by Steve Polta
Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) was easily the most prolific filmmaker in the medium’s history. With nearly 400 films created during 50 years of activity, he is recognized (especially in the field of “avant-garde” or “experimental” filmmaking) as one of the medium’s most significant and influential practitioners. While two very impressive multi-disc DVD sets have been issued on the Criterion imprint and include over 50 works, public screenings of Brakhage’s work are few and far between.
For a body of work so concerned with the physical nature of light and its direct perception, the viewing of Brakhage’s work on film is essential to an appreciation of his aesthetic. For this reason it is commendable that Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ film curator Joel Shepard chose to present the series Brakhage! Brakhage! Brakhage! at this time, providing as it does a brief introduction (or possibly re-introduction) to a selection of 17 of the artist’s films.
In Stan Brakhage’s emphatically poetic writings he expressed desire for an intimate form of personally expressive cinema which would grow from bodily experience and embody a worldview based on subjective experiences of visuality; on personal memory, fantasy and metaphor; and on direct non-linguistic encounter with objects of perception. Above all, Brakhage was a poet of light, of light as tool for expressive filmmaking but also of light as the holy suspended medium supporting all existence and as the spiritual origin of all matter, and of consciousness itself. These approaches to filmmaking are best articulated in the works in YBCA’s first program, “Self and Other.” This collection of five films also demonstrates another major concern of Brakhage’s—that of the filmmaker as documenter, chronicler and poet of his own daily life. This generally introspective body of work is concerned with developing a subjective form of visual poetry based on the amateur (home movie) aesthetic derived from the artist’s dailiness and from the lives and experiences of members of his family, a filmic depiction of the artist’s life in poetic and epic terms. (This aesthetic approach is articulated in Brakhage’s A Motion Picture Giving and Taking Book. Originally published in 1971 by Frontier Press and notoriously hard to come by, A Motion Picture Giving and Taking Book is reprinted in its entirety in Essential Brakhage, Bruce A. MacPherson, ed., published by MacPherson Publishers 2001.) Films of this period take as subject matter the rhythms of life, with notable attention paid to the births, development and socialization of his children. Two works which exemplify this approach to filmmaking are Star Garden (1974) and Soldiers and Other Cosmic Objects (1976), with Scenes from Under Childhood, part 1 (1967, screened in program two) providing perhaps its most significant expression.
Of the films on this program, Star Garden most significantly fuses Brakhage’s twin filmmaking concerns of light and of poetic documentation of life and family. Opening with time-lapse footage of the sun and moon arcing across the sky, the film’s first drama is the uncanny solidification of light, achieved through the inversion of positive and negative film imagery. When depicted in positive, the home seems welcoming, with warm light caressing bookshelves, a staircase, bedrooms and blankets. In negative rendering, light mysteriously takes form as a dense, growing and breathing presence. As portraiture, the film depicts the Brakhage children as dreamers, suspended in a world of glowing light. Throughout, Brakhage’s interest seems to veer toward the appreciation of light in motion, signaling its own primacy as well as the passing of time. Toward the end of the film, the children venture out of the home and stage rituals of play and pageantry.
While Star Garden depicts the domestic life of the Brakhage family largely in isolation from the exterior world, Soldiers and Other Cosmic Objects (1976) is largely concerned with the children’s experience and navigation of the larger social world. Consisting of a series of short contrasting vignettes, the film begins with the warm depiction of a home’s interior in which a child arranges toy figurines into grid-like military arrangement. These and other domestic scenes are contrasted with scenes of grade school plays, school assemblies and the like. These latter scenes include teacher / principal authority types conducting proceedings and include images of concentrating children, equally serious, uncomfortable and conforming to social pressure. Sadly, a film unknown to me, Jane (1985), a portrait of Jane Brakhage, was unavailable for preview. The Canyon Cinema catalog description (composed by Brakhage) is however evocative of these themes: “Someone said to me, of this film, that it was really about light; but Jane (who takes it as a portrait—i.e., sees herself in it) said: ‘you gave me the moon and seven stars.’ ”
Nightmare Series (1978) seems to elaborate this sense of greater social anxiety in its dark series of sequences. In these, Brakhage depicts vaguely spectacular public encounters (a carnival juggler; an on-location film shoot) as occasions of fear and dread. Later in the film, domestic animals squabble; the desperation of a rat in a running ball becomes palpable. Less harrowing, the five-part Short Films: 1976 (1976) is a collection of brief portraits of family and friends which opens with a short interior landscape in which domestic plants and pets are cradled in a soft bed of light.
As a gesture of promoting the centrality of vision, sight and the visual to his aesthetic, the vast majority of Stan Brakhage’s films are silent. While some of Brakhage’s sound films engage in dialog with other more “formalist” filmmakers with works of 20th century avant-garde music, the films included in YBCA’s program “Sound Films” however are engaged with issues of speech, poetry, sync-sound filmmaking and narrative. Not surprisingly for such an engaged aestheticist, each film in this program seems to embody questions regarding the appropriateness of sound filmmaking as a practice.
Blue Moses (1962) stands out in this regard. Presented as if from an existentialist monologue, an actor appears—in dramatic and menacing stage makeup, “as himself,” and at times as something of a wizard—as if conjured. Emerging from a cave to wander a rocky black and white landscape, Brakhage’s Moses addresses the audience with such lines as: “Look. This is ridiculous. I am an actor.” “You are my captive audience.” before lapsing into morose doubt pondering the existence of the filmmaker / conjuror behind the spectacle. Like a sad clown in a Beckett play, Benson strips off his makeup and laments the futility of drama even as the camera keeps rolling. The inclusion of a clapper bar, the film’s use of repetition, layered sound and rephotography, along with Brakhage’s vibrant camerawork, argue for a richer possibility for film form beyond clumsy (if charming) dialogic explanation.
Another major work in this program—Scenes from Under Childhood, part one (1967)—continues Brakhage’s interest in depicting the life experiences of his own children and exploring acculturation, socialization and pre-linguistic consciousness that so fascinated and obsessed him, as discussed above. Indeed, the opening sections of Scenes … are generally understood to represent the first-person experience of birth, with the film emerging from a cloud of warm red which flickers and gives way eventually to an impressionistic cascade of inchoate and defocused compositions. Soon, the newborn baby is surrounded by superimpositions of family, other children, animals and abstract defocused color. As in Star Garden , the use of negative film imagery suggests a solidity of light as well as suggesting the existence of a mysterious overseeing presence. As if to affirm this interpretation, this films soundtrack—consisting of uncannily intermittent tape-manipulated sounds resembling abstract growls and howls—seems to suggest both an overseeing presence and a void. Brakhage considered the soundtrack to this film (the only section in the longer Scenes from Under Childhood series to feature a soundtrack) to be something of an experiment. He preferred it be screened silent but allowed a sound print into distribution as an option, making this screening a rare opportunity.
In contrast to this sonic abstraction, The Stars Are Beautiful (1976) consists of a series of clearly articulated yet laconic assertions of creation myths—variously poetic, romantic and absurd—conceived of and recited (off camera) by Brakhage. Each myth concerns the relationship of the sun, the moon and the stars to the celestial firmament and to the formation of consciousness. The whimsy, contradiction and variety of these postulations suggest an uncertainty and a desire to explain and describe things that are beyond the known. Similarly, accompanying footage appears as a cataloged assembly of mundane yet powerfully allegorical shots. Notably the recurrence of an image of a bland nail head in a wall becomes a surrogate sun and moon. Against these recitations and metaphorical cutaways is juxtaposed footage of Brakhage’s wife Jane and several of their children (wearing very concerned expressions) clipping the wings of a chicken and speaking on camera in sync with the imagery. This awkwardly composed footage feels uncomfortably grounded and suggests an earthbound captivity in contrast with the spacey speculations of Brakhage’s fantastic projections.
The fourth film in this program, 1965’s Fire of Waters similarly contrasts earth with the heavens, presenting a generic suburban landscape as if under attack from a lightning storm accompanied by synthetic electronic sounds evoking a landscape of horror and dread.
In his writings on the aesthetics of his filmmaking (for example, again, in Metaphors On Vision), Stan Brakhage frequently described his quest to make work which would embody the mind’s process of “moving visual thinking,” a visionary state which would include fantasy and remembrance along with documentation and would also express the physicality of the experience of vision itself. While this is evidenced throughout Brakhage’s oeuvre, it finds it purest expression in his very large body of (mostly) silent abstract works created through working directly on the surface of film itself. While the first two programs in this series include works depicting Brakhage’s relationship to the exterior world of light, family and society, the films in the third program, “Hand-Painted Films,” represent this interest in painterly abstraction and represents a very short catalog to expressive diversity of aspect of Brakhage’s work.
These hand-painted films work directly on viewers’ nervous systems. Each presents as an unstoppable barrage of ever changing visual experience. For their durations they encourage (nearly force) viewers to suspend analysis and interpretation in favor of their direct and open experience. Some of the works seems metaphorically alive. For example, Spring Cycle (1995)—something of a tour de force of abstraction, with frenzied fluttering of painted color intercut with flickering solid frames seems to evoke the spirit of something desperately alive. Visual “zooms” into layered imagery suggest concentration of thought or a dawning awareness. Similarly, The Lion and the Zebra Make Gods Raw Jewels , in its rich and bloody clash of biomorphic forms, suggests a primal animality and an abstracted struggle for life.
Against these rich and body-bound works, other films in this program seem to ascend toward a spiritual sublime. Cloud Chamber (1999) is an exercise in overexposure in which applied coagulations of color float behind a fog of light, just beyond the viewer’s apprehension. Stately Mansions Did Decree , which achieves an uncanny color palette through reverse polarity printing, presents a cascading flow of frames evoking stained glass and an abstraction of architecture, of the interior life of matter. Autumnal (1993), with hints of symmetry, optical zooms and recurring fades-to-black, musically evokes a seasonal darkening. These shorter works are followed by the more immersive, epic and episodic Seasons (2002), created in collaboration with filmmaker Phil Solomon.
Consisting entirely of abstract visual experiences, the films in this final program lend themselves least to interpretation and description. As a filmmaker who strove to express experiences and philosophies beyond the restrictions of linguistic interpretation, the difficulty of this articulation is testament to their achievement.
In closing, it is notable that each and every one of Brakhage’s films is notably tactile. His films are permeated with a softness of image and a warm lack of precision. In this, Brakhage’s photographed films take on a distant mythic quality, with hand-held camera work contributing to a sense of humanity and testifying to their maker’s identity as a seeking, inquiring and exploring being equally fascinated by the world—its visual surfaces and the uncertainties beneath—and frightened by its uncanny unknowability. Similarly, the very quality of Brakhage’s work with sound contributes to a similarly charming hand-craftedness. It is a testament to Brakhage’s commitment to the amateur aesthetic that such visual and auditory “imperfections” become integral elements to the experience and appreciation of these works.
The sheer volume of Brakhage’s output makes a full appreciation of the artist’s entire work daunting and logistically difficult. Recent DVD releases have done much to rectify this but still only scratch the surface of Brakhage’s prolific output. And while these video releases present the work beautifully, home viewing is nothing like the experience of viewing these works in their overwhelming, overpowering, visually aggressive, celebratory and unstoppable glory. YBCA’s series Brakhage! Brakhage! Brakhage! therefore presents a rare privilege to become briefly immersed in this work.
Steve Polta is a San Francisco taxi driver, a filmmaker, occasional writer and occasional historian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the Archivist and Artistic Director of the San Francisco Cinematheque. He is a recent contributor to INCITE! Journal of Experimental Media and Radical Light: Artists Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area: 1945–2000. A retrospective of his films will be screened at the Black Hole Cinematheque in Oakland on August, 12, 2014.