Brakhage

review by Bill Wees

Last week at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw Jim Shedden's feature-length documentary on Stan Brakhage called, appropriately enough, Brakhage, and I recommend it, without reservation, to all Frameworkers [this review originally appeared on the Frameworks experimental film mailing list on Sept 26, 1998]. I suspect that your response to the film will depend on how well you know the man and his work, and how familiar you are with the history of American avant-garde film from the 1940s to the present.

DISCLAIMER: My comments on the film are partial and tentative. I only saw it once, and that was at the end of a long day of intense viewing of experimental films at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, including a couple by Brakhage. And my response was influenced by having seen most of Brakhage's films (some of them many times), being present at a number of screenings over the years when Brakhage introduced and discussed his films, and knowing him personally since the late '60s.

Consequently, I didn't learn much that's new, but I was grateful for the footage, both archival and recent, that showed Brakhage at his most intense and articulate, as well as at ease, down to earth and joking. (Has any study of Brakhage taken account of his robust sense of humour?) I was also grateful to be reminded of what Stan and Jane looked and sounded like when they appeared together at screenings and talked about the life behind the art of his filmmaking. I was grateful, in other words, for the rekindled memories, the repeated, familiar anecdotes, the re-creation (fragmentary, to be sure) of a life and time that include some of the greatest art of the cinema, and that I have been able to observe first hand.

I may be nostalgic, but Shedden's film is not, which is another thing in its favour. In the first place, it clearly shows that Brakhage is alive and kicking--and as creative as ever (we see an example of his current work: etching, frame by frame, complex, elegant designs in black leader). Past and present are intercut, and despite specific references to Brakhage's recent (seemingly successful) battle with cancer, there is no sense that this is a film about a life winding down, a great artistic career coming to an end. Rather, it celebrates the energy and continuities of a life still fully devoted to art (think of Monet, Matisse, Picasso).

And while it is obvious that the film was made with admiration for Brakhage and his accomplishments, its tone is not flattering or reverential (though a few comments by people in the film come close). On the other hand, this is not a warts-and-all biography. In fact, it is not really a biography at all. Too much is left out. And that leads to one of the two arguments I have with the film (I'll get to the other in a moment).

Almost all information about Brakhage's childhood is left out, which is especially surprising given Brakhage's own emphasis on the overwhelming significance of childhood. Nearly missing, as well, is the importance of music in Brakhage's life. We get a recent shot of him hamming up a rendition of "Ole Man River," but nothing is said about his being a very fine boy soprano (and there still exists a recording of young Stanley to prove it). Proper emphasis is given to Brakhage as a teacher and lecturer, but not as a writer. You wouldn't know from the film that "Metaphors on Vision" is one of the key texts in avant-garde film aesthetics and that its opening paragraph is probably the most quoted passage in all writing by and about avant-garde filmmakers. Nor would you know that books have played a major role in Brakhage's life from childhood onwards, and that he frequently speaks of the influence writers--Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, for example--have had on his work as a film artist. These are some of the phases of his personal, mental and artistic life that a fuller biographical treatment would include, and that would expand and deepen an appreciation of the man and what he has done.

My other argument with the film is the result of Shedden's decision to intercut old and recent footage, as well as documentary footage and clips from Brakhage's films, in ways that could be confusing, even misleading, for someone who's learning about Brakhage for the first time. A few examples: We go from a sequence of "Window Water Baby Moving" to a shot, clearly taken many years later, of Brakhage hunkered down at the edge of a stream filming ripples on the water's surface. The montage implies a connection between the two shots, but other than the reference to water, there isn't any. Frequently there are cuts from recent documentary footagte to sequences from films made many years before. Though the film's title and date appear on the screen, the sudden jump back twenty years or so can be pretty disorienting--and misleading if the viewer doesn't realize he or she has just passed through an editing time warp. We see a sequence from "Song 7," but are given no indication that it was shot in 8mm; later are we told about Brakhage turning to 8mm after his 16mm equipment was stolen. Later still we see Brakhage talking about making "23rd Psalm Branch" in response to the images of the Vietnam War coming into his home via television. Then we see some of the war footage Brakhage incorporated in his film, but nothing indicates that the footage is from World War II newsreels (which Brakhage saw during his own childhood), not from the TV images of Vietnam which his children were seeing.

Picky, picky? Well, maybe. My point is that while Shedden's editing strategies avoid the conventional cliched chronological ordering of shots from "then" to "now" (though an alert viewer will realize at some point that the extracts from Brakhage's films ARE presented in chronological order: from "The Way to the Shadow Garden" to a recent hand painted film and the etched black leader referred to above), nevertheless, the result can be distracting and even, perhaps, deceiving.

To say I have arguments with the film, is not to say I didn't like it. These are the kinds of arguments I like, and that I presume everyone concerned with film as art and information like as well. I hope I have made it clear that I think Shedden's Brakhage is a fine film in many ways. Despite my complaints about lack of information in some areas, I'm glad Shedden didn't fill in with voice-over or a lot of printed text. To tell the film's story, he makes good use of talking heads (P. Adams Sitney, Phil Solomon and George Kuchar among others) and excellent use of footage of Brakhage from many sources and in many different contexts. The sound track includes music composed by James Tenney, but I'm glad that no one talked Shedden into laying sound over the sequences from Brakhage's films. Those passages of silence help us to sit back and savour the visual richness, the rhythms and energy of Brakhage's films. They add immeasurably to the pleasure-- and informational content--of the film.

If you have a chance to see the film in 35mm on a big screen in a good auditorium, don't pass it up. Eventually, as I understand it, the film will be available on video. It won't look as good, but it will be seen by a lot more people. A copy should be in the audio-visual library of every institution that offers film study courses. For the time being, the person to ask about distribution is Jim Shedden.


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