FILMS BY STAN BRAKHAGE
Stan Brakhage has been making films for more than 40 years. By now he’s made hundreds, ranging in length from a few seconds to four hours. He makes them very cheaply–because he photographs them himself, generally working without cast or crew, the main costs are film and lab bills. His subjects have ranged from his family and friends to cities he’s visited to “abstract” shapes made by filming out of focus or by painting directly on the film.
Brakhage’s great achievement has been to use the film image to represent his inner vision. Most mainstream cinema–features and documentaries–represents scenes in a “realistic” manner we can all agree on, relying on a kind of collective seeing. Objects and characters seem to be placed in such a way that their relationships can be measured with a ruler. Brakhage, by contrast, may move from a brief frontal and in-focus shot of a room to the same room filmed with rapid camera movement, or to fragmentary views of its parts cut rapidly together. Or he may cut to some completely different and apparently unrelated scene.
For Brakhage, alternative ways of seeing–the visions one has in dreams or daydreams or awake but with eyes closed–offer forms of reality as legitimate as those of collective seeing. He has argued that his films are not abstract but that they’re documentaries of things he has seen and that anyone else might see. One of his goals has been to find, for himself and the viewer, alternatives to the aesthetic givens of our culture, from the measured rectilinear space of Renaissance perspective to the hypnotic image glut of television–he seeks instead a private inner garden in which the imagination is given free rein and each instant, each beam of light, is as sacred as any other.
Through the years viewers accustomed mainly to mass media have complained of headaches from Brakhage’s rapid cutting and camera movement, or boredom from his barely recognizable shapes, or irritation at his films’ lack of musical accompaniment (which allows the viewer to give full attention to the often musical rhythms of his imagery). Ironically, then, the one new film on the program showing Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers that gave me some difficulty was Boulder Blues and Pearls and . . . (1992), with original music by Rick Corrigan. Brakhage avoids synchronizing the film and music, which would have made too simple a connection and reduced the mystery of his imagery; instead the music occupies a separate space. Sound and image seem meant to coexist as equals, but though the sound is interesting it isn’t nearly as strong as the imagery: delicately beautiful fragments of a town and snow and water. I often found myself wondering what this film would be like silent.
For Marilyn (1992) gave me no such difficulty, though it too contains an element that is in a sense not imagery–Brakhage has scratched a number of words directly on the film, over solid black and over images. It begins with a brief shot of a window in whose panes are reflected the rectangles of additional light-filled windows in the background. The words “I am here / where is she / the mother church” appear, but by the time “mother church” appears, dense multicolored painting over the film obscures the image.
Painting directly on film virtually guarantees that the viewer will see rapidly changing forms: each frame is projected very briefly–there are 24 per second–and there’s no way to position paint in exactly the same place on each tiny 16-millimeter frame. But the resulting flood of rapid, flickering colors perfectly suits Brakhage’s aims–to replicate closed-eye vision, and more generally to create an energized, musical way of seeing. In For Marilyn, the juxtaposition of large, paned windows with the words “mother church” inescapably suggests that the richly colored paint is a vision of stained glass. Like stained glass, the paint splotches are translucent: the viewer can see the projector light passing through them. But unlike stained-glass windows there’s no picture, no representational design: this is stained glass for the 20th-century brain, constantly alive, constantly evoking the viewer’s associations. The religious connection is made more explicit by the word “savior” followed by “of all of me” and by images of church towers.
For Marilyn is in four sections, each “numbered” by vertical scratches on black film, and the second section gives a different possible meaning to the paint. Early on there’s a pan across the sky, and though the sun is just out of frame its beams are part of the image; a similar shot appears at the section’s end. Also near the end is a shot of a window with a line of trees clearly reflected in it. Most of the rest of the second section consists of dense paint-on-film, but juxtaposed with these images the rapid flood of painted colors could also constitute a visionary view of nature. “Abstract” seeing, the music of color, is available to any viewer, anywhere. Brakhage’s filmmaking might be taken as a call to imaginative seeing of every thing, however banal–evidence of a wish that no viewer accept the visible world as a given but rather remake it in the mind’s eye.
The direction of that remaking is of course up to each individual; Brakhage himself has varied his approach from film to film. Many of his early works were dominated by only a few moods or emotions. Soon he was making films–such as Dog Star Man, one of his best known–that combined images of himself and his family with images of suns and forests and cells, raising the personal to the level of metaphor and myth. Later Brakhage continued to try to expand the boundaries of the self–moving, for example, from abstract films replicating patterns he’s seen to films that try to produce things no one has yet seen. Specific metaphors and specific emotions have been largely replaced by descriptions of the processes of thinking and remembering. Despite its specific thoughts and individual metaphors, For Marilyn is also an example of this later trend.
Many of Brakhage’s early films seem assertions of the artist’s transcendent self. When he filmed his dead dog in the woods in Sirius Remembered, he moved the camera about in a way that allowed his meditation on the dog to dominate the seen world, the forest itself. When he painted on film in Dog Star Man, each section of paint seemed to have a particular texture and color that related to the underlying photo imagery. The paint in For Marilyn has no such simple relationship to the imagery, however: instead each moment seems to explode out of the previous one, disrupting the earlier design, which is superseded by new shapes and colors. Rather than seeming like an expression of a unified consciousness, as in many of Brakhage’s earlier films, the paint seems a sign of a profoundly decentered self, one that’s leaping out of its own being instant by instant. Many of the scratched titles suggest a similar decentering: “where / she was / he was.” In the film’s fourth section, we see the scratched words “the/THEE,” which suggests a relationship between all things nameable by “the” and a beloved, whether God or Marilyn (the name of Brakhage’s wife): indeed, the expansive image sequences might well be taken as an expression of the expansiveness many feel in love.
The film ends with the words “Praise be to God,” followed by a section of paint unlike any seen before: the splotches are smaller and more numerous, the rhythm is more intense, and there’s more white light, from areas with no paint. Whatever one feels about the word “God”–I have difficulty reconciling its association with charity and love and the times it’s been used to justify mass murder–it seems clear that the ending is a Brakhage view of the infinite: each fragment of paint is surrounded by the pure light that contains all colors and makes all things visible.
Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1991) is one of a number of Brakhage films that deal directly with our mass culture, in this case television imagery. Close-ups of a TV screen, with the horizontal lines vastly enlarged, are interspersed with, and sometimes covered over by, dense painting-on-film. At first the relationship between the paint and the TV imagery seems similar to the relationship between the paint and the windows or the paint and nature in For Marilyn: Brakhage is seeking his own freer, more imaginative version of “received” images. His idea seems to be to replace the boring, repetitive TV scan lines with endlessly changing and flowing organic paint. But gradually the geometry of the scan lines seems to assert itself, and by the film’s middle we see in rapid succession several sections of exceptionally complex painted patterns with perfect left-right symmetry; at the center of most of them is a kind of emptiness. It seems the intended effect, as in so much of TV, is to “suck you in.” I found these images utterly terrifying: they’re like winged Rorschach monsters, with a void at the center exerting a vertiginous gravitational pull. The film seems to say that not only does the predictable shared seeing of our mass culture harbor monsters, but those monsters can lead to death.
Agnus Dei Kinder Synapse (1991) is the shortest and in some ways the most enigmatic film on this program. A few images, most of them out of focus, of a toy train are juxtaposed with images of animals, mostly elephants, often superimposed over themselves or other animals. At the film’s end the toy train is revealed to be (or is transformed into) a miniature train (of the type found in theme parks) carrying real people. Brakhage has suggested that the film was inspired by the transformative quality of childhood imagination, and that he sees the juxtaposition of elephant to “real” train as suggestive of children’s “ritual magic.” Two other possibilities also suggest themselves. Many “wildlife parks” do have trains, so at the end of the film when the train carrying passengers becomes visible, the work seems almost a little “my trip” poem. At the same time the use of out-of-focus, superimposed, and color-negative images helps prevent the animals and train from seeming as tightly linked as they might have been in earlier Brakhage films. The forward movement of the train and the stasis and rough surface of the elephants suggest two separate worlds. But this separateness is appropriate to a filmmaker who is now, in the best sense, less sure of himself: less willing to assert the primacy of his own consciousness over the objects of the world, and more interested in trying to expand the boundaries of that consciousness.
The clearest evidence of this newly decentered self comes in City Streaming (1990), though on this program it is perhaps the best example of his nearly musical forms. He describes it as a “memory piece,” made in Toronto, that seeks “not to arrive at snapshots . . . but rather to ‘sing’ The City as re-membered from daily living.” And indeed every camera movement–pans, tilts, rotations, rapid jiggles–transforms the seen world into rhythmically moving colored objects that seem to sing. The film’s signature movement is perhaps horizontal–phone or electric wires seen in lateral pan, the view from a moving subway car–but other motions are constantly intercut. Extremely rapid editing–fragmentary views of several rooms cut together, for example–provide still another form of movement. A large map on the apartment wall appears more than once, producing an effect like that of maps in certain Vermeer paintings: the outside world is invoked, but the map never breaks the spell of the image’s self-enclosure. In one sense, then, this is a film in the classic Brakhage mode: an inner vision transforms the world into the filmmaker’s own personal music.
Yet the film’s tone is completely different from most of Brakhage’s earlier work. Rather than being attached to certain kinds of movement or composition, Brakhage’s camera seems to be trying almost everything. Similarly, the editing doesn’t aggressively blend disparate images into a continuous flow but leaves each in its own space and light. Finally, the filmmaker doesn’t seem to assert any transcendent meaning. There are Brakhage films in which, for all their complexity and contradictions, one can sense the filmmaker declaring, “This is the true nature of childhood,” “This is the real meaning of war,” “This is the relationship of man to the planets and the stars.”
Here, by contrast, when we see a few shots of Brakhage reflected in a mirror filming himself his image is off-center and small and doesn’t have the usual effect of self-images in other movies: the filmmaker is not endowed with any special power. This is not a moment when we see the source of it all; it’s just another image. Brakhage’s long struggle against cultural givens has also been, in some ways, a struggle against himself: a struggle to escape all that is predictable, static, and limiting in human vision. In City Streaming he’s reached a state that I think–and I don’t use the word lightly–can be truly called elevated. The parts of a city are seen not as metaphors for emotion or as expressions of a theme but as pure light, color, shape, and movement, which may hold a wealth of meanings but cannot be reduced to any of them. This, then, is a “pure” film, creating moving images that cannot be translated into another medium. It also creates, for the viewer, a way of thinking relatively free of tension, of expectation, of interpretation. City Streaming is still personal, subjective filmmaking–the compositions and rhythms are identifiably Brakhage’s–but the filmmaker is less interested in classifying and understanding than in making each thing sing.