PRINT September 2003


Stan Brakhage

STAN BRAKHAGE’S DEATH at seventy, on March 9, 2003, marked the end of the most astonishing career in the 108-year history of the cinema. For fifty years Brakhage released up to a dozen new works every year without a break, so that he leaves a filmography with some four hundred titles. In his artistic practice and in the themes of his films he was an Emersonian vitalist, a legacy he inherited through the poets Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan. But in the end he moved from being a celebrant of the aesthetic creed of the American Orpheus, and from a self-consciously Spinozist position as a critic of religion as power, to professing the Christianity of his Dickensian childhood as an adopted orphan. His funeral took place in an Episcopal church.

Brakhage’s creative energies and his cinematic inventiveness were Promethean. He filmed two epic cycles, Dog Star Man (1961–64) and the Faust series (1987–89); poetic documentaries of the police (Eyes [1971]), open-heart surgery (Deus Ex [1971]), and autopsies (The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes [1971]); films of the births of the first five of his seven children (Window Water Baby Moving [1959], Thigh Line Lyre Triangular [1961], Dog Star Man, Part 2 [1964], Bluewhite [1965], and Song 5 [1964]); and a massive autobiography that includes, among many individual films, four entire cycles (Scenes from Under Childhood [1967–70], The Weir-Falcon Saga [1970], Sincerity [1973–80], and Duplicity [1978–80]). He made perhaps a dozen films on the behavior and the deaths of his extensive menagerie of pets. (His first wife, Jane—now Jane Wodening—eventually added goats, a donkey, and chickens to their more conventional assemblage of dogs, cats, and birds.) Several of his films cast critical and analytical light on common social practices and sign systems by making them extraordinarily strange: basketball (Western History [1971]), a wedding (Song 9 [1965]), a school play (Soldiers and Other Cosmic Objects [1977]), a cemetery (The Dead [1960]), a Christmas ballet (Christ Mass Sex Dance, [1991]), television (Oh Life—A Woe Story—The A Test News [1963]; Murder Psalm [1981]), Native American ruins (Visions in Meditation #2: Mesa Verde [1990]).

Brakhage virtually invented and singularly dominated the characteristic genre of American avant-garde cinema: the crisis film, that lyric articulation of the moods and observations of the filmmaker, following a rhythmical association of images without a predetermined scenario or enacted drama. Since the early ’60s he handpainted on film so elaborately that he brought that way of filmmaking, at least as old as Len Lye’s work in the mid-’30s, to new profundities. It became the predominant process of his filmmaking in the ’90s. Perhaps a quarter of his oeuvre was made without using a camera.

Brakhage could never stop making films. At his poorest, when he couldn’t afford a roll of film, he collected leaves and the wings of dead moths in his in-laws’ house and in a Denver theater where he, his wife Jane, and their three children were living rent free. He sandwiched this organic matter in rhythmic patterns between layers of transparent, sprocketed editing tape to make his gorgeous Mothlight (1963). That was far from the only time dire necessity drove him to creative invention. A year or so later, when his 16 mm equipment was stolen from his car in New York, he purchased a used 8 mm camera and embarked on the remarkable lyric sequence of what turned out to be thirty Songs (1964–69). He may have initiated that series to prove that sophisticated film art could be made with the simplest, cheapest means, but as he progressed his 8 mm films became more complicated and, consequently, more expensive to print. His intricate, multipart response to the Vietnam War, 23rd Psalm Branch (1966–67), may well be the most complex film ever constructed in 8 mm.

His passion for work may be what felled him. In 1996, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, his doctors believed it was caused by the dyes with which he had been handpainting films for years. He photographed Self Song/Death Song (1997) in the midst of chemotherapy. When cancer returned in 2002, this time to his bones, he painted Panels for the Walls of Heaven, which has been shown at several of the memorial benefits to cover his final medical costs. In his last days in Victoria, British Columbia, where he had just recently moved with his second wife, Marilyn Jull, and their two children, he made two more short films, a photographed portrait of his room, Stan’s Window, and The Chinese Series, which he scratched with his fingernails onto black leader.

Amid this extraordinary outpouring of films, he also published six substantial books, several chapbooks, and left at least two more volumes in manuscript. Only Essential Brakhage (Documentext, 2001), a compendium of his five previous volumes, was in print when he died, but the same publisher has just issued Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker, a volume of the pieces Brakhage wrote in the ’90s for Musicworks. In his first, and most influential, theoretical discourse, Metaphors on Vision (1963), Brakhage had insisted “I’m thru writing, thru writing.” He did actually give up writing, even his passionate correspondence, several times in his life, but he always returned to it with renewed vigor.

The center of Brakhage’s theoretical discourse was always the poetics of vision. In his later formulations, he used the phrase “moving visual thinking” to denote the incessant moiling of the optical matrices that ground all acts of seeing (even in sleep), which he repeatedly insisted are prior to and beyond the reach of language. His first dramatic act of artistic self-incarnation, at the age of seventeen, was to throw away his glasses. Here’s what he told interviewer Scott MacDonald:

One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said, “Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn’t even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head.” . . . I wasn’t trying to invent new ways of being a filmmaker, that was just a byproduct of my struggle to come to a sense of sight.

For Brakhage the greatness of cinema was its capability of registering a mimesis of eye movements as no other art before it could. In fact, the entire Brakhage project was a monumental record of artistic seeing of the experiences of daily life. He was of a generation of filmmakers who took the metaphor “film poetry” seriously, sometimes even literally. Of his many elective mentors among the modernist poets Gertrude Stein stands out. He never ceased reading her and proclaiming her influence on his oeuvre.

The first films that suggested to him that cinema, rather than poetry (his first vocation), might be his métier were those of Jean Cocteau, Sergei Eisenstein, and Orson Welles. But Brakhage was more deeply influenced by the filmmakers he sought out in person, especially Joseph Cornell (for whom he photographed two films) and Marie Menken. He was generally disdainful of the European masters who were his contemporaries until he discovered the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. An ardent supporter of all the major American avant-garde filmmakers who preceded him, he was an equally tireless advocate for younger filmmakers. But of the three contemporaries who seriously challenged his preeminence—Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and Michael Snow—only Snow lived long enough to see Brakhage’s hostility turn to warmth.

Brakhage’s polemics underwent a dramatic shift in tone after his second marriage. In the quarter century of his life with Jane and their five children, she had been the central figure of his films. The dissolution of that marriage in the late ’80s led Brakhage in despair back to the psychodramas of his first films and his early efforts at mythopoeia with a series of four films on the Faust theme. He even began making sound films with young collaborators, as he had done at the start of his career.

When he proposed marriage to Marilyn Jull, she told him she and any children they might have would not be the subject of his films. Characteristically, Brakhage turned the prohibition against filming the second family into a source of creative energy. Several of the most powerful photographic films of his last period record quests to evoke the spirit of Marilyn or to recapture something of her past by studying the landscapes and sites where she grew up: Marilyn’s Window (1988), A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea (1991), The Mammals of Victoria (1994), The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000).

Brakhage had a dramatic presence, with mesmerizing eyes and a powerful voice. An incorrigible mythomane, he told fabulous, seductive tales and obsessively made his agonies, his humor, his confessions, his spellbinding accounts of the lives and work of other artists, his startling poetic expressions the center of all attention. The mythomania was contagious; those who knew him perpetuated it.

As charismatic and attractive as he was in his generous moods, he was terrible in his outbursts of volcanic temper. He firmly believed that his creativity was a state, like possession, that came over him, a trance in which he was servant of a Muse. And he treated his explosive anger as his creativity’s divine counterpart, or “holy rage,” as he called it. Most of his friends learned to negotiate these tempers, but I failed. I had been very close to him from the time we met, when I was sixteen and he twenty-eight. But after nine years I could no longer bear the rages, which seemed to increase in vehemence. After an outburst in 1969, we never spoke or met again, although he made overtures every few years. Finally, almost thirty years later, he wrote me a note of thanks for the effusive account of his importance I had given in Jim Shedden’s documentary Brakhage (1998), and then we exchanged letters every few months. His last arrived a week after his death. It was a moving valediction that he had dictated to Marilyn in the hospital.

He weathered the fluctuations of his reputation, but he chronically suffered from insufficient financial support to keep filming, print finished films, and preserve older ones. In the ’70s and ’80s he came under attack from Lacanians for his insistence on a mode of vision beyond language, from feminists for his celebration of the nuclear family, from Marxists for his Emersonian doctrine of self-reliance. His appetite for fierce polemical controversy exacerbated the attacks. In the ’90s his audience returned and spread to Paris, London, and Tokyo; a new generation of filmmakers and viewers discovered the richness of his oeuvre, and they found in his public appearances and personal exchanges with them the patient, tolerant, and generous artist Stan Brakhage had become.

P. Adams Sitney is professor of visual arts at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002).