Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes by Stan Brakhage

Art is a sense of magic
Stan Brakhage

Stan Brakhage was born in Kansas City, Missouri on January 14, 1933. He was educated at Dartmouth College in 1951, but dropped out as a freshman. He attended the Institute of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1953. In 1958 he married Jane Collum, with whom he had five children.
Brakhage began working in 1937 when he trained as a singer and pianist until 1946. He performed as a boy soprano on live radio and for recordings. In 1952 he dropped out of college and began to make films; he was nineteen. He ran a small theater in Central City, Colorado, where he staged Wedekind and Strindberg. He then traveled to San Francisco and met such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky. These were some of the avant-garde people that would influence him in the next few years.

In 1954 Brakhage went to New York where he met the composer John Cage. He then studied informally with another composer, Edgard Varese. In New York he became acquainted with avant-garde filmmakers, including Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Willard Maas, Jonas Mekas and Kenneth Anger. In 1955 he met and shot a film for Joseph Cornell. In 1956 Brakhage worked for Raymond Rohauer in Los Angeles. Brakhage also did his first public lecturing on film in Rohaver's theater. Between 1956 and 1964 Stan Brakhage worked on many commercial film projects, including television commercials and industrial films.
Jane Collum became Brakhage's wife in 1957. She also became the inspiration for the shift in subject matter of Brakhage's films. In this period Brakhage shifted towards domestic family life. In 1958 Brakhage went to the Brussels film festival and viewed the films of Peter Kubelka and Robert Breer. In 1960 Brakhage began presenting his own films in public and also lectured about his own and other people's works.

With the theft of his 16mm equipment in 1964, Brakhage concentrated on 8mm filmmaking until 1969. His major works, The Art of Vision and Dog Star Man, were completed in 1964. At the Colorado University in 1969, Brakhage lectured in film history and aesthetics. He began teaching in 1970 at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He taught there until 1981. In 1974 Brakhage completed his major abstract film The Text of Light. In 1976 his work shifted to using Super 8mm. In 1981 Brakhage began teaching at the University of Boulder, Colorado. He was later divorced from Jane in 1986. He then moved to Boulder and married Marilyn, his second wife. He resides there now with their two children.

Brakhage is "regarded as the world's foremost living experimental film maker." (Ganguly, Sight & Sound, p20). He was most recently honored by the US Library of Congress, which selected his monumental four part filmDog Star Man (1962-1964) for inclusion into the National film registry. Brakhage has also received the James Ryan Morris award in 1979, the Telluride Film Festival Medallion in 1981, and the prestigious MacDowell Medal, whose previous recipients include Robert Frost, Georgia O'Keeffe and Aaron Copeland. In 1986 Brakhage received the first American Film Institute award for independent film and video artists (the "Maya Deren Award").

''If only, then, I had been more living out of the present--such a beautiful word...present. The sense of it being, now to me, more beautiful than 'to look forward.''

''I...Dreaming'' (1988)

''Scenes from Under Childhood'' part 1 (1967)

''Scenes from Under Childhood'' part 2 (1969)

''Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, and eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.''

''The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes'' 1971
In 1971, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage made “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”, a 40 minute silent documentary shot in a Pittsburgh morgue. The film is composed of nothing more than autopsy footage, captured candidly and graphically, and it has become almost a cliche to observe that, once you have seen it, its images cannot be forgotten. The bodies of men, women, and children are laid out on tables, undressed, wiped down, embalmed, and variously sliced open, cut apart, and skinned. Brittle chunks of ribcage are hacked away at, thick heads of hair are carved thinly off, and, in a moment that seems almost literally unbelievable, the skin of a man’s face is tugged down and peeled right off, the mortician’s gloved hands tearing flesh away like a bandaid. We tend to talk a lot about a sense ofphysicality in horror films, about a tactile presence of the body in the image. “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” is a film of pure physicality: it is the physical divorced from the cerebral and the spiritual. 

"Mothlight" (1963)

Mothlight is a silent "collage film" that incorporates "real world elements." Brakhage produced the film without the use of a camera, using what he then described as "a whole new film technique." Brakhage collected moth wings, flower petals, and blades of grass, and pressed them between two strips of 16mm splicing tape. The resulting assemblage was then contact printed at a lab to allow projection in a cinema. The objects chosen were required to be thin and translucent, to permit the passage of light. Brakhage reused the technique to produce his later film, The Garden Of Earthly delights (1981). Mothlight has been described as boasting a "three-part musical structure."

''The Wold Shadow'' (1972)

One day, while walking in the woods, Stan Brakhage had a vision of an unaccountable anthropomorphic shadow amongst the trees. Returning to the place some time later, Brakhage could not find the shadow again. He decided, instead, to compose The Wold Shadow, a cinematic homage to the god of the forest. Brakhage returned to the woods and placed a piece of glass on an easel between the camera and the trees that he planned to film. After composing each shot, Brakhage would take a single photographic frame, paint on the glass and then shoot the glass again, and so on. There being 24 frames in a single second of projected film, it took Brakhage a full day to shoot the shimmering two and a half minute long The Wold Shadow.

''Window Water Baby Moving'' (1959)

Window Water Baby Moving is an experimental short film, filmed in November 1958 and released in 1959. The film documents the birth of the director's first child, Myrrena.

"Cat's Cradle" (1959)

Cat's Cradle is an experimental short film, produced in 1959. The film was described by Brakhage as "sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a 'medium' cat.''

''Sirius Remembered'' (1959)

 A Tribute to Stan Brakhage's pet dog Sirius, whose decomposition was recorded over six months after he had died.

''Dog Star Man'' (1964)

Stan Brakhage has labelled his 1963 film Dog Star Man his "cosmological epic." This virtually indescribable film was released in a prelude and four parts. These were not titled but dated instead: Prelude, 1962; Part One, 1963; Part Two 1964 and so forth. While toiling on this project, Brakhage also managed to finish The Art of Vision, derived from Dog Star Man leftovers, and wrote the script for Metaphors of Vision. 

''The Way to Shadow Garden'' (1954)

A solitary man in coat and tie enters an apartment that may be a converted garage. It's midnight. He appears agitated and distraught. He throws a glass of water in his face and laughs. He takes off the coat and tie. His moods swing. He stares at a light bulb. He removes his shirt. He lights a cigarette. He looks at a book. He does something drastic and self-destructive. He opens doors to a garden that we see as a film's negative. We see his face as if peering around a plant. The garden doors close behind him.

"Eye Myth" (1967)

''In the eyes, constantly, the eyes are flaring with little... stories, little forms and shapes, some of which are quite disturbing, like the swastika... The little myth that's made up of bits and pieces of painted things onto a piece of film that’s called an Eye Myth. In other words, it’s not a word myth; myth means mouth, actually... but an Eye Myth is kind of beautifully oxymoronic'' -Stan Brakhage

''Murder Psalm'' (1980)

Murder Psalm (1980) is the closest film has come to figuring psychosis. That is not to say that there is anything wrong or sick with Murder Psalm. As Michel Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilisatiion, it was the psychiatrists and not the psychotics who fostered the rationalisation and objectification of psychosis as a diagnosis for purposes of power and control. Thus, and in extension of this, I would suggest that the psychosis of Murder Psalm is neither irrational nor unreasonable. Brakhage’s 16-minute short that intercuts “found” clips of Mickey Mouse barraging down a city street, trotting warhorses in negative, a corpse being slit, a girl assaulted by the splash of a beach ball on a fountain, another girl driven to an epileptic fit by a flash of lightning, yet another girl staring at her unchanging reflection in the mirror.

''Burial Path'' (1978)

Burial of a pet bird, life cycle poetically linked (directly connected and made to be felt) with natural cycles/Earth turns seasonal changes.

''The Process'' (1972)

This film by Stan Brakhage investigates the process of memory and thought by melting a series of images and a field of color. 
The positive-negative flickering graphs a sort of shutter-window all over the matter of the vision.
Jittery flocks of space are interweaving as pieces of language in a scant illumination, whereas the process of thought is sheared in fuzzy transience.

                               ''Glaze of cathexis'' (1990)

                                ''The Dante Quartet'' (1987)

                                  ''Night Music'' (1986) 

                                   ''Black Ice'' (1994)

             ''Water for Maya - Span Style'' (2000)


                             ''Love Song'' (2001)

''I now no longer photograph, but rather paint upon clear strips of film – essentially freeing myself from the dilemmas of re-presentation. I aspire to a visual music, a ‘music’ for the eyes (as my films are entirely without sound-tracks these days). Just as a composer can be said to work primarily with ‘musical ideas,’ I can be said to work with the ideas intrinsic to film, which is the only medium capable of making paradigmatic ‘closure’ apropos Primal Sight. A composer most usually creates parallels to the surroundings of the inner ear–the primary thoughts of sounds. I, similarly, now work with the electric synapses of thought to achieve overall cathexis paradigms separate from but ‘at one’ with the inner lights, the Light, at source, of being human.''

A conversation between filmmakers Robert Gardner and Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage on "The Art of Vision"

A Conversation between Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage


The following conversation took place at Anthology Film Archives, in New York, on November 3rd 2000. It was originally recorded for Vogue Magazine, only a small portion of the conversation was actually published in the magazine. We present here a more substantive extract from a conversation between two of the most eminent figures in avant garde cinema.

Jonas Mekas: Here you are, Stan Brakhage, whom not only for me, but for most of those who write serious film criticism, or make movies, considered as possibly the number-one living filmmaker, both in the importance of the body of your work and in your influence on other filmmakers.
Stan Brakhage: And here is what you are to me: in addition to being a great filmmaker who has forged ahead in an area where you are practically unique, that is, the diary, journal film, you are the only one who has created a believable, meaningful, extended journal across most of your adult life. In addition to this, you have found a way to sponsor films that you love and to create cooperatives through which they can be distributed; to create Anthology Film Archives so that they could be preserved and shown in a repertoire and continue today to be certainly the only place for what we want to call Poetic Film. So, you have not only done these two things, but you also have this rich life as a poet. Not knowing Lithuanian, I can just read the English translations of your work, which are very moving to me. I don’t know how you keep all this going.

JM: We both have been in it all for fifty years now. You have been making films since 1953. And me, in the Spring of 1953 I moved to the Lower East Side of New York and opened my first showcase for the avant garde films at the Gallery East. I showed Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Maya Deren, and Sidney Peterson. So you see, I didn’t move very far.
SB: Well, the man who really gets something done is the one who can stay at home. Of course, ironically, you are an exile, exiled from your home [Jonas Mekas was born in Lithuania and emigrated to the United States shortly after World War Two].

JM: We lived in a century where for maybe half the world it was made impossible to remain at home. So now, I often say that cinema is my home. I used to say culture was my home. But it got a little bit confused. Nobody knows what culture is anymore. So I stick to cinema.
SB: That’s where you and I first got into trouble, with what culture was, and art. I was so frightened the social concerns of the sixties would overwhelm the long-range aesthetic possibilities, as I viewed them. As I look back on it now, I think that you were largely right, that I needn’t have been afraid for the arts in the ways in which I was. Let’s say, many of the films that came out were very stupid from a standpoint of art, or aesthetics or even craftsmanship. Still, they were crucial to the moment.

JM: When we celebrated Anthology Film Archives 30th anniversary, I got together with Ken Kelman and P. Adams Sitney and we talked about the creation of the Essential Cinema Repertory, which consisted of some 330 titles of very carefully selected films that we felt indicated the perimeters of the art of cinema. We came to the conclusion that we did not make any bad mistakes in our choices. I discovered that what I showed, what I promoted, all ended up in the Essential Cinema Repertory, the films that are now considered the classics of the sixties. There were, of course, some that did not become classics. Important works are always surrounded by some that are not that important, but as time goes they fall off. In a sense, it’s like Darwin’s law applied to the arts. Not the biggest, but the most essential survive.
SB: I was afraid the lesser works would sink the ship.

JM: They just evaporate. Your work, or that of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Michael Snow, they just keep growing.
SB: But I also wonder if that doesn’t have more to do with what you provided.

JM: What came up during my conversation with P. Adams Sitney, was that what’s lacking today is serious or passionate writing on the contemporary avant garde film. That, of course, was my function in the Village Voice, via my column Movie Journal.
SB: I don’t know any. Is there any aesthetician or critic or any kind that regularly deals with the Poetic Cinema in the entire North American continent?

JM: There are many alternative newspapers and monthlies, but none of them cover the Poetic Cinema, They are all writing about Hollywood-kind of the film.
SB: That’s also pretty much true now for poetry, architecture, or some of the performance arts: there is no regularity of coverage.

JM: You walk into a newspaper store and you see twenty, thirty magazines on art, but inside you see nothing but advertisements.
SB: In defense of myself, one of the ways I got most laughed at, in the sixties and seventies, was when I tried to defend the word art. I finally had to give it up because it was taken away by everybody and applied to every kind of consideration. It ceased to be a meaningful word.

JM: I read a survey conducted by Peter Moore, who had a column in Popular Photography magazine in the mid-60s, where people were asked whether they felt they were artists. Six million people said they felt they were artists. Of course, when you have six million artists in one country, then you give up using the word art.
SB: Pretty soon, someone said, half the American nation will be teaching art to the other half.

JM: Some terms get so overused that you have to forget about them for a while until time cleans them up.
SB: We have other words that have suffered from this, words like “love,” “God,” “evil.” So I would say that it isn’t just film that suffered from these difficulties. All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.

JM: I would like to bring something else up. When you began making films in the early fifties, and when I turned to cinema, around the same time, there were several other very important developments in the arts – action painting, the improvisational theater of Strasberg, the Happenings theatre, conceptual art, Fluxus, and video art – and it all somehow produced a thing called installation art, which has developed and grown. Now that installation art has swallowed video, film, sculpture, painting, and everything else, I meet more and more young people who are interested in returning to the very basis of their arts. At some point you have to go back to the very essence: what is really music, painting, cinema, poetry, etc.
SB: Remember, when we were choosing the name Anthology Film Archives, we thought that there should not be the article “the”, because we thought there will be other anthologies and that they would contradict our Essential Cinema list and that would set up a dialogue.

JM: No, that did not happen. We were the only ones who were crazy. Same as when Andy Warhol was making his film portraits. I thought and I wrote in the Village Voice, that the time will come when everybody will be making film portraits, because it’s so easy. Nobody imitated Andy. They cannot imitate Warhol, or Dreyer, or you. All those things happen only once, and that’s the beauty of it
SB: That’s also the great truth. I have come to an age when I mostly say “I don’t know.” That’s what passes for wisdom. Some few things I do know. One thing I know is that there’s no two people on Earth alike; all their cells are as unique as snowflakes.

JM: But the interesting thing is, that despite the fact that every snowflake has its own shape, beyond the shape there is water. Somewhere they all meet, somewhere we all meet. When people call me an independent, I usually say, no, I depend on many things, my friends, my past, what I read, all the poets.
SB: Gertrude Stein said there are those who are independent dependents, and those who dependent independents.

JM: Now I want to talk to you, dear readers. Nobody else will ever do what Stan Brakhage, or Ken Jacobs, or Kenneth Anger are doing. So we better love them, help them, and take care of them. These are such unique achievements of the human spirit, like fragments of paradise on earth.
SB: This is really that side of you that could not stand to see what you cared for and loved and respected just scuffled aside; that you deeply felt you needed to speak for them and save and preserve them.

JM: I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. People seem to think that our lives, or the strangeness of our lives may be of some interest, but not our work. But I think the work is universal, because poetry is universal. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and seeing a film by Stan Brakhage. I wonder where ideas that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from. In schools Faulkner and Olson are taught in the same classes. In literature the kind of separation that is made in cinema does not exist.
SB: There is a kind of professor that knows that is he or she books Hollywood movies only, that they will be popular. They will have huge classes and secure their tenure… Whatever it is, I still continue. I am mostly painting on film now and it takes time to make twenty-four individual frames for every second, but that is really all I can afford. I can afford only a few photographed films.

JM: My own diaristic style came very much from that fact that I had no time and money to make a scripted, “conventional” film. So instead of making films I just filmed. I sometimes joke, I say I am not really a filmmaker; I am only a filmer. I film real life. I never know what will come next. The shape of my films emerges from the accumulation of the material itself. I go through my life with my Bolex camera. Here is a question for you. Let’s take a film you did in Canada, The God of Day Looked Down Upon Him. Did you see its shape in your mind when you began it, or did that shape developed as you went along?
SB: I knew from the beginning it was the third part of a trilogy. The title comes from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. This was the first summer we went back to this place on Vancouver Island where my wife was raised. I still was hairless because of the chemotherapy; I had come very close to death. So I was in the mood to see that ocean in relationship to the end, or to the night, or to the darkness. My head was filled with things like Rothko’s old age paintings, like the Houston Chapel. That Chapel saved my sanity. Also Braque, the old age Braque, the real brown period, with the wooden plow. I felt old like that, I had expected to die, and I still expect to die any moment.

JM: I just wanted to know for myself, if you had any idea, feeling of the shape before you began filming it. To make a film, a filmmaker is one who already at the beginning sees its shape more or less. But I never have that. I am just a filmer, because it’s life. I don’t know what the next moment will bring, and when I will want to film.
SB: But you’re such a stylist. You know that it all hangs together. I called you the Samuel Pepys of film because you’re a stylist in that sense.

JM: Yes, but the style and the techniques come from the content, from this procedure. I am dealing with real life from moment to moment and instantaneously.
SB: Do you ever think about money?

JM: I never think about money.
SB: I knew you’d say that.
JM: There is a space next to Anthology Film Archives where we are going to build a library for the largest collection of written material on avant-garde/independent cinema. It will cost $3.5 million. I know the library will be built. All it takes is to believe in it, and work, work, work…

''There are a lot of movies made for nobody''