Stan Brakhage: “Death is a Meaningless Word” Part 2.

Stan Brakhage at the Cinémathèque Québecoise, Montreal, January 27-28, 2001

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 42 minutes (10373 words)

Introduction by Simon Galiero of the Hors Champ team: I will force myself to speak English, Mr. Brakhage. I have to thank you very much for coming to Montreal. Myself, Nicholas, and all the people who have come here over the last three days have discovered again what a great artist you are and what a great ambassador you are for cinema as an art form. And also a great man, and I should say a gentle man because you really are a gentle man. I am proud to speak on behalf of everyone when I say we are not going to forget you soon. So thank you very much.

Introduction by Nicolas Renaud of the Hors Champ team: I would also like to thank Mr. Brakhage for his honesty, his generosity to all the people who have been around him these past few days, but also the people who have been here each night. It has been a very rich weekend. I see a few empty seats this evening, but it has been sold out every night. This is beyond my expectations. What comes out of this for me and hopefully other people is what a wonderful inspiration this has been. Not in the sense of seeing a work of art and thinking it is great and therefore wanting to copy it, but the sort of work that inspires you regardless of what you do in any form of art or any other aspect of life. The best words that I can use to express it are integrity and dignity, and that is what shows up on the screen for me. I apologize for the print of The Machine of Eden last night. We did not know it had gone reddish-pink. This unfortunately is something that happens to film prints of a certain period. Even though, without consulting the film maker, I thought it was a wonderful experience to see the film that way and it was a turning point for me in the program. The closest I can come to the experience in words is that the red tint captured a very close feeling, like when you see light through your eyelids or see light filter through your fingers or skin. That closeness of feeling in which the eye sees the inside boundary of the outside or the outside boundary of the inside. Well that reddish tint really captured that experience for me. So it was an accident, a bad thing, but everything came together with that film for me. I would now like introduce Stan Brakhage to you for this last evening of screenings. There are many more hand-painted films on this program tonight and it is much less dark the last night, which had a thematic of death, although everyone survived. Mr. Stan Brakhage.

Introduction to:

Loving (1957), Dog Star Man Part III (1964), and Dog Star Man Part IV (1964)

Thank you very much. I would just like to add to Nicolas’ statement on The Machine of Eden. As I said last night, when it first came on I thought, oh here is one I will have to replace, but by the time it was over I liked very much the particularity that this film print had achieved on its own. Thanks to the greed of Eastman Kodak which I have explained last night. But, in fact, going to this more singular tone, except for the blue blacks and other color shifts here and there, this overall toning tended to make a weave of these themes even stronger than the maker had intended. So that everything becomes more at one with the loom itself seen in the film. In this sense all of work is subject to a life of its own across time. Every single print goes through this and that and tests the capacity to survive the most incredible destructions. Our culture would not care for Greek sculpture the way they made it. For they painted those sculptures pink and with blue eyes and colored hair sometimes. So they looked and were more like they wanted them to, like dress store dummies carved in marble. This would not be the aesthetic we have grown to love and care for out of the Middle Ages, as Greek sculpture began to be rediscovered as an inspiration to all sculpture that has occurred in the West since. Time made this shift and came into play with this work and made it available to us. Similarly our ancestors who went way into the mountains and sealed the caves airtight shut after painting these extraordinary animals and visions with dyes and berries and so on. Just to mention one, the Lascoe Caves. After having painted them they sealed them with clay. The only reason we have them is because they wear sealed shut airtight. And they certainly did not have any expectation of who would be breaking into those caves, making them subject to destruction, so that we have that vision of art that is as fresh today as it was in ancient times. It is almost beyond our imagination.

Again the makers intention. I throw away my intentions. I must always have intentions when I begin working or I could not move. It is like in the cartoons where there is a diving board and you run out onto it and start jumping up and down and suddenly the character discovers the board does not exist. Then one is falling through a free space in which the creative process can begin to occur. In which all the nerve endings can be open to whatever has impelled one to have intentions to run out on that board, to work and to try and express oneself. So my intentions have to be given up for the most part. I have to cling only to what I know and what is lit up in the work process and given to me to know. And be true to that as I work with the truths of the given form, which is motion picture film. Or more extensively than that, the whole inheritance of Western, and to some extent Eastern, aesthetics that has been given to me to have in the 20th century. Intention has to go over board because that would quickly turn into willfulness. The fact is sometimes while working I get tired and I begin having ideas, great ideas, I begin achieving things and then the next morning I almost always have to go down and tear it all up. To my sadness because I also want to think that I have more to do with the process of making something, but my greatest happiness comes when I can repair a child’s toy, which I am not very good at. But occasionally I manage and have that pride, but that I should have pride in the work would be very, very destructive.

In the sense of seeming too much an esthete, in the bad sense of the word, but I have to correct certain things because I have the sense that, and it sounds utterly ridiculous to say, there is so much suffering in the world. You know children are starving and being tortured, you know all kinds of bad things are going on, the horrors of my own culture. I know that elections have been stolen before, but now they are stolen with a new hubris and bullying and certainty, which would be unimaginable to me before. And this is dangerous for the world that my grandchildren and my little boys are growing up into. Of course I am enraged and will do everything that I can but what can I do? I joined the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] recently, with all their faults, and they do have many. I am joining Amnesty International, even though I worked for organizations were I found out most of the money they collect goes to pay the people who are collecting it. It is a big business. But still, for whatever then spills over to help people in trouble, it is worth contributing to those who helped collect it. And I struggle and grapple with these things. I get up and argue against hurling 125 pounds of plutonium three times through our atmosphere so that some few scientists can investigate a moon of Saturn more quickly than they can otherwise. It is horrible that people have the feeling that they can impose a destruction of all life on earth to satisfy their scientific curiosity. I rise against these things, I work against them but the question arises, why is this not central in my making and in my work? Well the only answer I have and it sounds like I’m an esthete, is that I am working on the 400 year plan. But you ask, gosh that sounds ridiculous, that when the earth itself seems shaken with annihilation at any moment, you are working on the 400 hundred year plan. Why? Well because that is what has been given to me to do. And I do know that if something can be made to last a few hundred years it can actually make a change. And all things that have been quickly changed have been changed back again just as quickly, and in some cases gone to worse. So there it is, not my excuse but my rationale for what I do. But let me then say this. You may say, well then, that is not non-social. The very first thing dictators kill after they have stamped out the opposing political party, are the artists. Why? What do these dictators know that most of us and art teachers don’t seem to know? These people who turn the arts into a playpen in the public schools? Something very profound and very deep: that if you can inspire people to be unique and individual you cannot run a dictatorship over them; you cannot endlessly lie to people if they can know themselves fully as unique. If so they can then begin to know others as such and empathy can be born.

Empathy is a word that was created by Violet Paget at the turn of century. It did not exist in English before and there were no other languages yet in which such a word existed. So that gradually as people fumble with translations, the word empathy takes hold in English and other countries begin to fumble for translations and come to their own version of this word. Yet it is probably one of the most important words we can have in our language. This is important to raise because the theme of tonight’s program, which I did not program, is empathy, clearly. Violet Paget, who had to write under the name Vernon Lee because she would not have been published otherwise because she was a woman, wrote about aesthetics. She was a close friend of the Rossettis, a close friend of Singer Sargent, and lived a vibrant, active life. She watched people in museums as they walked around sculptures changing their body postures so as to accommodate the side of the sculpture they were looking at. That is when she started thinking of the word. When she needed a word to describe that she went to the Greek term empatico, and from empatico evolved empathy. I went and questioned Greeks to find out when that word become general parlance in the English language. And the Greeks would recognize empatico as the root and said after the Second World War. So we have had a word that is so important to us for only about 50 plus years.

Ok, now along that line, the central theme for this evening’s program is loving. That is where most people first discover the deepest sense of empatico. I do not mean just sexual loving but loving one’s mother, father, brother, sister, friend and then of course, during the ecstasies of sexual loving, where empathy flourishes as never before. How much of that can be extended into something of the world in general, without weakening the binding feeling of love that one wants to have for Eternity? That feeling has been regularly censored. One of the first things dictators go after in theories, after they have stamped out political theories, are sexual theories. Anything that would increase people’s sexuality, that ability of reaching out to each other through full bodied adult loving, is dangerous to totalitarian governments. Now we come to our own time, without having to wait for the four hundred year plan. Artists, just by being artists, are in danger. I experienced this during the period of the Vietnam War, which the media would never call war when it was going on, they would call it ‘police action’ or anything else other than the truth. During that time while I was meditating on war and trying to make something in art, I was someone who, from rightist viewpoints and leftist viewpoints, stood on the fence. For example, I did not think going out and burning American flags was going to lessen the war in Vietnam. I just thought all it would do is polarize the country. I came out with statements like that which seemed sensible enough to me, but I was regarded as chicken, for not joining the marches at Washington. All the same, even though I was someone who did not pose a direct threat, my house was watched. A little house nine thousand feet in the mountains in a little ghost town called Rawlinsville. We found out about it through my dear friend and neighbor, Jack Olsen. Olson wrote for Sports Illustrated and a number of other magazines and also published several books, usually exposes of one kind of horror or another. But in order to protect his house he got himself deputized so he could write that on his house, which meant that he went out occasionally to help with road wrecks and that he had access to the central city sheriff’s files. One day he came over to our house looking as white as a sheet and told us that our house was being watched by secret service agents on a nearby mountain. They were writing down the license numbers of everyone who came in and out of my house, which included Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bill Burroughs, and on and on. Furthermore, our phone was tapped for several years, winter and summer. Not only that, but we were also on file in the sheriff’s office in a list of 2000 people living in the tri-Western states who are scheduled to be immediately shipped to the Japanese concentration camps in the case of a national emergency. These camps were used in World War 2 and were kept up every year, rebarbed, the toilets kept in working order, repainted and so on. Well after that, every day seemed to be a national emergency for me and my friends! So I sat in this kind of constant terror. For being what? For being someone more dangerous, really, than many people who took strong stances and marched in parades. They were easy to watch, but what was an artist up to? What is this empathy that moves through aesthetics and moves through people and shapes these works?

Well, this next film you’re going to see is called Loving. There’s no nakedness in it. There are no sexual organs shown in it. It is just a film on the ecstasy of loving. In this case between two very dear friends and people who happen also to be great artists Carlee Schneemann, who later was to publish on Cezanne, do many installations and dances, is a great painter, and was and still is one of the most vibrant figures of the American theatrical and artistic movement. And the man she had been living with for many years, my friend from high school Jim Tenney, who did the music for my first film. They told me that they were living in the mountains that summer and they were planning to separate. I asked why? To me they seemed an ideal of people who loved each other. They said they weren’t making it and Carolee did not like living in the mountains. She had boarded up all the windows because she could not stand the overwhelming effect of the mountains. She said her respect for Cezanne increased enormously because mountains would destroy any painter’s ego. She could not paint them so she boarded up the windows and sat there painting still lifes and thinking of leaving Jim. Well I asked if I could come up and photograph them making love. That wasn’t an easy thing for me to even say. I was not a brash guy. When I was raised a young man, for a woman it would be inconceivable, but a young man would rather face a charging rhinoceros than go to the drug store and ask for a condom. And very often if you did they would ask how old you were, they would call the police, and take you home and tell your parents. So it was not easy for me to ask them. I just wanted to show them the tenderness that I saw between them. Again I did not want this to be a 19th century story, but about their sexual loving. Well it was immediately subject to having me thrown in jail. There were many people thrown in jail for material far less suggestive during this time, people who sat in prison for years. So every time I showed this film I was risking prison. People spat on me, people threw things at me. I was once shot at in Maine. So much for that!

Let us go on to Dog Star Man Parts 3 and 4. The first segment shows the dream, the prelude and the climb, and then in the second part, birth, which is both the birth of the child and rebirth of the hero, who seemed to die in part one. Then comes sexual loving. Now how does one do this? Everything that is too explicit is pornographic, arousing hard ons, moist sexual organs and so on, and deflecting every part of the body from the movie. Everything that is obscuring is evasive, so there’s a fine line when there is an attempt to create something that will allow an arousal that can be felt by any person, while at the same time trying to keep an aesthetic distance so that it can be experienced as art. Also in the process of this as part of the story of the Dog Star Man, this sexuality begins the beating of the hero’s heart again. His heart has remained stopped since part one, from the photography of his supposed innards. The sexuality is what allows it to beat again. In part four the hero is alive again. His existence comes through four rolls of superimposition, in all the symbolism and raw texture and rhythm which are brought to play. Again he must in a sense die. The forest must burn down, he must stumble hopelessly, endure a fall, rise again and finally come to his simple task. Which is to find a tree which was dead and white and otherwise useless and dry enough for burning, and chop it up to warm his child. The film ends with that chop, and in fact the chop passes all the way over into literal scratches across the film and, finally, cuts, because by that time I had the sense of celluloid itself as wood. I am a woodsman. I am chopping film. So I present these films to you for your enjoyment.

Introduction to:

Murder Psalm (1980) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981)

Let me just say first off that the print of Loving that we just saw is 10 years older, at least, than the one that turned pink The Machine of Eden. If I am not mistaken I think that was a print that Guy Coté bought for this institute long before it was an institute back in the beginning. At any rate it is a very old print and its colors are just exactly as I, and I don’t want to say intended, but as they were given to me. I would just like to take this time to thank a few people. Again I would like to thank the projectionist who has been so wonderful over these few past nights. I have never had the films better projected. And of course I want to thank the director of this institute [Robert Daudelin] for all that he has provided for making this occasion possible. Also to thank Mario Falsetto of Concordia University, who for so many years has kept the faith of keeping these things going and his faith shows a kind of happiness or a being aliveness that I know comes only from attending the arts and being fed by them. And Richard Kerr, who has now joined him at Concordia University, and others who I may not know but similarly somehow keep a vibrancy and attention to film that I have seen in the few days I have been here. Richard Kerr, a great filmmaker in his own right, has been here just a year but has finally escaped the martyrdom and rigors of Saskatchewan and seems to have been taken to the heart of many of the students here. I hope he will go on with his life here in Montreal. Also I especially want to thank Simon [Galieros] and Nicolas [Renaud], who not only arranged these things with all of the tedium and hard work of arranging such an event. But who went around with me on my pilgrimage to Jean Paul Riopelle and Paul-Émile Borduas and also looking for old Dick Tracy comics. This gives you an idea of the range of my visual interests.

But I have loved Riopelle since I was 19. And Pollock since I was even younger, second your high school. And as we are involved now with tonight’s program in hand-painted work and in the Dog Star Man, which see a great deal of hands-on working with the film itself. In fact that was the first film where I used painting to get some sense of hypnagogic vision. At any rate my inspiration for that was the abstract expressionists. Now I understand it is fashionable these days to throw out the abstract expressionists, and the world always goes through phases like that. We collect too much junk otherwise, so people try to throw things away. This would be a bad thing to throw away. And what are the grounds on which people are trying to throw it away? Well I’ve heard the term “painting masturbation,” well, for that matter, what would be wrong with that? What kind of puritan attitude is that? But it isn’t just that. It isn’t that at all in fact. I am going to take a moment to tell a story which may cause people to rethink the whole question of Borduas, Riopelle, Pollock, Kline, Gorky and many many others, like the great eight “Street Painters.” De Kooning of course, who managed, even when sunk into Alzheimer’s, to create a whole new area of painting. I first saw Pollock’s work in second year high school. It was in a Life magazine article which made fun of him and of Peggy Guggenheim for buying his long painting. The article said it had cost so and so much per square foot and showed him squatting and looking angry, in the face of their photographer no doubt. That did not bother me at all because the painting, even in reproduction, was ecstasy to me, a revelation. I brought it to school the next day and made it a show and tell and pulled down upon myself the very first total ridicule that I had ever encountered, and I was to encounter it again and again as I began showing my films. The teacher showed no mercy, none of my classmates did, people I shared poetry with all thought I was utterly duped. I was astonished because it went right on. I will never forget how I hungrily waited for years and years just to be able to see an actual painting.

And then I had a remarkably good fortune come my way. I knew Parker Tyler and Charles Boultenhouse and they had been invited out to Long Island to visit Pollock, who wanted to show a new painting to some of the New York critics. There were about 5 or 6 critics including Parker and Charles and they asked me to go along. This was in the famous barn and tacked to a wall of the barn was, what after Pollock’s death Time magazine called the ‘single eye’ painting, or something like that, because they did not see the other eye. It was a remarkable combination, a return to some of the aspects of his earlier totemistic painting, but it also had thrown paint. It was a beautiful and remarkable painting which the gathered critics were all buzzing over, while in their buzz Pollock sat over in a corner dead drunk. There was a port of whiskey about nine tenths empty by the time we got there. He was glowering at everyone and I was of course totally intimated and never said a word to him the whole time. But at some point one of the critics was overheard to talk about chance operations, which was not a bad word to me because I was studying with John Cage at the time. But it is a word that is used both against Cage now and particularly the Abstract Expressionist painters. People say, oh it is just paint thrown any which way. I can do that. Well, try it, try it. And if you can do it join, in what is, in my view, the greatest breakthrough in human envisionment in many hundreds of years. And as it happened, right on the North American continent. Anyway, Pollock revived himself and said, “chance operations…chance operations,” and as drunk as he was, picked up a brush, swirled it in a paint bucket and then said, “see that doorknob” [Brakhage estimates the distance by pointing to a division in the seats about 40-50 feet away]. He swirled the brush, and hurled some of the paint off and hit the door knob square on, and then said: “don’t give me any of your fucking chance operations. And that’s the way out.” And the wonderful thing was to see these people pick their way around Pollock’s paint to get the door open and leave before he threw the bucket! Fortunately Charles and Parker were not involved in this and we had a civilized saying goodbye. Alas he was dead in about a year and a half after that. Just really burned out and destroyed by the difficulty of going into the world of moving visual thinking.

There are areas of the mind that can be called things like “Pollock Park” or can be called the “Waterfall of Franz Kline,” “the area of Rothko,” that one is very available, just close to, as Nicolas was talking about, the eyelid, against which Michael McClure says, we cast our brain movies. It is so close, how can people not see? And yet, interestingly enough the painters themselves, never, as I can recall, consciously refer to closed eye vision or hypnagogic vision. But it is perfectly obvious to me that they were referring to their innards, that they were deeply involved in psychoanalysis, desperately so in most cases. They were in some sense terrified by what they were uncovering and they were master craft people. Anyone can learn to paint craftsman-like oil paintings, once they have been done by everyone else. I sometimes say if I am ever reincarnated I’d like to come back as an amateur Sunday painter, so that I can paint, like the great painters of the 19th century, without suffering over it. I think that maybe that is what painting is for. We have amateur groups in Boulder Colorado that go up into the mountains, and what could be more lovely than to sit and meditate on the mountains, and make a painting in the style of some early 19th century painter. Surely you will be kinder to your children and your dog! I’d want to be reincarnated as that, or a tree sloth, one of the two. It has been tiresome in a way and also of course lovely, especially when I can feel something in the air. I believe in mental telepathy because there is such a thing as an audience and it is the particularity and a sharing of all of us. We need each other.

Murder Psalm and The Garden of Earthly Delights. I had just finished the last of the “Sincerity and Duplicity” series which I had been working on for over 10 years. I was completely exhausted and desperately needed a rest. I was in the middle of reading a book about Sigmund Freud by the keeper of the International Psychoanalytical archives. Before I went to sleep I had come across the statement that, while there is a vast multitude of case histories of the murder of the father there are only very few and very oblique references to murdering the mother. That night I dreamed that I murdered my mother, with an axe to her head. And the dream was so vivid that my hand was vibrating as if from the handle of the axe. Horrified, I rushed up into my work room and began rummaging among footage that I knew was related to the dream. A central part of this was a stack of old Dupont film that had not even been made in the last 10 years that I had carried around for 27 years. All these boxes marked Murder Psalm. Also some footage that Western Cine had sent me, stuff in a trash can that said, “that looks like a Brakhage film.” And I quickly started putting this footage together. I really was in a panic and went downstairs and reread all of Stavrogin’s confession in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, which had a sense of child abuse. Not long after this I would subsequently learn that I was a major sufferer of child abuse, and from my mother. I did not know about it consciously until I did some real digging, and this was the beginning. Dostoyevsky in effect confesses to child abuse in this incredible passage, and I recommend this passage for some serious study of a matter which we are all desperately trying to comprehend. Murder Psalm is made from found footage which is drawn from a variety of sources, from potentialities of child abuse to the simplest of cruelties of children, that is, of one human to another that can destroy life. In this case part of the film came from footage on epilepsy. I have wrenched it into something much larger in my urgency and necessity. At any rate that film was made in three days. And I was damn glad to get rid of it because it is not a film I would ever have wanted to have made, but I have never dodged an imperative. Many works such as Anticipation of the Night and 23rd Psalm Branch (1966/78) are subjects I would rather never have filmed. I would rather have made films about love my whole life long, like The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is the film that follows Murder Psalm in the program.

Except it too has an edge to it. At first I thought I’ll just take these little Alpine mountain flowers and plants, put them on 35 mm tape and have a whole system something like mothlight, but a new and different one that deals with a world of plant life and not moths killing themselves around a light bulb. I had not gone very far along this line before I began to realize that this work was related very deeply to Tangled Garden by J.H. MacDonald, the great Canadian painter. And that it was related to Hieronymous Bosch, with the title of the film. Bosch is very cruel in his depiction of people, but idealizes plants and flowers as does Rouseau, the naive painter for example. MacDonald does not. Tangled Garden is as fearsome as I found it and became one of my sources of inspiration. In fact a great deal of Canadian painting, especially Tom Thompson and Jack Chambers and others. At any rate what I end up with in this film is a recognition that these pretty little plants and flowers are grappling and struggling and trying to strangle each other so that one can get more sun than the other. I am crawling around my garden with a magnifying glass plucking them up and being more cruel than any of they, and pasting them on to film so you can have some vision of the The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In addition to the others I have thanked, I would like to add a thanks and recognition to Bill Wees, who taught for years at McGill University. He is retired now and gone right on writing his books. He also has contributed much to the continuity of the city’s involvement with film. For me Montreal has been so important because it is the place where I first, as I am just now remembering after seeing The Garden of Earthly Delights, learned about the Canadian Group of Seven and Tom Thompson. I bought books here and then went to the museum to see what there was here at that time. I’m talking the mid 1960’s, when I used to come here about three times a year and show films in the various venues that were then available. In fact the first place where I encountered a J.H. MacDonald was here. And later then Jack Chambers. I also want to thank the programmers Nicolas and Simon. I would never have thought to put those two films together but in fact they quite rightly go together because they are in some sense two aspects of the failure of empathy. Plants to not empathize, at the least not from my studies of them. Humans can, may, are beginning to have that possibility. Murder Psalm of course is a case of the terrible destruction that befalls all of us in lack of empathy, in a variety of ways. Well, let’s watch the films. Thank you./

Introduction to:

Stellar (1993), Naughts (1994), Coupling (1999), and Cloud Chamber (1999)

[Picking Brakhage up in mid-thought after Murder Psalm and The Garden of Earthly Delights.] Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are an absolute abuse on children. Here is a man who, as a hobby, collected actual medieval torture instruments for children, thumbscrews designed to torture children. He thought this was a joke. This was his private collection, and I have had this substantiated for me, not just with Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon but by people who visited and were shown his collection. Here the man through his jokes, as many people do, was revealing the very real intention of his films, which struck me down the first time I had to be carried from the auditorium in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs out into the lobby screaming and crying. That has been my experience both as a child and as a father in relationship to the Disney syndrome. I would rather take a chance on hell than go to Disneyland [loud laughter from the audience]. Hell is at least free isn’t it, if that is what you want. I have talked enough now, I am going to let these last four films be yours and then you can ask whatever questions you want and I will entertain them as best I can. These films are in the tradition of hypnagogic vision and moving visual thinking. I only want to add that the final one of them, which is the latest of the films I’ve made in the series, is collaboration between Mary Beth Reed and myself, after Western Cine could no longer afford Sam Bush, who I had worked with for 30 years through elaborate instructions which we send back-and-forth to step print. Mary Beth, who had been my student and was now in my view an artist in her own right, came to me and said, “Look it takes two people to work the step printer. Let me help you and then you can help me.” I was literally saved at this point because Sam Bush had been let go and the step printer at Western Cine had been sold. So I began working on a little student step printer, almost a toy, with Mary Beth and the final film on this program was our first success. So I am very happy to end on this film and I hope you enjoy them.

Introduction to:

The Dante Quartet (1987)

We have one more short film after a brief pause, The Dante Quartet, so if you can hold your questions on these four films you just saw until the next and I’ll speak just briefly on two things. One is that with Cloud Chamber, rinky dink as the step printer was in comparison to the $200,000 one Sam and I worked with for 30 years, it did permit me, working with Mary Beth, to alter rhythms down to the frame. Which is something I was not able to do in my instructions to Sam. I had to rely on him, as it says in the back titles, as the musician. This had the authenticity of the birth of Western music in fact, in the Middle Ages at least, when the composer would lay down certain intervals on a sheet of parchment. The musicians then were free to interpret those. Of course there was a lot of collaboration between the composer and the musician, as there was between Sam Bush and myself, and if a composer did not like the way the musicians played it, he would get them to play it differently. And I had the last cut, which would sometimes annoy Sam, but that is the way we did work. But what I was not permitted was to get down to the exactitude of rhythms to the single frame, or how many frames you repeat or not. To me a great imperative has been Charles Olson’s “of rhythm is image, of image is knowing, and of knowing there is a construct.” I’ll repeat that and try not to be so dramatic: “ of rhythm is image, of image is knowing, and of knowing there is a construct.” You lose things and you inherit things.

The film you are about to see all fell out across a period where I was losing my whole life, my 30 year marriage, my children were older teenagers and were all leaving home and kicking back at the parents, as children seem to have to do. And Jane and I were breaking apart and nothing seemed able to deflect that. I was having what people call a midlife crisis, said sometimes with some humor, although there is nothing humorous about it. As Dante put it “Mid life I entered a dark wood,” and that dark soon leads to, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” as he engages with hell and then with purgatory and finally with heaven. Most people do not get beyond Hell in reading Dante and Hell _is very thrilling and exciting but _Purgatory would really be more helpful and useful. Heaven is probably the most heavenly poetry ever written so there is an inducement to plug on. I do not read Italian but I have had it sounded to me quite often. I have read almost every English translation I could find, starting in high school. So it is very much with me and I was drawn to it deeply. Also I was having a tremendous argument with [William] Blake at the time, in my mind. With his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I just said, bull there is no marriage of Heaven and Hell. Heavens heaven and hell’s hell. In deep and complicated ways I argued with his fantastic and beautiful language. So I began Hell Spit Flexion (1983), I did not know what it was going to lead to. Hell Spit Flexion was just my argument with Blake, that Hell had to be got out of and had nothing to do with Heaven. The flowers of ulcium exist at the far side of hell, after one crow barred one’s way out. Having finished that I had to go back to hell itself and that fell out when the whole marriage began to fall apart. Then the struggle to try and transform oneself, if nothing else to scrub out the horror that one has engendered, and the wrongs. Transformation or purgation as I call it in the film. Then, not presuming more about heaven than what has been given to me to have on earth, I was moved by Rilke’s line, “ existence is song.” And that is the closest I would attempt at Heaven at that time. I am now at work on a variant of the Panels for the Walls of Heaven (2002), but that was the closest I could envision then. And all of them were put onto Imax film, well first of all 35 mm film, then Imax, then 70 mm which was as wide as Imax, only elongated, and then Imax again. I have no hope of printing any of them and indeed they never have been printed in the forms in which there were made and should be shown. But I did manage finally on a light table and with much exertion to make 16 mm reductions so that you can see it in some form or other. And maybe some day at a World Fair Imax would like to give it the real version. We will end on that and then I will be happy to take your questions afterwards.

After The Films, Q & A:

Q: I am just wondering, these days do you expect all of your films to be projected at 24 frames per second or is it possible to project these films at any other speed these days?

SB: I have had only one other 16mm print of a film, that was called First Hymn to the Night—Novalis (1994), which I felt needed to be shown at a slower speed. Otherwise except for earlier films like The Songs, but for work of the last 20 years, 24 frames is fine. Some people want to slow things down and I’m not going to interfere with that.

Q: In your earlier films there was always at least an element of representation, while in your later films from the 1990s, they lead toward pure abstraction. Can you talk about that development or shift?

SB: Well I can say that when I paint it is always to try and get some equivalent or corollary of hypnagogic vision, for moving visual thinking, more than just optic feedback, or hypnagogic vision. I am interested in a kind of streaming that does not seem to touch the optic nerve directly, but is more of a thought envisionment. Both those forms of painting to create some equivalent or a corollary of those have occupied me more and more. In fact to the extent that although I still think that, of all the arts, film is closest to music, I am now not listening to music. Just as for a while I did not look at painting or read poetry because I need to kind of wean film making away from too much leaning on music. And that would be true of all four of those films which you have just seen previous to The Dante Quartet. They are consciously putting out a little distance as if this child named film had to get away from its relatives one at a time, with the last being music. Though, I think, it will always be closest to music as an art.

I have done a lot of photography that is of recognizable imagery and not abstract. In particular, and I am very surprised that this has not had a big showing in Canada because it is the most major long work I have made or that any American has made in Canada, the “Vancouver Island trilogy.” Which includes A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea (1991), which is about an hour and 20 minutes, The Mammals of Victoria (1994), which is about 35 minutes and, just finished, The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000), which is an hour. So that is a major work and most of it is just photography on the environs of Vancouver Island. My wife’s childhood home, the ocean, the flowers, the surroundings and so on. There have also been other works, like one filmed a few years ago, Moilsome Toilsome (1999), made about whales off the coast of Vancouver Island. And there was a film about the poet Michael McClure and his new wife, the sculptress Amy Evans. It is a love making film called Worm and Web Love (1999). There is a dance film simply called Dance (2000), which I just completed, that tries to sum up something I have gone back to again and again across my lifetime, a sense of what may be the essence of dance. And its sharp, hard focused imagery also involves nakedness, a beautiful dancer I have admired for years in Boulder who is coming to the end of her career, as she senses it. I am trying to convince her to do the pregnant mother dance. The mother and baby dance, the mother and child dance, the old lady dance. To go beyond where Martha Graham left off. Just as I tried for years to convince Yvonne Rainer to do such a thing. But what do I know, I still think that it is a possible evolution for dance which the world desperately needs. But for dancers to not have the athleticism to move the body, on some level is like asking someone who ran the mile, to do when they are in their ’40’s, and to run it slower. It just seems pointless to me. In any case that is a photographic film of her, and there are others. I am contemplating a film about my cat, Maximillian, and I hope that comes to pass. Very recently there was Commingled Containers (1997) which was sharp hard focused footage; also Self Song/Death Song is a photographed film, and The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1997) is about a five hour long photographed film. I would love to do more. It is not that I am totally gone over into the painted films, but the fact of the matter is that I cannot afford to do more. It is just too expensive to photograph. At times I may be embittered about that, but I never let a lack of money deflect me, instead I insist that is my imperative. So if my destiny makes it that I mostly have to paint films, then those are my orders.

Q: Do you paint with little brushes? What does the optical printer do?

SB: Yes brushes are used. An Imax film, which is very big, is like a mural to me. I’ve been painting film since Dog Star Man which is some 40 years now. Every now and then I would paint to get some approximation of closed eye vision. First of all, I pack very carefully when I paint, to make it adhere so it doesn’t peel off or endanger the lab’s printing machines. Now the Imax material, the 70mm and even the 35mm, I have to do that off a light table and rephotographed because I could not afford to handle it any other way. No one had the machinery to just put in an Imax script with a frame that big and reduce it. So I had to do it in that fashion myself. And actually that permitted me to control the rhythms exactly down to the frame, where ordinarily I step print and send elaborate instructions. Sometimes 2 frames or 3 frames. I find I can’t repeat more than 4 frame or I run up against what Phil Solomon, a great filmmaker and friend of mine, says: repeat more than 4 frames and your into a slide show. Although Richard Kerr showed me some things today that flew in the face of that theory. So I’ll be happy to take that home to Phil Solomon. And I think I see ways suddenly by looking and Richard’s film that I can beat that thought.

Q: So does that mean that every frame is hand painted?

SB: Well yes, except that some frames are double printed. That is they are repeated two or three times. Brushes are not as useful unless you have larger work areas. What I mostly use are dental picks or engraving needles and other hard and slightly flexible metals that can pick up the paint and lay it down very precisely.

Q: What are the paints and varnishes that you use?

SB: Well for a long time, like a fool, I was not very careful about the paint I was using. I used paints that apparently were made from cold tar dyes, well I know for sure they were, a lot of them were, including magic markers. Many of them came from Third World countries and were loaded with carcinogens, and therefore I gave myself bladder cancer. A specific type of bladder cancer which is caused by coal tar dye. This was ghastly and awful. It almost cost me my life and cost me my bladder and my sanity for a while. The horror of this is that the first known carcinogen was coal tar, because the chimney sweepers in London in the 19th century used to get cancer of the scrotum by climbing up and down the soot chimneys. But knowing that has not prevented people from going ahead and using that in paints. Furthermore what is even worse, they use it in hair dyes. You will find that in most shampoos up near the top of the ingredients it will say coal tar. The people who were working with this in barbershops and the people having this dye put into their scalp were almost assured that in a certain length of time, bladder cancer would occur. Even if you do not care that you are going to die, you do not want to get bladder cancer. I love multicolored hair, but those who do it really need to find a form that is not leading them straight toward cancer. And of course if it is not caught in time then it quickly leaps into other parts of the body. The two paints that I am most using these days that are very wonderful are porcelain paint, which comes from Iran and is a dye used for stained-glass windows. The other paint is Decca and its line is for dying clothes and presumably because is a Western dye that is going to be up against people’s skin, it is not carcinogenic.

Q: When you studied with the composer Edgard Varèse [1885-1965] did he talk about his ideas about doing visuals or his idea of the rhythm of events? What did you pick up when you studied with him?

SB: When I studied with Varèse I was permitted to sit and overhear his musical classes. For starters he was teaching Jim Tenney. Jim Tenney was a student and in fact Varèse once pronounced Jim Tenney as his only musical heir. I was allowed to sit in on those classes. Neither one of us could afford to pay him. I was allowed to sit in because I told him that I had no delusions of being a composer and I wished to study music because it is a form very related to film. He did not talk about music and film and to my knowledge was not very involved in that at all. He just went on with his theories. He was involved with how long it would take a note to travel around a circular room from the side to the center. Or to the split-second, how long it would take a flute note at a certain pitch to mix with a bassoon. And what part of the room they would mix in. He also had a map of the Grand Canyon. He was continuing in a tradition that Charles Ives had started. Ives wanted to do a symphony of the universe and put different orchestras on different cliffs of the Grand Canyon and figured where their sounds would mix in the Canyon itself. Both of those ideas were related to Scriabin, who had similar ideas of a symphony of the universe in some grand space. So that was in the air and it was his preoccupation. He was also very much working on Deserts, the musical score of course, and the interpolations, the electronic interpolation that occur in his electronic piece Deserts, he practically had them memorized across that year.

Q: What year was that?

SB: In the mid-1950’s.

Q: In the mid ’50s he wrote a piece for a film called About and Around Joan Miro by Thomas Bouchard (1955)

SB: Yes I knew that and Bouchard sometimes was there for supper and we had discussions. Varèse did not really seem interested in this as more than just a job and there never was any offer to show it to Jim or I. He respected that I was a film artist and he was one of the few people who could feel the difficulties of that. He was really the father of electronic music. And I hear from Jim Tenney that the center of that really now is in Montreal. Otherwise people have betrayed the aesthetics of electronic music. He was very influential. For Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and many other rock composers many of whom studied with him. When you see on motion pictures Varèse Zarabon (?), this is essentially Frank Zappa’s company in its evolution. And Zappa studied with him. Zappa put out the only version of Varèse’s Interpolations by themselves. So there is widespread use of what he has done and it is mainly independent film like avant-garde film and only a small group of people who have the passion to know about it these days. But electronic music is still alive in the world and it was born almost consonant with film because its predecessors would be Respighi making noises in the orchestra, or Antile with his typewriter and orchestra. These would be predecessors of electronic music. You have to remember when Varèse was doing electronic music he did not have tapes, he had to do it all with wire recorders.

Q: How do you think the audience for experimental film has evolved over the years?

SB: Today, after this visit, I am feeling hopeful. We’ve had such good attention and clarity and questions and I think there is a very good audience for what I prefer to call poetic film. Because I think it stands to the movie as poetry does to the novel. And I think those corollaries stand up best. There is a danger in calling it poetic in that people might start leaning on poetry. Since the ’60s there are only about seven people out of 150 that were artists and who have made at least two works, any one of which I would be delighted to show, most of which have been lost. There are only a few left that have been able to make a film in the last 20 years. So that is a greater slaughter than any Vietnamese platoon, and for some similar reasons. It is just devastating. The happy news is that there is a younger generation of many more people who are less distracted by Hollywood, less distracted by video, even digital, that are pure filmmakers dedicated to art that have no illusions of having a career. They have had the sense to get a job that will earn them a living. Better jobs than my generation thought of. Being a teacher is problematic because the academics want an artist in college as much as the anthropologist’s want a Fiji Island cannibal in their midst [loud laughter from the audiece]. The younger people are getting jobs like mailman, that is a great job, even though mailmen go a little crazy sometimes and kill each other. Jobs that are always going to be necessary, like a waiter. Some of them make $500 on the weekend, or auto mechanic. So they have that sense of having to make a living, and something that does not destroy you. Then you are not dependent on anyone for working in the most expensive medium in the world, short of Goldsmith. People say, gosh you must love 16 mm. Well I have to love it. I can only afford 35 mm very occasionally. And every time I do it destroys me economically for months. I had a 14 minute 35 mm film called _Interpolations 1-4 _(1992). It is so good in 35mm and never had any desire to reduce it to 16mm. I could not afford to print it and finally the Museum of Modern Art had mercy and I just gave it to them and it cost $20,000 to print. Although I danced among economics for so long, I don’t feel any guilt. As long as I am not robbing my children of something, I am OK with it. I have boys to keep going and they think if I did not have any money I would find a way to paint on scrap film and stick it in a drawer, because for a year-and-a-half that is what I did do. I have a drawer that was marked lost films. And then a big boom came along, I can’t remember if somebody died or what, but there is an hour’s worth of film out on a big reel called the lost film. No one has rented it since it was released. Maybe it’s the title that puts them off. Or it is too long. Long films to not get rented very often.

Q: How do you see the relationship between an artist and society?

SB: I am what I am. Not in any Popeye sense. I know that if I betray what is given to me to be in order to move along the line of my biases, to take the sacred trust of film to attack something that I hate, that I will probably destroy all my possibilities. The same way in my opinion that the greatest black poet of the second half of the 20th century, LeRoi Jones, essentially destroyed his potentiality as a poet, in my opinion, to help elect the mayor of Newark, Emak Bakia, and fight for his people socially. I’m not here to judge that, which would really be superficial. That is what he needed to do and I accept it. He could do it and got away with it. I cannot.

Q: How about if it involves you in the search for aesthetics and beauty?

SB: It is not like that. “Beauty be but darts” as Ezra Pound put it, then yes, but otherwise, beauty is the most dangerous thing in the world next to maybe only nostalgia. These are great dangers. What is beauty? A candy box. It is a well oiled physique that matches what everyone has been brainwashed to believe should be their lover.

Q: I can not see your films and not think beauty?

SB: But are they beautiful because they have to be, because they naturally are? I think The Garden of Earthly Delights says it best because much of it is very beautiful, but at the same time when you’re seeing this beauty you can certainly see the grasping and twisting of what the flowers are actually doing. They are doing the best they can to murder each other. We have to live somehow with these dual visions. Now that is what is given to me to do to see the yin and the yang at once, the good and the bad, the evil and the saintly, the past and the present, all possible contradictions in oneness, without cheating for an instance, just following along the line of what can be seen and grasped and what film will permit one to show. Maybe my film will not last but it might inspire a poet to write something. In several hundred years I believe we can do away with war. Mad as that sounds. And I believe art is the only way to do away with it. I don’t think it’ll be done by people sitting around saying, “I hate war.” Or, “war is awful.” Well forget that, you might as well go into a rain dance to get the rain. You have to lodge something in the deepest human consciousness to make certain things unthinkable, like the rape of children. But it certainly isn’t now. So some of the films you saw tonight are hopefully in that direction, not because they are my films but part of the whole process of affecting other artists, other people in general. We have to have something long-lasting enough to make the horrible unthinkable. That is my social task. It is on the 400 year plan. (Loud applause) Thank you.

Part 1

An invaluable online source for anyone doing research on Stan Brakhage, or who is simply interested in his work, I strongly recommend Fred Camper’s “Stan Brakhage on the Web,” available here.

Stan Brakhage: “Death is a Meaningless Word” Part 2.

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 Interviews   avant-garde   cinematheque quebecois   experimental   film theory   people_brakhage   stan brakhage