The passing of a true artist


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.

3 Replies to “The passing of a true artist”

  1. Brakhage was brilliant. I remember the first time I saw Mothlight. I spent hours thinking about how he had done it and wishing I could escape the contraints of my silly film class exercises to do something similar.

    Even though you derided him, did you do anything “ala Brakhage” during your experimental film days in San Francisco?

  2. Kristin–

    well, I didn’t do anything overtly “Brakhage-like”, but it was hard to escape his influence, although one tried. Pretty much anything you tried, be it a type of shot, or some camera trick, or even subject matter….rest assured, Brakhage had been there first. Actually, come to think of it, the first film I made of an experimental nature was a hand-scratched film, without camera. It was a homework assignment in my first class at SFAI (taught by Larry Jordan, who coincidentally enough had grown up with Brakhage in Denver).

    But like I said, it was hard not to be influenced. There were so many things I took away from his work, but perhaps at it’s most basic level, and what influenced me more than anything else, was the idea that anything, any shot, any old item, even the film material itself, could be part of a film, that everything was open to consideration, and that its validity and worth depended not on some inherent value of being a “great shot”, but rather on how the artist edited these shots together with other shots, and so on and so forth, to create real poetry, real art.

  3. I took several film classes with Stan Brakhage at CU in Boulder back in the 80s. He fascinated me and my friends and we spent hours discussing him, his films and his life. Studying film history and film making with him had a huge influence on how I viewed the world. It was a true education and I will be forever grateful for it.

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