Stan Brakhage, “Mothlight” (1963)
American filmmaker who brought a unique eye to his craft
Friday 14 March 2003 21.23 EST
Those who consider cinema a narrative art form, and believe that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end – in that order – will have problems with the work of Stan Brakhage, who has died aged 70. His films were difficult also for those not willing to shed the conventionalised illusion, imposed by rules of perspective, compositional logic and “lenses grounded to achieve 19th-century compositional perspective”.
For Brakhage, the goal of cinema was the liberation of the eye itself, the creation of an act of seeing, previously unimagined and undefined by conventions of representation, an eye as natural and unprejudiced as that of a cat, a bee or an infant. There were few filmmakers – film director is too limiting a description – who went so far to train audiences to see differently.
“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective,” he wrote in Metaphors On Vision, first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963, “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.
“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? 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’.”
To a large extent, Brakhage realised this innocent world in his films, restrictively labelled avant-garde or experimental, existing in a parallel universe to the multiplex ethos. His signature was as figurative as it was literal – he would scratch his initials directly on the film’s emulsion at the end credits. Like a painter or sculptor, he worked manually on his material, often scratching, dyeing and altering the celluloid itself, making today’s push-button digital technology anathema to him.
He would hand-paint blank frames of 16mm film, and glue objects to them in a collage. In Mothlight (1963), for example, he pasted moth wings on to strips of film and, when projected, the bright light seemed to bring the insects back to life.
Brakhage was born Robert Sanders in a Kansas City orphanage, and adopted two weeks later by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage, who named him James Stanley. He performed on radio as a boy soprano, attended high school in Denver, Colorado, and, at 19, dropped out of Dartmouth College after two months to make films.
Among his early influences were Jean Cocteau and the Italian neo-realists but, after arriving in New York in 1954, he joined the flourishing avant-garde scene, drawing inspiration from artists and filmmakers like Maya Deren, Marie Menken and Joseph Cornell. He admired Ezra Pound, and was a close associate of poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, and abstract expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning, with whom much of his work has an affinity.
In 1957, he married Jane Collom, and the details of their lives together figured prominently in his work. In Window Water Baby Moving (1959), he unflinchingly and poetically documented the birth of the first of their five children.
In 23rd Psalm (1966), he contrasted scenes of his tranquil life in rural Colorado with footage of the second world war. The quick cuts of the first part, depicting a world menaced by chaos, give way to the contemplative passages of the second, suggestive of a quest for the roots of war – particularly the Vietnam war, then at its height.
Brakhage’s most famous film, Dog Star Man (1964), one of the key works of the 1960s American avant-garde, experimented with the use of colour, painting on film and distorting lenses, while depicting the creation of the universe. It ends with superimpositions of solar flares and chains of mountains over his wife, as she gives birth to their child.
During five decades, Brakhage made nearly 380 films, most of them shot in 8mm or 16mm, and ranging in length from nine seconds to four hours. With a few exceptions, they were made without sound, which he felt might spoil the intensity of the visual experience. He preferred to think of his films as metaphorical, abstract and highly subjective – a kind of poetry written with light.
Brakhage taught film history at the University of Colorado from 1981 until last year, when he retired to Canada with his second wife and two sons, who survive him along with the five children of his first mariage. It is a tragic irony that he seems to have been killed by the art he loved. According to his widow, doctors believed that the coal-tar dyes he used in his filmmaking may have contributed to his bladder cancer, which was diagnosed in 1996.
· James Stanley Brakhage, filmmaker, born January 14 1933; died March 9 2003