Between 1952 and 2003, depending on how the various serial works are counted, Stan Brakhage made somewhere between 350 and 400 films, about half of them short film poems under ten minutes in length, most of the rest between ten minutes and an hour, and several of them longer—including the four and a quarter hours of The Art of Vision (1961–65). This dauntingly prolific, complex, and both thematically and materially diverse oeuvre strongly resists categories and labels, and is difficult to excerpt and anthologize. In selecting titles for this second collection, I have wished simply to offer further openings into the enormity of Brakhage’s accomplishment, and to allow viewers to follow some of the evolutions in form and interrelated thematic concerns that weave through the five decades of his deeply layered, perpetually transforming, and constantly reimagined ways of seeing.
The first Criterion volume presented some major, groundbreaking achievements of Brakhage’s early periods, several important midcareer films, and fifteen beautiful, short pieces from the late 1980s and 1990s. Volume two includes another thirty exceptional titles, arranged into six programs (with the option of going directly to any given title). It was Criterion’s Peter Becker who first suggested this approach, which provides pathways into the work by organizing several possible viewings of an hour to an hour and a half in length. And I am thankful also for the valuable input I received in the course of the selection process from Brakhage scholars Fred Camper, Bruce Elder, and P. Adams Sitney—as well as from several other helpful friends and family members. Presenting a selection of key works from each decade, the programs proceed in roughly chronological order, while at the same time giving consideration to a variety of developing themes.
Stan Brakhage was a visionary artist who engaged a wide range of subject matter, creating cinematic revelations of the profound and terrifying birth of children, the horrors of war, the violence of autopsy, family life and sexuality, the nature of perception and the developing stages of human consciousness, the limits of autobiography, animal life on earth, the earth itself, and our “connection to the stars.” His was a life deeply engaged with the histories of music, poetry, and the visual arts, an intensely focused, driven, obsessed, creative life in which he ceaselessly pushed the boundaries of cinematic form to reveal the universal qualities of our human condition within the singularity of personal vision, in a musically structured aesthetic of light moving in time.
Before the end of the 1950s, Brakhage was making mostly silent films. As sound tends to dominate and lead vision, only in silence, he believed, would it be possible to realize the subtle and complex visual rhythms that his aesthetics depended upon. He also wrote and spoke of the “new language” of cinema as offering, for the first time, a means of exteriorizing human thought process. Reflecting upon film’s dominant use to record and re-present theatrical drama, Brakhage increasingly argued that what film can really do best is to make manifest that which he came to refer to as “moving visual thinking”—that “non-verbal, non-symbolic, non-numerical” thinking that “at best . . . verges all the way over . . . into the un-nameable or the ineffable.” Perceiving the mind’s movements as being in constant interplay with both visually and sonically received and experienced rhythms, he theorized further that the aesthetic creation of either visually ordered or sonically ordered rhythms could present meaningful equivalents of those inner movements, and he created works in constantly renewing visual forms that would not only respond to a variety of sights seen—while simultaneously manifesting an interior life and documenting complex layers of optic feedback, or “closed-eye vision”—but that would give to the eyes (and mind) something analogous to what music gives to us through hearing: “visual music.”
Frequently, Brakhage’s work took the form of extended series or films in multiple parts (which can also be viewed as separate pieces in their own right), and from these this volume includes some individual “chapters”—Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967); the second of the three films of The Weir-Falcon Saga (1970), The Machine of Eden; Duplicity III (1980), from the Sincerity and Duplicity series (1973–80); the twelfth film of the twenty-part Arabics (1980–82); the first part of his major hand-painted Trilogy (1995), I Take These Truths; and “. . .” Reel Five (1998). In addition, we have included one complete series, Visions in Meditation (1989–90), in four parts.
The Visions in Meditation series represents a major turning point in Brakhage’s life and work. A period of personal crisis in the mid-1980s had led to a brief return to a more psychodramatic mode in his filmmaking, in the four-part Faust series (1987–89). With the magnificent, sweeping landscapes of Faust 4, however, he was already attempting to rid himself of those dramatic images in “a return to earth.” And it was from there that he launched directly into Visions in Meditation, with the stated intention of presenting a “democratic landscape,” one in which images of earth, water, sky, structures of human creation, and human and animal life might coexist in a nonhierarchical equality of presence—a weave of light experienced as rhythms of mind, poised in the balance of thought, envisioned “as in a dream.” Inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, and filmed as we drove through the American Southwest, as well as the northeastern states and eastern Canada, visiting historical sites, iconic landscapes, Brakhage’s childhood home in Kansas, and the D. H. Lawrence shrine in New Mexico, these visions do draw together the autobiographical energies, landscape meditations, poetic allusions, celebration of light, equivalents of thought process, and “music for the eyes” that inform and drive much of Brakhage’s work. Yet at the same time, they are astonishingly new in their compositions and rhythms. And they
introduce a final decade and a half of work as rich and diverse as any that precedes it.
Program 1: 1955–67
The Wonder Ring, The Dead, Two: Creeley/McClure, 23rd Psalm Branch
Program one begins with The Wonder Ring (1955), a six-minute light poem in homage to what was then Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train. This little film was made at the request of Joseph Cornell, with whom Brakhage collaborated on several projects, and who, along with Marie Menken, proved to be a major influence on Brakhage’s growing sense of the aesthetics of light and the materiality of the film medium, as well as on the increasingly subjective and musical qualities his work would begin to embrace. The Wonder Ring is a film of quiet warmth, flowing gently round in anticipated memoriam—those carriages, those people, those particular views of the city, forever and never again present.
Three years later, shortly after completing his seminal work Anticipation of the Night (1958)—in which the subjective camera of the unseen hero restlessly pursues elliptical transformations of imagery in an associative montage culminating in the shadow of a man who has hanged himself—Brakhage was in Paris, entering the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, finding himself faced with the weight of all those great artists and thinkers who had come before him, and considering how to turn the symbols of such into a living work. “The action of making The Dead,” Brakhage said, “kept me alive.”
In the mid-1960s, his 16 mm equipment was stolen and he entered a period of 8 mm “home movie” making with the diverse visual poetics of his 8 mm Songs, which he introduced with a paraphrasing of Ezra Pound:
Go little naked and impudent songs
Ring the doorbells of the bourgeoisie
Tell them that you do no work
And that you will live forever
From the thirty-one Songs of 1964 to 1969, I’ve included two films: the pairing of brief portraits of Brakhage friends, poets Robert Creeley and Michael McClure (Two: Creeley/McClure, 1965), which was incorporated into 15 Song Traits (1965), and the sixty-four-minute study of war and its media presentations 23rd Psalm Branch (1967), that “apocalypse of the imagination” (P. Adams Sitney) that responded to TV images of Vietnam in an attempt, also, to reclaim person and personal vision from the onslaught of television news.
Program 2: 1967–76
Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One; The Machine of Eden;
Star Garden; Desert
Program 3: 1972–82
The Process, Burial Path, Duplicity III, The Domain of the Moment,
Murder Psalm, Arabic 12
The first section of Scenes from Under Childhood begins Brakhage’s major investigation into stages of consciousness (starting with the infant’s nascent awareness of self and other), as well as his formal and thematic layering of autobiographical reflections with observations of the lives of his children. From the contemplation of “birth and being” in Scenes from Under Childhood (a film in four parts, 1967–70), Brakhage turned his considerations to the further development of consciousness in the three films of The Weir-Falcon Saga, and to themes of both self-consciousness and self-deception, the personal and the social, in the eight-part, autobiographical Sincerity and Duplicity series. In The Machine of Eden (part two of The Weir-Falcon Saga), the reemergence into the larger world of a child who has been feverishly ill (in part one) becomes the occasion for interweaving the simultaneously perceptual, formal, and mythological themes of creation/Creation. And in the warm, autumnal Duplicity III, seen in program three, the viewer is presented with multiple superimpositions of children engaged in dramatic play, a strategy whereby the filmmaker reveals the roots of social roles and evasions, while yet presenting “drama as an ultimate play for truth.”
Though he was ostensibly eschewing drama in his filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, in favor of visionary experience of ordinary dailiness, many of the films from that period—frequently centered on home and family—did, in fact, continue to exhibit clear dramatic elements, and his awareness of this informed much of the Sincerity and Duplicity series. However, beginning in the early 1970s, a major shift was developing in a parallel strand of Brakhage’s work, as “vision” was increasingly presented as “thought process”—as the interior light of the mind and the feedback of the nervous system in response to the incoming light being “spanked” in upon it (as he would say) were given equal weight to any exterior sights.
Brakhage’s formal, thematic, and philosophical imperatives of including representations of optic feedback and the fleeting images of thought in responding to sights seen can be traced back at least to the making of the childbirth film Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), in which layers of superimposition are added to the gestural techniques of the handheld camera to create a filmic equivalent of inner vision. With The Process (1972), which begins program three, Brakhage again addresses the interaction of internal and external sources of imagery, but in this case, as the sole subject of the film. Here, slightly displaced positive and negative versions of the same image create a feeling of insubstantiality. And movements, such as a door being opened or closed, seem to slide across the plane of the screen, defying our normal sense of perspective and evoking, instead, brushes of light across a visual field of mind.
Continuing the variable themes of thought process, Brakhage had paired his 1978 Burial Path with another short film of that year, Thot Fal’n, noting that, like the earlier piece, Burial Path “graphs the process of forgetfulness.” But Burial Path is also about death, and was sometimes referred to (by Brakhage) as the third part of a trilogy, with Sirius Remembered (1959) and The Dead (1960). (The “path” is also the route taken to visit Brakhage’s friend, the then-ailing literary scholar Donald Sutherland, to whom the film is dedicated.)
While The Dead is thematically linked to the other films in that trilogy, it can also be viewed as one of Brakhage’s many studies of or responses to The City, along with, for examples, Other (1980, Amsterdam), Unconscious London Strata (1982), City Streaming (1989, Toronto), and, to some extent, Boulder Blues and Pearls And . . . (1992, Boulder, Colorado)—the second and fourth of which are included in program five of this collection. And all these can equally be seen, once again, as equivalents of different aspects of thought process—whether a study in alienation, a memory piece recalled as rhythms of vision, or a weave in the mind of what is peripherally seen and absorbed of daily life in a seeming emotional and optical response to the ephemeral nature of earthly existence (Boulder Blues).
Indeed, Brakhage’s visions—whether of people known or unknown, whether of earth, ocean, or sky, whether of Alaskan ice floes, Hawaiian surf, Vancouver Island beaches, California desert, or Colorado mountains—seem to exist in a sort of no-space (or purely filmic space), simultaneously felt as tactile, visceral sensory experience and ungrounded, associative dreamscape. But it is precisely in paying attention to the slight shifts in movement and the playing of the light, the layers of visual rhythms within the unexpected conjunctions of imagery and changes of perspective, coming in and out of focus, in a dance of color and form, in a weave of memory and metaphor, that a viewer might be stirred to a sudden recognition or insight.
The sun makes its way across the screen in Star Garden (1974) to portray “one of those days I would not trade for anything under heaven” (Brancusi); in Desert (1976), one may “feel” the melting heat as if in thought; in Unconscious London Strata, a viewer can see the familiar shapes and sights beginning to rhythmically take form from the formless imaginative ground of mind; and in Boulder Blues and Pearls And . . . , the sights of daily living are literally colored with overlaid, hand-painted equivalents of optic feedback elicited by the filmmaker’s emotional response.
From the “moving visual thinking” of The Process and Burial Path, program three continues with the reflection upon the more socially constructed and culturally determined behaviors and thoughts of Duplicity III, and then a consideration of the consciousness of other life forms in The Domain of the Moment (1977). Here we see Brakhage turn his camera on four of the animals in his immediate surroundings. Flora and fauna, flower petals and moth wings to snakes, donkeys, and goats, his many mysterious cats, as well as animals occasionally encountered in the wild, would weave their way through many films, occasionally becoming the focused study of one or another work. In The Domain of the Moment, the ideal of the “continuous present” that informs much of Brakhage’s work finds a natural parallel in the imagined consciousness of these four creatures.
With Murder Psalm (1980), other considerations arise, it being one of those works that Brakhage said came to him in a dream, presenting itself with personal urgency and driven by deep recollections and disturbances of possible child abuse. A collage of found footage of monstrous implications, Murder Psalm, like his earlier Nightmare Series (1978), continues that engagement with the “dream work” that he considered an imperative task of our age.
Around this same time, Brakhage was also beginning a new and important evolution in his work. The thought-process films of 1978 (Thot Fal’n and Burial Path) can perhaps be seen as a bridge between such earlier works as The Process and The Text of Light (1974) and the so-called Imagnostic Films of his Roman Numeral Series (1979–80) and then Arabics. In these later photographic abstractions, Brakhage took his next leap into the orchestration of pure light and refracted colors, drawing on the perceived inner movements of the mind, the qualities of music, and the inherent nature of film to present us with a vision of what he believed to be the inner “grammar” that formed the structural basis of all thought.
Brakhage often spoke of the psychological dangers inherent in the work of the abstract expressionists, with whom he felt an aesthetic affinity. And the extreme interiority, the deep dives into fundamental thought process that brought forth his Roman Numeral Series, Arabics, and Egyptian Series (1984), as well as the painting of The Dante Quartet (1987, volume one), would have presented potential threats to mental stability that demanded a regrounding in something quite opposite. The complexities of private relationships within a self-defining and obsessed creative life (or any life) should not be oversimplified, nor do I wish to presume upon them. Yet among the vicissitudes of his life, this isolated and deeply interiorized creative production certainly must have contributed to his increasing desire for more active collaboration, and to counterbalancing moves that deeply affected his personal and aesthetic life in those years. And certainly the psychically demanding nature of the work took its toll on him and those around him. To a large extent, this had always been so. And in the mid-1980s, perhaps for these as well as other reasons, there was a somewhat dramatic tearing apart and shattering of his personal and family life, leading, eventually, to the end of his long marriage to Jane Collom Brakhage (now Jane Wodening)—the partner in life and art who had so frequently and prominently figured in his films of the preceding three decades. It was in the aftermath of this drama that I first met Stan Brakhage. About a year later, in 1988, we would begin a series of driving trips together in which he finished the photography for Faust 4 and began his Visions in Meditation.
Program 4: 1989–90
Visions in Meditation #1, Visions in Meditation #2 (Mesa Verde), Visions in Meditation #3 (Plato’s Cave), Visions in Meditation #4 (D. H. Lawrence)
Program 5: 1982, 1992, 1994
Unconscious London Strata, Boulder Blues and Pearls And . . . , The Mammals of Victoria, From: First Hymn to the Night—Novalis
For many years, Brakhage was based in the mountains of Colorado, and later in the town of Boulder. At the same time, when he traveled to new geographies, the immediacy of his engagement with the particularities of light and rhythms of those other places or their specific cultural manifestations would produce some of his most deeply felt works. This is true of Creation (1979) and Made Manifest (1980) (Alaska and Hawaii, respectively), and of the Visions in Meditation series, as well as Unconscious London Strata, City Streaming, and the monumental Vancouver Island Quartet(1991–2002)—filmed in the environs of my own childhood, a place to which we returned repeatedly through the 1990s.
Brakhage described Unconscious London Strata as a “reconstruction of the mind’s eye at the borders of the unconscious,” writing that “some visual song of all of England’s history began to move through this material,” creating, then, a musical metaphor of mind, as memory manifested on film as “rounds within rounds.” The Mammals of Victoria (1994), the second of the Vancouver Island films, is an elemental study in the energies of adolescence—another example of that particular strand in Brakhage’s work (as is Boulder Blues and Pearls And . . .) in which he would combine photographic and painted imagery, assuredly weaving together the shimmering fragility of worldly phenomena and visual experience with both concrete and metaphorical representations of an interior life.
Shortly after the shooting of The Mammals of Victoria, Brakhage decided to devote himself entirely to his hand-painted work—a determination that lasted for about three years. Layers of Brakhagean hand-painted expressions can be traced back to the early 1960s, from Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, Dog Star Man (1961–64, volume one), and a number of the Songs to The Wold-Shadow of 1972 (volume one), the completely hand-painted Skein (1974), Aftermath (1980), Nodes (1981), and up to and including The Dante Quartet and Interpolations (1992). From 1993 to late 1996, Brakhage wanted to fully explore the possibilities of this aesthetic, and he produced more than forty short films, in a remarkable outpouring of work, in a form that would continue to be a major part of his filmmaking to the end of his life. From these, the present anthology includes the beautiful short film of rich painting and overlaid scratched words From: First Hymn to the Night—Novalis (1994), as well as his tour de force I Take These Truths and a selection from the later Persian Series (1999–2001).
Program 6: 1995–2003
I Take These Truths, The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm, Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind, “. . .” Reel Five, Persian Series 1–3, Chinese Series
In late 1996 and 1997, Brakhage’s work evidenced a partial return to photographic aesthetics, with Commingled Containers (volume one) and The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm, as well as the ecstatic paean to earthly existence, with intimations, perhaps, of immortality, that is Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind. With this film, Brakhage alludes to the World Tree as he portrayed it in his 1964 epic Dog Star Man. And in later conversation (with filmmaker Phil Solomon), he explained his wish to correct himself, saying that “it [the World Tree] cannot die—as I had it in Dog Star Man—because . . . it comes from the human mind and belongs to the human mind.” A “document” of thought process, sparked, as he said, by images of electricity and growth, this film combines photography and paint within an astonishing recapitulation of themes and forms that is a masterpiece of complex visual rhythms.
In 1998, Brakhage completed the five reels of Ellipses, culminating in the only sound piece of that series. “. . .” Reel Five is one of four sound films included in this volume, and it is the third film that Brakhage made with the music of his longtime friend composer James Tenney (following upon Interim  and Christ Mass Sex Dance ). For “. . .” Reel Five, Brakhage edited his scratched and painted film to Tenney’s previously recorded Flocking so as to give equal weight to each element—the primary principle in this form of construction being one of nonsynchronization, of breaking any direct connection between picture and sound so as to allow each to develop independently. It is a profoundly moving work of acceptance and generosity in which each aspect—the visual and the aural—is fully alive in the presence of the other, in a remarkable evocation of space, time, and aesthetic correspondence.
Across his life, Brakhage was inspired not only to contemplate and make manifest his own thought process and visual experience but to consider the shared, cultural aspects of those forms, and to explore the variations of shapes, colors, forms, and movements that might typify the underlying thought process of a given culture. While his Roman Numeral Series, Arabics, Egyptian Series, and Babylon Series (1989–90) were all photographed abstractions of colored light, the first several Persians are from a series of eighteen short, painted films that present a beautiful tapestry of colors with dark overtones, the overall series moving gradually toward scriptlike lines. And Brakhage’s last film, the hand-scratched Chinese Series (2003)—finished just weeks before his death—flickers across the screen as suggestions of Chinese ideograms, while at the same time, as filmmaker Courtney Hoskins would have it, evoking a sense of “running through a humid bamboo forest . . . [in which] green and yellow stalks create these glowing shadows as they cut across the sunlight.”
While remaining true to inner sources and seeking to go beyond language into the realm of the unnameable, Brakhage films are also dense with visual metaphors and literary allusion. They may shimmer with the mundane grittiness of life on earth, with delicate flickers of closed-eye vision and suggestions of the very birth of imagery, or explode into ecstatic expansions of mind and the infinities of celestial space. The images are fleeting, ephemeral, and unpredictable. They defy any simple interpretation. Yet Brakhage would state that he had very high standards for film as a possible art form, and that in any work of art there will be nothing superfluous. These works do demand the active participation of the viewer, and invite repeated viewings. Yet ultimately, according to Brakhage, the form and content of a work of art will be fully explicable. The adventure is in the imaginative engagement with the multiplicity of possibilities, surprising revelations, and intensification of visual experience that these films can give to us.
I am very thankful to everyone who worked so hard to make this production possible.
And to quote Stan once again, as he wrote of 15 Song Traits, I would like to dedicate this collection “to all who appear within these films—and to all who see them clearly.”