"My kind of film will never be able to hold its own against a flashy Hollywood film any more than a poem can against a clever jingle. There are those experiences that you get once and that's it. But anything that's going to be of use across your whole lifetime is going to be complicated." -- STAN BRAKHAGE
EVEN THOUGH critics have compared him to everyone from Pablo Picasso to Jackson Pollock, it's been more than a year since a theater in Washington has shown one of the 150 films Stan E Brakhage has produced independently since 1950.
Brakhage lives and makes his films in a 90-year-old log cabin in the Colorado Rockies, keeping a careful physical, as well as aesthetic, distance from the commercial filmmaking industry. "Hollywood films have no more affect on me than greeting cards do on a serious painter. With rare exceptions it's all escapist," says Brakhage. "I guess the spectacle of Orson Welles as the butt of Johnny Carson's or Dean Martin's jokes exemplifies to me the limitations of Hollywood."
As a "non-narrative" filmmaker, Brakhage uses everything from World War II newsreel footage to the light formations on a crystal ashtray to convey his personal vision:
For "Window Water Baby Moving" Brakhage filmed the birth of his child and overlaid that footage with hand-painted patterns similar to abstract expressionist works.
In an attempt to convey the cyclical patterns of life, Brakhage filmed the rotting corpse of his dog, Sirius. So astonishing is its craftsmanship that the viewer of "Sirius Remembered" tends to forget the grisly object before him.
Because he does not receive support from a studio, Brakhage, like most independent filmmakers, is constantly struggling to pay for hisSee BRAKHAGE, K6, Col. 1 BRAKHAGE, From K1 equipment and processing. At one point, he could not even afford to buy ordinary film stock. Undaunted, he made a short film by sandwiching thousands of dead moths between strips of Mylar editing tape -- the result, a wondrous and haunting film known as "Mothlight."
But trying to paraphrase these films in a few sentences, or even at all, does them no justice. Imagine similar descriptions of, say, Jackson Pollock's murals ("a mess of paint splatters") or T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" ("it's about cities and jumps around a lot"). Even the most accurate descriptions fall short. Unfortunately, unless you live in a city where interest in avant-garde cinema is relatively great, your odds of finding a Brakhage movie outside of an academic atmosphere are slim.
"We have very high expenses here and we have to have around 130 or 140 people in the audience, and the independents like Brakhage only draw about 20 or 30," says Michael Clark, director of the American Film Institute. "In fact, the audiences have become even more conservative recently and it's probably getting worse. With the pending arts cuts its hard to say what will happen. Things don't bode too well."
Tony Safford, program associate with AFI's exhibition services, says he hopes to bring Brakhage to the Kennedy Center sometime next year to show and discuss his films. "My feeling is that if we get 50 people that's fine. And if we get only four people then those are the four people that absolutely must see this program," says Safart. "We're not in this for profit."
Brakhage, for his part, is more concerned with the availability of his work; he does not care to compete with George Lucas or Steven Spielberg for Hollywood mega-profits:
"As long as I know the people who want to see my films can do so, I'm happy. I've actually had a larger audience than I ever expected. I just had a friend return from London and he told me they were showing my films at the Tate Gallery as one of the cultural events around the royal wedding. I was astonished." BB RAKHAGE began his filmmaking career with "Interim" in 1951 and has made an endless reel of movies since. "Though it's B unfashionable to say it, I believe there is something called the Muse and it seizes certain people," says Brakhage. "There's not much you can do about it other than obey the compulsion. If I were to say what I wanted to be it would be a poet, a composer, or maybe a a painter or theater person. The last art I would have chosen would have been film -- if not simply for reasons of economics."
Brakhage has managed to win several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, gives lectures at the University of Colorado and used to make commercials. "I think I was the first to make the association between slow motion and softness in a television commercial," says Brakhage. "I was the first to launch that abomination into American life but I forget the name of the soap company. I was also the first to use Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's method of shining light directly into the lens -- that was for a General Electric promo."
While he and his wife Jane managed to eke out a living, Brakhage soon proved himself the most innovative independent filmmaker since Maya Deren. Films such as "Anticipation of the Night," "The Dead" and "Reflections on Black," caused an uproar in art circles.
"With Brakhage you had the feeling, even in 1960, that an immense career lay ahead," says P. Adams Sitney, a professor of film history at Princeton. "Almost anything he turned his attention to became interesting cinema. Between 1958 and 1964, between the time he was 25 and 31, film after film was of such fundamental importance that he changed the language of movies. The one comparable phenomenon is Picasso during the period of early analytic cubism. But Brakhage has given Picasso a run for his money in terms of consistent quality over a long period of time."
One of Brakhage's greatest interests has been vision itself. Often he will handpaint the individual frames on linguini-thin 8-mm film stock to simulate "closed-eye vision." "It's a theory of mine that every so-called abstract painter and filmmaker in our time has depended either consciously or unconsciously upon hypnagogic vision, what you see when your eyes are closed," says Brakhage whose own eyes are dark and piercing. "I know this sounds bizarre but I have to say it: Film is not even 100 years old as a possibility on this earth. I think in the next century when people look back on this new possibility for human expression they are going to find it strange that all most people could think to do with it was extend the stage play and be vehicles for short stories or novels when what the cinema really has is the possibility, for the first time in human history, of visually showing human thought and memory."
At a recent lecture at Anthology Film Archives, Brakhage screened "23rd Psalm Branch," a haunting film. "It is my war vision," he said before an audience of 50. "As a child I experienced World War II as a newsreel, a movie. And now I feel the terror again. The war fever is back in this country." The film itself exemplifies both the uniqueness and difficulties of Brakhage's work. Rapid, Eisenstein-like editing, subtle references to everyone from Nietzsche to the Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky, and the use of abstract patterns, all make the film an overwhelming experience that, unlike a typical narrative film, demands concentration.
In more recent films, such as "The Text of Light," Brakhage has pursued an even more unconventional goal. Making good an adolescent boast that he could shoot a film inside a garbage can, Brakhage shot the film through a large crystal ashtray. Through the constantly shifting interplay of light and reflection, the viewer comes to reflect on the process of making movies and on the camera itself.
Not everyone is wild about Brakhage's work. Andrew Sarris, the film critic for the Village Voice, says "I don't care for his concentration on optics. I think he's trying to pump a lot of heart's blood to the eye but I think it's a mistake to put too much emphasis on the visual image. He is a very emotional person but I don't see those emotions in his films. . . . Brakhage operates almost exclusively on the level of expression and neglects the communication level. I think it should operate on both." SS INCE Brakhage's arrival on the scene he has generally been regarded as the godfather of the American avant-garde, a moveS ment which has produced such fascinating, yet largely unseen works, as Michael Snow's "Wavelength," Hollis Frampton's "Nostalgia" and Ernie Gehr's "Serene Velocity."
Perhaps because of his leadership role in avant-garde circles, Brakhage has often engaged in some bitter personal and professional battles. Kenneth Anger, a filmmaker best known for his book "Hollywood Babylon," shot an entire anti-Brakhage movie in which Anger is shown denouncing and mocking Brakhage's work and position as the paterfamilias of the avant-garde. And Sitney, once one of Brakhage's closest friends and intellectual confreres, says he refuses to be in the same room with the filmmaker.
While Brakhage lives far from the art circles of either coast and manages to avoid even more conflict, he says he is far from being "a happy mountain man making movies with glee."
"A lot of people that go into the arts think it's a pleasure and unless they mean 'pleasure' in the masochistic sense, that's a sure sign that they're not an actual artist," says Brakhage. "Art is not a pleasure. It's a risk of sanity every time. I don't live easily on this earth at all. I'm driven. In order to live here at all I have to see things new."
What would Brakhage do if he had unlimited funds to make movies on the economic scale of "Star Wars" or "1942"?
"Five or six years ago, I was in Hollywood giving several programs," says Brakhage. "Representatives from two different studios contacted me. They asked me what kind of Hollywood film I'd like to make. To the first one I said, 'I've always wanted to make a film based on Rubens' "Battle of the Amazons," which would be wonderful in Cinerama and would deal with the war between men and women.' They thought I was joking, but when they found out I wasn't they left. To the second group, I said I wanted to make a film about the old Rembrandt, up against death, starring Buddy Hackett. And they left, too."
While his most ardent following is in art and academic circles in metropolitan areas, Brakhage says one of his most satisfying compliments came to him just a few miles "down the hill from home."
"One day I was going to the post office down in Boulder and a very small woman with a very large baby stood in my path. She said, 'I want to thank you for your film "Window Water Baby Moving" because I wanted to have this baby without drugs and it took me three days to give birth. The last two days I didn't think of much else than your film.' God, tears started streaming down my face. I looked at her narrow hips and this large happy baby and I thought, 'What more can you ever hope to accomplish on earth.' "