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Food For Sharks: A Personnel Tribute to Stan Brakhage

Tribute, in the meaning of what the farmers pay to the king, is an apt image for what we younger artists owe to the memory of Stan Brakhage.

In 1980, I taped this poem to my apartment window:

B r soaring
Whalen l
k plodding
h w
de Kooning

de Kooning wrote, in his essay Content is a Glimpse (1960), "Content is an encounter, like a flash. It’s very tiny, very tiny, content." Philip Whalen characterized his poetry like this: "A continuous fabric (nerve movie) exactly as wide as these lines…causing great sections of his nervous system—distant galaxies hitherto unsuspected—to light up." Here, both artists are mining the ordinary for the unsuspected content, glimpses in the peripheral vision; the hand rises, the cat jumps, flecks of sunlight fall across the floor.

Brakhage, like Whalen and de Kooning, inherited from Modernism, from Joyce, Pound, and Picasso, a methodology of subversion, and the desire to re-create the world from fragments. He saw that bits of observed truth, each polished and real in themselves, could be assembled into larger structures, which lead the mind into new truths, unmapped territory. The artwork as a tool, a map, the artist a guide.

Brakhage, though by nature a loner, was central to a marvelous and wild community of like-minded artists and writers, and his films contain images and homages to many of them: dissolving patterns of fluid thought (Creeley); snapshots and joyful diary (Mekas); pulsing tree branch patterns and colors dancing (Pollock); children in costumes with a donkey (Anger); newsreel takes (Conner); pupil-straining scratched black leader (Kubelka); found footage tricksterism (Cornell and Jacobs). Brakhage’s efforts are summed up in his stated desire to film "closed-eye vision"—images as raw material, intercepted in front of the organizing impulse of thought and consensus reality.

Brakhage seems to have been born old. In early images of him he is leaning on a cane. Jane records meeting him quite ill, and their decision to marry was predicated on the certainty that he would live only another year or so. Film, as he came to it, was a senex medium, with a heavy Saturnian dependence on numbers: ASA, film speeds, F-stops, frames per second, exposure times. He had to contend with a semi-secret guild of film labs with procedures not tolerant of the experimental, not to mention the necessary expense of equipment, film, and processing. The avant-garde he grew into was dominated by 16-mm black and white, with its roots in documentary and theater.

How remarkable, then, that by the mid-’60s, he is shooting and printing his films in 8 mm, the medium of the "home movie." He is defining himself as "amateur," in the Latin sense of "lover." The home is present in his subject matter as well as in the desire to have his work collected by his fans in their homes, bypassing the clanky theater/distribution apparatus. His notes to the film The Songs (1964 – 1969) reveal how poetic his approach had become:

Song 1: "A portrait of a beautiful woman."

Song 4: "A round-about three girls playing with a ball…hand painted over photo image."

Song 6: "A song of the painted veil—arrived at via moth death."

Song 14: "A closed-eye-vision song composed of molds, paints, and crystals."

The excitement of watching a Brakhage film comes from the shift from being viewers to our being creators. The images are raw and cooked at the same time. The "I" (eye) is inside each of us, and we watch the film unfold as if it were our own dream. Is it the flag moving? Or the wind? Or the mind? The bush is always burning in a Brakhage film. Like de Kooning and Whalen, he employed a huge rhetorical range: backwinding and superimposition, fades, dissolves, scratching and painting on film, colored leader spliced in, flares of the roll ending. Amid repetitions and musical rhythms, one image catches our eye as it has caught his—it repeats, orange flares in heavy grain, repeats, orange turns to blue, turns to black—a girl plays with a ball and we watch, utterly fascinated.

One could, and future students undoubtedly will, write long theses on the symbolism in these works. The mountain as the central image in Dog Star Man (1961 - 1962), in which the artist ascends toward the summit, traditionally the navel of the world where creation begins—the vertical image of the tree as axis mundi—the artist carrying an axe to cut down false images. For me, the beauty is less symbolic, and more poetic and musical. It is ordinary consciousness, experienced with a sharp eye and an alert mind, that is being celebrated.

Sitting in the dark at Anthology, the film on the screen is The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) (great title!). A dead human body is being cut open in a fluorescent Pittsburgh morgue. This is surely Hell. The eye/camera is fascinated, and records beautiful colors, reds, moist purples, bits of gleaming light, blood. The spirit that has left the body has flown onto the film through the lens. This is transformative art of the highest order. Hell, Hades, is right here, in Pittsburgh, anywhere one might look, and Brakhage descends, if not serenely, with the nerve to look Death squarely in the face.

Gary Snyder, in his poem "How Zen Masters Are Like Mature Herring," writes: "So few become full-grown." Brakhage did become full-grown. He survived and blossomed artistically to the point that he was fully himself. I see in my mind the words, "BY BRAKHAGE," dancing across the screen, hand-scratched in black leader. He signed his films this way, avoiding the authoritative credit typeface of feature film. This "BY BRAKHAGE" included all things and persons Brakhage that were in the movies: his wife, himself, his children, his home, the trees and sky, the household pets and wild birds. He humbly saw himself as part of it all, not the "director" of the film. Snyder goes on to say: "And how necessary all the others,/ gifts to the food chain/ These big ones feed sharks." Brakhage’s films are sharkfood of the highest nutritional content.


Peter Acheson

Peter Acheson is an artist.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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