Stan Brakhage, by P. Adams Sitney
Stan Brakhage died in Victoria, British Columbia on Sunday, March 9. There was a 16mm camera loaded with film in his hospital room just in case he felt the need and had the strength to use it. He was in extreme pain in the end from the cancer that had so ravaged his leg that he would not have been able to walk again if he had managed to get back to the new Canadian home to which he had moved a few months earlier. He had just retired from teaching at the University of Colorado in the Rocky Mountains where he spent most of his seventy years.
The cancer had been first diagnosed in his bladder in 1996. As he was coming out of the anesthesia following his surgery, he managed to use the bedside camera to film the palm of his free hand for a few seconds. It was a confirmation that he was alive, an heroic declaration of the wonder of mind incarnate as flesh. Eventually that moment yielded the film Self Song/Death Song. So, on his last day he was again prepared to film if he felt the urgency.
He had already made a valedictory film: Panels for the Walls of Heaven, a forty minute hand-painted work. Screenings had been planned in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in April. They were to be benefits to help defray his medical expenses. Now they will be memorials as well. But this was Brakhage; even though he had made his "final" film, he couldn't stop creating as long as he was breathing. He made two more films after that. Stan's Window is a photographed self portrait, a meditation on the room where he lay dying in his new home, and he was making The Chinese Series up until the very end by softening 35mm film emulsion with his spittle and scratching it with his fingernails. He instructed his wife, Marilyn, that it was to be released as a completed film in whatever state it had achieved when he died.
Shortly before his death he told her: "I've had a really good life. Life is great." True to his elective mentor, Gertrude Stein, his deathbed declaration repeats "life." The enthusiastic embrace of his personal experience, the amor fati, immediately leads into to the ontological judgement: "Life is great." Brakhage inherited a powerful aesthetic tradition of American vitalism, and he exited as one of its greatest avatars. Furthermore, he made himself into the greatest vitalist of the cinema. In what other oeuvre is cinema and life so vitally compounded?
He made about four hundred films in his fifty-two year long career. Several times he swore off writing about cinema after his first book, Metaphors on Vision (1963) but he couldn't stop. He published at least seven more. Then he even completed another two in his last months in Canada.
He always resisted systems and nourished contradictions, so that his work would remain alive. Still, there is a consistent theoretical basis to his enormous work. Starting from the premise that cinema was the first means humans ever had to represent directly the unceasing scanning movements of the eyes, Brakhage made eye movement the cornerstone of his art. This entailed, first of all, an apperceptive discipline of studying his own eye movements through the range of his moods, crises, and joys. The resulting sensitivity to shifts of focus, phosphene activity on the surface of the eye, and peripheral vision helped him to develop a astonishingly flexible shooting style. Often he enhanced or adjusted the film he shot with superimpositions, hand-painting, by scratching the emulsion, or by incorporating negative.
From Metaphors on Vision we can derive the following principles: (1) the eyes are always moving, scanning in response to all visual stimuli; (2) vision never stops; the eyes see phosphenes when closed, dreams when asleep; (3) the names for things and for sensible qualities blunt our vision to nuances and varieties in the visible world; (4) normative religion hypostatizes the power of language over sight ("In the beginning was the word") in order to legislate behavior through fear; (5) the self-conscious and responsible use of language is poetry; (6) only through an educated and comprehensive encounter with literature can a visual artist hope to gain release from the dominance of language over seeing; there can be no naive, untutored vision. (7) The artist is repeatedly challenged to sacrifice the gratifications of the ego and the will to the unpredictable demands of his or her art.
The cumulative project of Brakhage's cinema was the visual life articulated over many years. He was convinced that there was a primary level of cognition that preceded language which he came to call "moving visual thinking" in his later theoretical writings. It was the unconscious of vision, which he aspired to make visible. He was not na´ve about the contradictions of this goal; his films always acknowledged the material limitations of cinematic representation. His role in the process of filmmaking was essentially to let the cinema articulate itself through him. By clearing the conduits of preconceptions, ambitions, purposes, the films would emerge through him. So, they were at once the most personal, most subjective of all films and more fundamentally excressions of a pure primary process-cinema unfolding its own secret life.
The range of themes was staggering: epic myths, shimmering lights, an autopsy, visions of the afterlife, haunted ruins, sexual fantasies, war as a media event, the ache of childhood memories, travel, nightmares, the ritual origins of sports events, angels, and all the aspects of family life. He married twice. First to Jane Collom (now author Jane Wodening). He filmed the birth of all five of their children and the affective lives of the numerous animals she raised, studied, and made the subjects of her short stories. The breakup of that marriage, his lonliness, and eventually his love for Marilyn Jull and their union can be traced through many of his films of the 1980s. They had two children but she did not want him to make their family life the direct subject of his work. Inspired and, he said, relieved by the proscription, he evoked their shared experience in dozens of hand-painted films and pursued evocations of Marilyn's presence filming the places she had lived.
The night he died, Jonas Mekas telephoned me: "It feels like an era has ended." Mekas is always so reticent about the deaths of our friends. I had never heard him say anything like that in the fifty years I've known him. Nathaniel Dorsky called too: he couldn't bring himself to shoot film the next day, knowing that Brakhage could no longer film. Even though we knew this death was imminent the shock comes in realizing that the outpouring of films has ceased. For five decades we could always count on new Brakhage films, in the bleakest years, to affirm the continuity of the art. Nothing could stop him but death.
- P. Adams Sitney