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A Note on Stan Brakhage
Film Culture, No. 24, 1962, pp. 84-85.
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I know virtually nothing about the practical side of film-making. The practical side of any art is the only side really worth going on about and the only side that can be endlessly articulate, but I personally take about one snap shot every twenty years, so the technical and creative sides of photography, which can be unbelievably complicated both physically and mentally, are almost unknown to me, and I must speak as one of the idle audience, who simply looks at films.
From this point of view I find the films of Stan Brakhage are not only of the highest interest in the contemplation but of the first importance in the current history of this form of art, because they have a dramatic vitality of eyesight which is something unique and very much his own. That is to say, that the things which he and his camera see may be dramatically interesting or they may not, but the act of seeing it, with Brakhage, is intensely dramatic, and it is this dramatic continuity of seeing which commands or determines the sequences and associations of the things seen, and which is, for me, the heart and meaning of his films, especially of Prelude. This seeing is dramatic, not simply theatrical or pictorial. Much fancy photography in Hollywood, and plenty of decent art photography, like that of say Eisenstein, is theatrical: it is the inner and passionate and raw act of seeing, converted into a handsome exterior gesture. The most refined trickery of cutting, of panning, of lighting etc. results normally in a sort of visual rhetoric — to which I have no objections except that it is, to use a distinction of Gertrude Stein's, more lively than alive. As it can be seen from Colorado Legend — Brakhage can command this rhetoric beautifully, in a rather advanced and thoroughly enjoyable commercial film, but he has a much greater and distinguished gift. This is for the direct dramatic sight of things, which seem, under the pressure and provocation of his stare, to force themselves on the camera in their own order and deportment as much as they seem to be selected or guided by the camera. The result, or rather the action, is a sort of hostile or erotic struggle between eye and object — as against the eye and object both posing or dancing elegantly for your disengaged pleasure. His gift for this kind of visual drama appears most clearly, I think, in his last film, Prelude: Dog Star Man.
Perhaps I need not make one further distinction, but should like to: a great many so-called experimental films, when they are more or less abstract, are very lovely visual diversions, a sort of lyricism or choreography of visual forms, and I for one delight in them, though one must admit they are a sort of animated cartoon gone arty. What really makes one discontented at last with them is that their terms are too closely controlled, they are too narrow, too much of a toy, too choreographic, too decorative. Now this kind of abstract lyricism is perfectly within Brakhage's command, as we can see in many passages of Prelude, but you can also see that his dramatic force of seeing is constantly breaking out of the narrow terms of the game, or, if you like, the lyrical and decorative — let me even say the pretty — passages are cast up like foam from a deeper and stronger and more turbulent current of visual feeling.
Much of this feeling is produced in him by the subject matter, from aspects of astronomy, biology, landscape, and his private life, but all of that is his affair and not mine, or not necessarily that of the audience, for whom the essential thing is the intensity of visual expression, with or without the support of emotional associations from the subject-matter. This intensity will, if you watch for it and stay with it, disengage itself especially in the negotiations of transitions from object to object, tone to tone, color to color, texture to texture, scale to scale, speed to speed, and so on. The dual dynamism of the somewhat predatory eye on the move and of the wildly changing object, does, I think, dominate or absorb into itself the sometimes violent natural interest of the objects — which can be taken as an accompaniment perhaps to the strictly visual dramatic line. I would even call it an incidental accompaniment.
But it is more important to realize that this latest film is struggling with the problem which has become most acute in all the contemporary arts — that of an art contained within itself versus an art which is open on subject-matter or illustrates or simply states subject-matter, like say a documentary in the normal Hollywood film. It is a very important and climactic struggle, one might say a death-struggle, this between perfectly abstract painting and painting of something between pure music and affective music, between poems that are and poems that mean, and the purpose may be to find some balance or reconciliation between the two kinds in each art, or at least a magnificent conflict of the two. Whatever the outcome, I don't know of anyone today who is more deeply and vigorously engaged in this struggle than Stan Brakhage, at a time when almost everyone is stalling or lapsing back into the acceptance of conventions which were established by earlier struggles at least twenty years ago.
....One of the shorter films of Brakhage is on death, in the visual form of the monuments of the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. This persistent and impenetrable geometric masonry gets to be less a symbol of death than a death-like sensation. There is a little symbolical rhetoric in countering these monuments with the flowing of the Seine river, an image of life, but this is at least big and final rhetoric — and, oddly or miraculously enough, not blatantly pointed. The river makes an incidental, not a substantial, contrast and heightens rather than balances the overpoewring effect of inert forbidding stone. This film — The Dead — is a very sombre and intense visual poem, a black lyric, if you like, but full of an open dramatic energy which puts it well above a formal or rhetorical exercise on the topic of Time and Eternity.
Two other short films — Daybreak and Whiteye — undertake the really dreadful problem of the sound-track. The problem is to keep the relation of sound to sight from being merely one of illustration or background music, to make the relation at least a provocative one, a dynamic one, one of countering or discord rather than bland accompaniment. My attention, especially my auditory attention, is not up to these films, so I cannot reasonably say anything about them as concrete results, but I can say in the abstract that the problem is an essential one to the form of sound film. Also I know that these attempts to solve the problem are conducted with immense knowledgeability, wit, and artistic seriousness as well as dash, but I must frankly say they leave me dissatisfied in seeing and hearing.
Prelude, however, I cannot question. Though some of its violent shifts may startle you, and some of its shots outrage or baffle you or make you whoop, I can only say that all this is perfectly composed and constitutes what I think is Brakhage's masterpiece to date. I have thought I found slack passages or weak points in some of his earlier work, but I can find now flaw in this one. But its perfection, as with masterpieces, is a secondary virtue. It is a very powerful visual drama, and I consider its public showing an event of major importance in the arts.
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