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Projecting the Films of Stan Brakhage

Topics on this page (which may be added to): Focusing a Brakhage film, Projecting a Silent Film, Musical Accompaniment?, Correct Projection Speeds, Color and Color Fading, Projecting 23rd Psalm Branch.



Focus!

As is the case with most avant-garde films, projecting the films of Stan Brakhage presents some special challenges. One issue is how to focus them, because many are intentionally out of focus, or consist of images painted or collaged directly on the film strip that go by very rapidly (Mothlight is one of many examples). The first-time projectionist of a Brakhage film needs to be alert to this issue. Try to focus on the titles, if they're sharp and occur at the beginning. Some distributors also place their own title card on the reel before the film, which is ideal for focusing. But you must remain alert. I've seen prints with the title card image put on the wrong way, so that focusing on it will leave the actual film soft. Try rocking and back and forth very gently with the focus knob to find the small area where everything seems sharpest — and leave the knob in the middle of that. Of course this is best done in a section with sharp-edged imagery, or very visible grain, if possible. And don't do it too much; to do it at all is to introduce an unintended effect that distorts the film. Ideally you can learn to focus on the scratched-on titles, and learn to judge when the focus drifts (as sometimes happens) and reset it, rather than having to test it by rocking back and forth.

Sound?

The great majority of Brakhage films are silent. For those films, please be sure to turn your sound system off. I have sat through many Brakhage films, included in group shows that include sound films, in which the sound was left on for the silent works. Since most projection sound systems generate static, and some generate a lot of static, this is highly inappropriate and really annoying; among other things, it creates the expectation that the film is actually a sound film and that the sound just hasn't started yet. Even sound systems that generate no audible static most of the time have been known to suddenly go off with a little "pop" at unpredictable moments, which is highly disruptive of the viewing of a silent Brakhage film.

Also, use an accurate rental catalogue or a reasonably accurate filmography to determine in advance of your showing which Brakhage films that you are showing, if any, have sound. Be prepared to turn the sound system off and on during the showing. Before the showing, determine the proper volume setting by running a sound film, and leave it there. Changing the volume while the film is running inaccurately represents the sound track by introducing unintended volume changes.

Musical Accompaniment? NO!

There have been a number of screenings in recent years of silent Brakhage films with live musical accompaniment. In my view, this is a really bad idea.

When Brakhage presented his films, he was asked time and again why they were silent, and was told it would have helped to have music. He gave a variety of answers, including, "I've learned that I'm just not a very good sound filmmaker," but I think the answer he gave that came closest to the truth is that he had found all his life that the sound track of a film overwhelms its visual rhythms, and that because he was trying to work with delicate rhythms generated by the many subtleties of his imagery, sound would destroy everything that he was trying to do. It was his belief that since the music would dominate, the images would be reduced to accompaniment to the sound.

About showing Brakhage films with music, Marilyn Brakhage, Stan's widow, heir, and executor, wrote me on August 11, 2003, "I don't really believe it should be done. The idea of using a Brakhage film as 'accompaniment' just bothers me."

As these events started to become more common, I asked Brakhage by phone in May 2002 what he thought about them. In his typically generous fashion, he allowed as how he "wouldn't want to interfere with others' attempts to be create something. But it's not something I would do, and I probably wouldn't want to see or hear it....They might be doing something really important but they should be absolutely honest that it's not a collaboration. They may from my viewpoint distort the aesthetic of the film, as long as they don't distort that they're doing it themselves, without collaboration from me." He then told a story involving the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When Brakhage lived in San Francisco briefly, "Ferlinghetti would come over once or twice a week trying to create a poem that would go with The Dead. All I can remember is, 'Oh, the Dead.'" But eventually even Ferlinghetti, "with all his egomania," had to agree that The Dead was a silent film.

Here's my interpretation of Brakhage's statement, and my personal opinion about presenting silent Brakhage films with music: One can rent his silent films and show them with any sound track one wants. In Brakhage's view, you will be "distorting the aesthetic" of his films; in my view, you'll almost certainly be destroying them as Brakhage films. Therefore, anyone presenting Brakhage films with music should not advertise this as a showing of a Brakhage film, even if you add, "With music by (let's say) the Psycho Puppies." You are not showing a Brakhage film. What you are doing is using a Brakhage film in the creation of some new entity, and you should give a name to that new entity (or call it "Untitled"), and explain that it includes a silent Brakhage film that is now accompanied by music by the Psycho Puppies.

If you're interested in seeing Brakhage images with music, Brakhage himself made that possible; mostly in his last decade, he made a number of films in collaboration with musicians, in which the image and music were meant to go together. In my Brakhage Filmography, look for the films with music credits. In some cases, Brakhage used existing music with permission; in others, the music was composed for the film. When he worked with musicians, Brakhage tried to create works in which neither sound nor image would dominate the other, but each function co-equally. My personal favorites of Brakhage films with music by others include Boulder Blues and Pearls and . . ., Crack Glass Eulogy, I . . . Dreaming, # Visions In Meditation #3, and Christ Mass Sex Dance. There are also Brakhage films with original sound tracks by Brakhage, and among my favorites of those are Desistfilm, Fire of Waters, and Scenes From Under Childhood (Section One, Sound Version). And Blue Moses even has an actor speaking in lip-sync, though don't expect a conventional "story."

Correct Projection Speed

The Brakhage films with an 18fps projection speed specified in the Filmography can also be shown at 24fps; Brakhage himself of often showed them at that speed, and he wrote, "I am in all cases designating a preference, not an absolute." These include the ten super-8 films of 1976 that were originally released in super-8 and later enlarged to 16mm; a number of films made in the late 1970s and early 1980s that were shot on super-8 but intended only for release in 16mm; the standard-8mm Sexual Meditations #1: Motel; and the Songs, also shot and released originally in standard-8mm. The Songs were, Brakhage wrote, "intended to cohere rhythmically at speeds ranging from 8 to 24 frames per second." He had noticed that most standard-8mm projectors had a variable speed knob rather than a fixed speed control and was interested in being true even to that aspect of the gauge he was working in. But Brakhage also indicated a preference for 18 fps for some Songs, and a preference for 24 fps for others, specifically naming 23rd Psalm Branch as one that's "better" at 24fps, which is the speed he asked me to project it at in 1967.

Color and Color Fading

Most prints of Brakhage films that were struck between the early 1970s and early 1980s were printed from internegatives onto a Kodak positive stock whose colors faded rather quickly. Specifically, it was the cyan dye that faded, leaving the colors a muddy reddish-brown. Many will have seen such prints of older commercial films in revival theaters. The fading speed could not be predicted; in some cases the films will have a slight reddish tinge; in others the colors will be totally gone. This process is irreversible; beware of it when renting prints or purchasing used prints. While any color print can fade, the danger rapid fading largely passed after the early 1980s, when due in part to a campaign by Martin Scorsese Kodak introduced a low fade print stock. The fading risk was never as large for camera originals or reversal prints.

23rd Psalm Branch

It seems as if this film, an overwhelmingly affecting meditation on war and the roots of violence in the West that is one of Brakhage's greatest achievements, has been consistently projected contrary to the maker's original intent for much of the last four decades. From anyone who has projected the film, I'd be interested to hear one way or the other how it was shown. The 16mm and standard-8mm prints at Anthology Film Archives have no special projection instructions, nor do the 16mm rental prints I've checked.

I was the projectionist at what was to have been the "world premiere" of this film at the M.I.T. Film Society, of which I was a co-founder, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 1967 — Brakhage told me at the show that he had in fact shown the whole thing at an early venue, but still considered our showing the "official" world premiere. We also purchased a print from him at that time. This film was originally made, and shown, in 8mm, the pre-super-8 format also known as "standard 8mm" and "regular-8."

The print I projected was on four standard 8mm reels, the first part on the first two and the last part on the last two. The print we purchased was mounted the same way, and the cans of each reel had the following notes on them:

Reel 1: PROJECTIONIST! SET FRAME LINE CORRECTLY, AS USUAL, AT BEGINNING OF FILM—THEN DO NOT CHANGE THRU SHOWING REEL#1 AND #2
STAN BRAKHAGE

Reel 2: Do not change frameline from reel 1's setting.

Reel 3: Reset frameline correctly at the beginning of part 2. Then do not change through showing of 3 and 4.

Reel 4: Do not change frameline from Reel #3's setting.

Brakhage also stressed these instructions to me at the time of our showing. The assumption behind these notes is that the projectionist will set the frameline so that it is not visible at the beginnings of reels 1 and 3.

The 8mm cameras the film was shot with had framelines in different positions. Brakhage later discovered in editing that the frameline was going to be visible in some of his footage; in fact, with his different cameras and also found footage, he had images with framelines in several different positions which he planned to intercut. At first he was vexed by the frameline problem, but then, in a fashion not atypical of him, decided to work with those frameline shifts in the editing. The effect of his rapid cutting between images in which the frameline is visible (and in different positions too) and those in which it is not is to create a visceral impact at the cuts, a jarring effect in which the images are continually shifting perspective, a kind of perceptual violence. This prevents any the viewer from just absorbing the images transparently as compositions or in terms of content, making the act of perception both visible, and even violent.

But which images have the frameline visible and which do not is important. The whole "ideology" of the film can be affected by this. By not following the original instructions, the frameline will be hidden in images where Brakhage expected it to be visible while he was working on the film, and visible where he expected it to be hidden.

At our screening, though I reset the frameline correctly at the beginning of reel three, it drifted, and Brakhage later told me that if I, who he thought had written so perceptively on his films, didn't "notice" that drift and feel it was wrong and reset it, maybe it wasn't that important. This may have contributed to the fact that he did not follow through on duplicating his original instructions. Brakhage could, indeed, become lax about such details, feeling them too fussy. But I think he was asking too much from a viewer, even a perceptive viewer, of a film that viewer (myself) hadn't ever seen before, and in fact, I don't think the film should be shown without resetting the frameline.

Whether you reset the frameline or not affects the whole second part of the film, which in the 16mm blowups that represent the only way of renting the film today, constitutes the second of two reels. In advance of a recent showing in Vancouver, I heard from my friend Brad Poulsen about how the frameline had puzzled him a bit, and wrote him back with the original instructions. He screened the film following them, and found these instructions "crucial." He later wrote me, "One thing I felt revealed by the proper way to screen it, which was different from everything I had previously tried, was that there was a sense that Part 1 was objective with subjective interruptions and Part 2 was subjective with objective interruptions, not to say these categories are ever experienced as givens in the film."

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