Stan Brakhage, the father of American avant-garde cinema, was the kind of character we don't see much of in the art world anymore, a figure of towering importance with an outsize personality to match.
In a 50-year career Brakhage made more than 350 films, ranging in length from nine seconds to four hours. In the process he pioneered a first-person visionary cinema influenced by classical and modern music forms, post-Beat poetry and abstract expressionist painting as much as film. He explored subjects both quotidian and cosmic -- from the wonderment of human visual perception to the mysteries of creation, childhood, love and death.
The peaceful and domestic nature of his own death at age 70 a week ago in Victoria, B.C., after a long struggle with cancer, was in many ways a fitting end to a life built on a recognition of the visual beauty and profundity of everyday existence. Among his last words to his wife, Marilyn, were these: "I've had a wonderful life. Life is great."
While his work is unknown to most audiences, Brakhage was a giant in the subculture of experimental film and video, which exists primarily on college campuses, in a few adventurous art museums and in independent theaters and micro-cinemas. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, film students entering the industry applied Brakhage's stylistic innovations, and today's feature films, music videos, even car commercials bear the influence of his genius. Most famously, the much-lauded credit sequence of David Fincher's 1995 film "Seven" is almost entirely a homage to Brakhage, from its quick, shifting edits to its scratched emulsion, distressed celluloid and staccato bursts of light and color.
Early in his career Brakhage rejected narrative, believing that storytelling was a literary convention imposed on film to the detriment of its ability to see life clearly, free of the twists, turns and fictional upheavals of drama. Despite his background as a musical prodigy, Brakhage decided early on to make his films silent as well, believing that sound distracted the eye from a full perceptual awareness of cinema's true purpose as a visual medium. These two decisions meant his work would be too rigorous and demanding to ever find a place in the mainstream of film distribution.
Among his many films, a few stand out in my mind:
Working with his first wife, Jane, Brakhage envisioned their first experience of childbirth in the intense, rapturous 1959 film "Window Water Baby Moving." His best known film, the five-part "Dog Star Man" (1961-64), addressed the unity of creation and the primacy of love, presaging many of the themes that would dominate American culture in the late 1960s.
"Scenes From Under Childhood" (1967-70) is a four-part epic imagining of a child's visual experience of life, from birth to adolescence. By turns revelatory, startling and disturbing, the film attempts to shock the viewer out of his ordinary visual registers so that he can recall instinctual memories. "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" (1971) is Brakhage's clear, penetrating portrait of a Pittsburgh morgue; anticipating by 30 years the recent television trend of airing autopsies, his film is an honest elegy for human life, showing the forensic finality of death without tears.
Brakhage was particularly interested in peripheral and closed-eye vision -- the electric colors behind our eyelids, and the darting light trails we see as we shift our concentration from one thing to another. In the early 1970s, this led him into abstract work. His 1974 masterpiece "The Text of Light" explored microscopic shifts in the rays of light refracted through a single crystal ashtray, transforming an ordinary object into an epic visual poem.
For much of the rest of his career, Brakhage concentrated on hand-painting directly onto film, frame by frame. He worked with great discipline, finishing a few feet of film a day, only enough for seconds of screen time. His 1987 "The Dante Quartet," painted largely on Imax film, exemplifies the extraordinary beauty of the best of this work, unfurling a layered, constantly shifting swirl of color and light.
In San Francisco, New York and from a log cabin in the Colorado Rockies, Brakhage stayed in touch with a network of like-minded artists and writers, from surrealist Joseph Cornell to poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. He collaborated occasionally with composers to make a sound film in defiance of his own precepts. A founder of the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York City, he tirelessly advanced other important outlets for the screening and distribution of experimental cinema. Brakhage was perhaps the best-known member of the loose coalition called the New American Cinema; his writings in cinematic philosophy and history, his charismatic lecture appearances, and his teaching, first at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the University of Colorado in Boulder, have been nearly as influential as his films. Among his many students in Boulder, from which he retired to British Columbia just this past year, was Trey Parker of "South Park" fame.
Even with Brakhage's often stubborn isolation from the mainstream, recognition came his way. In a 1973 issue of Artforum devoted largely to his work, film historian Annette Michelson argued that Brakhage was as influential as any filmmaker since Sergei Eisenstein. New York's Anthology Film Archives regularly screens his films, and the Museum of Modern Art has long committed itself to preserving Brakhage's work, purchasing each of his titles for its permanent collection. The Library of Congress's National Film Registry included "Dog Star Man" in its first annual selection of films significant enough to the history of the medium to be preserved. And this month Criterion Video is scheduled to release a collection of some of Brakhage's best work on DVD. Typically, he was gracious and thankful for any recognition but ultimately seemed unconcerned, content to keep working -- which he did to the end of his life.
Late last year I worked with New York film curator Mark McElhatten to organize a career retrospective featuring 75 of Brakhage's films for the National Gallery of Art and the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran. I began to meet with Brakhage at a restaurant near his home in Boulder. Though wary of outsiders after a lifetime of seeing his work ignored by critics, curators and mainstream audiences, and despite a reputation for being difficult and fearsomely opinionated, Brakhage gave his time to me, in large part because long before he and my late father had been friends.
Each time I saw Brakhage he held forth on a wide range of subjects while meticulously coloring and scratching a short strip of film on a sheet of butcher paper, helpfully taped to the table by the devoted restaurant staff. He would rage about the JonBenet Ramsey murder, which still obsessed him, and he would speak excitedly about beloved films, including both experimental work and big Hollywood pictures. He railed against the coming war with Iraq, and often spoke of his planned decamping to Canada as a form of exile. He would reminisce about my father, whom he knew before I was born, and talk about his own two boys, the youngest of seven children he had over the years.
Even though diminished by his illness, Brakhage, in his booming basso profundo voice, would occasionally break into song, reaffirming a spirit for life, and a confidence, that led him to persistently test boundaries and tilt at windmills. One time he asked me if I could give him a lift to the local multiplex. As he slammed the car door and walked haltingly on a cane toward the theater, I was stunned by the simultaneous gravity and casualness of the moment: This giant of cinema was on his way to watch an action-adventure blockbuster.
The man selling the ticket and the person serving the popcorn were surely unaware they were sharing a moment with one of the most important filmmakers who ever lived.
Paul Roth is assistant curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.