Stan Brakhage began devising his experimental films in 1952, at the age of 19, and he’s still plugging away. As depicted in Jim Shedden’s documentary, he comes across as a generally amiable, obsessive, probably a little crazy, intuitive artist who at one point matter-of-factly refers to what he does as "a mystery."
Shedden’s film is a good introduction to Brakhage’s work and a fair summary of his life, explicitly stating that the two can’t be separated. Brakhage’s earlier films are somewhat typical of their period – late ’40s, early ’50s – fragmented and gothic in tone, concerned with shadows and blood, propelled by dream logic and an awful sense of impending doom. Although the influence of the pioneering Maya Deren – who in turn was influenced by Buñuel and Cocteau – is apparent, the tendency toward surrealistic psychodrama in the early works of Brakhage and such contemporaries as Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington could also, as critic Bart Testa points out, be attributed to the fact that these movies were made by teenagers who were discovering the artistic possibilities of film at the same time that they were discovering themselves.
But Brakhage’s interest in suggestive symbolism was a phase and he soon found his own "voice," which was to be an abiding interest in the variety of images that the manipulation of the elements of film could yield. Much of the time his shuffled and redealt cinematic language danced around a still-recognizable central subject – some of his films featured his wife and five children and were essentially home movies transformed into elaborate visual mosaics. Similarly, two of his most striking efforts – Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) – take as their starting point the birth of his son and an autopsy, respectively.
In his later years, Brakhage’s work has become more purely abstract, with color, form, light and edit-rhythm conveying the otherwise inexpressible. That may sound like pretentious bosh – and it may well be pretentious bosh – but the wonderful thing about Shedden’s little film is the way it chips away at the normal skepticism that any reasonable person might have about the avant-garde.
Brakhage’s work may be mysterious, but it’s for real. And if you look at it long enough, you may begin to see in it what he sees in it – and begin to understand why he’s spent his life trying to create these sights.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].