Review of Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker
by Stan Brakhage (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2003)
To filmmakers, scholars, students, and enthusiasts, the late Stan Brakhage was an icon of American experimental cinema. The publication of Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker, a collection of Brakhage’s contributions to the Toronto quarterly Musicworks, makes this an ideal time to consider the broader significance of Brakhage’s work.
It is, I believe, time to take Brakhage out of the world of starry-eyed film students and esoteric academics. While Brakhage’s films have recently been made available to the general public—stemming from the release of a DVD by the Criterion Collection—Brakhage’s writings, which waver in and out of print, help to uncover the full picture.
Brakhage used cinema to confront a cold, demystified, and narrowly perceived world. This aesthetic project aimed at the reawakening of human feeling and expansion of perception within a world that had caged both. He did not want to simply change American experimental cinema; he wanted to use experimental cinema to enhance the way we experience the world and to reject the various ways that modern life was, in effect, dehumanizing through the collapse of aesthetic experience.
When Brakhage first took up both pen and camera, cinema was dominated by the massive studio system. Hollywood had turned film into a commodity, hindering its possibilities for more dynamic and human expression. Cinema was trapped by imposed forms and expectations. In response, Brakhage made his films independently of studios. He acted as director, cameraman, producer, and even sometimes performer for his 400 plus films. Yet, nearly every experimental filmmaker was also forced to take on all of these roles. Brakhage wanted to achieve much more than mere independence from Hollywood.
In the seminal aesthetic manifesto Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage argued for the expansion of vision through cinema. He saw that artistic production of all forms was being radically liberated. In music there was John Cage, in painting the abstract expressionists, and in poetry the Beats. Brakhage felt that by similarly liberating the cinema, both filmmaker and audience would be freed from an increasing narrowness of vision, one which was imposed on cinema by Hollywood.
Cinema was the first art form that utilized machinery to express artistic human impulses. The camera was a product of modern phenomena like industrialization, mechanization, and capitalism. These phenomena produced a new world for people, one in which they worked on assembly lines and in cubicles, only to return home to the bill collector. Human emotion and feeling were being sacrificed to the efficiency of systematized life.
This was the concern that motivated Chaplin, for instance, in his Modern Times. There, Chaplin uses the camera, a product of the machine age, to critique its effects on society. Brakhage saw capitalism and the mechanization of everyday life as a radically dehumanizing force, just as Chaplin did. Yet, Chaplin’s film depicts the clash between man and machine. But unlike Chaplin or any other filmmaker, Brakhage shows that a machine, the camera, could be used to reinvigorate the artistic impulse instead of deadening it. He was interested in embracing the machine to extend human vision past the limits placed on it by modern industrial capitalist society.
And it is here that we can glimpse Brakhage’s most interesting and perhaps important contribution as a filmmaker and aesthetician. While so many artists and philosophers lamented the coming of industrialization and mechanization as the very death knell of human feeling, Brakhage responded by aestheticizing the machine itself. Speaking of film, Brakhage wrote in Telling Time, "I am primarily interested in the aesthetic possibilities of the medium, and these are those which promote mental reflection (rather than reflective recollection)."
Cinema could introduce new ways of seeing since the camera becomes an extension of the human eye. Innovative use of the camera would provide insight into human perception, expand its capacities, and allow the viewer to see past the mere surface manifestation of everyday life and penetrate into a deeper, more profound essence. The camera is a machine transformed: instead of being the concrete representation of the machine age, it becomes a tool for an alternative way of seeing a world that was reduced by modernity and technology. The camera puts human creativity back at the center of human praxis.
In Telling Time, Brakhage offers "Light moving in time" as the definition of cinema. Because of its very nature, cinema is uniquely able to artistically engage modernity’s emphasis on time. In his fascination with light, Brakhage deals with another result of modernity. He acknowledges the scientific explanation for light, but because of his interest in the "magical," he cinematically explores light as a mystery. In this way, Brakhage copes with the transition from a world of mystery, magic, and mythology to the modern age of science, rationality, and reason. He uses light and time to reënchant a world that has otherwise become disenchanted by science’s explanations and modern society’s use of time to dehumanize people. Brakhage’s aesthetic allows people to reconcile the modern world with the human feelings that have persisted for millennia.
The publication of Telling Time provides another chance to recognize the importance of Brakhage’s aesthetic agenda. These new writings rely heavily on the older ones and on the films as well to reveal the breadth of Brakhage’s vision. The writings of Fred Camper and P. Adams Sitney are invaluable resources for critically approaching Brakhage’s work. By delving into Brakhage’s work and the critiques of it, it becomes clear that Brakhage was, as Fred Camper has put it, "a poet of freedom." Brakhage’s aesthetic relieves people from the apathy and disenchantment that life in modern society forces them to endure, by asserting and reapproaching human feeling through the camera.
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Stan Brakhage (January 14, 1933 – March 9, 2003) was an non-narrative filmmaker. He is regarded as one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the 20th century. He worked with various kinds of celluloid: 16mm, 8mm, 35mm, and IMAX, and was a practitioner of what he referred to as 'pure cinema'.
Biography Brakhage was born as Robert Sanders in an orphanage in . Three weeks after his birth, he was adopted by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage and given the name James Stanley Brakhage.
As a child, he appeared on radio as a boy soprano before going to high school in and then dropping out of Dartmouth College after several months to make films. He was influenced by the writings of Sergei Eisenstein and the films of Jean Cocteau as well as the Italian neorealism movement. His first film, Interim (1952), was in the neo-realist style and had music by James Tenney.
In 1953, Brakhage moved to San Francisco where he associated with poets such as and Kenneth Rexroth. In late 1954, he moved to New York City where he met a number of contemporary artists, including Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage.
Brakhage's films are usually silent and lack a story, being more analogous to visual poetry than to prose story-telling. He often referred to them as 'visual music' or 'moving visual thinking.' His films range in length from just a few seconds to several hours, but most last between two or three minutes and one hour. He frequently hand-painted the film or scratched the image directly into the film emulsion, and sometimes used collage techniques. For ''Mothlight'' (1963), for example, he taped moth wings, twigs, and leaves onto clear film and made prints from it. In the 1960s and 1970s especially, his life with his first wife Jane and their five children was frequently shown, though in a fragmented and interior way rather than as documentation.
Brakhage's work covers a variety of subjects and techniques. Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is a record of the birth of his first child, while 23rd Psalm Branch (1966-67) is a meditation on war that intercuts footage of Colorado, where he lived, with shots of World War II. Dog Star Man (1961-64), perhaps his most famous work, features a man climbing a mountain, shots of stellar objects and more footage of his wife giving birth. It is usually read as addressing the unity of creation. The same footage was also made into a much longer film, The Art of Vision. Works from his later periods include the four-part 'Faust Series' (1987-89), the four-part 'Visions in Meditation' (1989-90), 'Passage Through: A Ritual' (1991), and 'The Vancouver Island Quartet' (1991-2002). One of his last works was the thirty minute , 'Panels For the Walls of Heaven', the last of the four Vancouver Island films. He also completed several more collaborations with musicians, including two more works with music by James Tenney, 'Christ Mass Sex Dance' (1991), and 'Ellipses #5' (1998).
Brakhage wrote a number of books, including Metaphors on Vision (1963), A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book (1971), and the posthumously published 'Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker' (2003). He often gave lectures at universities, museums, galleries, film festivals and so on. From 1969 he taught film history and aesthetics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1981 taught at the in Boulder. He taught because, despite being the best known American avant-garde filmmaker, he could not make a living from his work.
Brakhage was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, and his bladder was removed. The surgery seemed successful, but the cancer eventually returned. He retired from teaching and moved to Canada in 2002, settling with his second wife Marilyn and their two sons in . Brakhage died there on March 9, 2003, aged 70, having made almost four hundred films in all. He believed, and his doctors confirmed, that the coal-tar dyes he used to paint his films prior to 1996 had caused his cancer.
Brakhage is revered as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, and his work has had some small impact on mainstream cinema. The credits of the film , with their scratched emulsion, rapid cutaways and bursts of light are in Brakhage's style. The concluding credits to The Jacket are an homage, the background imitating his Mothlight.
Among Brakhage's students were Eric Darnell, the director of Antz, as well as the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and he is featured in their student film . The work of contemporary film and video artist Raymond Salvatore Harmon is often compared to Brakhage's abstract films. The opening track of Stereolab's album Dots and Loops, 'Brakhage', is also named after him.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive is currently working on the restoration of Stan Brakhage's complete film output.
The films of Stan Brakhage are distributed in their original format by Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.