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Remembering Stan Brakhage

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"He noticed everything," says Mimi Brav of Stan Brakhage, the world-renowned avant-garde filmmaker who died last month. Brav met him in 1972, when he was lecturing at the School of the Art Institute. "I was very young," she says. "I had never experienced anyone with the degree of sensitivity he had. He would see a thousand things within a few blocks, pointing out every bit of Louis Sullivan architecture, the features of people on the street and the way they moved, the light in the sky, sounds you wouldn't be that conscious of. 'I wear my nerve endings on my sleeve,' he used to say. He would sometimes wear a Walkman because he needed to hear classical music or else he would become overwhelmed by the noises of the city."

Brav had moved here from New York to study with Brakhage after seeing some of his films. "They were totally transformative, unlike anything I'd seen in terms of qualities of light, the halos around people, the fact that they weren't narrative," she says. "I had never seen anyone photograph the dailiness of life. I bought a camera and started to film."

Brakhage's SAIC lectures on film history, which were open to the public, attracted a wide following. "He would tie so many things into the films, from something that happened to a neighbor to the Vietnam war," Brav says. "There was this sense of everything being looked at in a hundred different ways. I was completely stunned by his passion--by his holy rages against the way the modern age was trying to shape everybody into automatons."

The lectures were hard on him, says Brav, who, with her husband, Christopher McCabe, became friendly with Brakhage. "Sometimes before lectures his knees were trembling," she says. "Afterward he would sometimes go out and throw up. He was often worried that he hadn't lectured well. Sometimes he'd be brilliant and think he'd done awfully. Sometimes he'd be self-indulgent and repetitive--and wouldn't really know the difference."

Brakhage was beset by physical ailments throughout his life. "There was a whole year in Chicago where he could only eat certain foods," Brav says. "He had asthma from when he was a child and was always afraid of asthma attacks, but he would also say, 'Maybe I need this sickness to make these films.' He felt like the arts came because people are fractured by life--he used to say that the creative process begins where everything is lost. He did have a feeling of being alien to the planet, alien to who he was--a crazy bundle of nerves who didn't feel at home here." But he had a playful side too: "Once he took Christopher and me to a photo booth in Greek Town, and he played the director of the snapshots."

Brakhage, the subject of a tribute at the Cultural Center on April 23 (see the Critic's Choice in Section Two for more), was brought to SAIC in 1969 to teach film history by painter Tom Mapp, then the undergraduate chair of the school. Mapp had met Brakhage a decade earlier when he was a graduate student in painting at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Brakhage wasn't on the faculty there, says Mapp, but he "desperately wanted a larger audience, and he thought that painting students might be open." He would regularly set up screenings and invite some students, who then invited others. The screenings included Brakhage's own films, the work of other avant-gardists such as Kenneth Anger, and older films, including Carl Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. "Stan was passionate and went to great pains to instruct people on how to understand the abstract understructure of all film," says Mapp. "Once when I came to baby-sit for his kids he set up his Bell & Howell projector and put on Eisenstein's Potemkin and said, 'Look at this film, and when I get back tonight we'll talk about it and look at it again.' We went through it, and he talked about its repetitive elements in terms of music."

When Mapp decided he wanted someone to teach film history he didn't have many academically trained film historians to choose from--film was taught in very few schools. But he thought Brakhage's approach would work at SAIC. "I remember enjoying his talks about Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and any of a number of early filmmakers," he says. "His opinions were extremely personal and personally felt, and as long as you understood that, the class could be an enormously rich experience. He was very charismatic and had a way of drawing students to him, and I think that generated a good deal of envy among the art historians, who felt he wasn't qualified to teach there. The Art Institute was a funny place to be saying that--the school was a place for doers, and here was a prime doer who wanted to share his passion. But if you made the mistake of taking Stan's opinions as the only possible opinion--which some students did because he was such a commanding figure--then you were in trouble. I tried to tell those students that ultimately what he wants you to do is make up your own mind."

Many students did, and the best testimony to Brakhage's influence may be the former students whose work doesn't look at all like his. Louis Hock, who says he was the school's first filmmaking graduate student, is now a media artist and professor at the University of California at San Diego. He describes his relationship with Brakhage as "argumentative" but adds, "Stan had the best relationship with people when there was some discursive dance back and forth. He could spin a pretty good tale in his lectures, but when I would say 'I don't think this is true' or 'There's another way to see this' he never shut the thing down. We did have pretty stormy discussions, and my films were going in a direction he didn't like. But when it came time to write me a letter of recommendation he wrote a really stellar letter that opened a lot of doors for me. Stan was great because he was so adamant and had such a belief in the stuff that he did. He really was a lesson in how to be a filmmaker, that there was a no-holds-barred relationship to the medium. His passion gave you a kind of license to not be ashamed about being a maniac and making films. You didn't have to be cool. It was really about making stuff and not feeling as if you had to justify things beyond yourself. Later you could talk about it, argue about it, but making film should be a dance with your own soul and not about positioning yourself or gaming with the critics."

Bill Brand, a film and video maker and installation artist who's now a professor at Hampshire College, studied at the school a year after Hock. "I think my films ran strongly against the grain for Stan, but he was very generous toward me and watched as many of them as I threw onto the screen," he says. "He thought I was too influenced by Paul Sharits and encouraged me not to define my work too narrowly--to keep my options open for growth and change. I don't know that Stan ever connected with my work or if he ever saw any of my films after 1973, but he was always friendly and tacitly supportive, even if bothered, annoyed, or perplexed by what I did."

Brand had been drawn to the school in part because Brakhage's eight-millimeter "Songs" were among the first avant-garde films he'd seen."They were beautiful and immediate, and I realized that I had available to me the same tools he had used," he says. "I had bought an eight-millimeter camera for $10 and shot film, trying to learn how to see and how to make images. Stan was a very compelling speaker, very passionate. His lectures tended to be anecdotal--his emphasis was on the individual maker and individual vision, and that was consistent with his work. I sat next to him on a flight to Chicago once, and I remember him showing me how to press my eyelids and identify various shapes and flares. I was impressed by the strength of his conviction, the tenacity of his working habits, his intellectual curiosity."

Yet Brand, like many of Brakhage's admirers, can also be critical. "Stan was very dramatic, as if he was always onstage and every word was profound. Many things he said were, but most were not. I hated his public persona and his aura of self-importance, even though he was important. He talked about his creative process in grandiose romantic terms--he was inspired by muses, tortured by fears, driven by urgent needs. I think he considered himself a channel for a higher force."

Rob Danielson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, saw his first Brakhage film as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. "I remember walking home and realizing that it was very hard for me to focus, that something was messed up about my eyes," he says. "It wasn't so much that the film was sometimes out of focus, but unlike any other film that I'd ever seen this was a film about the process of seeing. All of a sudden I realized that a film could just be about the visual encounters you could have with the world." Danielson enrolled at SAIC in 1974 and remembers that Brakhage never talked about life or work separate from the other. "He portrayed filmmaker Marie Menken at times as this unbelievable genius and at other times as being an innocent who just lucked onto it. He was like Walt Whitman saying, 'I contradict myself. Very well, I have contradicted myself.'"

Brakhage's life was a key part of his lectures. Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, says, "He showed the little silver hip flask that he used as a spittoon and explained that he came from Colorado, where everyone chews tobacco." Noel Carroll, now a professor of philosophy and film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recalls Brakhage talking about how his parents discouraged him from masturbating: "He said he would look at his feet as a substitute--and then he took his shoes off onstage. In a lecture on Keaton he talked of Keaton's relationship with his father. I thought projecting the oedipal struggle back to childhood might have been more about Stan than Buster."

But for every moment of self-indulgence or projection, there was another that reflected Brakhage's wide-ranging interests. "He stressed the importance of understanding etymology and of using the Oxford English Dictionary to take apart the words you're using to understand their ideas," Danielson says. "I'd never even heard of the OED before." He also remembers Brakhage asking students, "Have you tried projecting your film backward and out of focus to see the rhythm?" And there were more lessons. "He also stressed that it's impossible to come to grips with what's important about a work on one viewing of it--three times is a minimum. I did a class exercise one time based on Stan's notion that 'personhood' can work its way into material you generate in ways that you don't understand. I had each student take one 15-to-20-second shot. We took all those shots and cut them up and put them into a bag and spliced them together. It was uncanny how we could tell who had shot what from the subject matter and the way they held the camera."

Danielson goes on: "Brakhage's work said, 'Look, it's all interesting. Every single thing that you want to pick out to spend time on can open up your world for you. You just have to want it to happen and be willing to spend the time and be willing to solve the riddle that's troubling you and be willing to accept that it's going to trouble you in the process of solving it too. He always was so deeply engaged with life that there was never anything that was ephemeral and unimportant to him. He quoted [filmmaker and poet] James Broughton that the reasons angels can fly is that they take themselves lightly. But Stan didn't take himself lightly. He took Broughton seriously. Stan always said that if a film wasn't ambiguous at the beginning he had failed."

Vermont film and video maker Nora Jacobson saw Brakhage's films as a Dartmouth undergraduate and found them "endlessly interesting to watch, totally engulfing. They were a completely eye-opening experience for me and made me fall in love with the medium. For a really long time I would take my camera everywhere and see everything in terms of filming it--buildings, reflections, light, shadows." She enrolled at SAIC in 1977 because Brakhage was there, and she found his lectures "very idiosyncratic, in the sense that they weren't about objective facts--they were his musings, very personal musings, about things in the films." She remembers that after he saw one of her films, he made a comment that indicated the size of his ego: "He told me that it had the best use of a certain kind of camera movement since his own [1958] film Anticipation of the Night." Still, she says, there was something about him that was very generous. "Not a personal kind of generosity, but a generosity of vision. You got the sense that he took on everything in the world--every emotion, every experience."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Aschkenas.

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