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Stan Brakhage and His Songs
Jerome Hill and Guy Davenport
Film Culture, No. 40, 1966, pp. 8-12.
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I. Jerome Hill:
Brakhage has gone on doing it again!
His Songs continue breathtakingly to pour out of him. There are twenty-two of them now.
In an article that appeared in Film Culture No. 37, I threw down a kind of gauntlet that has happily been picked up. The new Songs are if anything richer than the earlier ones, and more complex. Brakhage has added to his "chaplet" one very important bead, an elaborate pendant, Song #15, entitled "Song Traits," much longer than the others and constituting a sort of reiteration in miniature of the whole Song Cycle.
The metaphor of the garland which I elaborated in my first paper is, I believe, valid. Let me, then, "tell" the beads briefly, as I did with the first series, leaving a description of the outsize number Fifteen until the end.
Song Eleven is an abstraction of points of light.
Twelve is pale and "sickly'ed o'er," — an agonized moment at an airport.
Thirteen is the Railroad Song. How can vision be more subtly multiple than the fleeting glimpses of landscapes seen between moving cars of trains on other tracks? What a potent unifying image is the ghost of the recording camera itself, reflected faintly in the window throughout!
Fourteen is an eye-bath of shimmering light.
Sixteen, (perhaps the most successful of the whole series) is a simple and poignant love song, an adagio pas-de-deux set between two nocturnal landscapes.
I interpret Seventeen as autobiography; — two contrasting environments that must have loomed large in Brakhage's youth: — neighborhood movietheater and cathedral.
It is hard to pin-point the charm of Eighteen. Lighthearted and full of surprises it has oriental overtones.
Nineteen is a long dance. Everything dances, even the spaces between the dancers dance. The rhythmic recurrence of single over-exposed frames at the start of each accelerated shot, creates a compelling visual beat. The environment of this Dance Song is friendly; of all the Songs with the exception of Number Fifteen, it is the most "peopled." In it, color and black-and-white interplay.
Twenty, like Eleven, is back in the realm of nonobjectivity. We oscillate between cold and heat, ice and flames. The central theme, a splotch of red on a black ground is non-objective to the point of being a phenomenon noted for its invisibility, — the instrument-recorded light cast by a Laser beam.
Brakhage writes of Twenty-one and Twenty-two that they can be run backwards as well as forwards, and that, in the case of Twenty-two, there is an exact midpoint, marked by a sixpointed star in a circle, that is so pivotal that the projector can be reversed here, (whichever way one is showing his film) and the viewer turns in path and goes back over the same terrain without "any alteration of specific fields-of-meaning." Here, then, we have, in reality, six Songs in two; viz — Song Twenty-one forward, Song Twenty-one backward, Song Twenty-two from start to star and back to start, and Song Twenty-two from end to star and back to end.
In Twenty-One, the enormous number and variety of the techniques involved are deceptively merged in a total homogeneity. The viewer is launched at once into a contrapuntal amalgam of percussive spots and flower and leaf-forms, — brilliant color made rich and dense by the blackness of the dotted overlay. Forms suggest themselves fitfully and then disappear. In a slow crescendo the center area of the screen blooms into circular shapes of widely divergent characteristics and the end of the Song is a sudden simplification, Roundness.
This same Song, on the other hand, if seen from tail to head, begins like a symphony. A three-dimensional circle-disc within a quadrilateral frame, is stated like the opening chord of a first movement. Perforation holes, of the same size as the disc, centrally located blotches, incised vortex-like arabesques lead the Song into a jungle world of plant shapes which in turn are overlayed with dark "strobed" markings that recall the camouflage-spottings of serpents and butterflies and wild beasts.
Twenty-two, whichever way you look at it, is a song of light and water and stars.
What then of the enigmatic and lengthy Fifteen?
Proust offers us in the early part of his great novel an almost isolated tale, a novelette, entitled "Un Amour de Swann" which is at the same time a prophesy and measuring stick for the rest of his panoramic work. The device is a good one and his readers should be grateful to him. Brakhage's "Song Traits" is just such a touchstone for his whole series. In "A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf is concerned with the shape of a work of art. I like that word "shape." It has fewer secondary meanings than the word "form." Brakhage's Song Series has something more than the shape of a continuous chain. I see it as a Navajo Indian necklace, where the more or less symmetrical side pieces, made up of amulets of bone and stone and beaten silver, join together to hold an important breast-plate, which in the elaboration of its details, recalls, varies and brings to perfection the themes of the other elements. Song Fifteen is made up of a series of portraits: Four of them are poets, and the rest are Brakhage's wife and children. Each "portrait" has its own approach to its subject, its own idiom, and the variety is commensurate with the variety of the "sitters." The importance of this concatenation of human documentations compels one to recognize Song Fifteen as the centerpiece of the necklace.
In almost all of the arts there is an important relationship, not sufficiently recognized, between the creator and the number of people for whom he is creating. If his message is a public one, if he is speaking to a crowd, the tone the creator adopts, even the subject with which he deals, is appreciably different than if he is addressing a group of knowing individuals.
The nature of Beethoven's symphonic music, for example, differs from that which he composed for piano solo or string quartet. I do not refer to the orchestral coloration, the length and number of movements, the loudness of sound. These are immaterial. What I want to point out is that in the very ideas themselves that he used in his "private music," and his way of developing them, Beethoven dared to be more complex, more prophetic, more profound, more personal. Shakespeare functioned one way when he had the stage in mind and quite another when he was writing a sonnet to a friend. In the drawings of Dürer, Raphael and Michaelangelo there is a freedom and foreward-looking brio that these artists would not have dared to put into their altar pieces.
It is characteristic of evolution in the arts that in these intimate forms radical innovations often manifest themselves first, as if the birth of an idea requires the protection of privacy that any other birth requires. In a surprising number of instances, moreover, the individual expression survives the multitude-addressed message. Whoever hears of Dante's "Convivio," his "De Monarchia," his "De Vulgari Eloquentia"? These were latin works addressed to the reading public of his day. The Divine Comedy was (to quote Vittorini in the "Age of Dante") "the intimate book to which he entrusted his innermost thoughts and feelings." It wasn't even released during his lifetime.
Poor Cinema - for so long has it been tied to the apron strings of Theater, and not the healthiest theatrical tradition at that! In what restricted area could new film ideas be tried out? Where, away from the limelight, could the sensitive creator find his idiom? Until lately it hadn't occurred to the general public that films can or should be anything but entertainment, an agreeable way of passing a couple of hours, a diversion to be tasted once and then only briefly remembered, in other words, a "public" art form.
Film rental libraries, cinema clubs, study groups, university courses, cinematheques have been changing all this in recent years. Copies of the classics can now be bought and owned, shared and studied. Films are being made today that require frequent showings, must indeed command the total protracted attention of the viewer. A sizeable alert movie public is becoming a reality, and by this I mean a public of actual or potential film-makers.
With Brakhage's eight-millimeter Song Series, shot and edited with a deceptively informal spontaneity, and made to be shown only in intimate surroundings, Cinema reveals itself at last as capable of being an expression comparable to lyric poetry and chamber music.
Let us hope that Brakhage and others like him, will keep singing.
II. Guy Davenport:
Cinematography is still so young that a ten-year-old boy who went to the first movie of them all, Louis and Auguste Lumière's film of unrelated, everyday scenes, would now be only eighty, and might conceivably have seen all the movies ever made. It is not, then, either coincidence or design that the first film found subjects that the most seeing of eyes — Stan Brakhage's — are still inspecting. Lumière's three subjects were "Feeding the Baby" (Brakhage's Song 11), "The Card Party" (Song 19), and "The Arrival of the Train at the Station" (Song 13). An earlier Lumière, in fact the very first to be made, shows his employees leaving the factory, a milling of people kin to Brakhage's Song 12, the movements of people at an airport. By 1896, a matter of weeks after the December premiere of these films that merely watched the world, the public could see a gardner placidly watering his flowerbed. A neighbor comes to kibitz, and naturally stands on the hose, which goes dry. The gardner peers into the nozzle. The neighbor steps off the hose. Spurt. Dance of indignation.
Brakhage deliberately went back to the first Lumiére, and is still not satisfied that he has exhausted, or ever will exhaust, the potential implicit in that arrangement of world and camera. When Brakhage comes to photograph the train, he is in another train, moving in the opposite direction. He is aware that the other train is doing what the shutter of his camera is doing, and what the gate of the projector will do afterwards: it is slicing up the streaming landscape beyond into intermittent bits. He is also aware that he is photographing his own reflection, the only still thing in a film so busy of movement that the audience feels the same dismay as Lumiére's when it shifted nervously as the train it watched kept chugging toward them. Brakhage is photographing a scene most of us choose not to experience; there is something disturbing in the movement of trains witnessed in a moving (or still) train. Once we are past childhood, we prefer to stare at our stable shoes until we can see a less dizzying movement.
We are content to call the first non-dramatic films "studies." From Muybridge's first analysis of motion onto six, twelve, and even twenty-four plates to the action clips of Donisthorpe and Skladanowsky, the camera was, as Cocteau noticed, a cow's eye. The newsreel and the scientific film have been allowed to look with a cow's eye (or eagle's, or lynx's) but the film has otherwise spent its sixty-eight years watching the gardner's face when his hose went dry.
Once Brakhage had made Anticipation of the Night (1958) he had discovered that the camera had developed strenuously but one of the modes latent in the simple fact that it was an eye that could share its sight with any other eye. Brakhage's eye had learned, is still learning, to see in what may prove to be as many modes as physiology and spirit allow — which sounds fatuous until we realize that every eye is pattern — bound in what it sees at all, and beyond that severe limitation is unskilled, stupid of movement, dull, blind in a very real sense. The arts have always taught us to see; for the first time in the history of the world a generation has grown up aware that it can see a figure in dim light as Rembrandt and the autumn trees as Jackson Pollock, or the other way round. The eye's intelligence must be learned.
A year and a half ago, having finished his first masterpiece, Dog Star Man, after some forty films all distinguished in one way or another and all pushing outward the possibilities for seeing that Anticipation began, Brakhage turned to a series of songs, as he called them, in 8 MM, short studies only a few minutes long.
The Songs began as a pause. Dog Star Man had folded out into The Art of Vision. Brakhage had turned to the short film, to Pasht, the contemplative act of a cat washing itself. As the art of the century goes monstrous, Brakhage moves inward, into silence, into the small gestures, the essential quiet (a Galapagos turtle walking high up in the water, a bug on linoleum, children).
Inspired by books of poetry, meant to be returned to, shown to friends, commented on (their silence invites talk), collected, they are definitely home movies — in a double sense: Brakhage frequently enlists the preoccupations of the amateur photographer, taking as prime source (like Picasso, like Bonnard) the utterly familiar; and the Songs are not meant to brave the public, who have just left TV and are out to have their sensibilities soothed rather than wakened.
Thus far the Songs number twenty-two. At twenty-three they will begin to branch (the structure is to suggest a tree); the Twenty-Third Psalm Branch will have multiple parts, like 15, which is as long as the rest of the Songs together. After that, leaf songs, flower songs. Perhaps.
SONG 1: Portrait of a woman reading. Her hands are occupied with beads. The serenity of the woman happens within the serenity of a room, of a quiet house. Transparencies flow throughout: Brakhage's signature window and door (through which people, the wash on the line, snow, trees) — the window that was as terrible as an image in Poe in Wedlock House and as the one pervasive American symbol of loneliness in Anticipation of the Night, Hopper's blank windows, the House of Usher's windows, the windows that have turned up in American painting from 1910 forward. In Song 1 the window is lyric, sweet, transparent. The song ends with one of those heaps of things the Brakhages build and call angels, presences made of boughs, curtains, pillows, hats, whatever. Song 1 is Turkish, a Matisse, a Vuillard, but thoroughly American. Gertrude Stein would have liked it, would have accurately identified it as a landscape with saint. A large eye frequently fills the screen, an overply, the flesh window.
SONG 2: Wind and dust. Heat shimmers the image, and heat on the horizon burns. The camera swings, surges. The land outside the window.
SONG 3: The river's water. As wet as Song 2 was dry. Water surfaces. Brakhage's favorite colors: Coca-Cola and lime. Brief cityscapes (the street as river, traffic its flow); water-green film on which nothing at all has been photographed, for sheer continuity of water's sameness. Water is one of Brakhage's verbs. Songs 2 and 3 are stark, severe, living in the warmth and richness of Song 1.
SONG 4: Two strong stanzas: children playing (a dream of Lewis Carroll's, red dresses, a red ball, all against green lawn, and in slow motion, a ballet, an evocation of innocence) and an abstract sequence, every frame an illumination that out-Pollocks Pollock, and all painted over the Denver of Brakhage's childhood: an automatic, automobilistic world, heavy with nostalgia but idiotically busy in contrast to the dance of the girls.
SONG 5: Childbirth. Here Brakhage begins the use of a grain as obvious as in Seurat, an atomic light in greens and blues. The birth is ad verbum, medically exact, photographed with the care of a naturalist. Wild swings of the camera suggest the child's astonished look at the world. Ends with happy fatigue, faces happy and smiling. Brakhage's piety before childbirth is Eleusinian, deeply respectful of the spiritual and biological content of the moment, both disarmingly literal and as religious as an eighth-century Cretan (whose belief would have been touched by neither sentimentality nor doubt) pouring the barley for his god.
SONG 6: Trompe d'oeil. What looks like a flower forest of Rousseau's is a nice vulgar expanse of Sears Roebuck linoleum, across which a bug makes his way, as important as an eosaurus traversing Yucatan.
SONG 7: San Francisco and the Pacific. Cubist, sliding facets. For Brakhage a facade is just that: a stage set. The sea is folded in with the fronts of buildings, a Baroque-rhythmed inter-sheaving of colored surfaces. Only the windows speak, burn with western sun, flash silver light.
SONG 8: Sea animals. Fish, turtles, lobsters, eels. The sea of Song 7 has been entered, right down to the depths. Brakhage reaches down to the elementals, where the next song will be staged in metaphor. One of the most beautiful of the songs, this.
SONG 9: A comic masterpiece. Komos, the marriage festival. Three themes are laid down immediately: a pacing rhinoceros with the Brakhage window (now very much the guillotine) projected onto his hide, which is as primaeval as the deep-sea creatures in Song 8. Then children, nonchalantly and impudently naked, playing. Then a wedding, out of doors and at night, the participants very Middle Class, having the one daring fling of their lives: a different sort of wedding, California Druids perhaps; anyway, enthusiasts of some sort, who require the full of the moon for their nuptials. They are blue silhouettes (who but Brakhage and Al Capp, since the eighteenth century, can use the silhouette?), puppets in some special moment that is so perilous that the honk of a horn will dispel the magic. The rhino paces, the children happily play house with some of the wittiest innuendo in the modern film. Brakhage has constructed an elaborate joke, to be read any way you will. Rhino is pure brute energy; the children, usufruct of marriage, are the kind of energy one feels the precious newlyweds never had to begin with. Nature, civilization, tentative play-acting. Reality, imagination, frivolity. Or: the wedding is Romance, and rhino and his window and the unfoolable children are what Romance is soon to collide with. Brakhage's sense of humor is the most difficult of his strategies. In an age of largely feminine humor, he remains doggedly masculine in his laughter.
SONG 10: A roomscape, from point of view of sitting photographer. The camera finds places to look, seeing the comfortable stages of a house fit to live in. The randomness gets anchored at the end by coming to the photographer's resting feet.
SONG 11: The Zukofskies (for whom Brakhage is "the only one of them to look at") saw this as traffic at night. The prime source couldn't possibly be guessed (mother nursing a child); brightest highlights only are left; the film has been burnt with light, and remains a matter of fireflies.
SONG 12: The first colorless song. A study of an airport in fog, all Bauhaus lines, ghost travellers, stalking reflections. Beginning of a spy movie. The airplane is not a congenial machine to Brakhage, and its port is Martian, inhospitable, arctic.
SONG 13: Moving train photographed from a moving train, with bits of midwestern landscape discernible between the boxcars. An eye-tearing study of American motion, with the colors of the early Braque and Picasso (brown, red, blue, grey). Ends with a quiet sky of floating clouds.
SONG 14: Abstraction, but perfectly natural: mould cultures, the microscopic grain of things, a Mothlight that has moved onto cells -like all of Brakhage's painted frames, a fantasy of color as wild as one can imagine. Several galleries of paintings exposed sixteen to the second. Only a man of endless energy and endless invention would risk such an effort.
SONG 15: A cycle of songs, the first branch from the main stem. Portraits of Robert Kelly, gold, brown and red; Michael McClure in black and white, with no continuity from frame to frame, like a ghost that materializes now here, now there, and speeds up to a raging flash of faces, some of which are the lion's face McClure assumes for the readings; Robert Creeley, also in black and white, and frequently in negative, an evocation of the poet's tense sincerity; the sculptor Angelo welding. The portraits are interspersed with Brakhage's wife and children, canary and dog. The sequences of Crystal weeping are eloquent; he uses the grain of the film here as the gold grain-light that dances near the first spring green of leaves, an aether that Brakhage can, through God knows what magic, make visible. The sheer passion of eye with which he has photographed Jane and the boys, Jane and Durin, Neowyn and Bear, is the stuff that separates talent from genius, del Sarto from Caravaggio. A lovesong.
SONG 16: The most beautiful of the series. Brakhage's characteristic calligraphy with the camera ceases; movements up and down, side to side give way to a pulsing movement back and forth, heartbeat and sexual thrust rather than gesture, the head alert upon the neck. Brakhage takes the fact that flowers are sexual organs and includes the human among them (as nature herself, always willing to recapitulate a design, does with Phallus Impudicus and the sea urchin). To see the course of the song as fore-play, love, orgasm is but one perception of the trope. We also move from air to under the sea, from pollen drift to the saline deep, implying pregnancy; Brakhage's moral concepts are whole. No seedtime without harvest. Color, shapes, rhythm: except for some passages in Dog Star Man Brakhage has never achieved such purity of form.
SONG 17: Church and cinema. Stained glass windows and screen juxtaposed, and containing the perception that drama is religion, religion, drama. The only song containing an idea, and possibly flawed thereby. A witty song, nevertheless, with an undercurrent of satire.
SONG 18: Haroun al Raschid's palace, or a plausible world of the orient. Trompe d'oeil; for what we're seeing, if you know how to look for the clues, is a gaudy dentist's office. By seeing only the décor, Brakhage neatly shows how much fantasy we only half-realize we need.
SONG 19: The twist. Girls dancing against the light, so that Brakhage sees them as possessed, witch-like, frenetic. An eery song, the eerier for being silent.
SONG 20: Chinese lakes and a diabolical light exploding: a contrast between serenity and a fierce releasing of energy-lightning, presumably, though Brakhage was photographing a laser beam twenty miles away.
SONG 21: Flowers with abstract overpainting. The patterns in the painting tend toward regularity and reticulation. For bright flower colors, the most engaging of the songs, a garden in full bloom as seen by a bee. Strong music in the colors, a hymn to Dea Flora.
SONG 22: Lights on water, the burning-sea effect of diamond light, or dancing candle-light, on water blown by soft wind. For Brakhage these lights are equally stars, dew, moonlight, sunlight, all in a Blakean harmony. A great star appears midway, with halo and points streaming from the center. To be run forward or backward, at any speed: the pattern is geometric. A frank use of natural visual magic of the sort that Brakhage usually avoids, but which he handles with a superb mastery.
The songs, thus far. They stand without impropriety beside songs made of words, especially those from which they took their impetus, the early Pound, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and beside songs made of music. We shall all have occasion to think about them, in time; at the moment they are new, with all their secrets still inward. Their beauty, their silence, their lyric mastery keep us looking, to see.
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