Stan Brakhage: A Tribute


Even to those of us for whom the Academy Awards mean very very little (maybe, in fact, nothing at all), there is one part of the annual telecast which is invariably affecting. It is the sad roll call of those members of the American film industry who have died in the past year.


On a Monday night in March 2003, film fans all over the world would have been stirred by the tribute paid to director Billy Wilder, lyricist Adolph Green, actor Katy Jurado and cinematographer Conrad Hall (Sr), among many others. But there was at least one startling omission.


Where was mention of Stan Brakhage, who is by any reckoning one of the greatest, most admired and influential film artists of the twentieth century? The fact that his passing scarcely registered in the hype-ridden world of mainstream cinema says a lot about global film culture’s still abysmal ignorance of its glorious avant-garde.


There is probably no other figure in the world who so completely embodied the ethos of experimental filmmaking. Brakhage financed most of his own works as he eked out a living. Rigorously recording the most minute aspects of daily existence – from the birth of his children to the flight of a moth – he would rework this material into epics of abstraction, ravishing in their effects of motion, colour and light.


Although he was a good-humoured person with an astonishing range of interests and references, Brakhage was a purist when it came to his own art. He opted for silent filmmaking, considering sound of any sort an abominable distraction, and eschewed most narrative elements beyond his first exercises in trippy psychodrama in the 1950s.


Brakhage hit his stride as an artist once he did away with most traces of conventional, figurative representation and explored other, hitherto unknown modes of vision. “Closed eye seeing” was one of the many terms he coined to explain his approach. Plumbing the extremes of dazzlement and obscurity, clarity and blur, freneticism and tranquillity, Brakhage crafted a cinema that expressed, from the inside as it were, every kind of bodily sensation.


In an output that covers over three hundred films in fifty highly productive years, it is hard to single out specific milestones. But certain of his works including Dog Star Man (1961-4), a chronicle of nature in all its harshness and wonder, have already entered the annals of cinema history.


For me, the highpoint of Brakhage’s career was the Pittsburgh Documents series of 1971. Leaving, for a change, the natural environment of his Colorado cabin, Brakhage hurled himself into the filming of highly loaded, urban locations: a hospital, a cop shop and a morgue. Although as fugitive and abstract as ever, the result is a stunning series of visual poems about fragile mortality within an oppressive, social frame.


Australian cinephiles have long been starved of a steady diet of Brakhage. For those lucky enough to have attended weekly Cinematheque screenings or enlightened media courses in universities and art colleges since the ‘70s, some film prints have been made available by the National Film Library collection. Very occasionally, we would see masterpieces like Murder Psalm (1980) and A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea (1991) at events organised by Experimenta (formerly MIMA).


Beyond that, the landscape is barren. Our art galleries and museums have rarely displayed an authentic interest in cinema, even of the experimental or artisanal kind. The Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals may have been willing to show the enlightening documentary by Jim Shedden, Brakhage (1998), but not the original works it documents. And I will never forget (or forgive) the dismissive reaction of one prominent film bureaucrat as the crowd filed out of a rare, local Brakhage screening: “Anyone can do that scratching-on-film stuff”.


To some extent, Brakhage’s artistic reputation suffered as the result of a generational war. By the ‘80s, a backlash against this artist and the purism he represented had developed. Younger avant-gardists in a Pop Art vein wanted to return to stories, actors and mass media imagery. An ideological critique had also grown, painting Brakhage as an in-grown, macho figure, disconnected from modern reality, the epitome of the outmoded artist-in-a-garret (artist-on-a-mountain?) type.


But Brakhage’s legacy has outlasted these internecine skirmishes. Although the Academy Awards presentation may have gracelessly overlooked his contribution – it caught up with his death in its rollcall a full year later, which wouldn’t have happened if Spielberg or Liz Taylor had dropped dead the morning of the telecast – filmmakers as diverse as Philippe Grandrieux, Martin Scorsese, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Olivier Assayas have honoured him.


Brakhage returned these compliments whenever possible. He was an enormous admirer of the films of Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes, and once said of Scorsese’s work: “Between the noticeable dramatic lines of De Niro’s face, there is a shimmering of some love of what film can be”. This love also shimmered in his surprising appreciation, published posthumously, of the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I.: Artifical Intelligence (2001).


Brakhage died on March 9 2003, after a long struggle with illness. The physical problems of his final years did not dim his spirit or his will to be involved in the production and celebration of cinema. At the tribute accorded to him at the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, the director was as gregarious and larger than life as he had ever been. Brakhage was beloved as a teacher (his lectures have been collected in several volumes), and his autodidactic fervour in any public forum was inspiring.


Brakhage steadfastly resisted any effort to distribute his work on videotape, regarding video as a miserable, degraded medium, both as an art form and as a way of experiencing movies. He also cultivated a skepticism towards institutional appropriations of his work, an attitude that his widow Marilyn now tenaciously upholds.


Not long before his death, however, Brakhage struck a deal with the illustrious, American DVD label Criterion, famed for its careful and generous presentation of cinema classics. So the new technology that Brakhage regarded so warily finally won him, posthumously, the recognition that his extraordinary creations so richly deserve.


Brakhage on DVD will never replace the true screen experience of his luminous work, but it’s sure a welcome start.


© Adrian Martin March 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search