I learned tonight that filmmaker Stan Brakhage died this past Sunday, March 9th, in British Columbia, Canada. He was 70 years old.
I don’t know how many of my readers here are familiar with this artist, nor have had the chance to see even one of the nearly 400 films he made in almost 50 years of filmmaking. I consider myself lucky that I’ve had the chance to see somewhere around 75 of those 400 films. I can still remember the first time I ever saw a Brakhage film, indeed the first time ever that I saw films that didn’t conform in any way to the narrative plotting I had been spoonfed up until then. It was a program of experimental films being screened at the London Filmmakers Cooperative, in April of 1986. It would be apocryphal to say that seeing my first Brakhage film was an epiphany — indeed, I can’t remember exactly which film it was, although I’m fairly sure it was the sublime Mothlight — but it was part of an evening that did change my life.
Reading about his death and the last days of his life (see links at the top of this page), I felt a deep sadness, an emotion that surprised me. It has been a long time since I last saw a film of Brakhage’s, or even cared about him. And point of fact, during my years of studying experimental filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, and involvement with the San Francisco experimental film scene, Brakhage and his films were probably as much an object of my opprobrium as they were of my admiration. It’s all a bit embarrassing now, years down the road, how I and some of my friends dumped on him, the “dean” of experimental film, the figure we saw more as an albatross rather than as a pioneer, an embodiment of the canon and pantheon, the white male patriarch. A lot of that dismissal was warranted then and doesn’t become unwarranted now with his death. He was, despite his poetic sensitiveness and marginalized existence — not just from narrative Hollywood, but from the art world as well — still crusty and conservative and old-school, in short, still “one of the boys.”
But he was also an amazing filmmaker, making films so delicate, so luminous, so visually arresting, that there are few filmmakers of any stripe, experimental or not, who can match the power of his image-making, nor the effectiveness of his story-telling through images. I can think of no other filmmaker, with the possible exception of Hitchcock, who produced so many images and visual references that continue to resonate inside my mind’s eye. One of Brakhage’s better-known works is Window Water Baby Moving, documenting his then-wife Jane giving birth to their first child. As my wife Naoko inches closer and closer to giving birth, when I find myself visualizing the experience, running through it in my mind, I’m accompanied not by educational films or PBS’ health documentaries and the like, but by Brakhage’s abstract montage of childbirth. (By the same token, when I think about how I want to document our newborn child, I think negatively about how Brakhage documented his family, his children, ad nauseum, invasively, and seemingly not accounting for their feelings or their permission). This is just one example of many I could give, where my image of a place, or situation, an object, has been infused by how Brakhage imagined it.
Fortunately, Criterion will be putting out by Brakhage, a DVD presenation of 26 of his films, in May of this year. Hopefully this will enable his work to reach a wider audience. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at this page of stills from some of his films, including his handpainted films that were made without a camera. For a listing of many of his films, with descriptions, oftentimes by Brakhage himself, see this page listing his catalogue at Canyon Cinema. Film critic Fred Camper’s Brakhage page has an extensive index of links. And last, for insight into how his work could confound even the most sensitive of filmmakers, read Brakhage’s humorous account of the time he screened his films for Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.