NEW FILMS BY STAN BRAKHAGE
Stan Brakhage has been making independent films for almost 40 years. Although his reputation is international, and he has lectured in Chicago many times, many have never heard of him. His films are completely unlike what most people call “movies”; he finances them out of his own modest income, making them in 16 or 8 millimeter. Most of his films are silent; usually they have no actors and little “story” in the usual sense of the word.
For many, myself included, Brakhage’s work is the greatest single example of the movement often called “experimental” or “avant-garde” cinema. His special achievement has been the creation of an entire cinematic vocabulary of individual expression and inner vision. Using the most basic materials of cinema–light, movement, time, and sound (or silence)–Brakhage has created an art in the same way that a composer would create out of pure sounds or a painter out of paint.
For most of his filmmaking career, Brakhage lived with his wife and five children in the Colorado mountains. In many of the films from this period, which stretches roughly from the late 50s through the early 80s, his family and home appear as major elements of his world. His vision was self-centered, even solipsistic, but to say so is not to criticize the work; it proceeded from a highly moral position: in response in part to a dehumanizing mass culture, Brakhage felt that if he could explore in the greatest possible depth the uniqueness of an individual’s vision–his own–he could also help liberate his audience, sensitizing each viewer to the uniqueness of his or her own self.
The films of this period portray a highly subjective world seen through Brakhage’s eyes or, just as often, a world that seems to have been created by Brakhage’s eyes. If external objects, including his wife and children, often seem to be revolving around the camera like planets around some mythic sun, this was a necessary, albeit in some ways tragic, consequence of the particular nature of Brakhage’s immensely valuable quest. It is a credit to his vision as an artist that in some of his later films of the period, such as the Duplicity series and Tortured Dust, he portrays explicitly some of the family alienation that inevitably resulted from his work.
Now Brakhage’s marriage has dissolved; his children are grown; and, not surprisingly, the focus of his filmmaking has shifted significantly. An excellent sampling of six films from this new period is being shown at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday, January 28. The best of them reveal an artist who has not lost his powers, but who is forging forward into new and unknown territory, creating–as he always has–a cinema of astonishing vision.
Interestingly, the film that I found least successful of the six was Marilyn’s Window, the one that most resembles works of Brakhage’s earlier period. Windows, for Brakhage and many of his fellow filmmakers, have long been symbols for the mysterious process by which the mind tries to make contact with the world, creating images of the seen that are also windows on the seer’s soul. While we do not see “Marilyn” in it, the film is powerfully suggestive of human presence and contains many beautiful passages, particularly at its opening. Also, it intercuts views through a window with views of a window seen from the outside, and in this editing is the suggestion that Brakhage is starting to try to see things from multiple perspectives. But other portions of the film suggest to me an artist returning to familiar ground, although with consummate skill.
Matins also has affinity with Brakhage’s earlier work. This short silent film depicts ephemeral figures, often shadows, moving about a cramped, bluish, daylit interior space. It has some of the fragile quality of an image not fully seen, like those mental pictures some see at the moment of awakening. Brakhage says this film was “made on the occasion of, and inspired by, Jim and Lauren Tenney’s marriage”; it is not the first time he has made a film partly inspired by a wedding.
One measure of Brakhage’s new style is the fact that four of the six films on this program have sound. By contrast, of the nearly 200 films Brakhage made between his first artistic maturity (around 1958) and the mid-1980s, only four are sound films. In the new films Brakhage has tried to give sound an importance almost equal to that of the image. He gives the sound artists he works with credit equal to his own on the films themselves, and he even describes his short hand-painted film Loud Visual Noises as having been made in response to its sound track, a collage of new music by Joel Haertling. Loud Visual Noises is indeed a genuinely curious contrast to the silent hand-painted films Brakhage has made in the past; in them, densely packed, rhythmically organized fragments of color and shape made a self-sufficient form of “visual music.” In Loud Visual Noises, by contrast, the bursts of imagery seem to spring out of the sound fragments as a flower does from a bud, not “illustrating” the sound but growing from it.
For me, the three great films on the program are Kindering, I . . . Dreaming, and Faust’s Other: An Idyll. Kindering is the shortest, only three minutes long. It depicts young children playing in a typical backyard. Brakhage films them through an anamorphic lens, a device he has used in earlier films, which tends to expand (“fatten”) the image in one direction while compressing it in the other; some of the same effects can be seen in fun-house mirrors. In his earlier films, Brakhage tended to twist the lens rapidly, creating a sense that the seen world was rapidly and continuously being transformed by the artist’s shifting consciousness. (The direction in which the image is expanded and compressed depends on which way the lens is oriented.) In Kindering, the lens mainly turns slowly or not at all, so that the type of distortion present in each image is relatively constant. The viewer is presented with cramped, cluttered images, images that feel utterly filled, in part with children made grotesque by the lens. The film’s short running time works in its favor, and in fact is used by the filmmaker as a formal element, as a part of its expression. Because of its brevity, the film seems to represent a single terrifying dream image, a sudden, awful vision. One senses the image not as a window that may be entered by an imaginative mind but as a barrier, a filled world with its own inner logic of space and seeing that denies the artist, and us, admission. Brakhage’s alienation from the children–who are, not insignificantly, his grandchildren–is clear. But also we have a vision of American suburban childhood in general–as a backyard horror, a prison that denies imaginative freedom. The dense collage sound track by Architect’s Office completes the trap; sound is felt as material substance, filling the air in the same way that image-as-barrier fills the screen.
In I . . . Dreaming Brakhage appears on-screen in a way that continues the theme of his own alienation from the felt world. The sound track, by Joel Haertling, is a rather beautiful collage of fragments from Stephen Foster songs, one that manages to bring out the maximum pathos in Foster without descending into bathos. With this sound we see images of landscape, of two children touching each other, and of Brakhage sitting, and eventually getting into bed, alone. Rather than trying to make himself look glamorous, the artist films himself picking his toes.
I . . . Dreaming is a haunting film in part because of the way Brakhage scratches words or phrases from the songs, or phrases suggested by the songs, directly onto the images. Over a dark and brooding landscape, white scratches spell the word “void,” and we feel as if words, and the emotions that words can represent, are like injuries to the image–they “wound” it by giving it a name, limiting our response to what we see. Once again Brakhage acknowledges his own humanness, his own limitations, in the body of the film, and not simply through the narrative depiction of aloneness. The poetic and suggestive imagery is always being brought back to earth by the scratched-on emotion words, as the artist acknowledges within his film the impossibility of transcending his sadness.
This is indeed a major shift for Brakhage, away from his artist-as-hero period, in which the artist as transcendent self was posited as the creator of the world, or the inventor of new worlds of the imagination. In these newer films, Brakhage no longer posits his imaginative eyesight as the all-redeeming agent that remakes the world with each new glance, nor do we sense that every image is taken only from an interior mental perspective that prides itself on its wholeness. The filmmaker is now more tentative, and his films increasingly seem populated with sensibilities other than his own. Whether out of a new generosity, a deepening self-doubt, or perhaps a mixture of the two, other viewpoints are allowed to assert themselves. Thus the two children in I . . . Dreaming seem to have a curious independence from the figure of Brakhage, and it is quite clear that their life is not his.
Many of these concerns converge in the longest film on the program, Faust’s Other: An Idyll, which is the second of four films that Brakhage plans on the Faust legend. The first images of Faust’s Other give us dim, out-of-focus silhouettes; only after several of these do we see a sharp image, of a vase of flowers, and a human shadow on an adjacent wall. As the film proceeds we see two central adult figures–a male Faust and a woman painter–two children, an apartment, and an elaborate theatrical production. The sound track is mostly music and sounds by Joel Haertling, which produce a wonderfully dense and diverse environment that forms an appropriate analogue to the diversity of the imagery. At times Brakhage reads his own texts on the nature of the imagination, and this was the only element of the film whose success I was unsure of. The texts are densely argued, full of complex twists of phrase, and the process of trying to comprehend them is so different from the process of perceiving Brakhage’s spectacularly poetic image-light that the spoken texts tend to remain in a separate space.