His message: Film is an art; Beyond Hollywood's goals: The Stan Brakhage style
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.