herself very much better in the first film I made, Interim, than you [Jane] ever have . . . because we’ve been so little involved in drama since we’ve known each other. There’s no real sense of there being an “out there.”

Jane: I’m no kind of an actress.

Frampton: Hear, hear, bravo, encore!

Jane: Gee, is it that bad?

Brakhage: I have tremendous necessity to keep re-seeing Jane, and all my many ways of seeing are engaged with her continually. And of course some of them have never been used. And some of them are very habit-bound. And I shudder at the thought of those artists who continue to paint and repaint their loved ones in the same fashion, in the same situation.

Frampton: As if, by some kind of magic, to freeze them in a snapshot.

Brakhage: To hold to the original vision. Yes, that’s a good term for it—the snapshot approach to it. For one thing I’m fascinated right now to make a film bouncing the light off of Jane, which is something I have never really done, and to make it a film that’s totally about her, in the sense that all its considerations center on her. And that I’ve never done.

Frampton: Do you like to have light bouncing off you, Jane?

Jane: I’m trying, I’m trying.

Brakhage: Well, I said it wrongly. I don’t bounce the light. I turn on a bulb, and don’t have megalomaniac senses that I bounce the light in so doing—or I set up an elaborate lighting apparatus and aim it this way and that way. But really I catch the light. That’s what it’s all about.

Frampton: You catch what’s leftover—after Jane is through with the light.

Brakhage: OK, let’s get it straight, after Jane is through with the light I catch it. That’s the normal condition of my life anyway, so that should work for something magnificent.

Jane: What is your interest in light?

Brakhage: I see so many qualities of light, so many things that seem to be light but aren’t anywhere categorized as such or spoken of as such or referred to by other people as such. I always have, and as I get older I see more and more. I see so many qualities of light continually, every day constantly new ones and new aspects of old ones, that it’s become a normal condition. At this time in my life it is the variety of the qualities of light that I see, and live with daily, that removes me most from feeling I share sight with other people.

Frampton: And that leads you to the necessity of making something that will share that sight with other people?

Brakhage: Yes.

Frampton: You’ve spent a lot of time attempting a very exact registration of the seeing process. But the prime condition of seeing, at all, is light, the carrier wave which makes everything visible, which visible things modulate 1 change and so forth. And that seems to be a very recent shift of focus in your interests.

Brakhage: It’s not recent, because it was a long time ago that I was startled by Scotuserigena’s, ‘All things that are, are lights.’ Along with all the many gifts of Ezra Pound, this was certainly one of the most startling and immediately meaningful to me. Because even if it were, as it first sounded to me, an absurd statement in the face of my scientific prejudices, it still expressed beautifully the natural condition of the film maker at the moment of making. And of late that phrase has come back to me again in many forms—one of the most beautiful of which is Hugh Kenner’s exposition of it (and all other aspects of light in Ezra Pound’s work) in his book The Pound Era. It comes back to me at a time when I really need it because slowly and gradually over the years my attention to the world in relationship to light has increased my seeing of all kinds of things that other people either don’t see, or don’t admit they see . . . or don’t have any way to admit they see. So now I take that statement very much more literally. One can make scientific arguments about it. So much of everything we know—and it’s hard to think of anything for which this is not so—is, in its state, because of light. Let alone whether we see it or not. Year after year more and more things began to seem to me to glow. Having been raised by Germans in Kansas, and being fussy, I troubled myself to try to figure out if I was superimposing this glow upon things, in my mind’s eye, or if things were coming from some outside and pressing on my brain at the point where it surfaces as an eye. And finally, even through some experiments, I came to convince myself at least some of these extraordinary things were certainly coming from the outside and pressing in on me.

So far I’m just talking about an intrinsic light that seems to be emanating from all things. I wrote, when younger, about certain experiments that Jane and I made with qualities of light, like ‘elfskin,’ for instance, which term we got out of old Saxon by way of Michael McClure. That is, the quality of light that emanates from all beings. But that was too general a sight. Finally I found a way to make some equivalent of it by combining high contrast positive and negative film, slightly off register. That gave an approximate of that thing we were seeing, that we and Michael were calling ‘elfskin,’ and were presuming that maybe the Saxons did.

But now there are so many qualities, that that seems just one among hundreds. Other qualities of glow from . . . not only beings, but all objects.

Now let’s take another sense of light. That light that we more normally refer to, light that comes from the sun and bounces around here on earth, by which we see. I suppose for a long time I had a normal relationship with that light, or thought I did. But one day I knew rain was coming. I asked myself how I knew. We get many scuttling clouds that go over and deposit nothing . . . but I knew rain was coming! And then I saw it. I saw streaks of whitish lines, almost as if drawn, or as if comic-strip drawn, very quickly coming down on a slant into the ground. There was a feeling that this was being sucked into the ground, that these were actually being pulled, as if by gravity. These lines were, in fact, a metaphor for rain. Very shortly thereafter rain began to fall. Because of my scientific upbringing I tested myself. Again and again, as I sat on the porch, I would ask myself, as one cloud or another looking promising passed over, is it going to rain or not? And I finally was producing a 100% record. Because before every actual rain there came this light manifestation. It looked like streaks of light, metaphors of the coming rain.

By now, I’ve seen so many other similar qualities of light that precede a material manifestation, that the question came to my mind: maybe everything that’s taken shape on earth, had its shape defined for it by light, by some quality of light, before it came into existence. I even thought maybe that’s what ghosts or spirits are, maybe that shape humans have taken was preceded by that which we call angels, or demons, or ghosts. I see them; and what am I to do with having seen them? The best that you can do, is to try to determine if you’re making it up.

For instance, I have seen angels. That is, in the 20th century, a rather embarrassing sort of thing to admit. I have seen figures, usually with wings or something like wings, that are in a tradition of what we call ‘angels’ when referring to painting or sculpture in Western art. After I’m through the experience of seeing them, then I rummage my mind, and this whole bag of books over here, to see if I can find an angel that’s like the one I saw, or a composite of angels that would have made up mine. To try to figure out if my mind has taken many parts of angels out of the history of painting and projected one in front of me. I’ve never found anything at all like what I saw. Angels are quite a tradition, you know. It doesn’t begin with Christianity. Just one sculpture that shows that angels aren’t Christian is the Victory of Samothrace. East and West there is a tradition of angels, which have been expressed in various forms of art.

These visions occur, these days, normally, and just as something in passing. They don’t occur in any way that would be particularly dramatic, helpful, or useful. And so with the qualities of light. I see light that appears to pool. It appears to be a glow that’s as if it had weight and liquid substance. It doesn’t pool in holes in the ground, necessarily, or any depression. But it pools as if there were some hole there. And it is of a glow that’s all of what we call light, as we extend that term to phosphorescence. It happens quite normally. And there’s also a quality of light that streams over the ground; and I’ve seen it running absolutely counter to the blow of the wind. Just streaming, in all senses as if it were a charged or phosphorescent mass of floating liquid. In fact, it looks very much like a mountain stream, only it’s a slight differentiation of qualities of light coming from the sun, and bouncing in the ordinary ways that we recognize and refer to.

Now if there’s no other value in all this, there is at least this specifically for me at this time—that I can photograph it. The materials of film are too clearly attuned to some other quality of light, or too gross or too inferior or whatever to be receptive to these qualities of light. I find myself in the position of having to search out an equivalent. So I am back in the same spot I was in when I realized that I couldn’t photograph closed-eye vision. I could not get a camera inside my head so I painted on film to get as near an equivalent I could of things I was, yes, seeing, but had no way to photograph. Here again I cannot photograph so I have to search for equivalents that will give something of the quality of what I’m seeing. Well, that takes me back to the absolute beginning—because, all along, all I or anybody else have been able to do, is create by whatever means—film or any other art—an equivalent of what we were seeing.

Frampton: That’s a classic definition of the artist’s problem.

Jane: It’s a weird thing to do in the first place.

Brakhage: Yes, it is, isn’t it? But if you think about it, it’s so beautiful, because only by doing such a weird thing could you actually get involved in trying to create an equivalent for something that most people weren’t already seeing. I mean you begin trying to get an equivalent that’s rather close cousin to whatever anybody else is seeing.

And this is the value of the classics and of the other artists that the young man adores and worships. His life depends on them, because they have, through their personal needs, taken a thing so far and then here comes . . . myself as a young man, and I know that my eyes are doing this and that and the other and suddenly Eisenstein is giving me a beginning of an equivalent to do something that I’m doing. And this isn’t really taking something further; the process here is the adjusting of my equivalents to his.

Frampton: So you find you are not, after all, so very particular, that there are needs you share with others?

Brakhage: It’s more that, if nothing else that the works that I make can be dose to his. If I can’t live reasonably in a world of standard cliché visions, at least my films can live in a world of developing visions along with his. I don’t really feel that I could actually get along with Sergei Eisenstein any easier than I might with my mother. But I can sense that the works can share a world. Presumably, then, later, other people will share something, such as is useful to them. I’m trying to find a way not to put down the normal decision of most people to accept a limited vision in order to communicate with each other. That’s their business, if they want to do that. I would probably do it too, if it were possible.

Jane: Why do we have to communicate with each other?

Frampton: I don’t really think there’s any question about having to; we simply do it. That’s Ray Birdwhistell’s paean to inevitability.

Brakhage: Let’s be careful of the word communication though, to absolutely distinguish it from, say, Stan Vanderbeek’s sense of the word communication. I think that’s a very dangerous word. I don’t really mean that I want to communicate with other people in that sense of getting my message all the way over, or I’d have maybe tried to become a politician. That’s what makes certainly a dictator—that absolute insistence on total communication. In my case it had to do with the eyes. I wanted to share a sight. That’s not the same as telling “them” about that sight. I wanted to feel like I lived in the same world with other people. That’s not the same as communicating. My primary necessity was not that they understand me, or obviously I’d never have become an artist. My primary need was that, at some point, I share a sight with them. Is that fair and clear? Does that make sense? I want to say it right.

Jane: It’s you you’re talking about.

Brakhage: If I had needed to show them “sights,” then presumably I’d have gone to Hollywood.

Jane: You can see how that doesn’t necessarily have to be a very widespread need.

Brakhage: To tell you the truth I don’t even think it’s very important. I don’t think it has much to do with the creative act. We’re back again to talking about what creative forces use, in people, to prompt a man or woman to lend themselves to creativity. You know one of the nicest simple social definitions of an art that I have ever heard came from the brother of Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Oppenheimer. He was a very nervous scientist, who’d suffered particularly because of the things that had happened to his brother, and a very attenuated man. And one day he simply said, “I always think that an art just says: now see this, now hear this.”

Frampton: But you imply an extended and intensified sense of ‘see’ and ‘hear,’ do you not? You have talked about seeing as a registration of the whole electromagnetic spectrum. When you speak about seeing as a metaphoric precedent for coming rain, you extend the sense of seeing to include anything that is light.

Brakhage: But would people say that you could call this light? What about what it is that I see as a pool? What about the streams I see move along the ground, contrary to the wind? What about those things that Wilhelm Reich suggested . . . that I have seen? He sees a certain quality of movement of a glowing particle in the air, billions of glowing particles, that make a little half spiral. And he called this or gone energy, and he tried to use it to cure cancer . . . or at least he tried to see whatever curative effect there might be in it. He’s the only person who referred in writing to something that I was seeing.

Among these particles there’s another quality that looks like light, like a light particle that has a particular movement. I can see it with my eyes open, and with my eyes closed. I see it very intensely in the blue sky when I relax my eyes. It fills that blue with golden movement, and I see the sky as gold. I have performed one of his experiments, that proved to me satisfactorily that it was “out there,” because it would magnify through closed eyes. Now, he refers to it as blue, I do yellow. That’s no problem, blue and yellow being so interchangeable on the optic nerve level. I’m sure, by a simple shift of attention, I could see them blue. I prefer to see them yellow. And at that point people can rush in and say, well, so you prefer to see them yellow, you prefer to see them. You create them, you invent them. But I was seeing them for a long time before I ever read anything by Wilhelm Reich, so here was another voice that sustained me. Some one else was seeing something of some such thing, to put it in a nice Gertrude Stein phrase.

What I ponder on, and what I suppose I’m going to think more about as I get older and older is, why can’t I just make films and stop talking about it? I would be horrified by people who would insist on this system of qualities of light, and derive it from me, and apply it to my films . . . I would be as horrified by that as I was by P. Adams Sitney’s absolute refusal to close his eyes and see if he couldn’t see something that was related to the painting on my film. He made a very strong refusal. It was Jane who put me at peace with that. She said, leave him alone, why does he have to do that? And in the long run that’s safer . . . because the other way leads to a religion. They’ll make a religion out of it.

Frampton: If your own eye insists upon your absolute right to feel different, then it must also confirm the absolute right of others to feel different.

Brakhage: That’s right. Then, the minute P. Adams refused to search for his own hypnagogic vision, we had our next quarrel, which sprang up when I said I am the most thorough documentary film maker in the world because I document the act of seeing as well as everything that the light brings me. And he said nonsense, of course, because he had no fix on the extent to which I was documenting. He and many others are still trying to view me as an imaginative film maker, as an inventor of fantasies or metaphors.

Frampton: You are saying, along with Confucius: “I have added nothing.”

Brakhage: Yes, I have added nothing. I’ve just been trying to see and make a place for my seeing in the world at large, that’s all. And I’ve been permitting myself to be used by some forces that are totally mysterious to me, to accomplish something that satisfies me more than what I thought I was setting out to do.

Art is the reaching out to this phenomenon or light or moving creatures around us—I don’t even know what the hell to call it. I have no name for it. And the extent to which different societies at different times have decided that everyone shares this or that relationship with the world is all some social usage of art, long after the fact of its creating and usually after the fact of the artist’s living. People finally decided, all of them, to see sunsets. Well, what have we left out?

Jane: All the rest.

Brakhage: There’s not too much about specific films. I don’t know that it’s even appropriate to talk about them.

Jane: The list is too long.

Brakhage: I don’t feel that way about them anymore. It doesn’t seem to make much sense.