STAN BRAKHAGE paints with light.
Imagine an Abstract-Expressionist painting made of light, moving through time, pure forms evolving into new forms at 24 frames a second, and you have some sense of a hand-painted Brakhage film.
Light is the essence of this work. Color makes light comprehensible. Color makes it possible to experience light almost as music is experienced - a complex of visual rhythms and emotions, harmony, themes and variations, tone and texture.
In the hand-painted films, Mr. Brakhage paints directly onto the film stock. Like Abstract-Expressionist painters, he calls attention to the medium itself, to the fact of film, how it runs through the projector, how it requires the light of the projector bulb just to be seen up there on the screen.
It's not easy to paint on film - rather like painting landscapes in miniature, considering the fine detail he achieves on 8, 16, 35, 70mm, and on Imax film stock.
Like the great paintings of the Abstract-Expressionist school, these films are "about" more than the merely technical fact of art making and art materials.
"My films are inspired by Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and so many of the Abstract-Expressionist movement," says Brakhage. "I realized that a lot of the things these people were seeing were seen behind closed eyes. So that wasn't an abstract at all, it was realism. It wasn't ephemeral. It represented a real world. But there's no way to photograph it, so I paint it.
ve used vibrators with color powders to try and approximate the closed-eye vision. I've grown mold on film, mixed chemicals in various ways to make organic shapes - representations of this wondrous phenomenon - and I've painted on film. I herded brine shrimp in 'Scenes from Under Childhood that's the most extreme."
I call the hand-painted work "pure form" films. "Pure form" because though the hand-painted films are most often described as "abstract," Brakhage finds that term inadequate. "Abstract" suggests condensed versions of legal papers, or the distillation of form, and "abstract" suggests a lot of things that abstract art is not: It is not referential, it is not pictorial, it is not concerned with Renaissance perspective.
"Pure form" art can be defined as the expression of form purely perceived as such, moving in reference to such seen and unseen influences as emotion, closed-eye vision, dream, the heartfelt rhythms of music and of life itself.
"Pure form" captures something the more negative word "abstract" can't touch, either - the positive grappling with the light on both the literal and the metaphorical levels these films represent. Form as defined by light has a purity, too, that eschews the mundane tyranny of the photographic image - the tyranny of Renaissance perspective. "Pure form" art is as natural and exact as wildflowers in the woods.
These are my favorite of Brakhage's films. Over the past 20 years since I was in film school, I have seen many (though by no means all) of Brakhage's 200-some films. I have heard dozens of his lectures, read books by and about him, and written thousands of words about his work. The "pure form" films are among the most exquisite and difficult to describe critically.
"Dante Quartet," for example, takes its subject from Dante's "Divine Comedy." The four silent pieces play together like the movements of a classical quartet. But the emotions the whole work evokes are hardly definable. There is some glimpse perhaps of the confusion of hell, the pangs of remorse symbolized by purgatorial flashes, and the sweet rejoicing of inspired feeling.
But Brakhage collaborates with the viewer's eye, and what one sees is a series of stained-glass colors swirling, dashing, rushing, stopping in freeze frames. In the last segment, beneath the constantly changing "pure form" painting, are barely discernable images of Earth from space, the moon, and some brilliant volcanic eruptions.
The last segment is called "Existence is Song." And what one may find there is Dante's age-old struggle to climb out of darkness and find the light - not as related in story, but as discerned directly by the heart, swifter than words.
Brakhage began making films in the late 1950s, a teenager looking for an art of film in a world where the Hollywood standard of narrative storytelling dictated the terms upon which "good" films were made.
He became one of the most puissant and eloquent voices among the world's avant-garde film artists. He invented the lyrical film. He has altered film stock in radical ways.
"Mothlight," for example, was made by gluing the wings of dead moths he found in a light fixture along with tiny flowers and leaves between two strips of clear film and running that through an optical printer (a special-effects machine that rephotographs film one frame at a time, camera to projector).
"Mothlight" is a dancing flight of fantastic images approximating how and what a moth might see in its lifetime. But it is also a (silent) lyrical song, modeled on a Bach fugue.
For many years Brakhage took the things of his ordinary daily life and filmed them. These antidramatic films tell no stories in the usual sense, but reflect a peculiarly personal interpretation of daily experience.
Themes and variations on his children, his wife, his friends, the fabulous intricacies of nature in the Rocky Mountains, and so on, create silent music that approximates the fluid flow of thought in the memory process. Daily experience he found a fit subject for high art.
In all these films, light, too, is the principle fact. In that light, the most ordinary object takes on surprising beauty and meaning. In his referential imagery (see the still from "Faust Film") remains the same concern with the art of light. The photographed films, too, are paintings-with-light.
In recent years, Brakhage has ceased filming his daily life. "I have eschewed drama... . Also, I felt I had done all I could do for autobiography. I'd come to where I really wanted to have my life, not photograph it. Which is not to say I'm against what I did do, but just that I felt I'd reached a point where I could engage more with the music and not have it distorted by [the petty human racket of drama], but could just give rise to the creation of an aesthetic experience.
"Now in these times that reads to people like absolute avoidance. Here we live in a world where people are starving, and artists are just going to make music? It makes one sound like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But I feel that the extent to which an artist can take on the burden of his or her own life in the phenomenological and social world and then sing - that song itself is the greatest thing.... I suggest that music managed at some point in its history to free itself from subject matter with its
constrictions and speak more directly to peoples' souls than other arts.... And one is much more free to have those emotions moving through oneself and arrive at one's own conclusions."
Brakhage has never indulged the pretense that the camera is objective. Here the director/filmmaker is not an invisible storyteller hiding behind the "realism" of the photographic image. He is like a poet - using images the way poets use words, in economic precision, calling forth meaning by the careful smithing of image to image, which nevertheless flow like molten glass. He calls it "moving visual thinking."
As an artist and professor at the University of Colorado's film studies department, Brakhage is deeply grieved by what he considers the degenerate state of the arts today, by the flagrant abandonment of things of lasting value for escapism and political sloganeering masquerading as art.
"So many grotesqueries that could never previously in the world have been attached to that name of art, are now ordinarily considered high human experiences," he says.
"During these periods when attention is not paid to things of lasting value, the reaction of the people is to despise [the arts]. I suspect that there is some agitation even in people who know very little about art that they sense something is missing. As filmmaker Andrew Noren described it, 'The appreciation of the arts is a hard pleasure.' They know there are hard pleasures that require real attention, and escapism is not sufficient. So people react adamantly against anything that might arise as art."
But having said that, he refuses to despair, and finally he has little patience with that assumed pessimism so chic among many young people.
"I don't despair because the spirit, whatever it is, is not sunk in this materia.... The spirit moves otherwise than these ways and is not trapped by these little earthly dramas.... the nine or 10 thousand simulated violent deaths children watch on TV by the time they are seven or eight. The human spirit is not trapped in that. How else can you account for the fact that right now there are more genuine [film] artists who persist in making films even though there is clearly no audience (other than each ot her and a few aesthetes) to see their work. There is no chance of a career, yet they continue to make films even though they have to shoot and run original [footage] because they can't afford to make prints? It is a manifestation of the human spirit...." Part four of "Out of the West," an occasional series profiling artists whose work speaks of the expansive land and colorful cultures of the American West.