Stan Brakhage( January 14, 1933 – March 9, 2003) was an influential American avant-garde filmmaker that explored the frontiers of artistic expression and visual perception through the medium of film. During fifty years of filmmaking, he produced roughly 400 films of varying lengths. His films are always painfully alive, the uncontainable kinetic energy brimming over the edge of the screen. Brakhage was firmly opposed to the narrative convention of the cinema or any film that wished to impose a ‘way of seeing’. His films do not want to “suck you in”. Instead, they want the viewers to be aware of the fact that they are watching moving images. If that makes the viewers less comfortable, even better for it. His subject matters are as diverse as the quantity of his works is vast. But one central theme that connects all of his works is the meditation on the process of the vision itself. Images in Brakhage’s film are hard to pinpoint. They change, morph, disperse at a feverish pace. Even when photographic images are employed, they are never presented in the way the viewers expect, which makes attempts at attributing concrete meaning to Brakhage’s images an exercise in futility. The formal construction of his film is a poignant metaphor to the constantly shifting nature of human consciousness.
Brakhage attended Dartmouth College briefly before dropping out to make more films. He preferred to work manually, dyeing and scratching directly on the film strip. He worked mostly alone, except occasional collaborations with other artists. Considering his focus on the individual subjectivity, this solitary working habit was perhaps the most fitting one. It might have been that it was the kind of work that simply could not have been produced in a group. When his films were first showcased, they were often met with derision. It was during the 60s that his works such as The Dog Star Man Cycle (1961-1964), a series of 5 films which considered as ‘ the masterpieces of his first mature period’, started to get recognitions. Throughout his life, he continued to produce films and teach. In 1996, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, caused by the coal-tar dyes he used to produce his films.
His focus was on showing what the medium of film ‘could be’ when all the accepted formal and narrative conventions were stripped away. The experience of watching a Brakhage film is often shockingly intimate, disorienting, and compelling. His artistic philosophy comes sharply into focus upon examining his films in detail. In Window Water Baby Moving (1959), one of his earlier works, Brakhage explores his subjective experience of the birth of his first child in a vivid manner. In the similar vein, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) -part of his “Pittsburgh trilogy”- is a frontal, unabashed look at the process of an autopsy. The camera unflinchingly stares as the entire process unfolds by each gruesome step after another. There’s no commentary to guide the viewers, only the sense of quiet, relentless observation. His choice of extreme subject matters and the editing style makes it clear that Brakhage wanted viewers to focus on the process in which conscious mind interprets the images. The same philosophy applies to his more plastic works. Dante Quartet (1987) is a visual rendition of Dante’s Inferno, which took 6 years to produce. Its colors and movements are harrowing, disquieting, lyrical, similar in style to Lovesong (2001), one of his later works which is also hand painted and abstract in form.
The following are the adjectives that describe the works of Brakhage: intense, visceral, haunting, sharp, shocking, feverish, frenzied and beautiful. For Brakhage, filmmaking was a way of contemplating on the very nature of the existence itself, his or otherwise. The nature of his films, constantly drawing attention to its very materiality, accentuates the inherent fragility of its existence. His films are intensely subjective. Yet in its deeply internal quest, it arrives at the universal truth of some kind: the void at the core of the existence. His images forever allude meaning and concrete signification, making it evident that our attempts at attributing meanings is just another artifice, a veneer that we have created. Brakhage’s images won’t let the viewers go easily. Just like the roughly scratched out words in his films, they stay etched in one’s visual memory, haunting yet all the more poetic because of it.
Written by Avery Jung