Magazine article Artforum International

Celluloid Hero: P. Adams Sitney on Stan Brakhage

Magazine article Artforum International

Celluloid Hero: P. Adams Sitney on Stan Brakhage

Article excerpt

STAN BRAKHAGE'S DEATH at seventy, on March 9, 2003, marked the end of the most astonishing career in the 108-year history of the cinema. For fifty years Brakhage released up to a dozen new works every year without a break, so that he leaves a filmography with some four hundred titles. In his artistic practice and in the themes of his films he was an Emersonian vitalist, a legacy he inherited through the poets Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan. But in the end he moved from being a celebrant of the aesthetic creed of the American Orpheus, and from a self-consciously Spinozist position as a critic of religion as power, to professing the Christianity of his Dickensian childhood as an adopted orphan. His funeral took place in an Episcopal church.

Brakhage's creative energies and his cinematic inventiveness were Promethean. He filmed two epic cycles, Dog Star Man (1961-64) and the Faust series (1987-89); poetic documentaries of the police (Eyes [1971]), open-heart surgery (Deus Ex [1971]), and autopsies (The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes [1971]); films of the births of the first five of his seven children [Window Water Baby Moving [1959], Thigh Line Lyre Triangular [1961], Dog Star Man, Part 2 [1964], Bluewhite [1965], and Song 5 [1964]); and a massive autobiography that includes, among many individual films, four entire cycles (Scenes from Under Childhood [1967-70], The Weir-Falcon Saga [1970], Sincerity [1973-80], and Duplicity [1978-80]). He made perhaps a dozen films on the behavior and the deaths of his extensive menagerie of pets. (His first wife, Jane--now Jane Wodening--eventually added goats, a donkey, and chickens to their more conventional assemblage of dogs, cats, and birds.) Several of his films cast critical and analytical light on common social practices and sign systems by making them extraordinarily strange: basketball (Western History [1971]), a wedding (Song 9 [1965]), a school play (Soldiers and Other Cosmic Objects [1977]), a cemetery (The Dead [1960]), a Christmas ballet (Christ Mass Sex Dance, [1991]), television (Oh Life--A Woe Story--The A Test News [1963]; Murder Psalm [1981]), Native American ruins (Visions in Meditation #2: Mesa Verde [1990]).

Brakhage virtually invented and singularly dominated the characteristic genre of American avantgarde cinema: the crisis film, that lyric articulation of the moods and observations of the filmmaker, following a rhythmical association of images without a predetermined scenario or enacted drama. Since the early '60s he handpainted on film so elaborately that he brought that way of filmmaking, at least as old as Len Lye's work in the mid-'30s, to new profundities. It became the predominant process of his filmmaking in the '90s. Perhaps a quarter of his oeuvre was made without using a camera.

Brakhage could never stop making films. At his poorest, when he couldn't afford a roll of film, he collected leaves and the wings of dead moths in his in-laws' house and in a Denver theater where he, his wife Jane, and their three children were living rent free. He sandwiched this organic matter in rhythmic patterns between layers of transparent, sprocketed editing tape to make his gorgeous Mothlight (1963). That was far from the only time dire necessity drove him to creative invention. A year or so later, when his 16 mm equipment was stolen from his car in New York, he purchased a used 8 mm camera and embarked on the remarkable lyric sequence of what turned out to be thirty Songs (1964-69). He may have initiated that series to prove that sophisticated film art could be made with the simplest, cheapest means, but as he progressed his 8 mm films became more complicated and, consequently, more expensive to print. His intricate, multipart response to the Vietnam War, 23rd Psalm Branch (1966-67), may well be the most complex film ever constructed in 8 mm.

His passion for work may be what felled him. In 1996, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, his doctors believed it was caused by the dyes with which he had been handpainting films for years. …

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