Talking Pictures

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Stanley Brakhage

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2013


The 19th Bradford International Film Festival includes a Tribute to Stan Brakhage, one of the outstanding figures of the US avant-garde. In the programme are five of his short film works, only one or two minutes long, and his much more substantial Dog Star Man (196-64), which runs for 75 minutes. The short films precede features in the programme and are spread over the ten days of the festival. Dog Star Man screens on Saturday April 19th. All the films are being screened in their original 16mm format and without any sound or musical accompaniment. Most also feature ‘montages’ which include rapid flicker effects.
Brakhage was a central figure in film art in North America from the early 1950s until his death in 2003. He exerted immense influence in this field of artistic expression and was himself influenced by other major avant-garde filmmakers like the Surrealists, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas. Among his other influences were the psycho-analytical guru Sigmund Freud, artists like William Blake and modernist writers like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. His films are far from the conventions of mainstream feature films, closer to artworks exhibited in galleries. It should be emphasised though that they are intended for cinema projection and this is where they can be seen and appreciated to their full effect.
The films are challenging and full of complex references and symbolism. Often there are rather different interpretations of their meaning or significance, including between Brakhage the author and critics who write about and discuss his work. But his film work is also full of beautiful and often riveting images. They can be viewed and enjoyed on purely visual aesthetic grounds. I should ad this will be my first opportunity to view the much longer Dog Star Man, and I am intrigued as to what will be the impact of a film that is so much more substantial than the bulk of Brakhage’s output, relatively short painstakingly crafted films. Dog Star Man is an epic film poem, crafted over three years and constructed in five parts. The Festival catalogue has some introductory comments on the film.
Of the five short films the one I would especially recommend is Mothlight (1963). Brakhage produced this work by using actual moths and gluing them to a thin 16mm film. This in many ways typifies his craft. His films include carefully selected shots, montages and superimpositions. But to these he adds manually altering the celluloid by scratching and other techniques, colouring and painting on the celluloid and attaching other materials, as with Mothlight. The results are both distinctive and idiosyncratic.
Brakhage’s films are extremely subjective, the aim being the expression of a personal vision. It is generally called Abstract. However, he makes great use of film of the actual world about him, including his family and himself. But these are blended in with more conventional abstract imagery. He also is at pains to produce films that are contrary to the mainstream conventional aesthetics.
He is quoted on his approach “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.”
Perspective in composition in art is the norm for much or recent history, and is still dormant in the visual conventions of cinema. By comparison Brakhage’s images have a sense of flatness which is markedly different.
The Festival offers the rare opportunity to see these films as originally crafted, in their proper format and in a cinematic presentation.

Quotation from Visionary Film The American Avant-Garde 1943 – 2000 by P Adams Sitney, Oxford University Press, 2002. There are two chapters dealing with Brakhage’s work.

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