LATE AND SOMEWHERE FIRM: Notes on Stan Brakhage's Vancouver Island Films

By Testa, Bart | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

LATE AND SOMEWHERE FIRM: Notes on Stan Brakhage's Vancouver Island Films


Testa, Bart, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


Résumé: Bien qu'au cours des années 1990, Stan Brakhage fut de plus en plus préoccupé par la gravure sur pellicule, il réalisa aussi les remarquables films de photographie qui forment trois des quatre parties de la série connue sous le titre collectif « Vancouver Island Quartet ». Cet article se concentre sur A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea et The Mammals of Victoria pour examiner le retour au paysage proclamé par Brakhage au début des années 1990. D'abord, l'auteur compare Visions in Médiation #2 : Mesa Verde, et sa projection d'intimations subjectives, à A Child"s Garden et son projet de révélation de la première biographie de Marilyn Jull Brakhage en prenant comme sujet le jardin d'enfance de cette dernière. Puis, l'auteur compare ce film à The Mammals of Victoria, dont l'approche semble plus contemplative.

For reasons largely personal, but also political and artistic, Stan Brakhage developed a strong affinity for Canada, and for Canadian visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Ultimately, he sought to live here and succeeded, though just months before his death in 2003. If any artist had a self with roots in a place, it was Brakhage, who, while not really sinking new roots, situated his self firmly in Vancouver Island near the end of his life.

The years when Brakhage was most involved with Canada represent, as we will have to see it now in retrospect, "late-period" Brakhage. This is not to suggest a diminishment of his vitality. One says "late period" Brakhage the way one says it of certain French modern painters, like Cezanne, Matisse or Monet. He shared with them an unusually prolific late phase of production. As he preferred more and more to paint, then to "etch" on film, less and less did he conceive of discrete works and more and more developed serial pieces with modestly scaled parts that accumulated into cycles: the pictureless "numbers cycles" (the eleven Romans [1979-1981], the nineteen Arabics [1980-1982]), the Egyptian Series (1984), the Dante Quartet (1987), the Babylon Series (1989- 1990), and Seasons (2002). These works indicate how, in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, single, camera-made projects were ceding prominence to a serial mode of painted-on-film production.

This should not be exaggerated. Brakhage's late period still saw variable techniques, different kinds of films and diverse ambitions of scale. The grand gesture never entirely left his art, but he tended now to hold his firepower in reserve. Becoming more meditative, he allowed the tumult of his art to recede. And while Brakhage seemed close to abandoning photographed films in the 1990s, among the great late films are the camera-photographed first three of the Vancouver Island Quartet: A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea (1991), The Mammals of Victoria (1994), and The God of Day Had Come Down Upon Him (2000). For the purposes of my argument here, I will concentrate on the first two.

1.

Judging from the talks and screening discussions he tirelessly conducted until the onset of his final illness, virtually everything fundamental that Brakhage thought about what he called "a possible art of film" he had thought through by the 1970s. The integrity of Brakhage is such that critics are disinclined to break him up into periods even when they point to variety in his films. Yet, to read his later writings selectively, particularly some essays written between 1989 and 1999 for the Toronto journal Musicworks (assembled now as a book, Telling Time) is to sense an artist making a conscious digression away from a "willing to art," away from the heroic manner of the 1960s and 1970s.

Among the essays in Telling Time, "An Inner Argument" (dated 1991-the year of A Child's Garden) stands out. This essay is a touching reminiscence of his friend and fellow filmmaker Jim Davis and includes a portrait of Davis in his last days, confined to bed with still and movie cameras to hand, "so that you [that is, Davis] could meditate all day on the colored 'shadows' cast through your moving mobiles of transparencies by the sun upon your lucent screen. …

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