Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Jim Shedden.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Jorg Daniel and Wolfram Hissen.
By Fred Camper
It often seems that the more enthusiasm I have for an artist, the less I have for works about him. Even Terry Zwigoff’s fascinating documentary Crumb irritated me because it seemed to capture so little of what’s truly weird about the best of R. Crumb’s comics. An art collector I know, previously unfamiliar with Crumb, liked the film very much–but I suspect she would have been appalled had I brought a copy of Crumb’s notoriously explicit pro-incest comic-book story “Joe Blow” into her elegant home. Such films tend to try to encapsulate and make accessible the artist’s work–but what if it’s so sprawling, so messy, or so unnamably creepy that it cannot be reduced to a few lines from critics and a few images of the artist working?
Most makers of such films might say–as does Jim Shedden, the Canadian director of the 1998 Brakhage (being shown at the Film Center Friday and Saturday)–that they envision their films not as autonomous works of art but as incentives to viewers to see the artist’s creations. Indeed, Shedden told me that almost everywhere his film has been shown, someone who’d previously known nothing of Stan Brakhage or of avant-garde filmmaking has wanted to see his films.
But there remains something troubling about a relatively conventional documentary that aims to cover Brakhage’s life and almost 50-year career, during which he produced several hundred usually silent explorations of objects, light, abstract patterns, and people and places in his life. For one thing, Brakhage’s biography is in his films. For another, his life is messy and multifaceted. But perhaps most important, Brakhage’s great subject is the transformative possibilities of actual and imagined imagery, visionary experiences that cannot be analyzed or described in words: he negotiates the difficult territory between what Barnett Newman called “the chaos of ecstasy” and the formal coherence necessary to art.
Most of Brakhage’s films include within them the story of their own making. Painting over photographed imagery of the birth of his daughter Neowyn in the 1961 Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, he captures his subjective seeing at that moment; placing his fingers diagonally in front of the lens in the 1964 Song 7, he mimics the complex urban spaces of San Francisco seen behind them. Such works define Brakhage’s filmmaking process far more clearly and explicitly than Shedden’s charming footage of him poking his camera lens into a stream.
In fact that footage connects all too easily with other elements of Shedden’s film to communicate its main theme: Brakhage is a lovable eccentric. His son Bearthm recalls how changed his father was when possessed by the muse; his first wife, Jane, describes him wandering out late for her call to dinner, muttering strings of numbers, then wandering back into his workroom. Eccentric, yes, but you can talk to him: George Kuchar narrates a series of still photos of Brakhage and describes a pleasant chat they had about filmmaking, sex, and other predictable topics. A little touched, perhaps, but in the end just a regular guy.
Well, not really. I first saw Brakhage present his films in January of 1964, with three friends at an ill-attended showing in a drab lecture hall at New York University. The program included the first two sections of a work in progress, Dog Star Man, in which Brakhage appears as a woodsman who struggles with a tree and tries to climb a mountain. Rapid cutting and superimposition place these actions in contexts ranging from the cosmic (solar flares) to the everyday (a house) to the microscopic (blood vessels). It was like nothing I’d seen before, and it seriously changed the way I thought about the world. Since then some superficial aspects of Brakhage’s style have been copied in music videos, TV commercials, and Hollywood credit sequences, but his idea that individual vision is nearly unbounded in its possibilities has not been copied–it seems as radical to me today as it did 35 years ago.
Brakhage in person, in full Dog Star Man regalia–boots, long hair, beard–was nearly as impressive and in some ways more disturbing. He reacted to hostile questions with hostility or silence; to us 16-year-olds his language often sounded pretentious and precious. Years of lecturing and teaching have made him appear far more professional, even mellow today, but his life isn’t quite as ordinary as Shedden might have us think. The film treats his divorce as a matter of two people growing apart, whereas the reality was a good deal messier and more dramatic. Look carefully at the way Bearthm describes Stan’s filming of him as a child, and see if you don’t agree that the obsessed artist might also have been a neglectful father. The film includes several comments by critic P. Adams Sitney on Brakhage but doesn’t tell you that, after a very close friendship when both were young, they haven’t spoken in three decades.
In his autobiographical films Sincerity and Duplicity Brakhage ascribes to himself a persona far more conflicted and untamed than the one Shedden offers. This is not to say that Brakhage is unusually difficult as great artists go; he can be kind and generous. One story that Shedden leaves untold is his advocacy and preservation of the films of many of his colleagues. But this story too is contradictory: while praising some, Brakhage went through a period of attacking others, particularly the so-called structural filmmakers, several of whom had been his friends. What I most missed from this portrait was any sense of the fellow who, on the one occasion when I visited him in the 70s, decided to show me a large, beautifully detailed book of medical drawings he owned–all of grotesquely diseased penises. My point is not that Brakhage is a bad–or good–person, but rather that he’s a complex, larger-than-life figure full of surprising impulses: his character, like his work, is extremely difficult to pin down.
To Shedden’s credit, he includes many excerpts from Brakhage’s films, all with their original sound tracks–which means that the silent ones are silent. But unfortunately 16-millimeter optical sound tracks and projection systems are noisy, and at the preview I attended the silent excerpts were in fact accompanied by much popping and clicking. This is not a problem when Brakhage’s silent films are shown complete because the sound system is turned off. (The video version, likely to be the way most people see this film, has one virtue over film: “silence” will be silent.) Further, Shedden’s excerpts are all too brief: no real rhythm can be established, in part because it’s difficult to shift gears from the conventional information-absorbing mode of the documentary sections to the far more intense vision that Brakhage’s films call for. Since he’s made a number of two-minute pieces, I don’t see why complete films couldn’t have been used.
Footage of Brakhage by several established filmmakers–Jonas Mekas, Willie Varela, R. Bruce Elder–has been included. That these brief excerpts don’t look all that different from Brakhage’s films testifies not only to the inadequacy of excerpts but to the great influence his work has had. My favorite clip is an early interview showing Brakhage trying to control the camera, asking the cameraman to pan and zoom in a way that will duplicate the way the eye moves. But his directions proleptically critique Shedden’s mundane, static, talking-head interview style, suggesting that conventional realism doesn’t adequately represent everyday looking.
You’d also hardly guess from this film that Brakhage’s aesthetic has a social dimension. His profound opposition to object-oriented consumerism and to conventional forms of visual representation is tied both to American individualism and to the antiauthoritarianism of the 60s. Jane speaks of their fights while he was making his 1967 feature-length meditation on war, 23rd Psalm Branch, but we don’t hear about how Brakhage sought to show and discuss it in relationship to the Vietnam war.
Shedden’s inclusion of the early pan-and-zoom interview and footage of Brakhage singing his version of “Old Man River” (“He doesn’t know nothing / But he’s interviewed anyway”) illustrates Brakhage’s rejection of cinematic conventions and his aesthetic risk taking, though he’s often unable to fully articulate his reasons for doing so. But the dominant impulse in Brakhage is an attempt to nail down this protean artist, who began his first book with a condemnation of knowing objects by their names, for that would keep one from discovering them through an “adventure in perception.” The didactic aspects of Shedden’s documentary are utterly opposed to Brakhage’s aesthetic: a snippet from Dog Star Man–Brakhage’s longer version, the over-four-hour The Art of Vision, is never mentioned–is followed immediately by film professor Bart Testa’s comment that it’s “a major accomplishment.”
By contrast, for every image in a Brakhage film that seems to name or explain a previous one, there are ten that make the previous image more mysterious. Though Sitney calls Brakhage one of the very greatest of filmmakers near the end of Shedden’s film, the viewer who doesn’t know his work is likely to wonder why–a subject on which Sitney can be brilliantly articulate, given a bit more time.
The Brakhage missing here is the one Eric Waldemar, now an accomplished filmmaker, discovered 12 years ago as a young history major at the University of Colorado. Waldemar wandered into a Brakhage class, and for the first time in his college career hadn’t the slightest idea what the professor was talking about. It’s not that Brakhage is incoherent, of course, but rather that his discourses–filmed and spoken–are unconventional expressions of unconventional ideas. Brakhage does show a snippet of Brakhage teaching, concluding with an image of Waldemar talking to him, and in fact what we hear doesn’t make a lot of sense–but it’s so brief that it seems just another bit of folksy color. The artist as eccentric, the artist who neglects his family, the artist who looks a little strange while he works–this is a cliche today. Brakhage’s films help us discover things we don’t know. He investigates the overlap between the subjective and the objective, film’s materiality and illusionism, order and chaos, sight and thought. And unlike documentaries like this one, his films never generate conclusions, just more questions.
Perhaps part of my problem with Brakhage is that I know too much about the filmmaker already–presumably I’m not typical of this film’s intended audience. And my gripes could apply to most documentaries about artists, a genre of which Shedden’s film is one of the better examples. If a high school student sees it in a class, seeks out Brakhage’s work, and finds his life changed even half as much as mine was, Shedden’s film will have served a genuine purpose. But if viewers come away with the impression that they now have a good understanding of Brakhage’s achievement, they will be making a serious mistake.
Even though a large part of Brakhage consists of excerpts from his work or footage of him speaking, the film is shaped by the comments of several key authority figures–particularly filmmaker Phil Solomon near the beginning and Sitney near the end–and their remarks shape our view of Brakhage. But Jorg Daniel and Wolfram Hissen in the 1996 documentary Wrapped Reichstag (also being shown at the Film Center Friday and Saturday) are content to let their subjects–Christo and Jeanne-Claude–speak for themselves. No academics explain their place in contemporary art; rather, German politicians express befuddlement as to what their work is about. The viewer unfamiliar with Christo may be a bit puzzled–but may also want to learn more, since the film feels incomplete.
Christo–who was born in Bulgaria in 1935, emigrated to Vienna in 1956, and subsequently moved to Paris and then New York–is well-known for his temporary environmental installations: among other things, he wraps buildings in fabric. In 1971 he began trying to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin, the historic seat of Germany’s parliament, erected in the late 19th century.
Daniel and Hissen’s film chronicles his struggle, beginning with footage from when the city was still divided. We see Christo lecturing on his plans, arguing with officials, surveying the building, and finally watching the parliamentary debate in which he gained permission for his project by a close vote. We also see Christo making the drawings of the project whose sale financed the wrapping. We see the huge building in which the fabric was sewn together and workmen letting it down from the roof in giant rolls. Finally there are several sequences from 1995 of the wrapped building, one from the air that’s unfortunately accompanied by classical music–a cliched choice that Shedden avoids.
The only explanation of the project we hear is offered by the artists in response to a question: they say that they work for themselves first, that they wrapped the Reichstag because they wanted to see it wrapped. This may be as much an artistic commonplace as anything in Shedden’s film, but here it works because the transformation of the Reichstag is so extraordinary. Its ornate exterior is covered in vast sheets of white articulated only by folds, blowing in the wind.
I’ve never seen an actual Christo installation; if I had, perhaps I’d be griping–as I do about Shedden’s film–that much of its true meaning and beauty has been lost in the film. But to the Christo neophyte Wrapped Reichstag suggests something wonderful. This vast, imperial building assumes a very different shape–organic, self-effacing, and variable as the cloth flaps in the breeze. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s intervention lessens the aggression inherent in this building, colored by our knowledge of what one parliament member calls “the ups and downs of [German] history.” As art historian Dominique G. Laporte writes of Christo’s wrappings, they “make the concept of stone apocryphal…insofar as this concept is synonymous with…territorial conquest.”
The political implications of Christo’s work are well articulated in Laporte’s book, and the film at least hints at them. The change we see in the building, the fact that the project is self-financed, the location of the Reichstag near the old east-west border–all suggest a boundary-defying attack on imperialism. But this side of the project would have come through more strongly if the American release of this German film had retained the original title: Dem deutschen Volke, or “To the German People.” This is the famous inscription adorning the front of the Reichstag, an inscription that cannot be read without irony in light of German history after it was built. As the title of the film, it suggests that Christo’s project is another, very different gift to the German people: it cost them nothing and provides a poetic alternative to the architecture of the traditional monument.