Over the course of his five-decade career, avant-garde film pioneer Stan Brakhage made hundreds of films ranging in duration from nine and half seconds to four and a half hours. On his 78th birthday, we examine his life and work.
Born in Kansas City in 1933, Brakhage was adopted at three weeks old and grew up in Denver, Colorado. An aspiring poet, he briefly attended Dartmouth College on scholarship before dropping out. He moved to San Francisco with the intention of becoming a painter and made the acquaintance of poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth before moving to New York, where he met fellow artist and filmmaker Maya Deren, as well as artist Joseph Cornell and composer John Cage.
Brakhage spent much of the 1950s living in poverty, eking out a living shooting industrial films before relocating his family to a log cabin in Lump Gulch, Colorado, an all but abandoned mining town near Boulder. All the while he continued pursuing his vision of personal cinema, one which had little to do with much of America's notion of what movies were all about. Lacking narratives and almost always devoid of sound (he believed music overpowered the visual rhythms he sought to construct), his films were chiefly concerned with how we understand the world visually, and the spiritual and emotional truths revealed by the subjective act of perception.
Many of his earliest works focused on the first-person experience, via handheld camera, of mundane aspects of everyday family life. They were mostly met with confusion and derision, perhaps none more so than 1958’s now landmark Window Water Baby Moving, where Brakhage filmed the birth of his first child. Though delivery room daddys with camcorders may be commonplace today (or were until hospitals started worrying about malpractice suits) committing such images to film was taboo in 1950s America. The film lab where Brakhage had the work processed refused to return his footage and threatened to hand it over to the police before a doctor intervened, claiming the film was shot for training purposes. His 1971 film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes would confront visual taboos on the other end of life's spectrum, with Brakhage filming autopsies in a Pittsburgh morgue.
During the early 1960s, his films began winning acclaim and reaching a broader audience and his filmmaking style and artistic preoccupations began to evolve. He started engaging in more formal experimentalism and utilized increasingly abstract imagery. One of his most famous films, 1963's Mothlight was created without the use of a camera at all, but constructed by assembling collected moth wings, flower petals and other detritus and pasting them between two strips of mylar, a process Brakhage has described as using the apparatus of the cinema to reanimate the dead.
In 1961 he began his most ambitious work to date, shooting what would turn out to be the five-film, 74-minute Dog Star Man cycle, a mythic and highly personal exploration of man, nature and the universe that some critics would compare to the work of James Joyce and Ezra Pound. The film would utilize all the formal techniques he'd been exploring over the previous decade – multiple superimpositions, use of distorted lenses, rapid cutting, rhythmic repetition, shots deliberately out of focus, the use of film negative, painting on film – in the creation of an abstract collage which nonetheless featured the closest Brakhage ever got to a plot (the film may ostensibly be said to be about a man going up a hill to chop down a tree).
Like Jackson Pollock, (one of his earliest painterly heroes), as Brakhage's career progressed he began moving away from representational imagery altogether. During the latter half of his career, he largely stopped using a camera and instead painted directly onto film, an incredibly painstaking process when one considers as many as 24 separate 16 or 35mm paintings would be needed to for each second of screen time.
Brakhage taught film at both The Art Institute of Chicago and later the University of Colorado, and would live to see many of the formal innovations of the avant-garde film movement co-opted – found footage collage and rapid cutting becoming a staple of MTV, for instance, or the hand-scratched titles he'd pioneered appearing in the credit sequence of Seven – while the impetus behind such techniques went largely unnoticed by the culture at large.
Honored as the central figure of American experimental film in the 20th century ("experimental" being a term he detested, as did he descriptions of his films as "hypnotic") with regular MoMA and international film festival showings, a handful of biographies and critical appreciations in print, and a collection of his works given the canonical Criterion DVD treatment and Dog Star Man included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, Brakhage still seemed unsure of his legacy.
"I have no certitudes," he said in a 1997 interview, some six years before his death of bladder cancer. "I'm often in the deepest doubt that maybe everything I've done, and the whole independent film movement, or the entire idea of film as an art is just a passing madness. If that's so, I have come to an age and a time in my life where that would certainly be bearable, because I would still have left an extraordinary number of beautiful and wonderful people that have given themselves to this possibility. And we have had our dance, whether we were right or wrong."