Stan Brakhage, (1933-2003) was an American non-narrative filmmaker. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th-century experimental film.
Brakhage’s films seek to reveal the universal, in particular exploring themes of birth, mortality, sexuality, and innocence. Influenced by German and Abstract Expressionism and his own visual impairment, he explores the nature of the ‘untutored eye’ where perception is freed from preconceptions of language. His work explores abstraction of communication between vision and neural responses ‘if I close my eyes I continue to see explosions of light’ that evoke memories and symbols of emotion.
Brakhage’s work is experimental, producing many accidents of chance, most of which are rejected. Then creatively responding to selected discoveries of chance that ‘seem to respond to his soul’ to create a world where ‘nothing is let in that does not have life’. He explored a wide variety of formats, approaches and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid film, fast cutting, in-camera editing, scratching on film, collage film and the use of multiple exposures. Inspired by art like the ‘unpainted paintings’ by snow on watercolour of Emile Nolde, he often worked directly on film in such a way that the outcome was not planned for example in Garden Path (2001).
His films are for the most part silent except for the rhythmic whirring of the film projector.
Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects, and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of colour. Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.’
How many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heatwaves can that eye be?
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.
“Now let me say to you – simply as I can: the search for art is the most terrifying adventure imaginable: it is a search always into unexplored regions … all real adventures are purposeless… beyond any purposeful definition…”Stan Brakhage, The Brakhage Lectures (1972) Chicago: Good Lion
Interim (1952)The Boy and the Sea (1953)Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953)Desistfilm (1954)The Extroadinary Child (1954)The Way to Shadow Garden (1954)In Between (1955)Reflections on Black (1955)Untitled film of Geoffrey Holder’s Wedding (1955)The Wonder Ring (1955)Gnir Rednow (1955-56)Centuries of June (1955-56)Flesh of Morning (1956)Nightcats (1956)Zone Moment (1956)Daybreak and White Eye (1957)Loving (1957)Anticipation of the Night (1958) Cat’s Cradle (1959)Sirius Remembered (1959)Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959)Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
Cat’s Cradle 1959
An enigmatic video in red an black of a bedroom scene. Sequential video clips of:
- a cat
- a woman
- a man (sometimes helping, sometimes sitting smoking.
- illustration of what seems to be a flea
- bottle of perfume and other ‘boudoir’ objects, curtains etc
Ends in a sex scene. What does it all mean?
Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
Short film of the birth of Brakhage’s first child. This film is both graphic and beautiful while effecting each viewer a little differently. The colours in the film are especially striking. (Warning this film is not for the queazy).
Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself (1960)The Dead (1960)Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961)Films by Stan Brakhage: An Avant-Garde Home Movie (1961)Blue Moses (1962)Silent Sound Sense Stars Subotnick and Sender (1962)Sartre’s Nausea (1962-63)Mothlight (1963)Oh Life, A Woe Story, The A-Test News (1963) Dog Star Man and The Art of Vision (1961-5)Black Vision (1965)Fire of Waters (1965)Pasht (1965)Three Films: Blue White, Blood’s Tone, Vein (1965)Two: Creeley/McClure (1965)The Female Mystique and Spare Leaves (For Gordon) (1965)23rd Psalm Beach (1966-67)Eye Myth (1967)The Horseman, the Woman and the Moth (1968)Love Making (1968) Scenes from Under Childhood 1 1967 and 2 1970.
Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
Dog Star Man consists of four short silent films and a prelude, all directed by Stan Brakhage and featuring Jane Wodening. Brakhage began filming Dog Star Man after editing and completing Cat’s Cradle and as he also worked on The Dead. He started without a clear idea of what the project would be about at a time when he was questioning his distant relationship with his wife Jane at the time and experiencing visions, and contemplations of death and decay. The series was released during 1961 to 1964 and comprises a prelude and four parts. They were later re-edited into a much longer film, The Art of Vision 1965.
Dog Star Man is considered a key moment in development of experimental film. Shot in 16mm, the film uses abstract imagery shot with variable exposure times and physical manipulation techniques such as painting directly on the film, scratching and punching holes into the film to produce specific visual effects.
Described as a “cosmological epic” and “creation myth” Dog Star Man illustrates the odyssey of a bearded woodsman (Brakhage) climbing through a snow-covered mountain with his dog to chop down a tree. While doing so, he witnesses various mystical visions with various recurring imagery such as a woman, child, nature, and the cosmos while making his ascent. Dog Star Man There is a general structure to the narrative of the film cycle that comprises the prelude and four parts:
- Prelude (1961, 26 minutes): Described by Brakhage as a “created dream”. It broadly presents a visualisation of the creation of the universe and contains many of the images, symbols and concepts that recur throughout the rest of the film series. Many instances of superimposed abstract images and what Brakhage calls “close-eyed vision”.
- Part I (1962, 30 minutes) a more impressionistic film presenting the main narrative of the series: the woodsman struggling with his journey up the mountain along with his dog. One of the most important images is the mountain that Brakhage attempts to climb. Major parts of the film are in slow-motion; others, in time-lapse photography, speeding up motion.
- Part II (1963, 5-7 minutes) Its central focus is on the birth of a child which was filmed on black and white film stock as a part of Brakhage’s home videos that he shot during the time; stylistically, the filming of childbirth in an almost documentary-like way. Two layers of imagery are imposed over one another, suggesting that the woodsman’s life is passing right before his eyes.
- Part III (1964) Part IV (1964)
“Brakhage made Mothlight without a camera. He just pasted moth wings and flowers on a clear strip of film and ran it through the printing machine.”Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 (2016) Columbia University Press.
In ‘Mothlight’ Brakhage invented his own technique of ‘collage animation’. The objects chosen were required to be thin and translucent, to permit the passage of light. He collected moth wings, flower petals and blades of grass and pressed them between two strips of 16mm splicing tape. The resulting assemblage was then contact printed at a lab to allow projection in a cinema.
Eye Myth (1967)
Scenes from Under Childhood is an attempt to imagine fetal seeing and hearing. “What we call ‘closed-eye vision’ is for me the template in the mind upon which all further formative envisionment is to occur” “The color red that dominates those early moments of the film has always struck me as the same color I see when I look at the sun with my eyes closed”. The film needed three thousand light changes in 40 minutes of filming and was pushing the edge of technological possibilities at a time when light was changing constantly across one, two, three, four rolls.
The Weir-Falcon Saga (1970)The Machine of Eden (1970)Animals of Eden and After (1970)Wecht (1971)Angels (1971)Fox Fire Child Watch (1971)The Peaceable Kingdom (1971)Western History (1971)The Trip to Door (1971)The Presence (1972)Eye Myth Educational (1972)The Process (1972)The Riddle of Lumen (1972)The Shores of Phos: A Fable (1972)The Wold Shadow (1972)Gift (1973)The Women (1973)Aquarien (1974)Clancy (1974)Dominion (1974)Flight (1974)“He was born, he suffered, he died.” (1974)Hymn to Her (1974)Skein (1974)Sol (1974)Star Garden (1974)The Text of Light (1974)The Stars are Beautiful (1974)Short Films: 1975 (1975)Gadflies (1976)Sketches (1976)Window (1976)Trio (1976)Rembrandt, Etc., and Jane (1976)Desert (1976)Highs (1976)Airs (1976)Absence (1976)Short Films: 1976 (1976)The Dream, NYC, The Return, The Flower (1976)Tragoedia (1976)The Domain of the Moment (1977)The Governor (1977)Soldiers and Other Cosmic Objects (1977)Bird (1978)Burial Path (1978)Centre (1978)Nightmare Series (1978)Purity and After (1978)Sluice (1978)Thot-Fal’N (1978)@ (1979)Creation (1979)
Dante Quartet 1987
Then comes a moment when suddenly I can’t handle the language anymore, like I can’t read one more translation of The Divine Comedy, and suddenly I realize it’s in my eyes all the time, that I have a vision of Hell, I have even more necessary kind of a way of getting out of Hell, kind of a springboard in my thinking, closing my eyes and thinking what I’m seeing […] and also purgation, that I can go through the stages of purging the self, of trying to become pure, free of these ghastly visions, and then there is something that’s as close to Heaven as I would hope to aspire to, which I call “existence is song.” And that all of that was in my eyes all the time, backfiring all these years […] It’s lovely that I can have the language, but I also have a visual corollary of it, but that is a story.Quoted Wikipedia article
The Dante Quartet is divided into four parts, titled Hell Itself, Hell Spit Flexion, Purgation and existence is song, respectively. Brakhage described the sections as follows:
I made Hell Itself during the breakup with Jane [Brakhage] and the collapse of my whole life, so I got to know quite well the streaming of the hypnagogic that’s hellish. Now the body can not only feed back its sense of being in hell but also its getting out of hell, and Hell Spit Flexion shows the way out – it’s there as crowbar to lift one out of hell toward the transformatory state – purgatory. And finally there’s a fourth state that’s fleeting. I’ve called the last part existence is song quoting Rilke, because I don’t want to presume upon the after-life and call it “Heaven.”Quoted Wikipedia article
The Dante Quartet took six years to produce.The eight-minute silent film was created by painting images directly onto IMAX and Cinemascope 70mm and 35mm the film. Sometimes over previously photographed material that was then scraped away or otherwise manipulated. The paint was applied very thickly onto the film, up to half an inch thick.
Added music and sound by Michael Surber 2011