PRINT March 2014


Still from Stan Brakhage’s Tortured Dust, 1984, 16 mm, color, silent, 90 minutes. Bearthm. © Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.

Why should she give birth, though she had worked in a pottery, to an urn, to a stone angel, to the face of a cracked sundial? Why should she be, she screamed, this common clay, this tortured dust?
—Marguerite Young, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

You know that one of my most bothersome habits is that of holding onto the memory of something as remaining the way it was when it isn’t anymore.
—Stan Brakhage1

STAN BRAKHAGE’S 16-mm film Tortured Dust premiered at New York’s Collective for Living Cinema on April 13, 1984, and has received scant attention since. The final “chapter” of the autobiographical cycle Book of the Film, it differs from such entries as Scenes from Under Childhood (1967–70), Sincerity (1973–80), and Duplicity (1978–80) inasmuch as those films’ various parts can be shown independently, whereas the four-part Tortured Dust, Brakhage insisted, must be shown as one ninety-minute movie. It was his last film about the family he raised with his first wife, Jane, in the Rocky Mountains near Boulder, Colorado. The footage was shot years before Brakhage began to edit it, by which time all the children had left home. The film is thus a belated farewell to his children, as well as a poignant, if unsettling, good-bye to the life that had once been a dominant subject of Brakhage’s art. In letters to friends, he spoke of working “slooooooooly” on it for more than three and a half years,2 imagining that he would “never . . . live to complete it.”3 His labors were no doubt torturous under the circumstances. As he told several correspondents, he suffered the equivalent of writer’s block, which made it impossible to photograph anything new for months.4 Given Brakhage’s stature as an artist and the toll this work took on him, the film deserves closer attention.

Its structure is thematic. The first two parts focus on the filmmaker’s teenage sons, Bearthm and Rarc, and their mother, Jane. Part three includes their sisters, Myrrena, Neowyn, and Crystal, and friends. Part four privileges Neowyn, her then husband, Ethan Bartek, and their newborn, Iona. The final luminous image of the film is of this grandchild, a bit older, gazing directly into the camera until the shot fades to light. That sign of the next generation harks back to the opening long shots of the two sons walking up the snowy driveway of the family home. Seen from a distance, their bulky winter clothes and their stride enhanced by slow motion, they seem older. In the context of the mythopoeic Dog Star Man (1961–64), they might even be giants of the earth, but such a notion is dispelled by the film’s tone, and by the theme—growing up and growing away—that resonates throughout. The boys are seen interacting with their mother and engaging in everyday activities—reading, talking, working on a car, breaking up boxes and sawing wood for the fireplace—killing time, it seems, before following their sisters into the world. Edited in the wake of their departure, the film anticipates their absence even as it toils incessantly to prolong their presence.

We might ask why Tortured Dust warrants its title when the quote from which it derives describes the fate of all humanity and would therefore suit any of Brakhage’s autobiographical films. But indeed the title is singularly fitting here, I believe, for the way it both registers and resists loss—especially in the first half—through an obsessive preoccupation with the faces, bodies, and gestures of the filmmaker’s sons. The consciousness of mortality that besets any parent when offspring achieve independence haunts the work. Yet the Brakhage children are not only creatures fated to die, like all human beings; they are also, like the potter’s creations, objects of their progenitor’s art. However enduring that art may be, this creative “use” of the children would almost certainly have had incalculably damaging effects, if only because the line between the attentive parent and the dedicated artist was confused.5 Brakhage’s relentless focus on his sons in Tortured Dust, particularly his apparent indifference to their privacy, suggests that he was either oblivious to, or in denial of, the toll his art took on their upbringing. Is the film, then, the final manifestation of a tyrannical impulse, unconsciously driven to bare, at last, its darkest strains?

In a moving letter to his son-in-law written in the spring of 1983, Brakhage mentions many debilitating losses, and in a postscript says, “you [sic] so much in my thoughts these days, especially as the film footage of your and Neowyn’s wedding, and of Iona the ONLY hope I have to break ‘Tortured Dust’ out into a FULL FILM, i.e. one which counter-balances the, otherwise, unbearable tensions of Part I, the desperations of Part II.”6 While providing insight into the film’s structure, this passage suggests that Brakhage was uncomfortable with letting the first two parts stand alone. But aside from a brief scene of the boys bickering over their wood-sawing duties—a spat Rarc recalls his father was eager to film as an example of how the brothers got along in their sisters’ absence7—we see no signs of “unbearable tensions” or “desperations” in the film. We can only assume that such feelings must have tormented the filmmaker as he edited his material. Indeed, the more one examines the film within the emotional and factual context of its making, the more it seems a portrait of a man deeply conflicted over the nature and quality of his parental affections.

Still from Stan Brakhage’s Tortured Dust, 1984, 16 mm, color, silent, 90 minutes. Stan Brakhage. © Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.

Throughout the first two parts, the camera often blurs the boundaries between family and private spaces, its omniscience slightly mitigated by doorways, room dividers, or fishbowls that frame Jane and the boys in smaller rectangles of light. Outdoor views are few, and they are gleaned mostly through windows. Exchanges between the boys or with their mother seem free of tension despite the constricted spaces where they are filmed. In shots of Rarc lolling on his mother’s bed for a chat, both are bathed in the warmth of morning light. In one passage, edited almost in the classic manner, shots of Bearthm in a doorway speaking to his mother offscreen are crosscut with shots of her looking back, the flow between them allowed to unfold, as if the filmmaker with his tensions felt out of place.

When the father-as-outsider films from another room or from behind a partition as his sons talk and laugh at the dining table or elsewhere, we sense an effort to feign distance. There has always been a voyeuristic aspect to Brakhage’s “home movies,” but in Tortured Dust this feature is difficult to disentangle from a powerful sense of loss. It may be this uneasy fusion that the filmmaker unconsciously divined when he spoke of tensions and desperations. Perhaps he felt excluded, as any father might, from the moments shared by the brothers or by mother and son. Arguably, the tensions he speaks of affected the internal rhythms of the film, just as the prolonged shots of his sons—symptoms of his “habit” of holding on to memories of things?—probably compromised its formal structure. Even his propensity, inspired by Gertrude Stein, “to let images recur in such a manner that there was no sense of repetition” but a “retracing of phrases” that “gradually move forward”8 is less evident here. As a result, Tortured Dust is less dynamically edited than previous films and seems more like an endless projection of an obsessive state of mind.

An avid reader of Freud, Brakhage could not have been unaware that aggressive and erotic feelings toward one’s children, particularly during their adolescence, are neither unusual nor unnatural, the residue, in fact, of every parent’s own adolescent emotional and sexual development. He was an exhaustive documentarian of his life, and Tortured Dust no doubt represented his last opportunity to allow those feelings to surface, however tentatively, vis-à-vis his adolescent sons. Having filmed the most intimate aspects of his own life—from the masturbatory fantasy of Flesh of Morning (1956) to the Sexual Meditation films of the ’70s—he was apparently blind to his children’s right to privacy. Although they were accustomed to the camera’s constant presence and flattered by attention from their famous father,9 it is unlikely they were entirely comfortable being filmed dressing and undressing in their bedrooms. The “unbearable tensions” of which Brakhage spoke may reflect vague intuitions of his sons’ discomfort, but the phrase could also describe his struggle with unwanted feelings and his simultaneous determination to be truthful to his art. Thus, while shots of Bearthm through a birdcage connote both domestic imprisonment and the teenage urge to flee, the bars themselves may well reflect the filmmaker’s unconscious sense of the transgressive nature of the paternal gaze.

During the time Brakhage was editing Tortured Dust—his children gone, his marriage imperiled, his life seemingly doomed to loneliness—he could not have known what the future held. If working on the film was an attempt to assuage a longing to have everything back in place, it was also a masochistic indulgence—for to contemplate the youth and physical vitality of his sons could only have highlighted his fears of imminent infirmity. He was already having intimations of what might have been, given who he was, the most critical loss of all: his sight. Yet the compulsion to revisit this invasive footage—filmed with an eye no less envious than admiring—torturing himself in the process, can be understood, in part, in light of memories recalled in the unpublished “Brakhage’s Childhood.”10 Covering his life up to age twelve, the manuscript reveals psychological and sexual conflicts that evidently continued to plague him, and that probably account for the tense dynamics between father and sons played out in Tortured Dust.

In “Brakhage’s Childhood,” we read of the shame young Stanley felt about his body. He was weak, asthmatic, overweight, nonathletic, and burdened with a hernia, held in by a truss but often bulging out from behind a testicle and causing embarrassment. Thanks to the apparent neglect of his adoptive mother, none of his health issues were properly treated. He compared his “pathetic” physical condition to the fitter, more attractive boys at camp and school, and when one of them befriended him, his spirits were buoyed. He idealized such figures, likening them to Jack Armstrong, the “all-American boy” of the old radio serial, and envied their self-composure and camaraderie. Drudging all this up for others to read indicated his need either to put these humiliating experiences behind him or to use them to explain feelings with which he could not otherwise cope. These memories were no doubt painfully revived as he watched his sons grow into embodiments of the figures that haunted his preadolescence, eliciting affection and pride as much as envy and resentment.

Still from Stan Brakhage’s Tortured Dust, 1984, 16 mm, color, silent, 90 minutes. Rarc and Jane Brakhage. © Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.

From the first, slow-motion shot of the two boys, Tortured Dust captures their spirit, their rapport, and their forthright physical demeanors. Their closeness, which no doubt pleased their father, may also have stung the adopted child who lacked siblings and a comparable home life. His adoptive father left his mother to live with a man, and his mother’s relationships with other men often required that the young Stanley live with other families. Shots of Bearthm and Rarc interacting reverberate with the boys’ impending departure, but these images also underline their father’s loneliness, past and present. And though the shots in the sons’ bedrooms are intrusive, they also suggest Brakhage’s need to revel in the beauteous affirmations of what he, the once “repugnant,” unattractive boy, had produced. Hence, the sons’ budding physical and sexual potency must have been both reassuring and anguishing.

While Rarc superficially resembles photos of the older Brakhage in these shots, he looks and acts nothing like young Stanley, overcome with humiliation. And while Bearthm probably evoked boys idealized in “Brakhage’s Childhood,” close-ups reveal a sensitive, vulnerable mien. Unlike his less self-conscious brother, Bearthm occasionally casts fleeting, not entirely filial glances toward the camera. The filmmaker’s fixation at such moments, induced by the irresistible lure and, paradoxically, untenable torment of narcissistic obsession, perhaps prevented him from seeing past the resurgent ideal to the son who unwittingly embodied it. Despite the filmmaker’s satisfaction in having fathered such a child, the classic Oedipal conflict between father and son was apparently exacerbated by Bearthm’s strong resemblance to Jane’s brother, the poet Jack Collom, of whom Brakhage was known to be jealous.11 Indeed, his eagerness to capture tension between the brothers intimates his need to find a way to displace his rivalry with a son and a brother-in-law onto a “normal” sibling rivalry between his sons. Tortured dust, indeed.

A striking passage in the film, deftly conveying the narcissism of adolescence, further complicates the father-son dynamic. Medium shots of Bearthm before a mirror, slowly brushing his hair, are crosscut with a death mask of the poet Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five. This juxtaposition of “youth and beauty” with the specter of death seems especially cruel. Is the father moved by his helplessness to protect his son from an inevitable fate? Or is he angered by yet another confrontation with the elusive ideal of his childhood and moved to undermine its power to inflict psychic injury? No doubt both responses are at play, held in what must have been unbearable tension.

THE FIRST HALF of Tortured Dust ends with the filmmaker shooting his own image in a mirror. Because these shots have the effect of sealing off the preceding material from the rest of the film, it is possible that Brakhage intended to end here and later changed his mind. At any rate, the third part of Tortured Dust initially registers a shift to a more casual mood with its shots of Brakhage’s daughters conversing with guests. Though one can glimpse both sons here and there in this interaction, they are predominantly filmed asleep throughout this section, some shots of them suffused with a reddish hue and photographed upside down—techniques Brakhage sometimes used to suggest the dream state. They recall the sleeping children in Anticipation of the Night (1958), a film made before Brakhage had children. One critic linked that work to the filmmaker’s “doomed quest for an absolutely authentic, renewed, and untutored vision,”12 which ends with the fictive suicide of the protagonist. In this context, the shots of the sleeping sons in Tortured Dust are heartbreakingly tender, revealing the protective, more knowing father, who, savoring their glow of innocence, segregates these images from the worldly ones with which they are crosscut. Just as the filmmaker had dust motes float magically over Bearthm in part two, here he suspends both boys in the make-believe time and space of dreams, not only to prevent their growing up but to shield them from his angry, less than innocent feelings, thereby perhaps putting his own anguish to rest and—not least—sustaining the impossible wish to achieve that “untutored vision.”

Extending that enveloping aura to the film’s fourth and final part, Brakhage intercuts black or bright monochromatic frames with shots of Neowyn nursing her baby, a recurring image that allays the film’s tensions. Conjuring the circle of life, it insistently asserts the maternal theme, leading to the reintroduction of Jane. Previously, she was seen in bright light, crocheting—an image befitting her significance in Brakhage’s work as the unifying figure in the family. Here, she fills the frame and looks directly at her husband behind the camera, but through a grayish filter. If this veiled image hints at the emotional distance between them at the time, it also contrasts with subsequent shots of Jane tending geese, crosscut with shots of Neowyn nursing.

Still from Stan Brakhage’s Tortured Dust, 1984, 16 mm, color, silent, 90 minutes. Bearthm. © Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.

In light of the dense textures of Brakhage’s films, it is not surprising that he would be drawn to Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965), a novel he returned to again and again. He exchanged numerous letters with friends about it and dedicated Tortured Dust to its author, whom he called “the greatest living prose writer.”13 No less than Brakhage’s editing style, Young’s byzantine prose with its endless repetitions and variations serving an ever-receding narrative goal also owes something to Gertrude Stein. And just as Young’s slight shifts and nuances of phrasing are easy to miss as they inch the “action” forward, Brakhage’s tendency toward repetitive, near-invisible filmic phrases suits the subliminal aspects of Tortured Dust’s family dynamics.

But beyond the novel’s compositional style, there is a key episode that may have inspired Brakhage to make Tortured Dust a revelatory text that would ultimately have as important an impact on the sons and daughters of his first marriage as Young’s episode has on her fourteen-year-old protagonist, Vera, whose very name implies “truth” and who comes of age in the wake of shocking discoveries about a figure she believed larger than life. At the dazzling climax of the episode, her image of Miss MacIntosh as the model of beauty, femininity, and maternal instincts is shattered when she unexpectedly comes upon the woman, shorn of the magnificent head of hair that symbolized these qualities. Bald, her sexual identity rendered ambiguous, Miss MacIntosh stands before Vera equally startled. “We are always bald when we are robbed of our illusions,”14 Vera later remarks, which seems to conflate her awakening with the fallen dignity of Miss MacIntosh, bereft not only of her hair but of her carefully honed self-image, sustained in part by Vera’s idealization.

There is a strong probability that this fictional incident spoke powerfully to Brakhage at the time he was editing Tortured Dust, possibly impelling him to face uncomfortable truths about himself as a husband and father. Though there is no scene in the film as overt in its intention as Young’s episode, the film’s obsessions, along with the tensions and desperations that afflicted Brakhage while making it, suggest he was struggling toward finding a way of revealing unpleasant things about himself to those he loved—particularly to the adolescent sons in his film, but also to the daughters he raised before them. Nevertheless, however much he may have wished to leave a cinematic testament to his personal torments, his behavioral excesses, and his failures as a father, it seems he was incapable of owning these flaws in a fully conscious way and of withstanding the collapse of his idealized self that would necessarily have ensued.

Hence the truth of his art was not always compatible with the performance of his life. Some time after the release of the film, Brakhage unleashed what may have been his least mitigated rage against his adoptive mother, calling her, in a letter to friends, that “evil,” “corrupt puss of selfishness” who nearly destroyed the “nervous system of the greatest living visionary [i.e., the filmmaker himself].”15 Though countless letters from her reveal crippling inadequacies and self-indulgence, his egoism here suggests how convenient she was for displacing his own selfishness and failures as a parent onto this desperately insecure creature who had so damaged him.

Perhaps the inner torments and traumatic life changes that stalked the making of Tortured Dust prevented it from becoming one of Brakhage’s major aesthetic achievements. After completing the film, he confessed to having a strong feeling of “exhaustion with old forms.”16 But it is precisely because Tortured Dust exhibits psychological rawness, unchecked narcissism, emotional vulnerability, and displaced eroticism that it remains an invaluable expression of an artist whose intuitive impulses as a filmmaker allowed his work to seize truths that he could not consciously fathom or tolerate. This is consistent with what he believed to be the revelatory power of cinema. Neowyn said that often, while watching one of his films, her father would remark in surprise at an image, a feeling, a connection that struck him as unforeseen, more honest, more truthful than he could have known it would be when he made it.17 Such was the paradox of a man whose genius grasped and trusted the percipient power of his chosen art form even in the face of his inner demons.

Tortured Dust is screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York on March 28.

Tony Pipolo, a practicing psychoanalyst, is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Still from Stan Brakhage’s Tortured Dust, 1984, 16 mm, color, silent, 90 minutes. Jane. © Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper.


My thanks to Jane Wodening, P. Adams Sitney, Brad Arnold, and Don Yannacito for their generosity, guidance, and assistance, and to Myrrena Schwegmann, Neowyn Bartek, and Rarc Brakhage for their memories and insights. At Marilyn Brakhage’s request, Canyon Cinema generously provided the 16-mm print from which Fred Camper struck the stills that appear in these pages. The letters quoted here may be found in the James Stanley Brakhage Collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

1. Letter to Robert Duncan and Jess Collins, somedate eve [sic] [1954], reprinted in “Stan Brakhage: Correspondences,” special issue, Chicago Review, Winter 2001/Spring 2002, 11.

2. Brakhage refers to his “slow” progress in many letters, but its protracted spelling is found in a letter to Bruce Baillie, July 16, 1983.

3. Letter to Leslie Trumbull, March 4, 1984.

4. See, for example, letter to Sally Dixon and Ricardo Block, December 3, 1984; letter to James Herbert, November 24, 1984.

5. This assessment in no way implies agreement on the part of the five children mentioned, some of whom no doubt would disagree.

6. Letter to Ethan Bartek, June 2, 1983.

7. Rarc Brakhage, in conversation with the author, January 2014.

8. P. Adams Sitney, introduction to Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision (New York: Film Culture, 1963), unpaginated; Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 163.

9. Both Bearthm and Rarc acknowledge this, the former in Jim Shedden’s documentary Brakhage (1998), the latter in conversation with the author, January 2014.

10. Dictated to Jane Brakhage, who turned it into masterful prose, “Brakhage’s Childhood” was excerpted as “The Autobiography of Stan Brakhage” and published in Motion Picture, Winter/Spring 1987. Jane [Brakhage] Wodening plans to publish the complete manuscript.

11. Jane Wodening, in conversation with the author, January 2014.

12. Sitney, Visionary Film, 165.

13. Letter to Howard Guttenplan, March 26, 1985.

14. Marguerite Young, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1979), 245.

15. Letter to Mimi Brav, July 31, 1984.

16. Letter to Christopher McCabe and Mimi Brav, July 20, 1983.

17. Neowyn Bartek, in conversation with the author, September 2013.