Vision Quest

Experimental film pioneer Stan Brakhage explores the fertile territory of the mind's eye

Ultimately, Stan Brakhage's movies are more about consciousness than "vision" per se, and they can't be reduced to their tricks alone. The films explore how we engage with thought and action at the same time, or how we deal with memory and expectation. Brakhage believes that film can be a way to bring the inside (emotions, ideas) to the "outside"--that is, to the audience. Since his images are really just a means for the viewer to explore more profound concepts, it can be said without embarrassment that "watching" is the wrong word for what the audience does with his work. "Meditating upon" is more like it.

In person, Brakhage is quirky, digressive, and even chatty, undeniably dedicated to his self-willed project. Stories abound of his refusal to wear glasses, causing his friends to worry that when he drove them from the airport he wouldn't see the signs. (He's not foolish; his friends are still alive.) He's made himself a heroic figure, not out of ego but because of sheer obsession and fascination. Brakhage isn't famous (except in avant-garde film circles), but he is surely the most revered of this country's experimental filmmakers. For years he was part of the show-and-tell independent film tour that brought artists and their works to cities and campuses. That circuit has disintegrated, but Brakhage remains influential: His edgy/poetic technique shows up directly or indirectly all over the place, whether it's in the early R.E.M. videos by James Herbert (a Brakhage admirer), the harrowing last frames of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, or the mixed-format style of so many current TV ads.

Maybe this filmmaker deserves to be seen as a musician. Once trained as a boy soprano but not otherwise known as a musical performer, Brakhage has recently admitted in print that his goal is to achieve "visual music"--an elusive feat that has obsessed everyone from the Russian composer Scriabin to Walt Disney. Indeed, music, with its lyricism, melody, and harmony, seems a fitting way to insert depth into daily life. Stereolab has a song called "Brakhage," and one of its two minimalist verses observes ironically, "We need so damn/Many things/To keep our days'/Lives going." Regardless of whether the song has much to do with Brakhage, it makes a handy tool for proposing seeing and thinking as two of the most essential things in life, as well as the claimed territory of this great artist.

To the flame: Stan Brakhage's "Mothlight"
To the flame: Stan Brakhage's "Mothlight"


"Stan Brakhage: The Art of Seeing" continues at Walker Art Center through February 26; an informal master class with Brakhage will be held at MCAD on February 27 at 11 a.m. For tickets and information, call (612) 375-7622.

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