PRINT Summer 2010


Stan Brakhage

STAN BRAKHAGE’S IMPORTANCE to avant-garde film cannot be overestimated, for this protean creator of some 350 works in a career spanning half a century taught us how to experience—and not just watch—film itself. His aesthetic ambitions were always large: “To search for human visual realities,” he writes in his seminal book Metaphors on Vision (1963), “man must, as in all other homo motivation, transcend the original physical restrictions and inherit worlds of eyes.” For Brakhage, art, in whatever form, makes manifest one’s being in the world, a world that still remains to be discovered.

Criterion has released a second volume of By Brakhage, a companion to the set released in 2003 of twenty-six of the filmmaker’s masterworks, and both volumes will be presented together in Blu-ray. The increased availability of this material serves, one hopes, to expose more and more people to Brakhage’s influential body of work. In the new three-disc box set comprising thirty films, Marilyn Brakhage, the filmmaker’s widow, has included a number of works that, although perhaps not the best known of her husband’s films, are in many respects the most powerful, the most revealing of this artist’s abilities to render his own vision of vision. By Brakhage: Vol. 1 emphasized his more photographic and even allegorical efforts. Though Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Dog Star Man (1961–64), both included in the first volume, are crucial works, much of Brakhage’s later oeuvre reveals the scope of his increasing visual sophistication and his deepening interest in handpainted films and lyricism. Brakhage was always more interested in the poesis of the moving image than the techne of technology, and the new volume gives a broadened view of how Brakhage’s “moving visual thinking” continually developed away from even the loosest dramatic structure, toward a lyrical evocation of the most intense states of subjectivity, as he became increasingly focused on the qualities of film that make it a unique medium.

This new collection of material reveals the full measure of Brakhage’s accomplishments, including some of his most ambitious films—Murder Psalm (1980), the Visions in Meditations series (1989–90), and the antiwar tour de force 23rd Psalm Branch (1967). Even if these works are informed by the heroic sort of image-making that Brakhage inherited from modernism, such efforts are set alongside Boulder Blues and Pearls and . . . (1992), which in its way teaches the viewer how to perceive light itself as a texture. Brakhage juxtaposes handpainted frames with close-ups of snow or branches, with shots of lights seen through rain-wet windows, and even with pure darkness itself, each image revealing itself as constituting and being constituted by complex formal patterns. This transformation of visual information into pure form restores that element of the everyday that most gets overlooked, the sense that the visible grammar of spontaneity and intense emotion that Abstract Expressionism gave us is also present all around us, if our eyes are trained on what we too often forget to see. Boulder Blues is one of the rare occasions in which Brakhage uses music, and its inclusion provides a kind of cohesion, even though the music (composed by Rick Corrigan) is fragmented and discontinuous and is not synced to the images on the screen. Yet with this film the viewer’s eye attunes itself to the possibility that texture itself is a text to be read. Corrigan’s music as counterpoint reveals that the visual forms Brakhage assembles and creates recur in asymmetrical rhythms, legible patterns that become apparent if given the proper attention; yet that sense of form is not an objectivity but an apprehension of how the act of seeing with one’s own eyes bathes everything in a sense of the self. For Brakhage, a self discovers itself in the eye’s contact with resolute particulars.

The real revelation this new volume offers is Chinese Series (2003), Brakhage’s final and perhaps most beautiful work. Just over two minutes in length, it presents a complex tension of white slashes scratched by hand into black leader that call to mind Chinese characters. If the images offer a kind of literary allusion to Ezra Pound (one of Brakhage’s most important influences) and to that poet’s interest in the Chinese ideogram, the film also seems a culmination of Brakhage’s frequent gesture of scratching his name and his films’ titles into the black leader. This act of literally signing his name—the words “by Brakhage” actually being made by Brakhage himself in a way that brings form, content, and action into harmony—humanizes the various films in which he does this by signaling to viewers the presence of the artist in the very materiality of the work. It is tempting to read Chinese Series as some form of self-elegy, as a case of the darkness overwhelming the light that Brakhage made so much out of. Yet this was an artist so deeply committed to wonder that he staked his life on it. Chinese Series stands as a testament to the final act of seeing light amid the darkness by uncovering it through collaboration of the hand and the eye.

In watching Chinese Series or Brakhage’s handpainted films such as the Persian Series (1999–2001) or the transcendent From: First Hymn to the Night—Novalis (1994), it becomes impossible to forget the hand that shaped the images, because one is viewing the labor itself. So much of Brakhage’s work is not about representing a self but about manifesting the experience of being a self made visible through actions. Brakhage’s handpainted films can be seen as literalizing Harold Rosenberg’s description of de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s as “action painters.” In Brakhage’s work, the paintings are no mere traces of the painter’s activities but, indeed, act their actions as they move across the screen—the images, colors, and frames developing as sensible experience over time and through space. Whereas narrative cinema hides labor, Brakhage foregrounds the fact that what is being seen on-screen is a made rather than a found thing. The work on-screen, then, corresponds with work the viewer undertakes as well. Experience begets experience; action produces action.

Even as the technology for screening films in the privacy of one’s own living room continues to develop, the debate about making avant-garde or experimental films accessible in this way gets fiercer and fiercer. Flowing directly from Brakhage’s own aesthetic investments is the important concern about how watching such work outside a theater space shapes one’s experience of the art. Since Brakhage was an artist fully committed to our experiences as insistently embodied beings, the environment for viewing his films—for participating in its demands on the senses—is of paramount importance. With the DVDs, certain filmic aspects are inevitably lost: the whirr of the projector as the reels churn; the shaft of light stabbing from the projector to the screen; the devotional space of the theater; and, finally, the audience itself, brought together by the shared experience of the work at hand. And no matter how beautiful the transfers are, the images are not the same in terms of their surfaces: The digital sheen overwrites the minute, transformative textures unique to celluloid. Still, lamentable as these losses may be, is nothing gained besides increased accessibility?

Although the concern about materiality is one to be reckoned with, watching the discs at home, one notices that, in the absence of the whirring projector and the monastic screening room, the silence of Brakhage’s films attains a Cagean complexity. As Visions in Meditation #1 (1989) plays on the screen, for instance, the viewer’s eyes adjust and readjust to the fluid images and to the camera’s slipping in and out of focus, switching filters; the viewer’s hearing actually becomes sharper and sharper. The traffic on the street, the bird outside the apartment window, a spouse’s voice speaking to a cat all become part of the experience of the work. Watching the films again, not only will the viewer see something different each time as the eyes adjust in different ways, depending on where attention is fixed and on the changing light in the room, but the ear will hear different things as well. As attention hones, experience becomes more and more particularized. Providing these opportunities for revelation was exactly what Brakhage understood the artist’s responsibility to the world to be. To particularize experience is to return a person to the self, to enable a person to reinhabit the body as an individuated perceiving medium, a reality from which we are otherwise wholly abstracted. Brakhage’s work returns us to the experience of having experiences, to the realization that we are always sites for sensations.

Ulla E. Dydo, a close friend of Brakhage’s, writes in her brilliant monograph Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934 (2003), “Reality for her was not separate from the perception and the perceiver of reality. Her portraits are perfect demonstrations of the identity of object and subject, perceiver, perceived, and perception.” This applies to Brakhage as well, in large part because there is probably no greater influence on Brakhage than Stein, at least in terms of thinking of alternatives to narrative sequentiality as the foundation of consciousness. Even if a DVD can never provide the same perceptions open to us as we watch film and encounter its specific materiality, the more fully Brakhage’s films penetrate the world, the more often they become part of the environment in which we live our lives, the more his vision of our human, embodied possibilities fills the dailiness of experience. That Brakhage’s art is film, a medium that is always, whatever else it might be, a negotiation with time, enacts the reality that attentiveness and the awareness of one’s own perceptions are always fleeting, always impermanent, ever in motion. That transience is the source of their tragic limitations, perhaps, but also of their possibility for evoking the conditions of what we might call wonder.

Richard Deming, a lecturer in English at Yale University, is the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford University Press, 2008).