Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Stan Brakhage.
What was vision before the acquisition of language?
How did we see things before we could fully comprehend them?
How has understanding shaped how we see things and has it compromised a more varied perspective of the world we inhabit?
If we didn’t have a specific idea of what green was, would our vision exist on a much larger spectrum of color?
These are questions that informed the 50+ year career and 300+ films of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, considered by some to be one of the most important filmmakers of the past century. Born in Kansas City, Missouri as Robert Sanders, he was adopted and renamed by his parents, Ludwig and Clara Brakhage. As a child his aspirations were to be a poet, but inspired by innovative filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Maya Deren, he changed his focus to film. Completing his first film at the age of 19, his work, like many artists who are ahead of their time, was originally met with scorn but later heralded by critics and fellow avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas. Over the course of his career, he associated with several notable poets, musicians and artists including John Cage and Jackson Pollock, whose methods and works informed his own sensibilities.
Working in a variety of formats, Brakhage’s films are exceedingly expressionistic abstractions, ranging from amorphous collages of vaguely superimposed imagery of his life and family, to direct manipulation with film stock scratched and splattered with paint. They are often silent, flat, chaotic canvases of color that simulate “closed eyed seeing,” or what it looks like when we close our eyes. His films evolved over the course of his career, drawing from the deeply personal, including the graphic depiction of the birth of his children (Window Water Baby Moving), to the subjectively abstract (The Dante Quartet). Over the course of his film career he maintained his adolescent aspirations, elevating film to the level of visual poetry.
Unlike traditional filmmakers, Brakhage wanted to divest consciousness from its representative trappings to allow for an unfettered vision of the subjective experience. Narrative film to Brakhage was emotionally manipulative, manufacturing response rather than manifesting it organically out of the minds of the audience. His films, by contrast, inspire expressive reactions that defy the imposition of meaning or interpretation.
Film scholar and noted Brakhage expert Fred Camper calls him a “documentarian of the subjective.” Which is to say, he created films that objectively portray the subjective vision of the filmmaker. Rather than undertake the specious task of documenting the actual world, Brakhage created objective documentaries of his consciousness in an effort to awaken the consciousness of his viewers.
Brakhage’s films restructure vision itself, training audiences to see beyond the physical limitations of the eyes and create, as he put it, “a nervous system feedback of visual music.” Seeing light as the material that gives shape to the objects of our world, he sought to sculpt it to transform not just vision but the world itself, giving us insight into a universe behind our representational reality.
In his seminal text, Metaphor on Vision he expounded on these ideas asking us to "imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.”
Ironically, the style of Brakhage’s films has been appropriated by the types of films he despised, like certain sequences in Se7en and The Jacket. His influence can be seen as well in the more abstract sections of The Tree of Life. Besides these more well known works, his influence can be felt across the fields of video art, avant-garde filmmaking, computer art and beyond.
Below, a selection of some of his most striking and seminal works.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
In this very graphic film, Brakhage films the birth of his first child—apparently he couldn’t tolerate being present for it without a camera. The filming of such a personal event accentuates the importance of his mission to make films that are deeply subjective. The camera lovingly floats over the body of his then wife, Jane Collum.
Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
Probably his most famous work, Dog Star Man is a film cycle composed of a prelude and four distinct segments that, in their entirety, span seventy-eight minutes. He worked on the film from 1961 to 1964 and it fluctuates between different layers of image and superimposition. Each segment is compositionally and even narratively different, ranging from subjects such as the beginning of the universe and the Fall of Man. Later, he would expand the film into the four hour epic, the Art of Vision.
Released in 1963, the film pressed flower petals, moth wings and grass between strips of film and processed them through an optical printer. Brakhage considered it an entirely new way of making movies where he was able to circumvent the use of a camera entirely. There is a haunting quality to the flickering images of dead objects overlaying each other in continuous movement. It’s as if the detritus has been reanimated and given new life through the projection of light via the rapid succession of frames.
Text of Light
As part of an audio/visual performance series, Sonic Youth bassist Lee Renaldo (in collaboration with Ulrich Kreiger and Alan Licht), irreverently (or blasphemously, as the uploader of the video says), puts music to the silent films of Stan Brakhage, something the filmmaker himself probably would have disdained. Text of Light was initially the title of a 1974 piece where Brakhage experimented with light through ashtrays.
For Marilyn (1992)
In what Brakhage considered his favorite film, he pays homage to his wife Marilyn in a series of dimly rainbowed frames and intercut titles. The visuals are superimposed over windows bringing to mind stained glass and the titles are fragmented and poetic in nature, a suitable love letter from an experimental filmmaker.
Brakhage on Brakhage
A fascinating series of interview segments where the filmmaker speaks about the influence of poetry, his opinions on narrative cinema never inspiring more than coffee table chit-chat and the contrast of film to video. Probably the most fascinating part, however, is where he reveals his eyes to be his weakest organ and how his problematic eyesight informed his work.