Film at Wit's End
By Jerry Johnson
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: Stan Brakhage, the de facto Godfather of American experimental cinema, is the most influential filmmaker you've never heard of. Although only a handful of people have seen even one of the 250+ films he has made over the past 45 years, filmmakers and students regard as classics such films as Dog Star Man, Reflections on Black, Mothlight, and Anticipation of the Night.
Although most of the public has never seen a Brakhage film, everyone knows his cinema. His radical aesthetic and philosophical approach to filmmaking has been borrowed, co-opted, stolen, and mutated by a startlingly varied array of directors, studios, cinematic movements and, yes, even corporations. He's in your MTV, your Jean-Luc Godard, your Nike commercials, your Oliver Stone, and just about everyone of your budding and already established experimental filmmakers.
But to dwell on the ubiquitous nature of his cinema would do disservice to what his films represent in themselves. Brakhage began making his experimental work in the early 1950s, at a time when the possibility of cinema as something other than a means of narrative storytelling remained highly unexplored (as a sign of our times: Whereas Robert Rodriguez burst on the national scene with a seven thousand-dollar feature, Brakhage did so with Desistfilm, a seven-minute short!).
Falling in with the likes of Maya Deren, Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, and others, Brakhage quickly became something of the spiritual leader in an avant-garde movement that sought to stretch the potential of film as a personal, poetic, and physical medium to its limit. Though Brakhage has been instrumental in developing such cinematic sub-genres as psychodrama and the Beat film, it is his continuing investigation of film as a pure physical and rhythmic property that has set him apart as an innovator. He has scratched up his films, painted their frames, and glued foreign objects to their surface.
While this may sound like the raging foolery of an anti-art anarchist, his films are nothing if not concertedly whole, integrated, and most of all, beautiful. In fact, it his careful attention to the rhythm of montage and the spatial connectedness of his images that continue to position him on the fringe of a contemporary independent film scene where haphazard filmmaking is often not the exception, but the rule.
What Brakhage has produced during his life is a body of work unmatched in the world of experimental cinema in its refreshing variation, intensely personal nature, and unceasing experimentation. And at age 65, his output has by no means subsided, as he still produces two to three films a year that continue to challenge our notions of art.
In advance of his upcoming visit to Austin, John Ausbrook (director of in*situ, the local film society presenting Brakhage's appearance), and I talked with Stan Brakhage over the phone about everything under the cinematic sun.
Austin Chronicle: What motivated you in the beginning to make experimental films? A political motivation? A personal one?
Stan Brakhage: What was most meaningful to me growing up and still is to this day, are art works: music, poetry, painting, sculpture, theatre, dance, and so on. I always have that in mind, to try to make something of lasting value in the same processes as the history of the arts. But you know, you can want to make an art and that can be your wish but whether you are enabled to do so or not is dependent upon mysterious qualities that we have no control over. So you wish, and fling yourself, and then the rest is personal.
AC: Was this the case with Interim, your first film?
SB: Of course. I was very much in love with the woman that I was casting as the main protagonist of that film. It was about love -- a love story -- and so I was realizing that film for personal reasons but at the same time hoping, believing, that film might be an art. In fact, literally, I began that film when prompted by my rage when some friend told me that it was too bad artists can't work with film because it's too expensive!
AC: What was your formative film experience as a child?
SB: I was traumatized by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was the first film I saw. And at the point at which the lightning cracks off a piece of the cliff and the witch falls to her doom, I had to be taken out into the lobby, like most kids, screaming and crying. I was an avid attender of serials -- that was the Saturday afternoon enticement to kids to return to the theatre every week. You saw your double bill, your cartoons, and your latest chapter of the serial. And the serial form still fascinates me inasmuch as it begins with the birth, that is, the rescuing of the hero or heroine from the previous threat of death so that they are born again at the beginning of every chapter. You have a certain balance within each chapter, you know, of generative things and destructive things. And then their death at the end of the chapter. And that form seemed to me tremendously important.
AC: What films influenced you as an adult when you began to recognize film as an art form?
SB: Jean Cocteau's Orpheus above all else, and it still does -- a kind of bible to me for artists. And then Rossellini and De Sica -- the Italian neorealists. I had those two extremes. French surrealism and Italian neorealism were cross-bred in me -- and Kurosawa's Rashomon.
AC: What place did the other American experimental filmmakers of your time have in your development?
SB: Certainly Kenneth Anger -- tremendously important. Maya Deren, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson, as I came to know him. Willard Maas, Marie Menken, Ian Hugo, and so on. These people were "mine own kind." They were doing what I was doing. And I was beginning to understand there's a real distinction between the narrative dramatic movies I was seeing and the work that I wanted to be doing.
AC: So do you see experimental cinema and more mainstream narrative features as two separate media of artistic expression?
SB: Narrative thematic movies are to the independent, experimental (whatever you want to call them, the individual, I think) films as prose is to poetry. Understand that I'm not valuing poetry above prose. There are times where the prose of a culture is far superior to its poets. To its poetics. And vice versa. But it is that different, especially in their respective ways of making. Poets are much more subject to brainstorms or, you know, to inspiration or whatever. So that it would be practically inconceivable for most of them to work with a script at all. Whereas it would be pretty inconceivable to make a narrative dramatic movie without a script. Even Cassavetes had to have some kind of script.
AC: How did your experience in theatre contribute to your dramatic aesthetic?
SB: I was tremendously involved with and ran a theatre in Central City, Colorado across one whole summer. We did Strindberg, Gertrude Stein, Chekhov. Entirely one-act plays in that summer. I really was, for a while, assuming I was going into the theatre. So when I did make those early pieces that had some narrative to them, like We the Shadow Garden, Reflections on Black, and so forth, these were really very inspired by Strindberg maybe above all else.
AC: In your writing, particularly Film at Wit's End, you're very concerned with the notion of the artist and the creation of this thing called art. What's your response to the postmodern aesthetic that seeks to break down the boundary between art and pop culture -- in essence, that anything can be art?
SB: Created by a lot of lazy people who want to have their childhood kicks and have it sanctified as if it was something tremendously serious. It's not church-worthy. And they have infiltrated the colleges to an enormous extent where they're even more pernicious because they know perfectly well that how to become a popular professor is to give all their students the sense that they can have all their easy movies, where they can escape and bug out, while at the same time having a profound art experience. The students lap it up, and both of them deserve each other, sitting in lazy land. You know, art is a hard pleasure, and that's the beautiful thing about it. The appreciators are as hard-working as the maker to comprehend and unravel the enigmas and the complexities of a poetic cinema. Or of a great prose triumph, too. It's a hard pleasure to understand a Tarkovsky or even a Cassavetes. I have it very clearly in mind because I've just seen this film by Cassavetes' son, She's So Lovely. Have you seen it?
AC: I have.
SB: Well, it's John's script and a beautiful movie. But it's not that neurotic, nervous, almost-always-falling-to-pieces thing that was intrinsic to John. I don't mean to pick up the father to beat the son over the head with -- the son does have another kind of ability. And he will, I think, probably succeed. Everyone in it is acting so very well. The acting is so fine that even Gena Rowlands does a good job of acting. But one never has the sense that that's where it is with John's work. In John's films you're always feeling like they've all given up acting, though they're actors. And they're coming apart right on the screen in front of you.
AC: So do you see this film as indicative of a general lack of concern with the formal qualities of cinema -- the visuals -- in much of the independent film scene today?
SB: Yes, it certainly is, as a matter of fact. I don't know how this can happen at a time in which there are colleges and universities and video stores all over the place that make available to people the great classics of cinema that ordinarily we used to have to travel from one city to another to see. I had to go across the Bay to see Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. I had to travel to Los Angeles, to New York. Now, people are sort of buried in a swarm of images and I can't understand how people that are imitating mostly Bruce Conner, but sometimes even me, and making MTVs to go with the music, can be so incredibly sloppy. I think they're deliberately trying to put together something so poorly made, that the dumbest viewer and listener will feel that he or she could have made it too, and therefore will love it. There's no question that every sensible mode or every reasonable -- or even unreasonable -- quality of filmmaking has been just disrupted. Even chance operations would produce a much more interesting film than most of what's on MTV.
SB: Well, yeah, I mean the camera meanders around and people are in mid-waist for the most part to the tops of their heads, drifting about with, presumably, their legs dangling below the screen, as if they were puppets on a string. Not only that film but practically with every film. What saves these films are the extraordinary performances. Film has the capacity to record the great art of acting, and that's its triumph across this whole century. And we've had some extraordinary aesthetics of mimicry that we've all been very dependent on. And film can do that and that's a wonderful thing and I love it and go to it all the time and am deeply involved. But at the same time, curiously, that ability to record this other art to the exclusion of all else has been one of the most detrimental things to the evolution of film and what it might be, from my viewpoint.
AC: Could you speak about the importance of a poetic sensibility in cinema and the influence of your friendships with poets like Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Robert Kelly?
SB: Well, it's been a wonderful and curious relationship. For one thing, I assumed I was a poet from the age of nine years old and that's all I ever wanted to be. And there went my cuckoo clock right on schedule. And when I made films, it was a poet making films, in the tradition of Jean Cocteau, and/or others. But then I gradually, painfully, came to learn through the association of these great poets like Robert Duncan, et al. that I was not a poet. And so they taught me that I was not what I supposed I was, right in the midst of my deep loving of what they were and were able to make. Because I've always cared for poetry more than any other art.
AC: Do you think poetry has worked its way into your sense of rhythm as you structured images?
SB: Unquestionably. I started where everyone else did with, you know, narrative drama. But then very quickly poetry became the guiding light. Painting. Still photography even, briefly. Then I realized they were quite opposite arts, stills and movies. Then sculpture for a while. And even spatial involvements with architecture. So that's been my tradition.
AC: There's such a separation nowadays between people who are filmmakers and people who are painters, writers of prose, and sculptors. There doesn't seem to be the sort of intermixing that was going on in your scene during the 1960s.
SB: On the individual level, what we all share is that we are unique and individual, and that then there are certain commonalities. Like Marie Menken continued to do painting, her collage paintings, along with her filmmaking. Willard Maas went on writing his -- I don't think he was a poet, but he was trying to be -- he was writing interesting verse anyway. Almost everyone came as a refugee from some other art. Many of them continued to practice both modes. I feel very fortunate in that I stopped splitting myself in that sense and was enabled to give myself over just rather completely to film.
AC: You were one of the few filmmakers who seemed to roam at ease between the experimental movements of the East Coast as well as the West Coast. How were the two movements different?
SB: People on the West Coast dropped in on each other casually. People on the East Coast had clubs like the Independent Filmmakers Club or Cinema 16. They gathered more formally. There were differences of tone and color. West Coast filmmaking is very colorful, very Kodachrome, which was regarded often as vulgarly garish by the East Coast, who are more subject to the pinched tones of a cold climate, if you know what I mean. Gradually, it's true, climate has a powerful effect. Terrain. People in San Francisco, there's a quality of their aesthetic that's dominated by the fact that they sit on the San Andreas Fault. Basically, I lived both places and spent most of my life in the middle, up in the mountains. Hermetic on the one hand and then running all over the country making a living on the other.
AC: Jean-Luc Godard has often stated his films are as much cinema criticism as they are cinema in themselves. Do you think this applies to your own body of work?
SB: I really don't. Godard is in his own. I met him at Telluride about eight years ago and they asked me to introduce him. So I got up and I kind of scared the audience because I talked about how I'd never been able to quite place Godard. And you could see people getting very nervous, like, was I going to take the occasion to insult Godard after they had gone through so much trouble getting him there. And then I said what really helps me is to see him like a Magritte painting, where you have the tree of all the arts with all its branches and then you have Godard who hangs a little off the end of this branch, that here's something else he's doing. Then he got up and said, "Monsieur Brakhage, I'm just doing honest genre." Wonderful retort and respect. We respect each other.
AC: You've been a very influential proponent of other experimental filmmakers insofar as getting their work to the attention of the public. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to champion that movement?
SB: Oh, absolutely. Not just that movement, I feel very precious about the responsibility to pass the arts on to people or preserve them so that they can be extended into human consciousness at the right time. I've been very involved in forming the Anthology Film Archives and have come to have a kind of archive myself just because I've traded films with filmmakers. When I've had some money I'd buy a film of theirs to help them out. And I show these regularly on Sunday evening, in an unadvertised word-of-mouth gathering of students and townspeople. I also teach at a university, and there I'm representing everything, including the poor, despised documentary, and independent film, and Hollywood film. I've added Orson Welles just to thicken the plot. Then I'll be teaching epic films in the spring.
AC: Brakhage teaching a Hollywood epic film course -- it kind of makes sense.
SB: I like that, I like to share films with people. I think I've behaved in the same way that a person would if they saw some precious thing drifting out to sea. You try to rescue it.
AC: Would you talk a little bit about Harry Smith and Kenneth Anger's interest in magic and the occult? And the idea of hermeticism in any of its forms -- is it a legitimate path for an artist to pursue?
SB: We have a lot of magicians in film. The most notable that I have known are Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Harry Smith. I admire all three of them and they are major mentors in my life and in my making. But I have quite consciously, in all three cases, shooed offers to pursue certain modes of magic that each of them were practicing. Why film attracts magicians in a certain way has intrinsically to do with the light, because for me every mark that is put on film, which is particularly relevant when you're painting, is a diminishment of the light. Unless that mark is, in its diminishment literally the light, focusing attention in some way that's to increase one's awareness of illumination.
AC: Are you speaking in a literal sense -- that their films were really a form of magic?
SB: I take things very literally. I've seen enough in my life to believe in the powers of these magics -- Rosemary's Baby is a documentary to me [laughs]. And a lot of other horror films. We are living in a situation that's essentially spiritual when we're working with the light.
AC: Are there any filmmakers today you admire or that you see as carrying on the tradition that you and the others started back in the Fifties?
SB: Oh my, yes. There are more great -- and more purely dedicated to the possibilities of art -- filmmakers working today than in the 1960s at its height. Many, many more. Their problems are that they have few public outlets for their work. But they're undaunted by this, which astonishes me.
AC: So you never received any offers to make a Hollywood film?
SB: I did go to Hollywood when I was young, got hired to study under Hitchcock at one point, and then gave it up. Which is really amazing. I don't know where I had the guts to do that. I've actually had people from Hollywood come and ask me what I'd like to do. I told them that I would like to make The Battle of the Amazons after Ruben's great painting.
AC: As an epic?
SB: Yeah, as an epic film. Widescreen, super-widescreen, with famous stars, mostly nude. And, of course, that got shot down. And I was sure it would have made a fortune. You'd have subplots where they'd roll off the bridge where they're fighting and get entangled with each other lustfully. And you'd have a great love affair spring up in the lower right-hand corner. It would be fabulous. And the producers said, "Yes we'll think of that, we'll think of the possibilities." And I said, "I'm sure this will be a money maker!" And they asked, "Well, why would you choose such a thing as this?" And I said, "Because if I'm going to work in Hollywood then I'm going to do something that you can do. You can do this. It makes sense to do it!"
AC: How do you feel about the movement of many experimental filmmakers to video in the past 15 years?
SB: I think they're dreaming that there is a place for video, and I'm very grateful for it. I have no war with it. But I don't see that it's produced anything that interests me as an art in its whole history. Film, in its first 15 years, had much more than video has to date: Méliès, the Lumieres, Griffith, etc. So I think video's too ephemeral. Actually, I've given in finally to allow my films to be put on video. So as long as people know the difference, they're going to have these reproductions and they're just going to aid and abet the desire to see the original, I'm sure.
AC: And finally, if you were a summer Hollywood blockbuster, which one would you be?
SB: I've seen them all. All of them. Every one of them. You know, I thought probably the best was Face/Off. But I wouldn't want to be Face/Off. That's the problem: I don't want to be a Hollywood blockbuster. Can we leave it at that?
Stan Brakhage will screen old and new works from his archives at 3:30pm Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Paramount Theatre. Tickets are $6. At 1pm that day, he'll be at Borders Books where he'll be signing copies of his book, Film at Wit's End. Saturday evening he will be conducting a filmmaking workshop. For more info about the events call 481-0493.
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