Vision Quest

To the flame: Stan Brakhage's "Mothlight"

The cruel and sometimes comic fate of explorers is that the territory they discover is cheapened when others enter it. Did Lewis and Clark imagine Wall Drug when they struggled west? Could Marie Curie have foreseen that her X-ray would be used in a ritual of suspicion in airports worldwide? Can a person have a vision only once, never to share it?

Stan Brakhage has been exploring the "vision" of film--and "vision" in film--for nearly 50 years. He has become famous for stuttering edits, grainy images, dizzying perspectives, and mythic allusions. If he'd been watching the Super Bowl a week ago, he'd have seen an Oldsmobile ad that contained all but one of those tendencies (unless you consider a new car "mythic"). Beginning his career in the early '50s as a rebel explorer who left obviousness and dim simplicity behind, Brakhage--who, by the way, is still an artistic adventurer--has lived to see his potent challenges turned into diluted clichés.

The same thing happened to Sergei Eisenstein--or Alfred Hitchcock, or any other risk taker. But in Brakhage's case, it may be particularly important to salute a man who paid his dues, because he has understood us all along. And as the once-radical shaky-cam aesthetic has become just another overused convention, now is a good time to make the respectful gesture of understanding him--which the Walker Art Center has made possible with "Stan Brakhage: The Art of Seeing," its monthlong Brakhage retrospective (culminating February 26 with a Regis Dialogue between the filmmaker and Walker film/video curator Bruce Jenkins).

What Brakhage and his (usually) short avant-garde films do is treat "vision" honestly. Hardly a trained optometrist, the filmmaker understands and appreciates sight and seeing in all dimensions. He is the Oliver Sacks of the eyeball. He can explain why soldiers in Vietnam learned to look sideways after dark (peripheral vision works better then), and why you can find the world in a grain of sand. He believes in "closed-eye vision"--meaning those fireworks we can make by pressing our knuckles to our eyelids. Brakhage even found the world in an ashtray and made a feature-length film "about" it called Text of Light. You'd swear you saw knights in armor or golden lizards or polar sunsets in Text of Light, except that everything in it came from sunlight through glass.

But I'm jumping the gun here. What's the basic business about Brakhage? you ask. Well, his movies rarely tell a story. They almost never have sound. They can look like they're made of leftovers--and, in fact, he gets a lot of use out of the red/yellow stuff at the tails of a developed roll. The films are called "songs" sometimes, or they depict childbirth (as in the powerful "Window Water Baby Moving," screening February 17 in the second of three 90-minute programs on consecutive Wednesdays), or they show police on the prowl or coroners at work ("The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," February 24). For a first-time Brakhage viewer, the fragmented rhythms of his films can be tough to sit through; but for those who acquire the taste, these movies can be absolutely transcendent. You want someone who can edit on a heartbeat, someone who can match a blurry color to a deep feeling? Brakhage is your filmmaker.

Whether there's an avant-garde anymore--in any art form--isn't the point here, but for those who need to define a category for Brakhage, let's label him a "romantic modernist." After all, he's been known to say things like "This is the film that was given to me to make," calling up the nonsectarian spirituality of England's romantic poets. He sees art as an important and often lonely struggle, supported by the fact that he has sought to make new myths from his longtime home in the Colorado foothills. Dog Star Man (February 10), his most famous "new myth," is a 78-minute interior epic, with the filmmaker himself as an Adam/Davy Crockett figure. He finds the raw material of film anywhere and everywhere: in his children's daily lives, in his dead dog's decaying carcass ("Sirius ReMembered," February 17), and most famously in the dried remnants of a dead moth, which makes up the nonphotographic and literally "raw" material of the balletic "Mothlight" (February 10).

Laugh if you will at the idea of a totally abstract film built out of a dead moth (and some dried grass and flower petals), but after sitting through the four minutes of "Mothlight," you may see why MTV is really just wallpaper. Besides being a sort of romantic poet, Brakhage is also an abstract expressionist: He uses disjunctive and jarring imagery to deal with deeply emotional concepts of varying clarity. (He also paints and scratches on the film itself.) Aside from the birth films, which are virtuosic and nonverbal confessions of the thrill of fatherhood, "Anticipation of the Night" (February 17) is probably the work that speaks best for Brakhage: It's an ode to--and lament for--the act of seeing in its purest form, a multicolored and prismatic depiction of an adult's attempt to picture the world innocently once again. As the filmmaker once phrased it in his own manifesto, "How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'?"

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.


"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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