The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

Inside out: Brakhage's 'Dog Star Man (Prelude)'
The Criterion Collection

Tattooing our eyelids with sunbursts and moon-pocks, Stan Brakhage created a mountain of myth out of a handful of dust. In five decades of work, the American avant-garde filmmaker never seemed to move far beyond his own front door; the dirt under his nails can be glimpsed in nearly every movie he made. Legendary for being the cinema's mountain man--a gruff, hairy, foul-smelling alternative to Andy Warhol and his uptown aftershave--Brakhage lived in a shack in the Rocky Mountains with five scraggly kids and a wife with a definite Pioneer Mama look about her. Brakhage commemorated the missus and the brats in one film after another; the mythopoeia of everyday life was the auteur's bread and butter.

Brakhage--who died earlier this year at the age of 70--aspired to the rarefied status of that Trinity of Cosmic Can-Openers: John Cage, Ezra Pound, and, above all, Jackson Pollock. But the fact of the matter is that the filmmaker was more deeply influenced by--and more closely akin to--the Rocky Mountain school of poets as typified by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Brakhage made movies--and wrote poems--about the sun and the stars, not TV shows and T-shirt slogans. Like Terrence Malick, he was comfortable noting distinctions among moth wings and leafy green stalks of vegetation. He pointed his Bolex at the big kahuna: "birth, death, sex, family life." There ought to be numerous retrospectives of his work, American Masters documentaries introduced by a dour, Armani-clad Martin Scorsese.

At the moment, alas, there are not. But in February, the Walker Art Center will present Text of Light, a series of Brakhage screenings played to live musical accompaniment by alt-rock hipsters such as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. And in the meantime, there's a magnificent new DVD set from the Criterion Collection called By Brakhage, which is simply invaluable. For most American film lovers, this two-disc package of 26 shorts will serve as their introduction to the "landmark," "path-clearing" artist, and it will provide them with some jolting surprises--not least of which will be the shock of discovering Brakhage to have been a deeply committed political filmmaker.

But before we go any further, let's run through that gargantuan checklist: birth, death, sex, family life. In an interview on the Criterion set, Brakhage says, "I wanted to make something you'd feel in your viscera." Indeed, there has never been a movie that you "feel in your viscera" more than Brakhage's "The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes" (1971). Not content to make art at a remove, Brakhage goes for full-body contact with the viewer. In "The Act," he records the process of several autopsies conducted in a grim, old-timey Denver morgue. Like the morticians who lead him gently through the steps, the filmmaker starts small--with the shock of unseeing eyes on a gaunt-faced corpse. Then he works his way up: A beautiful blond woman is sheared and gutted; a human head is scalped, hot-drilled, and removed of its brain--a sad, gray, gloopy mass of unexceptional jelly.

The film is silent, and Brakhage skimps on "telling" details: An assistant grins inappropriately at a moment of deep evisceration; a corpse sheet is laid out in the hasty manner of a college boy making his bed. What makes "The Act" memorable is that there's something as old and primal as the muck we walked out of that tells us to turn away from the movie's images. We're not meant to look at these insides, though we possess them ourselves; the biological impulse that says "Look away!" is planted deep. The sense of our own finitude, the nullity of the human body when the soul has left the scene, the poignancy of a haircut on a corpse--a hint of personality in the absence of life itself--are all delivered straight and plain. As a result, for many viewers, "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" is an almost surefire way to a panic attack.


Though the artist's embrace may be, finally, an affirmative one, there's no zesty, healthy life force in a Brakhage picture. In its place is horror--as in George Romero, not Jean-Paul Sartre. "Kindering" (1987), a seemingly innocuous home movie of grandchildren at play, distorts the kids' swing-set swivels and backyard circle-runs into a mess of optical smears and aural sludge. Even the artist's "abstract" films--a word J. Hoberman informs us that Brakhage loathed--deliver a shudder. The Pollock-like tangles of paint that Brakhage hand-pressed onto the film stock give the sensation, in their relentless verticality, of a fathomless fall downward. (It is this work for which the filmmaker is best known.) And when those markings aren't inducing vertigo, they often resemble viscera: the inside of an eyeball, Brakhage's ultimate location of nirvana.

If the Criterion set misses some of the highlights (such as the World War II atrocity collage "23rd Psalm Branch"), it does a superb job of proving why the artist believed himself to be an heir--and probably a peer--of Kline, Rothko, and Pollock. Brakhage does what the abstract expressionist color-field painters were unable to do: He makes color dance in time. Like his AbEx heroes, the filmmaker made the mistake of assigning mythic themes and totemic stories to what were, in the strictest terms, formalist exercises. (How were we supposed to know that "Love Song" represented "the mind's picture of sex itself"?) Yet in what I suspect is Brakhage's finest film (and he himself considered it so), "Untitled [For Marilyn] (1992)," his strobe-cut paroxysms of color fuse with roughly hewn words of praise--for God, Mother Church, and Mrs. Brakhage--to form a Bach-like paean to the glory of creation. The intent shines through: At last, the artist's anxious tangles and yarn-balls of blistering color form a paroxysm of joy--the ejaculation of the Lord.

In the many interviews that accompany the films, Brakhage never explicitly addresses politics in his work--except to remark that the subject of one early '50s short was "beatnik nerves." (Brakhage claims that Cassavetes had praised the amateurish "Desistfilm," which suggests the demonically gay badinage of the friends in Cassavetes' Shadows and Faces.) But, as with much modernist art that appeared poised at the edge of an Olympian timelessness, there's a powerful political backbeat to the Brakhage canon.

The artist began his career with a conscious refutation of what we know as "film production": the teams of craftspeople, day laborers, and thespians who draw a check on a movie set. By the end, as we see in By Brakhage, he's sitting in what looks like a Starbucks in Denver, hand-painting spaghetti-like threads of 8mm film. Brakhage may have been the first, or at least the most famous, artist to achieve André Bazin's goal of a cinéma-stylo--a filmmaking that bore the fingerprint and the fluent immediacy of a poet writing with a pen. In that personalizing, that physicalizing of the filmmaking process, he made a radical statement about the relationship of the possible to the actual. There was no mentor, no Harold Bloomian shadow father to clear the way for Brakhage's work; his role in the history of cinema is sui generis. Similarly, the work itself is a challenge to radically reorient the act of...well, of seeing with one's own eyes.

Brakhage's work is intentionally, painstakingly resistant to criticism, simply because its subject is that which cannot be grasped in words. That's why the filmmaker stopped photographing people, even animals and vegetables, and moved to "pure" paint: He wanted to reset our inner clocks to a point before language had locked down the prison doors. And though he would have been pained to hear it, his films have much greater pungency--more richness in their ideas--on DVD than they do projected in the dank likes of New York's Anthology Film Archives. (I once asked Brakhage why he didn't distribute his films more promiscuously; he gestured around the Archives and said, "I want people to seek them out here--in the salon des refusés!") In a theater, the sonic minimalism of Brakhage's work, particularly of his abstract films, can carry a pious solemnity: These movies are meant to be ground through, not enjoyed. But on a laptop or TV set, a whole other Cagean vibe is proffered: room buzz, head noise, the ah-oooga of the fruit vendor downstairs. Your life and your body become the accompaniment: Brakhage is the player and you're the piano.

And so you rush in to fill up the film's open spaces. And a kind of magic operation takes place, sort of like photosynthesis. The deeper Brakhage delves into himself--into realms that are beyond depiction--the further we see ourselves reflected in his recesses. For all their amateurish bits and hippie longueurs, the films in By Brakhage finally achieve what was once called, without flinching, Great Poetry: The artist's inner life and ours are laid bare at exactly the same rate of speed.

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