Stan Brakhage: “Death is a Meaningless Word” Part 1.

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

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 38 minutes (9317 words)

For the initial coverage of this event on Offscreen: “Stan Brakhage in Montreal” (program notes) and (Nicolas Renaud on Brakhage)

Transcribed by Donato Totaro.

January 27: Introduction to:

Sirius Remembered (1959) and Dog Star Man Part II (1963)

I would like to tell you a little something about the films to give your eyes a break and a pause between films. The program tonight begins and ends with films meditating on death. So I thought to put people at some degree of ease I should paraphrase one of my favorite statements by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which comes from the end of the Tractatus: “Death is a meaningless word because it refers to something that cannot be lived through.” Now that may at first strike you as sticky semantics but for me it sunk in, and across my life I have been predisposed not to worry about death. Even though I have certainly had my nose in it quite severely, several times, and was certain of dying. And I’m still surprised that I am upright. But I thought to myself that it would be niggardly and picky to worry about what comes after death or even about the process of death because there’s so much to deal with as one goes along everyday life that it is overwhelming. Jonas Mekas recently said, and I’ll try not to get this wrong: “Not to overlook the starving people, the hungry people, people in pain and agony, and so on.” Because Jonas as much as anyone else I know, has done as much as he could to help such people. But he also said that in some way there is no such thing as a poor person if we all live with our senses, and it is hard not to, unless you are in terrible agony or starving to death. If you live with your senses, even just two, there is so much material around us that in fact there is danger of being overwhelmed. So this, for a filmmaker, is a garden in the fields of the Lord, where all the flowers and the thorns are found and plucked and suffered and endured. This includes the passage of some things and some beings, human beings that we love beyond recall.

And at this point the artist comes the closest perhaps to the avatar. It is the slow movement toward death that any parent recognizes in his or her child that rouses the interest to photograph, to paint, to make movies, such as across the great amateur movie period. And videos today, which is the inexpensive mode. Trying to hold back the passage of time, or how Cocteau puts it, every time one looks in the mirror and sees one’s face as a hive with the bees working away at it.

For myself there was this dog we had named Sirius, after the Dog Star, so beloved and beauteous a creature he seemed. One day he was hit by a car and we were in some real grief. In my case some guilt also, because the day before this occurred I had spanked him for licking our new baby in the face. It was so stupid but I was a young father, a young husband, a young human, a young stupid human. And I thought oh he’s going to hurt the baby or bite the baby. I did not trust my sensitivity which should have told me that he would never do something like that. So there he was, dead. My wife at the time, Jane, did not want to bury him and it did not seem reasonable because it was the dead of winter in the outskirts of Princeton New Jersey and the ground was like iron. So she said let’s lay him out in a place in the woods and let him go back to nature. As the winter was long, his laying there elicited grief and reproach every time I passed the corpse. This remained for many long months constant and the agony of his passage and my guilt moved me to photograph him. I had never photographed him while he was alive and I felt that very keenly too. So I began taking pictures and as I think will be obvious to you right away, the pictures were photographed as if desperate to try and reanimate the dog, to bring him to life. Fortunately that takes the form of art, an aesthetic form, or it would be a horror story, like “The Monkey’s Paw” or a Lovecraft story. I hoped it would be an homage to all other such invocations, poetry, or imagery, where humans have managed to so contain as to make a long lasting valuable thing. Here I am with the camera photographing poor Sirius, or what was left of him. The film falls immediately into a musical form. After all, what else is one to do if not whistle or at least sing when moving through the graveyard. Also, the season’s pass as the spring comes on and the corpse begins to rot, and I could not bring myself to stop watching because the bees were pretty much working on this materiality being withering away. Now I am doing this with no sense of making a film but this was a way for me to feel and express myself. Well finally it did end up being this film called Sirius Remembered. Where the various members are in some sense put together again and just as the mind does, the film jumps back and forth in time, back to the more frozen being, forward to the ravages and hopefully lifts up into the trees. Now I perhaps in a way told you too much about the film and I promise I won’t express all of them at such length. It is almost like the absurdity of this wonderful, beautiful young couple who tried to write every single shot I made in some of my films. Now you could imagine that task: a blue smear in the upper right-hand corner, mixed with wild hot reds and tangles! It was such a brave effort [loud laughter from the audience]. I tried to lay this one out more than I ordinarily do, to give you a good running start otherwise it might still be an off-putting film for some people. The next film you will see after that is Dog Star Man Part 2.

Shortly after we left Princeton New Jersey we went back to Colorado and I began Dog Star Man. Dog Star Man of course is deeply connected to Sirius, for the Dog Star is Sirius and sits with Orion in the heavens to guide him. Something in this beginning of Sirius Remembered evolves into this epic you will be seeing across the whole spate of programs here. This is something I never lost sight of because by that time we had another dog, the ‘brown dog,’ who we picked up at the dog pound and drove crazy over the next few months as the star of this film. So crazy that when it was over he began snapping at the children and we had to give him to another couple. He was fine with them. He was a good dog unless anyone walked into the house with an open camera, then went and hid under the bed. So I was happy he became a retired movie star. In the course of climbing this mountain, this epic task to find a tree to cut up and bring wood back, because he is a woodmen, we pass through all four seasons. As you can do in a single day in Colorado if you choose it right. You can be in the deep snow of winter and pass where the first few flowers of spring are coming in. Then if you get high enough, with the high altitude and with the sun beating down on you, coupled with the exertion of climbing, feel the full weight of summer. And then you can even come to last year’s leaves that have just been uncovered from last year’s snow. So all four seasons are available, also all the seasons of being human in some senses is available. I play that central role with long hair and beard, before the hippies, because in human history men mostly had hair and beards like that, and I was trying to be an ‘every man’ in the classic sense. In addition I wanted the innards to be visualized as so often they are neglected and overlooked except. Not only the heartbeat, but the whole gristly bejeweled insides and selves that we are. I wanted the heavens and the stars to also be available starting with our star the sun. And then I wanted the seasons of life of a human being. So after having just seen this man struggling to climb this mountain we come to part two, childhood. This can be his birth if you fancy it that way or, as it was literally the case, the birth of my first son Bearthm. It was the first envisionment of him and it required the complexity of all the senses of his innards, combined with rock as well, in fact literally rock. The shots that Western Cine would never print for me were those where I used mica in combination with images. Since they would not allow that to run on their pretty machines, I printed it myself with a lot of luck turning the light quickly on and off. So it is a film which literally has collage with images of children, rock, etc. There is some homage here to the fact that we are made of minerals as well as water and so forth. So this is the birth of the child and could also have been the birth of Dog Star Man because so much will invoke the dreams of being born, at least in me and other young fathers I’ve talked to. OK I have given you some biographical information and now the rest of it is all yours. Thank you.

Introduction to:

Self Song / Death Song (1997), The Machine of Eden (1970), and Mothlight (1963)

I would like to take this time to thank the projectionist because this has been one of the best screenings I’ve ever had. The other thing I wanted to say is that since most of my films are silent and I think all of the films on tonight’s program are, this can create a kind of nervousness in people that have coughs. I can understand this especially as someone who has just recovered from walking ammonia. On the one hand I am very honored that there was this tremendous silence and that when Sirius Remembered was over all these coughs broke out all over the place. But I also don’t want you to sit there stifling yourself. Coughing does not interfere with the silence in a way that stifled coughs do or that synchronized coughing does. You sync something and it is sunk, as far as I’m concerned! Most movies are aesthetically synch set on that level. Which is unfortunate because to have a sound and a vision occurring in precise formation, even though we have grown used to it at the movies, in fact exists nowhere else in life. Most people, most of the time, cannot hear and see at precisely the same time. Noise will cut back vision, noise will predominant, for most people. So please do not worry about the natural noises. But I am honored by your struggle to be quiet.

Self Song / Death Song was made while I was undergoing chemotherapy and I fully expected to die. A lot of the time it is such a difficult thing to go through. What kept me from not wishing death was so much wanting to be there for my two children who were so brave. Actually the whole family was like Swiss Family Robinson on cancer Island. They were suffering more than I was. Every day the little boys would come in. Now I was very weak looking, but I had to arm wrestle with them; so as to not let them win, and I do not know how I achieved such rigidity, I would lock my arm and both of them would grab it and put their feet on the bed and really pull, but they could never bring it down. They easily can now and it does not matter but it was a sign to them that their father was surviving. So while we were going through all that I was too sick and weak to make anything and yet I needed more than ever to do the thing that I do. The life affirmative thing of creating something, with an honesty of where I was. First of all I was absolutely thrown back, except for those occasions when arm wrestling or when people would come over with various cancer remedies. I come from Boulder Colorado so you can imagine the various health remedies I was subjected to! People mean well yes, but I was just exhausted. Although I did try some of them and I don’t know what got me through it. The point of all this is that in sickness one is thrown, absolutely, intensively, upon of the self. They are always trying to distinguish humans. There is the belief that humans are distinguished because they know they are going to die. This assumes that the rest of the animal kingdom does not know when it is going to die. How people can assume that, I don’t know? Don’t elephants drudge themselves to the elephant graveyard when they are about to die? Even the pets we are close to like cats and dogs will very ordinarily find some way to say goodbye to the family and crawl outside and die in the bush somewhere, or maybe down in the basement where they will be found later. This last act is private. I do not know of course, not remembering what reincarnation I was, a bird or whatever, but I suspect there is some general truth that creatures know, each in their own way, as well as we do, when death is coming upon them. So there is a centering on the self, and you can see that in some strange way. I’ve seen it and photographed it, even in a bug that was dying.

The next film is Death Song. If one does die I think there should indeed be a song, as well as anything else. Existence is song. Death also ought to be song. Or that part of it Wittgenstein would except we know, however absurd he finds the word. That part or half of it we view even of ourselves from the outside. Well this is weak and ephemeral, almost nothing, these two little films that sit side by side. But that was the truth of the circumstances so in that sense I would say these films are the most accurately documentary films I’ve ever been given to make. Then we have The Machine of Eden. The Machine of Eden was the second part of a trilogy called the Weir-Falcon Trilogy. The first part is based on the sickness of a child. The Machine of Eden, which comes second, is the vision of the beginning of the world or being born again, which in fact is the same subject as the Dog Star Man Part 2, because you can also say that the Dog Star man in the climb up the mountain is born again. Like any hero he has to have died inside, which with all that blood and ravaged hearts in the last section he was close to doing. He has to in some sense die and be reborn and I do not mean it as a psychological rebirth, like a born-again Christian, but the whole body restored anew. So The Machine of Eden takes the beginning of the world, Eden, in that Biblical sense. You can think of it like a sick child sitting in a room recovering, looking at a loom which creates things. And as it creates things it could be the metaphor of that which recreates the world. And as it is to recreate the world, the film progresses in that recreation of mountains, plains, etc. and the whole environs in which that child recovers. The third part of the film then goes on to deal with the animals of Eden, after which is the struggle of humans. An integral part of my making this is to recognize their relationship and their non relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom. The last of the trilogy of films in this program is Mothlight, which is probably the most famous of all the films I’ve made.

I felt at some point that I was going to die, that I was destroying myself because of my love of film and endangering my family with all the expenses and the difficulties. One night I was watching moths hurling themselves into the candle and into the light bulbs of chandeliers, burning up in an excess of trying to reach the light, and I thought, well that is me. How I love the light and as I move towards the light I am destroying myself. This is only partly a joke. A poet put it once about Michael McClure, and I paraphrase, “a big huge blossom on a thin narrow stalk, how will I support myself?” And so that is how I began to relate to moths. So then I collected all these bodies around the light bulbs and, so they shall not have died in vain, I spent six months pasting those wings and the things of their environs, plants and flowers and so on, onto Scotch tape with sprocket holes. The hardest part was taking and matching the pieces of Scotch tape with all those sprocket holes. Forty-eight to a second. And not messing it all up. But finally the editing process of this was to create something like a Bach fugue. Because as I studied and watched the moths going about their lives, as they moved around they would do arabesques that were very close to the fugal form of Bach’s music, as I was hearing it in those days. Again these are silent films, so please feel free to cough. Thank-you.

Introduction to:

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971)

The final film this evening is The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes which is what the word autopsy translates to. This would suggest that at some time some very brave people, who would have been condemned and damned by the church and the pope for all Eternity if they were discovered, felt the necessity to see human innards with their own eyes. So they named it autopsis. It takes some similar bravery for many people to look at a film of this activity. Although I will assure you that I have done everything that I can to pass on, as the autopsists did to me, the process as gently as possible. With film of course you also are not subjected to the smells, which were terrible, and, as it is a silent film, the noises of the buzz saw cutting through bone and so on. Every other part of the building was recently renovated and given air-conditioning but the autopsy room, which was the hardest place to work, was left stinking in its own smell. Largely because this process is despised and the people who perform it are despised, which made the autopsists very open to someone who would show what the act was. To show that they were humans who put themselves at peril every day because of the diseases involved, all to investigate every suspicious case of a death. Anyone who died in a public place, such as a hospital, a hotel, or on the street, anyone who died in any suspicious circumstances that the police or anyone else may have found. Every child who dies had to be autopsied. I was terribly grateful that there were no children’s deaths on the weekend I made the film because I think I could not have stood that. As it was, at times it was very difficult to continue the film. Seeing dead children would have probably done it, but these brave people perform these acts and rituals daily so that no one should have died in vain or unexplained. Having turned into my forties I had never seen a dead person, except once as a child, when a man had fallen over with a heart attack about a block away. I was lying on the grass and the children were quickly brought inside so as to not be contaminated by the sight. As it happened I had never attended a funeral, although I doubt that would have illuminated me much, since the bodies are so disguised under those circumstances. I was feeling the breath of age down my neck and had a sudden strong compulsion to at least look at the human innards, to look at death in the sense of what happened to others.

I was fortunate enough to have Cyril Wecht who I think is the top autopsists in the nation. Most autopsists are in awe when you mention his name. A lot of you may have seen him on television. First of all he took a very strong stance on the theories on Kennedy’s assassination. Second of all he has taken a very strong stance against the lousy comprehension of the death of the little Ramsey girl who was murdered in Boulder and whose killer is still to this day untrialed and unpunished. Wecht has been in the news, on The Larry King show and other such shows speaking of the brutal sex acts which were committed on this girl before she died. Again for which no one has been subpoenaed and for which no information has been reported other than the conditions of her sex organs upon death. I raise all this to give you the sense that he is a brave man and has almost been a hero for me. This film would not have been possible if not for this good man and a few others. Perhaps Dr. Thomas Noguchi, his good friend, from Los Angeles. At any rate, autopsists will appear in the newspapers usually in relation to some scandalous death or other and are not respected and appreciated. And I believe, in fact, that they are the cornerstone of our civilization, the extent to which we can call it that.

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes was the third in a series of films attempting to appreciate these people and the field [ed. sometimes called his ‘Pittsburgh Trilogy’]. The first was called Eyes (1971) and was about the police who similarly are feared and despised because of what they do. And yet what they do is what any common, decent human would do in the old days. They pickup drunks from the street, try to stop people from stealing, they interfere in arguments, and basically do all the dirty work that the rest of us don’t want to get involved in. Then I did one on the hospital called Deus Ex (1971), and then this one which we will see tonight. Now I suggest that if you have had someone who has died recently and have that on your mind, or if for any reason you feel you cannot face images of this sort, then don’t be embarrassed and excuse yourself and come back tomorrow to see some more films. I would also suggest that you do not close your eyes because my experience is that most people who do imagine worse than what was on the screen, so that is not a good way out. Feel free to go out for half an hour and come back and join us for the question and answer session. But don’t force yourself through this because it has to come at a time when it is right for you, whenever that is. I’ve tried to use everything that I believe is right and all that I understand of art to extend it in a form which can be received. And that is what makes a lot of people leery of the poetic or art film, underground film, avant-garde, or whatever you want to call it. These are terms we use which really are the attempt to develop a kind of poetics of cinema that is distinct from narrative, dramatic or the novel movie. And not better or worse, just different. And like poetry, it is not easily accepted. But my struggle and my belief in that form is that it will keep people at some distance from the screen. Which is of course the opposite of what movies do, which is “we will have you on the edge of your chair,” “you will faint,” “you cannot stand it,” “nurses are in attendance,” and all that hype. I know from working in the commercial cinema that the real drive is to suck in everybody up onto the screen and to ride off into the fiery furnace, or the sunset, or whatever the movies purport. And aesthetics demand a distance or try to arrange a situation of distance. So I am hoping that that distance makes it possible for those of you who are not so sorely pressed with a recent grief or otherwise ill-disposed, to be able to experience something which I do think at least I’ve found for myself that I am better for knowing. I found to my surprise that of all the films I have made, it was the most popular among my children. They’ve seen their own births, seen themselves playing, seen all these activities around the house, the monkeys, the goats, but the one that really interested them was this one. And then of course, I realize because it is in the tradition of the Grimm brothers or any of those fairy tales for children, which try to imagine what might be the worst of life. Oh, they will run honey up your nose and stake you on an ant hill so that the ants eat your brain! All these torments that children dig up out of books, all these attempts at comprehending and facing death through the distances of language. And finally, thank God for our poets or we wouldn’t have a meaningful language, the aesthetics permit us the distance we cannot have in daily life. With this removal and at the same time with all our sensibilities intact so that one can feel the terror, but not as in a Hollywood movie where you scream and jump, but where you feel it deeply with one’s own nerve endings. Not something manipulated by a fun house maker. I was about to say like Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t like Alfred Hitchcock and I find it very ironic every time I walk into a store Hitchcock is staring down at me. He’s OK. Some of my best friends think he is great or think he is the Shakespeare of the 20th century. Perhaps he is. But I do know that what he is doing, and he would be the first to acknowledge it, as Hollywood people would, is trying to scare you, to manipulate you, to play with the human sensibility. Again as I understand it, art of any type, be it pictures, poems, films, whatever, tries to leave you free. I hope you don’t let yourself be entrapped by this film. My fervent hope is that this film will leave you freer than you were before. Thank-you for your patience and I will entertain questions later.

Q & A:

Q: Why was the color in The Machine of Eden so red?

SB: The reddish color is essentially the film print going bad. For about 10 years Eastman Kodak Co. ordinarily printed on stock which would turn eventually reddish and not retain its color. At which point when this was discovered Martin Scorsese principally moved against the company and elicited from all areas of film making, people like myself, his colleagues in Hollywood and so on, to make a statement and protest it. And I think it was so important a thing to do that if he had never made a film he would still be important in film history. He probably saved more films for the future than anyone else ever has. But on the other hand, when The Machine of Eden first came on tonight I said to myself, this is one that has gone bad, which means I have to replace it, which is expensive. I felt badly that the more I watched it the better I liked it. The other version is very strong Kodachrome with very blue blues and with a variety of colors. This one seems more of one weave with the loom as it moves throughout itself. I thought, well there you go, I mean this is remindful of how through the silence of time paintings change, art works change and as they do, some may be changed for the worse and some may be improved. I am really nonplused now because I favor this version. I really had a very exciting envisionment of The Machine of Eden and in terms of the Beat principles intended in that work, that it is better in this tone. It is an act of Kodachrome and God!

Q: Were there any reasons for making The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, other than to help the workers?

SB: I did feel an outrage that they (the autopsists) were so ill treated, and they appreciated that because they felt that way too. On the other hand there was something that produced the most beautiful shot in the film and was meaningful to them. The windows in the morgue had little bits of sky that came in over the parking lot and every so often the sky was reflected in little pools of water. And that makes it very ephemeral, and to me extraordinarily spiritual.

I was also involved in the act of seeing and then I wondered if I can contain it through my work, let it come through me into a meaningful form that I would extend to others. Since the experience of making the film, the idea of suicide seemed absurd to me: why would you want to turn yourself into a bundle of meat? Maybe if you were in unbearable pain that was not going to end I could kind of understand that. But even so, it’s seems like taking the miracle that each of us are and turning it into lumps of loose furniture seemed blasphemous. And it had never occurred to me like that before. Like any romantic, at times under agony, I toyed with the idea of killing myself. In fact that is the primary subject of one of my major works, Anticipation of the Night (1958). But after making this film that seemed worse than absurd. That was a benevolent outcome for me. A lot that I was afraid of I ceased being afraid of, including death. However disturbing it is, one quickly becomes aware that these people are not feeling these needles being stuck into them or these invasions of their flesh. I know when I first thought of making this I thought it would become combined with many images I had, hellish images, and other 19th century grotesqueries of art. Gustov Dore. I had that kind of vision of it, but while making the film there was no room for that. It took me one year to edit the film and I was very disturbed while editing it. I wanted to try to give it a form that was true to everything that I had seen with my own eyes into the strata of art. And that was a great part of the struggle. I needed some distance also. I had terrible nightmares during the time of making this film. Some of them were the very opposite, like warnings. For instance I used to chew tobacco, Skoal Snuff. And one of the nightmares that kept recurring was where I would open up my Skoal case and the tobacco would be jumping and I would brush a little of it aside and my heart was beating under it. That was a pretty obvious one. Other dreams were much more complex. I came to respect this film so much. There is one shot which most people do not see because it is so brief, but it shows this guy kind of grinning as they are wheeling out this corpse. Most people who have caught that think they are laughing at the corpses but that was not at all true. Most of these bodies were never more tenderly treated than by these autopsists. And in a way you can kind of see that in this heavyset woman, who was run over by a car, in the way they hold up her bra and move her body. There are things they have to do to her that are invasive, but there is a tenderness in the way they hold up her blue dress. You can tell by her physique that she probably never had that kind of care since she was a child. As it happens they proved that she was shoved out of a car and under a truck. In fact, most murders are proved in this room, not in the court room. The court room takes the evidence that has been gathered here and then tries to make someone responsible for it, but most of the knowledge about the murder and the way it was committed is proved in this room. And there are very mysterious things. For example, in most cases, they are not as interested in the brain. The reason they take out the top of the head and the brain is so that they can get into the back of the nose to the pineal gland. One of them told me that in most cases they learn more about the time and cause of death from the pineal gland than all the rest of the organ’s put together. Well that is pretty mysterious, that this little pea-sized gland which sits in the back of the nose is, in their world, an extraordinary recorder of events.

Also, every time that I present this film I wish to warn people about what is probably the hardest moment for me in the film. I was filming this body and I then suddenly see in the periphery of my vision this beautiful woman’s breast. I turn to look and see this beautiful young woman being slit open. In the film I have interwoven her body with the body of the abused woman who was run over to create a sense of kinship, which is the way the autopsists felt about it. And they asked me to please tell people how this woman died. Because this is a most foolish kind of death. This woman died from having mixed two or three martinis and a cold pill. She took a pill to dry up her nostrils and make the cold symptoms less bad. Now this is something you can do all your life or for years and years and then suddenly, if the physique is just right, it will kill you. And they tell you on the bottle to not take the medication with alcohol. But people do it anyway and most of them get away with it, but it can kill you. Suddenly the person can’t take it and the body drowns in its own water. That is how she died. She was about 20 years old. This is something to be warned about and the autopsists were enraged because there were trying to get the newspapers to write a story about this, but the newspaper people did not think it was news. The warning is printed on the bottle, but the print is so small. So be forewarned. It is not a good way to commit suicide either, because you could try it many times and nothing will happen. But it is a way to die. And not a good one.

Q: In retrospect, when you look back at the films you have made over the last four or five decades do you regret not making any more political or socially committed films?

SB: Well, if I knew that I could make a balance….if the medium can be preserved to last a long time, maybe hundreds of years, and if I can make an aesthetic balance, with a coherent, whole world unto itself, which keeps some distance. If it can show forth something as it is in the unconscious, where good and bad are at one, 25 years ago and right now at one, and opposites at one. You cannot express it even with the symbol of yin and yang, as it is in the deepest fullest sense of the word. Now there are many subjects that anger me, hurt me or infuriate me, since I am human living in the 20th century and in the United States. I am just angered all the time. For example, the little girl that was murdered brutally in my town, the Ramsey case. The way they covered up for a man because he worked for Boeing and does top-secret work. The FBI went into the house, and they had a fake kidnap note, as it is now perfectly well known, that said terrorists had come in and kidnapped her. While the FBI is naturally going to move in on a case like that where a man works for a top secret government, but they were in there for less than half an hour, left, and never touched the case again. That cannot happen without a deliberate cover-up and withdrawal and from then on the case broke down. You had a D.A. that anyone with any sense in Boulder hates and despises, who threw every roadblock in the way of a true investigation. I am filled with rage about that but I cannot, for that very reason, make a film on the murder of the Ramsey child. Sometime later in some oblique way when enough time has passed that I have achieved a balance, then I hope something can come through me. You may ask, why do I need that balance? Because I know I have lived long enough and read enough history to know that anything that changes people quickly, they can change back from just as quickly, and almost always do. But something that can last for about four hundred years and be slowly gathering momentum along the many sensibilities of a society can, I think, actually inspire, as distinct from influence, a permanent change. At least in that culture and perhaps forever among wide world of human endeavor. So that is what I can do. But if I start doing the other and think on my righteous indignation and anger, then I cannot do both. I cannot even go back and forth. I can have my rage but I cannot abuse the magic of aesthetics in order to try to feed the starving children of the world right now. The torture of the children. I mean, I sat and cried uncontrollably for about an hour yesterday morning because I saw the Amnesty International report on torture around the world. I immediately took down the number and I am joining Amnesty International. I am going to do everything that I can and all the other exercises that I am doing right now. I recommend that you take a look at the torment and false imprisonment and to what extent there is of it in the world, and how much of it involves children. If you are moved, and I hope you will be, support Amnesty International. It is one of the great hopes we have to try and end some of this outrageous suffering. But I cannot make a film on it because I’m not balanced enough to do so.

I suppose there is an ideal which I think some artists have achieved. In fact a very dear friend of mine who died recently, Ed Dorn, was what we call a social protest poet. He wrote directly with his rage about everything. One of his books is called Abhorrences. But Ed Dorn had come to the place where he felt that, with the type of poet he was, you could not write poetry, at least in this time, in this culture. It was not possible. He did not feel art was possible and he gave up poetry. He wrote “abhorrences.” And I do not agree with him. I think that the cultures we have, have been the most vibrant against the most overt, subtle, and sly attacks on the Arts. Even with this avoidance of Art by culture, in such a time we have had more great creative changes which are potentially more hopeful in the long run than in many hundreds of years. Think of the changes in music. To be sure they have been aborted by most of the popular media really, phasing symphony orchestras out, in a time where we’ve had the most changes in human hearing of intervals and rhythms since maybe the Middle Ages. Certainly poetry has been extraordinary, all one has to do is name a few names. Just one name, Gertrude Stein, who is unquestionably the Giotto, the Cezanne, of writing. There are very few universities that teach her, very largely because she was a woman, because she was a great woman. If she was just another woman poet, yes we can have another token woman poet, but not a giant like Gertrude Stein. Never mind just her work, but if you realize who she has influenced. Without her Beckett is not impossible. Even though everybody teaches that Beckett comes out of James Joyce, because he was Joyce’s Secretary, and engaged to his daughter. The truth is that Beckett comes out of Gertrude Stein. He would not exist were it not for Stein. Neither would Ionesco, neither would most of European and some American avant-garde theater. She changed the forms of theater, poetry, the essay, the novel, and aesthetic writing for ever. Stanzas in Meditation is one of the seven completed epic poems of our time. And it wasn’t until last year that it had a correct printing, and it is not taught anywhere as far as I know. Well I could go on and on with this thing, what else would you like to know?

Q: I am interested in your preoccupation with death, can you talk about that. Are you afraid of death?

SB: I made a film called The Text of Light (1974) which was entirely made in a glass ashtray, a single frame at a time. It is as if looking into a planet made of light. The seeming mountains and plains, the forests, etc., and it is a travel through that of about one hour and 20 minutes long. Almost every time I have shown this film people have stood up during the question and answer period and pronounced that they were declared medically dead at some time in the life. Sometimes I have had two people say that. And that during the time they were medically dead this is what they saw. They said that my film is the closest to that experience that they have ever seen. I thought, well if that is what it is like to die, that is wonderful, because it is a beautiful film! I really love it because of all my works it is so comforting, exciting and beautiful. It is the light that is beautiful. I just had the patience to extract what the light did. A complexity of crystal, across a year. That gave me some ease, and then I read a book called Life After Life which is recordings of people’s testimonies of what they saw and went through when they were declared medically dead. And many of them are so similar and extraordinary, in the sense that people who were declared dead on the operating table sensed themselves drifting around the room, out in the hall, and reported on things they could not possibly have known. Like that certain relatives were in the waiting room, which they had no way of knowing. Or that doctors had said certain things in rooms where the body was not in. The tunnel of light has become famous, a lot of people have heard the stories. In fact I just heard on Larry King live last night that Elizabeth Taylor testified to this, as an after life experience. And like many people, after passing through that tunnel she came to a place where her husband who had been killed in an airplane crash was waiting for her and gently turned her around and said you have to go back, it is not time yet. I will be waiting for you. Many of the stories contain this including people I have known. Sally Dixon testified to this with relatives waiting at the edge of her bed and telling her that it was not time yet. The river is often involved. Many standard symbols like going over the river and through the crystal lights. Or a spiritual guide which is usually just a voice, like a guardian angel. The people who do not accept this testimony feel that maybe our minds are enough alike that when the brain is dying this is the picture it puts out. So most people have such a picture, but it is really just the brain inventing. I had one person stop me and say, well just suppose that it is all an invention of the brain and the brain is inventing Eternity. Well then, how would you know whether you are experiencing Eternity are not? That is a cynical approach to it, especially when we even have testimony of people who were blind since birth who under declaration of stoppage of their heart and being brain dead, have experienced the same thing as these other people have. So we are in an era where we have to give at least some credence to the possibility, regardless of how frightful that might be to some people, of life after death.

The book is called Life After Life and it is an extraordinary book. I am not trying to form a religion here or go on too much about this because, like I said, I think it is niggardly not to be primarily involved in life as you are living it. And I’ll see what happens when I’m dying. I have several times thought that I was going to die and then I didn’t, so here I am surprised again. I will obviously die at some time, and then I will find out some things or not. Am I afraid of it? No. Because I have been that close to it and, without being suicidal, said it is OK. The only thing that wasn’t okay would be for the people that I would be leaving in the lurch. People that I would be hurting by dying. Maybe I am also afraid and do not want to admit it and when it comes for me I will scream AHHHHH, get out of here.

I would think that I would do what John Cassavetes did in his last film, Love Streams (1984). He has this character suddenly sitting in the living room who obviously is not there. What is that children’s poem: “I met a man upon a stair, a little man who wasn’t there, he wasn’t there again today, I wish to hell he’d go way.” Really scary kiddie poem. You know that Cassavetes, who looked like death, was dying of lung cancer when he was making this film. Well in this last film, Love Streams, Cassavetes suddenly looks at this stranger in his living room, and suddenly says, “Who are you?” and he starts laughing, “Who the fuck are you?” and he is laughing and laughing at this quiet death figure sitting in a chair. One also would like to think that you would say a nice thing upon death, like Oscar Wilde, something funny. Wilde said, “either that wallpaper has to go or I.” Those were his last words. Or Gertrude who said in response to Alice B. Toklas’, “Well Gertrude what is the answer?” Stein said, “well my dear what is the question?” She knew she was going to die because she had stomach cancer and the doctor told her and she said, “Well Doctor, you are going to have to cut it out.” And the doctor replied, “Gertrude you are medically astute you know I cannot cut it out.” And she replied “I said cut it out!” So she asked for her death in that operation and he obliged. She knew when she went in, well what is the question? These things have sustained me and my knowing people who have died. Recently a very dear friend. It is the living who really suffer. I miss him so much. I miss so many people I’ve lost, Gregory Corso. And not long ago, Allan Ginsberg died. So many of my friends and contemporaries are dying. The simple answer, after all this verbiage, is no. So far as I know, I am not afraid of death.

Q: How difficult is it for you to talk about your art?

SB: I do worry that talking about it can take away some of the magic. I may say some things that will make it less of an aesthetic experience. If so, I am sorry. I try hard not to. One of the ways I try hard not to is a I try as much as possible not to talk about my films in those ways which you read on the jackets of LP records. I try not to invent words like “crescendo” and “diminuendo.” I try to say out of what light they sprang and the circumstances of that light. Although I do not think it is essential to know any of that about Sirius Remembered to watch the film, to many it is helpful if they are only going to get to see it once. When I have a film which I can show over and over again across a semester, as I will choose to do sometimes, I will not say anything about it. Because they’re going to see it enough that each person will have something to say, and that is better. And I wish I could put out this program to all of you in some form that would not be the pudding that video is, that would be more film. Then I would not need to say anything. I hope for an evolution of digital or something that will permit those people that want them to have them in their homes, like people who love poetry and own poetry books. I do not even read the introduction to poetry books, even if they are written by the poet. Later I might, but I find them superfluous before I read the poems. I want the art to be for the people, that is why I give the lectures that I do. I am the horse’s mouth in that sense. I could also talk aesthetics if you would like to know the bare bones of my aesthetics. I could imagine people from another planet who would have similar nerve endings and some of the senses we have, that their movies would look to us like squiggly lines. We would look at them in puzzlement. So there are many ways of envisioning one’s environs. And humans have invented some, with the East and West now sort of amalgamated, one involving fake perspectives and ground lenses to achieve fake spaces and so on. And that is what I work with, that is my inheritance and I am grateful to it. But I do not worship it as the only possibility of what I do. And what I am excited about is getting into where we can start sharing our innards with each other. I guess also that the sense of the act of seeing is another reason why I make art, but literally. I mean our thoughts with each other, our moving visual thoughts, because language just isn’t any longer enough. The politicians have too corrupted it, as have the teachers and academicians. Maybe even people like me. Look, I am a good enough talker that I can make a living at it. Watch out! I can’t make a living at my films. They destroy my living. They eat up every piece of money I make. But I am glib enough and I am entertaining enough with words. I often have people come up and say, “gee I really like to hear you talk. I don’t like your films, but I like to hear you talk!” That is wonderful I truly succeeded then! So here I am dancing around teaching, talking, and making a living going on making my things.

Q: Can you discuss your preoccupation with cinema truth, or documentary?

SB: In some senses I think all films are documentary. They are all close to the home, close to the person who made them. Even if they’ve had to make them through a bunch of Bankers and producers and studios and what ever. People fight for certain images they love on the editing level or they fight to leave a shot lit the way it is. Drunken Billy Bitzer fought to leave his errors intact and Griffith was sensible enough to use some, so it is always like that close to the bone, close to the home, home movies in that sense. Yes truth in the sense the best that one can know. My definition of truth is what you fully believe in the given moment that you express it. I do not think one can get any closer to the truth than that. If provided that the ‘you’ being referred to is constantly questioning, not ever satisfied, not sinking into some truth of the moment but constantly questioning and searching. Then that is as close as you can get to truth. And documentary, I guess would be the fact of that. So I think that the arts are always documents in the deepest sense of the word. One of my favorite definitions of art is, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth, so help me god.” All four of those are necessary, so that is my dedication to documentary, and it isn’t something that would satisfy the Flaherty people. Again they have rejected The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. Why? Tell me why? I have some ideas, which is that they don’t realize, that Robert Flaherty is turning in his grave at the restrictions that they put upon this beautiful thing that Flaherty opened up out of his heart. So everyone has their own little club. Well here comes the time man, it looks like we have to call it a night, thank-you.

Part 2

Stan Brakhage: “Death is a Meaningless Word” Part 1.

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