Let us now praise Stan Brakhage, who recently descended on New York with more new movies in tow than some filmmakers produce in a lifetime -- and it was just his latest batch.
For some viewers, Brakhage isn't just an artist, he's a force of nature. And they have a point. Writing, teaching, lecturing, corresponding -- and generating a staggering number of films -- he strides across the cinema scene like a colossus. Through it all, his message is always the same: that film is an art, with a much higher purpose than conveying the flashy yarns and entertainments of Hollywood.
Naturally, this is an controversial idea. Most like their movies neat and easy, with familiar faces and comfortable ideas. Brakhage takes the opposite tack. For him, a work of art begins not with a plan or an outline, but with a "quirk" of the mind or the heart. If you can record that quirk, other people can relate to it, and the human community will be just a little bit closer.
That's why Brakhage films tend to be deeply personal -- he would say romantic -- expressions, based on his own experiences and visions. Yet these "quirks" are rarely as simple as that whimsical word makes them sound. Translating them to celluloid, Brakhage brings enormous emotional, intellectual, and even scholarly weight into the balance. During a recent appearance at the Museum of Modern Art, he was introduced as "the Picasso of cinema" -- an overblown description, but not totally off the mark.
Brakhage has failings, to be sure. Though I admire him greatly, I wish he would use sound more often --most of his films are silent -- and I regret his suspicion of lingering images. Quick rhythms are at the heart of his work: rhythms of shape, color, light, and dark, even the grain of the photographic stock. Yet I feel his films would be vastly more accessible if they weren't so relentlessly dense, and so fearful of pictorial values that might distract viewers from the values of the work as a whole. I think Brakhage forgets that alluring images can be gateways rather than impediments to broader understanding of complex works of art.
And some observers have deeper objections. A mainstream critic chides him for not telling stories or developing characters. A feminist critic castigates him for making intimate works that don't jibe with her politics. Even supporters of Brakhage point out that leftist critics have long attacked him for using the nuclear family as his most basic and enduring theme.
For viewers like me, though, this is part of Brakhage's charm. Unlike many radical artists, he avoids the big cities, living for years in the Colorado mountains with his wife and five children, who have been frequent "actors" in his films. The concepts of marriage, family, and domesticity are as central to his work as his extreme aesthetic ideas. "They call me an underground filmmaker ," he reminded a recent audience, "but I'm more of a living room man!"
Brakhage left that living room not long ago and paid a busy visit to New York , unveiling and discussing a prodigious number of new films. He made six appearances in about a week, providing a good overview of his latest work, and leading a stimulating chase through New York's major showplaces for independent cinema.
The first two evenings took place at the Collective for Living Cinema, in the otherwise bleak Tribeca neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Here, before a large crowd of fans, BRakhage presided over the first complete screening of his "Sincerity & Duplicity" series. This is a four-hour "autobiography" compiled from old footage that had been gathering dust in Brakhage's workroom.
Brakhage doesn't think much of written autobiography: Most of it is "lies," in his opinion. In telling his own story through film, he wondered if images could be more truthful than words, cutting through the usual poses and getting at the essence of life.
Along the way, he decided it wasn't working the way he'd hoped -- "sincerity" being a sort of pose, too -- so he added "Duplicity" to the original one-word title, in the spirit of honesty. The work itself continued, emerging as a massive act of self-examination, single-mindedly avoiding the pretty, cute, and clever shots most of us strive for when we film ourselves and our families. To quote Brakhage, "It's what home movies could be if they were stripped of sentimentality" -- a worthy goal, artfully realized.
Next stop was the Museum of Modern Art, for "The Roman Numeralk Series." Years ago, Brakhage wondered how many colors might appear in a "green" field, to a baby who hasn't learned what "green" is supposed to be. The new "Roman Numeral" films push this line of exploration to new extremes, trying to catch visual essences devoid of all preconceptions, prejudices, and acquired ideas. It's a search for the "original vision" we are born with, and can still recapture if we keep "looking" when we close our eyes or go to sleep.
Briefly described, the films are exercises in pure color, motion, and shape. Many would call them "abstract" or "nonrepresentational," though Brakhage won't tolerate those words, which pin his "quirks" into neat art-historical cubbyholes. He is nothing if not a rebel. In some cases, he proudly reveals, he can't even remember what he photographed to achieve these rarified poems in unadulterated light.
The next morning, Brakhage gave a benefit for Anthology Film Archives, a venerable SoHo institution which is raising money to establish a major film museum. Here he unveiled his magnificent "23rd Psalm Branch" in a new 16-mm version (which gives more "monumentality" to what used to be an 8-mm work in the long "Songs" series). A hugely complex "war film," it's intended to put that alarming subject right under our noses, for our consideration and (Brakhage hopes) rejection. Yet it's also a textbook example of Brakhage's methods, with its quick rhythms and sharp images and fierce visual density.
Brakhage's visit ended with two evenings at the Millenium film workshop in Greenwich Village, where he screened a selection of pictures that are rarely shown even by the libraries, schools, and museums that collect and disseminate his work. More important, he introduced still more new movies: Entries in the "Arabic Numeral Series: which continue his probe into the essence of sigh; a couple of less memorable efforts; and a pair of apparent masterpieces called "Aftermath" and "Murder Psalm."
Here was the distillation of Brakhage. Discussing the bold "Aftermath," he repeated his frequent admission that he is an "image freak" who has a weakness for television, not to mention the commercial movies he so often berates. "Aftermath" is his frontal attack on insidiously seductive TV pictures that reach out and "clutch" even him, an artist who mercilessly strips his own work of all that's easy and soothing and false.
The resulting film is only secondarily an attack on TV, though. First and foremost, it's a triumph of color and rhythms on Brakhage's own terms. As for "Murder Psalm," it's the filmmkaer's search for material "that would have interested Dostoevski." It's a harrowing excursion into the untamed places of what is preeminently a gentle and civilized mind, expressed largely through stock footage -- even cartoons -- that have an ominous new meaning here.
For now, that sums it up. But he's still working, as hard as ever, and there's no telling where his quest may lead next. Brakhage has taken a new job, teaching at the University of Colorado, and -- as he murmured to me during his New York stay - he's worried about becoming "an academic."
I had to laugh, because if anyone is going to change, it's academia that had better look out! Stan Brakhage is one of a kind, an inspiration to a whole generation of independent movie-lovers; and there's no sign that either his energy or his invention has begun to flag. Who knows? Even Hollywood may take notic e one of these days.