To Capture the Flow of Thought
Filmmaker Stan Brakhage prefers a constant flux of shapes, colors, and movements
NEW YORK — ONE of the many ways Hollywood affects our lives is by making us forget how personal moviemaking can be.
With their glamorous stars, sophisticated equipment, and armies of technicians, the Hollywood studios do a splendid job of creating powerhouse entertainments that divert us, amuse us, and occasionally enlighten us. But we rarely have the sense that a film artist is speaking to us from the heart and soul, turning cinema into an expression as finely shaped and passionately felt as anything the worlds of music, poetry, or painting have to give.
This is among the areas where Stan Brakhage's work has made a profoundly important contribution over the past 40 years. Throughout that time he has called for a cinema that would bypass the conventions of Hollywood film - which is relentlessly artificial and manipulative despite the superficial realism it flaunts - and offer a new kind of seeing, based on awareness of how illusory the boundaries are between the physical eye, the camera eye, and the mind's eye.
In recent years, Mr. Brakhage has placed an ever-growing emphasis on film as a mental experience, closer to the flowing ineffability of music than to the frozen images of still photography. Probing deeply into the enigmas of his own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life, he has turned increasingly away from recognizable movie images. What he prefers is a constant flux of shapes, colors, and movements that suggest realms of thought, rather than the worldly things we see with so-called normal vision.
The result has been a rapidly expanding series of films that avoid not only storytelling but all movie-style representation of the ordinary world. Everything we see in that world, Brakhage insists, is less a definitive reality than a mental construction shaped by expectation and conditioning. What his films try to capture is the flow of mental activity itself - through images that seem abstract but are actually straightforward efforts to capture the thoughts, energies, and mysteries that lie behind our everyday experiences.
Four decades of activity have convinced Brakhage that the most effective way of accomplishing his goals is to bypass photography in many cases, and instead paint images directly on the film strip.
The extraordinary artis-tic potential of this approach, and the mastery Brakhage has achieved over it, were fully evident in the films he showed to large and enthusiastic audiences at the Millenium Film Workshop during his most recent New York visit.
Of these films, none is more visually striking and emotionally moving than "Boulder Blues and Pearls and...." Made last year in the Colorado city where he lives and teaches, it combines hand-painted "abstract expressionist" forms with camera-made shots photographed in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations.
Brakhage calls this film "peripheral vision of daily life as the mind has it," and one of its most noteworthy characteristics is its complete avoidance of either a rosy sentimentality on one hand or a skeptical deconstruction of modern life on the other. Venturing into a realm of purely cinematic perception, it has no interpretation beyond the buoyancy and ineluctability of its own complex vision. Yet the intricacy of its imagery suggests an intellectual depth that would surely reward multiple viewings.
Equally bold in its methods and even more startling in its impact is the oddly titled "Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse," which uses aggressive barrages of hand-painted imagery superimposed on pictures taken from one of Brakhage's favorite enemies - the television screen, which he has long accused of exercising a mind-numbing and hypnotic effect that does no good for its viewers. Made from four simultaneously layered rolls of film, this work is Brakhage's effort to show the optic nerve as a hero, brav ely resisting "grotesque infusions of luminescent light" from the TV tube. It is a bravura cinematic feat.
Also on Brakhage's two programs at Millenium were the feature-length lyric "A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea," a meditation (with echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson and other poets) on his wife's childhood home. Shorter works deal with the city of Toronto; a Boulder production of the "Nutcracker" ballet; the difficult relationship between memory and urban life; and the vision-processes of childhood, a constant Brakhage theme.
Special mention should also go to an ecstatic work called "For Marilyn," dedicated to his wife. Some of the films incorporate music by Brakhage collaborators Rick Corrigan and James Tenney; others are silent.
In all, it was a literally eye-opening experience, courtesy of a towering film artist who has refused to compromise his aesthetic integrity despite decades of receiving far less reward and recognition than he richly deserves.
* Stan Brakhage's films are distributed by the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York and by Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.