Stan Brakhage on Marie Menken, 60th Birthday Interview
Film Culture, No. 78 / Summer 1994
The acquisition of the Brakhage papers and films was made possible by a generous gift of the William H. Donner Foundation. The papers cover primarily Brakhage’s life and career from his high school years in Denver, Colorado to his death in 2003. Throughout his life, Brakhage was both a prolific film maker as well as correspondent with many of the leading artists of his generation in the avant-garde world. The papers comprise voluminous business and personal correspondence with musicians, poets, and numerous underground experimental film makers, such as Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baille, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, Guy Davenport, Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton, Kenneth Jacobs, and Carolee Schneemann, among many others. Also included are papers and manuscripts relating to his films, as well as numerous audio tapes of his various lectures around the country. A broad variety of other material is also included. Since its acquisition, the Brakhage archive has attracted broad national and international interest among scholars, students, film makers, curators, as well as the interested public.
Brakhage was born in a Kansas, MO orphanage in 1933; he was adopted two weeks later by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage, who named him James Stanley. Growing up, he performed on radio as a boy soprano and attended high school in Denver. The archives hold materials from his high school years, including recordings of his radio shows.
Following high school, Brakhage attended Dartmouth College but left after two months and made his first film, Interimshortly afterward in 1952. His early influences were jean Cocteau and the Italian neo-realists before gravitating to the avant-garde scene after arriving in New York in 1954. Amidst the flourishing New York avant-garde world, he drew particular inspiration from such artists and film makers as Maya Deren, Marie Denken, and Joseph Cornell with whom he occasionally collaborated. The Brakhage papers include considerable correspondence with these artists.
Brakhage made nearly 400 films. His archives also show that he wrote about film and taught extensively. As his papers indicate, Brakhage avoided working in a photographic medium most commonly defined by storytelling and reproduction of real-world objects and events. Instead, he made films with no narrative, often representational, and at times, dispensed with photography altogether. The majority of his films were made without sound, which he believed would diminish the intensity of the visual experience. Throughout his career, Brakhage was often called visionary. Perhaps, many of the statements that he made or wrote concerning his motives and methods contributed to this view. After all, his papers indicate that he commonly presented or articulated his work as a “way of seeing.”
Nonetheless, from the beginning of his film career, Brakhage insisted that there was a relationship between his work and the world around him. The films depict the daily and seasonal processes of nature and of human nature. He scrutinized flora and fauna; pondered geology and cosmology; he meditated upon the society within which he and his family and other Americans lived. He confronted taboos. His films on sexuality and death became landmark explorations, inspiring controversy as much for their adventurism as for their treatment of it.
Jonas Mekas, film maker and director of the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, once noted that before Brakhage, “the avant-garde was very much in the classical French/German tradition, and here comes this guy in his 20s from Colorado with this electric personal style; very open and free, and that was the beginning of the American avant-garde.” Further, Mekas compared Barkhage to abstract expressionist painters like Willem de Kooning, especially with his painted films like Dante Quartet, as though he had been able to transform the implicit velocity of action painting into actual, literal movement.”
For all the differences of mood, style, and method that characterized his work, Brakhage’s films were the expression of a singular vision, which he articulated in his correspondence, lectures, and essays contained in the Brakhage archives. “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective,” he wrote in 1963, “an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.” The idea that the physical act of seeing could be separated or liberated from the physical nature of the object seemed to largely encapsulate the philosophy behind much of his work. These observations are reflected in his papers, which are likewise electric, full of color, and replete with the personal and professional drama that surrounded his work.
The archives reveal that Brakhage was an admirer of Ezra Pound and a close associate and frequent correspondent with such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. His films were metaphorical and abstract in nature; he liked to think of them as a “kind of poetry written with light.” The Princeton University film historian, P. Adams Sitney, characterized Brakhage as a “painter or poet in cinema, not a novelist like everybody else.” Certainly, the Brakhage papers support this observation. Perhaps Sitney said it best in predicting that in the “entire history of the medium, when all the pop-culture interests have faded, a hundred years from now, [Brakhage] will be considered the preeminent artist of the 20th century.”
However one may sum up the Brakhage legacy, his papers are here, they’re open, and may be interpreted however one thinks best.
For more information on the Brakhage Collection, please contact:
Bruce P. Montgomery
Professor and Faculty Director of Archives
Chief Curator, Brakhage Center for Media Arts
Campus Box 184
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, CO 80309