Remembering Brakhage

We will never see his like again

by Peter Rist Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 3 minutes (567 words)

I first encountered Stan Brakhage in 1977 (or, 76?) when he was invited to Montreal by Serge Losique. I believe he was presenting his own films somewhere else, but I saw him introduce and discuss two films directed by Orson Welles: The Stranger and Journey Into Fear (which was signed by Norman Foster). He didn’t use any notes—a practice he would continue for all the appearances he made which I witnessed. In short, I was amazed at how lucidly well he spoke on another’s films. Indeed he gave these minor works major status, especially in discussing how the director gave us a great sense of geography, with the camera mapping out the ship in the latter and the small town in the former. Brakhage’s talk was memorable, and ever since I’ve looked (unsuccessfully) for his writing on the subject of Welles.

The second encounter was much later, at an FSAC conference in the early 1980s. I was reading a paper on connections between Italian Neo-realism and the Canadian film tradition—via the Italian tradition of verismo (realism in literature). Stan was very kind to my flawed presentation, and provided an extremely valuable commentary on “verismo.” Clearly, he was an extremely knowledgeable person on film, and the arts, in general.

The third and last of the truly memorable encounters occurred in Montreal, recently. I am so happy that I attended all but one of the four presentations made here by “Stan the Man,” especially the one at Concordia University, where he very controversially attacked video for doing more damage in the world than Hitler (or something). Again, he was showing and talking about films made by others—work of his contemporaries in the American avant-garde—and his discussion was brilliantly riveting, throughout. Given his hatred of the medium of video, which he characterizes as cold, ugly, and worse, it is surely ironic that a good chunk of his work will appear soon in the DVD format thanks to someone at the great Criterion company. For the record, my favourite Brakhage film over the years has been Anticipation of the Night (1958)—I placed it on my first 100 “best films of all time” list in 1996—and I’m not sure that this is going to be included in the Criterion package [ed. no it is not]. But we can count on seeing a great range of work, from his monumental four-part work of “lyrical film” (to use P. Adams Sitney’s words), Dog Star Man (1961-64)to the short, but brilliant montage of the birth of his first wife’s first child, Window Water Baby Moving (1958) and his “documentary” film showing autopsies in the Pittsburgh morgue, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) which truly tests us as film viewers (and which an acquaintance of mine once told me was used to train student surgeons in standing up to the task)!! The DVD release promises to be the event of 2003, providing us with “metaphors on vision” for the ages.

To say that Stan Brakhage (along with Michael Snow) was one of the two greatest ever “experimental filmmakers,” as many have done (myself included) is, even, an understatement. J. Hoberman rates him as one of the two most significant filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century (along with Jean-Luc Godard), and, maybe he was. In any event, we will never see his like again…

Remembering Brakhage

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 Essays avant-gardecinematheque quebecoisexperimentalfilm theorystan brakhage