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Asked for suggestions for a Brakhage Memorial program at Ithaca College by filmmaker David Gatten, a professor there, I offered to curate a program and write notes. The notes are posted below; eventually, more stills and links will be added. Fred Camper

Curated by and with a short essay by Fred Camper, introduced by David Gatten

The films:
The Wonder Ring (1955) 6 min
The Dead (1960) 11 min
Mothlight (1963) 4 min
The Process (1972) 13.5m
The Riddle of Lumen (1972) 17 min
Creation (1979) 17 min
Arabic 1 (1980) 5.5 min
Arabic 15 (1981) 7.5 min
Crack Glass Eulogy (1992) 6 min
Coupling (1999) 4.5m
The Dark Tower (1999) 2.5m
Lovesong (2001) 12 min.

This program took place on Sunday, April 20th, 2003, at 7:00 PM, Park Auditorium, Park Hall, Department of Cinema & Photography, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY. For more information about the program itself, email email me or David Gatten, or call him at (607) 274-1548.

Program Notes on Brakhage
by Fred Camper

Stan Brakhage is most often credited with forging a cinema of idiosyncratic individual vision, harnessing the camera to create first-person imagery to express subjective emotional states, or to find the cinematic equivalent of dreams, daydreams, and hypnagogic images. But all too often his quest is misunderstood as self-centered self-valorization. Less often mentioned is the vast range of influences Brakhage drew on, from Gertrude Stein to Anton von Webern, from Merce Cunningham to J. M. W. Turner. But perhaps most importantly, the now-complete arc of his career makes clear that a major, perhaps the major, driving force behind his work was a desire to push beyond the boundaries of the narrowly-conceived self, to change and expand that self.

Indeed, only a few of the films on this program evidence the kind of first-person eye, the filmmaker using the camera to represent his subjective response to the scene before him, with which Brakhage is identified. For The Wonder Ring, a key early breakthrough commissioned by and inspired in part by the artist Joseph Cornell, Brakhage sought to organize a film musically using film rhythms rather than sound, finding those rhythms in the stopping and starting of an elevated train, and finding superimpositions, which he would make in later films in the lab as well as in the camera, in reflections in the train windows. Perhaps the film on this program that comes closest evoking specific emotions is The Dead, which uses rapid editing to turn a Paris cemetery into a perceptual prison, configuring Europe as a deadly trap, especially for Americans — the figure seen in a café is filmmaker Kenneth Anger. But even Creation, one of Brakhage's major landscape films, is less concerned with his emotional response to Alaska than with finding a parallel for the processes by which the world was made in the process of filmmaking itself, changing exposure to suggest the filmmaker's power over light, editing with a shearing effect to suggest the reshaping of landscape evidenced in the calving of a glacier that's also seen — the filmmaker as God, in a sense.

Brakhage's career can be said to tell a little story, the story of a journey away from the narrowly-conceived self, represented by the agonized protagonist who haunts early works such as Reflections on Black, toward a complex and engaged dance with everything encountered in the world. For Mothlight, his first film made entirely without a camera, Brakhage placed moth wings, other insect parts, and plants on clear strips of perforated tape having the same dimensions as 16mm film, which the lab used to make prints from. This film collage is inevitably in part about film projection itself, about the way the projector's gate breaks up nature's continuities into individual frames. By denying Mothlight's objects the static stability of a nature documentary, it imprints them more deeply — and differently for each viewer — into consciousness. It also makes a very precise and very controlled music. When I first saw it, at age 16, its rhythms reminded me of Bach.

The rapid-fire flashes of The Process creates a very different rhythm from that of Mothlight, but the photographed objects that Brakhage juxtaposes with solid colors are similarly denied stability. Brakhage's catalog note for the film refers to memory as the "electrical…firing of nerve connection[s]." While Brakhage's films always undercut any dualities they may set up, his note goes on to suggest that while the photographed images involve "re-constructing 'a scene,'" the flicker represents the very process of thinking, and insofar as those associations hold, the film foregrounds the act of perceiving over the thing perceived.

The Riddle of Lumen, similarly, is less an inventory of emotions than an inventory of different kinds of light — though individual images can also have emotional implications, of course. But Brakhage edits the film to undercut, even deny, the kinds of obvious unities achieved by cutting on common shapes or similar movements that organized many of his earlier films. The effect of this editing is to constitute each individual image, each variety of light, as a kind of irreducible mystery. In no way an "objective" documentary, for the conceit of objectivity is something that Brakhage's whole aesthetic denies, it is also less a record of a moment-to-moment subjective encounter in which a controlling eye reinterprets the scene than of a self wandering through a forest populated by an infinite variety of shapes, colors, and luminosities.

Of the "Arabics," like the earlier "Romans," Brakhage said when he made them that, having spent years seeking equivalents for things he has seen (abstract shapes painted directly on the film were meant to represent closed-eye vision, for example), he was now trying to make images unlike any he had seen before. And the compositions of the "Arabics" would make no sense as stills: mysteriously moving lights, shifting suggestions of spatial depth, and consuming darkness all combine to create an experience that eludes predictability. This is the profoundest sense in which Brakhage's work differs from Hollywood: a conventional narrative sets up an arc of expectation which the story is designed to fulfill, whereas the "Arabics" deny expectation entirely, leaving the viewer without firm ground, as the films constantly regenerate themselves in the moment-to-moment present, never tying their various threads together in a pat ending.

The majority of Brakhage's films in his last decade were hand-painted, with optical printing often used to extend individual images for two or three or occasionally four frames; more than four frames, Brakhage said, acknowledging borrowing the phrase foam filmmaker Phil Solomon, puts a film in danger of becoming a "slide show." These films are for the most part immersive, characterized by non-hierarchical compositions every part of which seem to be equally active, equally likely to change.

Brakhage's filmography tells the story of a man who began life in agony, ill at ease in the world and seeing his subjectivity as a trap, but who found his way, through the redemptive potential of imagery and light, to the freedom to engage in a dance with everything encountered in the world. The intimation of death in The Dark Tower is preceded by the ecstatic Coupling and followed by the equally ecstatic Lovesong; in both, interpenetrating patterns of paint represent the fusion of selves that occurs in the process of loving engagement.

Like much avant-garde film, Brakhage's films occasion different responses from different viewers. An encounter with these expectation-undercutting films should be approached without expectation: relaxed, but sensitive and alert. The unconscious reflex that causes one's seeing to slow down when a movie comes on the screen should be fought against. Multiple viewings are of course preferred; Brakhage used to say that it took him at least three viewings to even begin to understand a film. The dual rewards of viewing a Brakhage film are, not surprisingly for work based in part on contradictions, also seeming opposites: you are placed more in touch with your own perceptions and subjectivity, but you are also taken out of yourself, dancing along with Brakhage to his particular version of the endlessly-regenerating and ineffably mysterious lights of the world.

More information on Brakhage can be accessed from my Brakhage links page.
Copyright © Fred Camper 2003

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