Saturday, January 28, 2012


Before the advent of video and digital technology there was and underground film movement working in 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm who made non-narrative experimental personal films in direct opposition to the big budget Hollywood narratives. Stan Brakhage was one of the most important figures of this movement that thrived in the 1960s and 70s. Over the course of five decades he created a large and diverse body of work, exploring various formats and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid, in-camera editing, multiple exposures, quick cutting, and scratching the film. He was interested in mythology and inspired by music, poetry, and visual phenomena, and his work dealt with the themes of birth, innocence, sexuality, and mortality. Brakhage had a singular vision and created films that were abstract, lyrical, and expressive.

Brakhage started making films in the 1950s and became friends with several artists including Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage. He was influenced by them all and even collaborated with Cornell and used Cage's music on his first color film, In Between.

Anticipation of The Night (1958) retained the barest elements of narrative, but dispenses with the drama in order to capture raw experience. The script consisted of 16 concepts rather than specific shots. Where his earliest films approximated dreams, Anticipation of the Night captures the dreamlike quality of raw experience.

After struggling financially he took a job making industrial shorts to support his family. In 1958, his wife Jane gave birth tho their first of five children and Brakhage recorded the event for his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving which was edited into a quick cutting montage of visual poetry.

In the 60s Brakhage started to receive some acclaim from Jonas Mekas who at that time was a film critic, but would eventually make films himself.

From 1961 to 1964, Brakhage created a series of 5 films known as the Dog Star Man cycle. It tells the story of a man climbing a mountain with his dog, but doesn't have a real narrative. The film is centered around the creation myth and uses images of a solar explosion, the surface of the moon, nude bodies, organs and tissues, scratches, and abstract flashes of light. Brakhage uses time-lapse, slow-motion, first-person shots, microscopic shots, multiple exposures, and archival footage to create his film. All of this flows past in 75 minutes of silence.

Another important film was Mothlight, which was made in 1963, which was a found foliage film composed of insects, leaves, and other natural elements sandwiched between two strips of film. The images dance and move past in seemingly random patterns, sometimes looking like the cutouts of Matisse.

After having his 16mm equipment stolen, Brakhage started working in the less expensive 8mm format and created a 30-part cycle of films known as Songs from 1964 to 1969. 23rd Psalm Branch was a response to the Vietnam War and its presentation in the mass media. This Song was 69 minutes in length, but some of the Songs were as short as 3 minutes. At this time he also started to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the 70s, Brakhage completed a set of three films inspired by public institutions in the city of Pittsburgh. The three films - Eyes, about the city police, Deus Ex, filmed in a hospital, and The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, which depicted autopsys, were known as the Pittsburgh Trilogy. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) is one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film. Brakhage filmed it during a visit to the morgue, and it depicts expositions of the brain and faces being peeled off like masks. It is one of the bluntest statements about the human condition ever made.

The Text of Light (1974) consists entirely of abstracted patterns of light photographed through a deep-green ashtray. This film reduces the cinematography to its essence, the influence of light on photographic emulsion, and anticipates his abstract films to come. In his later films Brakhage focused on painting, drawing, and scratching directly onto the surface of the film. He concentrates on the bare act of perception and recalls the paintings of the abstract expressionists like Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and Rothko.

The Dante Quartet (1987) took six years to produce and is only eight minutes length as Brakhage painted directly on the emulsion of the film. It is based on Dante's  The Divine Comedy. Brakhage condenses into 8 visionary minutes what happened in the epic poem. Brakhage mixes elements of his own existence into the film as he was going through a breakup with his wife Jane at the time.

In the 70s and 80s, Brakhage taught at the University of Colorado and continued to make films until his death in 2003. He made both sound and silent works and collaborated with others including his colleague Phil Solomon.

Brakhage didn't want to film the world itself, but the act of seeing the world. He was interested in visual perception and the relationship between the moving image and how we perceive reality. His films were beautiful and poetic, and created a powerful emotional experience.

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