Academic journal article Chicago Review

Stan Brakhage and the Long Reach of Maya Deren's Poetics of Film

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Stan Brakhage and the Long Reach of Maya Deren's Poetics of Film

Article excerpt

How you produce volume after volume the way you do is more than I can conceive, but you haven't to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts as I do. It is like walking through the densest brushwood.

William James to Henry James, letter dated March 10,1887

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary; that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.

Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (1951)

All writers who eschew story altogether are essentially aspiring to the philosophical

Stan Brakhage,

"Gertrude Stein: Meditative Literature and Film" (1991)

From a range of possible filmmakers, Maya Deren is worth considering as Brakhage's most important immediate predecessor. This is not because her films are necessarily any more significant than those of Kenneth Anger, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Marie Menken, or any other figures who may come to mind, but because, unlike them (and like Brakhage), she also produced in writing a significant theoretical position towards cinematic art, perhaps best encapsulated in two works, the chapbook, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), and the essay, "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality" (1960). Both works present a compatible point of view and both contain a trenchant, highly polemical critique of two poles of cinematic art, the documentary on the one hand and the animated, abstract film on the other. In Deren's conception, the standard documentary, in its slavish respect for a false objectivity by way of photographic transparency; is too imaginatively feeble to think and respond to the very subj ect matter it purports to encounter. Deren asserts that documentary needs a greater range of formal options, options which may compromise (correctly) the invisible presence of the filmmaker in order to respond to reality. The problem with the animated, abstract film is the reverse: although such works may be aesthetically powerful, they are animated paintings and not films per se, because the photographic reality of the world itself has been bypassed altogether. They make use of the filmstrip but should be categorized elsewhere because they have the aesthetic principles of another medium. In Deren's powerfully reductive scheme, the unique privilege of film lies precisely in its ability to present a series of images which depicts an argument and interplay between the imaginative and the real:

Nothing can be achieved in the art of film until its form is understood to be the product of a completely unique complex: the exercise of an instrument which can function, simultaneously, both in terms of discovery and invention. (1)

This dialectical complex, in turn, provides the emotional tension which propels any given work. To lean too heavily to one side or the other of this polarity is to take an easy way Out and risk aesthetic impoverishment. Rather, the contradictory nature of cinema should be wholly embraced. Out of greater difficulty comes a potential for greater reward:

This very profusion of potentialities seems to create confusion in the minds of most film-makers, a confusion which is diminished by eliminating a major portion of those potentialities in favor of one or two, upon which the film is subsequently structured. An artist, however, should not seek security in a tidy mastery over the simplifications of deliberate poverty; he should instead have the creative courage to face the danger of being overwhelmed by fecundity in the effort to resolve it into simplicity and economy. (2)

Now the objections to Deren are rather obvious. For one thing, her thinking almost gets her into the contradictory position of considering a conventional photographic image more real than reality itself:

The most immediate distinction of film is the capacity of the camera to represent a given reality in its own terms to the extent that it is accepted as a substitute proper for that reality. …

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