Stan Brakhage And
The Limits of Abstraction: On By Brakhage And Other Thoughts
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/18/09
One of the best things about the DVD revolution is that it allows potential viewers of marginalized cinema and television access to relatively cheap versions of the art forms they enjoy. And, unlike visual art, they do not have to spend great sums of money to own ‘originals’ of the thing because, is there really an ‘original’ version of a film? Does one really want to own the actual first full film strip that made up the final version of a film? After all, there is enough foment over films that have multiple ends and/or edits: Director’s Cuts, Final Cuts, Theatrical Cuts, Unrated Cuts, Original Cuts, etc. Yet, like other art forms, the visual arts- even cinema, has been subjected to the works of cinematic poseurs and frauds. These frauds can be intentional or not, yet cults of devotees tend to sprout up about them; and it should be noted I’m talking about those bad filmmakers who claimed the mantle of auteur, not the many B film level directors who simply wanted to entertain- thus highlighting the destructive role of pretense in art. For example, the French director, Jean Cocteau, after failing as a poet (that artistic desideratum many other artists claim as an initial hope), turned to film, and still has legions of admirers, cultists, and defenders, despite his films’ intellectual lack and derivation from earlier silent masters (most notably Buster Keaton). Although his films were a bit more intellectually substantial than Cocteau’s, Spanish director Luis Bunũel likewise was full of pretense far in excess of his skill. Cocteau’s ‘intellectual heir’, Jean-Luc Godard, while better than either Cocteau or Bunũel, also made films whose reputations for innovation and skill were well beyond the actual thing seen onscreen. Finally, there are filmmakers from Hollywood’s Lowest Common Denominator culture, who get praised as artists when their works are intellectually hollow. The most noted of this sort of director would be George Lucas (a has been, meaning he once had potential) and Steven Spielberg (who lacked even that).
All of these directors, at some level, knew their limits, and, with visual spectacle or political undercurrents or artistic hagiography, tried to hide the truths of their works’ poor artistic quality just to ‘make it.’ Then there are the truly clueless or deluded sorts of artists who are not even, in a real sense artists, but have the vague yearnings to express something, but none of the skill to do so. These are generally what could be called ‘fringe’ artists, or the avant-garde. The former term, though, is the more useful and accurate because these artists occupy the fringe of their said art forms, artistically (in that often their art has no or thin connections to the art form), and they really are only marginally artistic, in the creative sense. What they really are is obsessive-compulsive. One sees that in the poetry of the High Modernists, like Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, or the derivative schools of poetry that devolved from Pound and William Carlos Williams into the ‘poetry’ of a Wilfred Watson (and many more like him- from Surrealists to Postmodernists), which consists mostly of letters and numerals in patterns. What once was the highest of art forms, poetry, thus devolves into a one off art, gimmick art, the type of puzzles, like sudoku, found on newspaper comic strip or crossword puzzle pages. And it’s a telling little piece of one of the DVD interviews that Brakhage (who admits he is a failed poet) speaks of his high opinion of The Cantos, even as he admits he has no real clue about their artistic worth.
In the visual arts, the most obvious expression of this charlatanry is in Abstract Expressionism, where any dribble of paint, any colored brushstroke- whether it renders anything but color, is declaimed art. Why? Because the ‘artist’ declaims it. The ‘found art’ that emerged from the ruins of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘successes’ is often not found nor art. The intellectual laziness of these ‘artists’ runs counter to the very notion of what art is- the highest form of communication. An art that is deliberately hermetic, so much so that it takes only a high priest (the role many wannabe artists dream of) to declaim it, is, definitionally, not art. Art is not just communication, but high communication that is also individuated, and shows a modicum of skill; not just the passion to want to declaim any rotted fruit on a pedestal, minutes long silence as musical composition, or a mere pencil dot on a piece of paper, a work of art.
That stated, it brings up the ‘experimental films’ of Stan Brakhage, hailed by a small cult as a genius, a visionary, a great filmmaker, yet known by only a few thousand people- mostly film school students. I put quotation marks around the term experimental films because the term is, itself, so abused. In fact, as I will show, while the work of Brakhage is definitely film, there is precious little that is experimental, since so much of what his work consists of is not original, nor risky. Therefore he was operating on fairly well trod and safe ground, hardly the demesne of the experimental. Having reached majority in the early 1980s, I spend much of that decade in late night Manhattan, going to arts clubs and museums, and I got soaked in much avant-garde art and cinema. I’d see them at performance art places, on public television, in museums and libraries that had projectors. I’d also see them at the homes and apartments of people I knew in the arts- from the actual Warhol Factory folk to the many more imitators. All were routinely bad. The reason for that is that most of them did not realize that the Factory Films were put ons- not art in themselves, but mere tools in Warhol’s lifelong performance art piece known as Andy Warhol’s Life. Whatever visual mode he chose- film, painting, silkscreening, etc., Warhol, whom I only saw once, at a party, from about twenty or more yards, was not really a visual artist, at heart, but a performance artist, whose visual works were often satires on the gullible champions of art that was not really art, like the stolid Clement Greenberg. Warhol’s films, themselves, were not satire but his presentation and defense of them was- the art not being in the films but in his performance, which actually viciously mocked his many fans and acolytes for their vapidity. Warhol certainly had visual talents, but he was a performance artist extraordinaire. In short, Warhol was in on joke that his films were not art, while his fans, critics, and detractors were not. By contrast, the vast majority of filmmakers who tried to ‘experiment’ with visuals were simply bad filmmakers, by any objective methodology. And, I’m not speaking of the ‘happy accident’ that becomes incorporated into something useful to the art form, but demonstrably bad technical skills- lighting, framing, editing, etc., that were simply left in as the wont of the artist, to ‘insulate’ them from real criticism of the utter vacuity of their work by drawing the focus to the bad particulars of skill, which could then be rationalized away as somehow ‘deliberate,’ and loaded with meaning, thus simultaneously invoking the fallacious ‘criticism of intent,’ while also deflecting the real ‘criticism of content,’ and its conveyance, as a shield to hide the ‘artist’ from thr real claims that could be made about his laziness, and against his originality and skill. Art, as communication, after all, is far less about the what: the idea or philosophy of the artist or work; and far more about the how: the skill at with which it is conveyed. Art, thus, is more a verb than a noun. However, to achieve greatness, usually the how and the what must gel. While it is not impossible to be great with just one aspect exceeding in excellence, usually both are required. Great art simply is a complex thing, even if, on a surface level, it may appear simple.
Yet, despite all this, having just watched all the 26 films on The Criterion Collection DVD, By Brakhage, I’m not sure if, certainly for his later films, the term art even applies to Brakhage’s work. In other words, qualifications about whether many of his films, which are just slight repetitions on a theme- colors and scratches applied to literal film, are good or bad art, are superfluous, because most are not even art, for they make no attempt to communicate anything. In fact, the repetitions of some of his later films are so slight that their very titling becomes problematic, in that they suggest a high degree of charlatanry, albeit sans Warholian savage humor. I earlier mentioned a dot on a piece of paper masquerading as art. Well, the artwork I saw was actually a Yoko Ono ‘piece’ at a museum- I forget whether it was the Walker Center or the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts. However, variants of this claimed work of ‘art’ are online, and in many galleries, all over the world. Is it art? How could it be? No one could sanely claim that their black dot on a white page is somehow different from another’s. Therefore, since it communicates nothing (save perhaps the so-called artist’s laziness and charlatanry) and its intellectual content is nil (meaning it cannot be trademarked, copyrighted, or, indeed, plagiarized or stolen), it is not art. And, as a sidenote, the dot artworks have much in common with the later films of Brakhage because both sets of ‘art’ have little or no variance, save for the uncontrolled plashes of color Brakhage painted on film strips, and the random asymmetry of the dots on the slightly differing colored piece of paper. With such a connected posited, let us do even more with the analogy. Now, let us say that that dot on a page was filmed so that every frame of the film was just the same thing, with no music added. Now, we film the same static sheet of paper with a dot in the center for five or six or seven minutes straight. Aside from the squiggles of dust that accumulate on the film, thereby telling us we are watching a film and not a static visual artwork, does the mere fact of putting the thing that was not art on film, make it art? Well, certainly it potentially could be art, if there were some intellectual content or communication to begin with….possibly. Also, one can film a bug on a rock artistically. But, that is not what I just asked. I gave the parameters for the film, of whatever length. Clearly, then, it is not art. After all, could the mere motion of the motion picture- its flicker?- elevate it to art? I doubt it. So, let’s extend that outward. Imagine, now, not just a dot, bit a single frame of film, with colors on it- some dots, some streaks, and mostly randomly applied frame to frame, like mini-swirled Jackson Pollock paintings. This definition would describe about a quarter or more of the Brakhage films on the DVD. Now, if a Pollock drip painting, or a monochrome Mark Rothko painting, is not really art (or, at best, really bad art, if we are definitionally generous), then what of those works set into motion? Does motion, again, elevate the lack of an idea to be communicated into either the idea or the great communication? It’s possible, but I’d argue that it’s not likely.
Take what is perhaps Brakhage’s most celebrated film, Mothlight. And, for your convenience, here is a bit of the film, courtesy of YouTube. Now, watch it. Is it interesting? For a few seconds, especially if one has been raised on MTV level editing. But the film runs over three minutes long, not a few seconds long (the linked version is not the ‘whole’ film). And, when looking for critical assessments of the film, what I found was nothing on what the film actually conveyed, and even less on how well it conveyed such, but much (if not all- I stopped after a few pages of references) on how it was made- not the criticism of intent, but the supposed import of provenance, in governing the film’s claims for arthood. Why does this fail, as criticism and art? Because, one critic will claim ‘Brakhage made this film by pasting the wings (and sometimes bodies) of moths to his film,’ while another will state: ‘Mothlight, a 1963 film comprised of organic material adhered between strips of tape the same width of 16mm film stock, a montage. Imagine a single image an inch wide and several yards tall, divided and viewed in subsequent increments. The three minute work is excitedly paced and primarily non-objective.’ Note, no criticism, and nothing of what is conveyed. Granted, I could post thousands of words (anonymous and not) that basically recapitulate these two claims, but trust me on this, that these snippets are the sum total of criticism one is likely to get on this film. Also, I’ll leave aside the fallacy that the film is in any way non-objective, and give you this critical assessment: ‘There is an argument that video is an imperfect forum for viewing Brakhage’s works (cited by both he and Fred Camper in his liner essay), that it disallows Brakhage’s metaphysical commentary: that a film projector disrupts the nature he produces (this thought is especially in regard to the aforementioned Mothlight, and works similar to it). The final argument towards Brakhage’s work as a filmmaker is exampled, again, in Mothlight. He tells of how the work is spawned by his inability to successfully film moths dancing about an open flame. They would burn in contact with their drawing obsession, and dead wings would collect on Brakhage’s lens. Assembling their body parts is a figurative method of resurrecting them. Appropriately, subsequent images in the film mimic a moth’s flight, and it comprises the insect’s natural familiarities. It is a work that mimics a life, clearly a masterpiece of creative innovation, and similarly formidable for its thought.’
Now, this I will not let go, for the critic is basically telling the audience to trust him, alone, that even if you do not appreciate the film, or even want to know of its provenance, it’s good art nonetheless. Let’s start with the claim that film is an imperfect forum for Brakhage’s films. Well, paper and pen are just as imperfect for poetry (the artform closest to pure thought), but, short of telepathy, it’s the best that can be done in this age. Imagine claiming oil paint is not a good medium for an artist’s oil paintings! Add to the fact that the critic’s claim is not even original, but one propounded by both the artist (Brakhage) and his acolyte (Fred Camper), shows that the ‘critic’ is not really adding any real critical thought to the matter, save flailing the old criticism of intent, but really just adding a fan’s grace note disguised as a work of studied criticism. Imagine if a bad poem were claimed great merely because it was originally ‘written’ on a marble slab, by scratching the slab with a sharp nail, over many months. If the poem’s objective constituent elements (music, metaphors, conceit, imagery, rhymes, etc.) are bad, the poem is still bad, despite its Herculean compositional provenance.
But, let’s take that a step further, and just look at the film, not how it is claimed to have been made, nor even look at its title. What it consists of is a several minute long film that shows translucent, mostly pinkish things against a white backdrop. If this was just thrust at one, sans even a title, could one really discern that these are moth parts? A few wings, here or there, maybe, but it could also be human blood vessels (the likely first guess due to the striations and pinkish colors), leaves, fossil slices, bone marrow, or a dozen or more other things. As for the claim that this critic repeats- ‘moths dancing about an open flame’- as being represented somehow in the film or by the film, untitled, the work is almost endlessly open, therefore communicates nothing, therefore loses claims to arthood. Indeed, Brakhage does have untitled films, as do many other avant-garde filmmakers, so one wonders why this film was titled. The only reason could be that the title forces the viewer down a blindered corridor of thought. Thus, the film gains ‘meaning,’ of a sort, but the essential dilemma of the film’s not saying much, besides the moths dancing about an open flame canard, remains, and the title takes on the patina of intellectual gimmick, not art. But, now, let’s say Brakhage made the film the same way, with moth parts, as claimed (and I have no way of really knowing this true or not), but titled it, say, Stroke or Heart Attack. What do you think the odds would be that the very same critics who see moths dancing about an open flame would suddenly claim the flickering images represent the heart beating wildly, or the film’s gorgeous depiction of the moment of unconsciousness, or some such rot- when the frames seem to stop for a second or two? So, am I stating that the title is a superfluous thing, appended on to warp the perception of the main body of the work? No. What I am stating is that the title of an art work should not be infinitely relatable to the art’s subject matter. Why? Because then the actual subject matter of the art becomes secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) to the title and other relatively minor things, such as an epigraph or foreword.
Let me give you another example. Here is a sonnet I wrote with a strikingly similar premise to the one propounded for Mothlight. It is called X-Ward. Now, the title was not meant to describe a hospital or sanitarium ward, but perhaps someone could twist it to mean that. It simply was meant to refer to moving in a direction unknown, i.e.- toward the X.
Flames are not so much silence as a dust
on the all. What more could they be? Blue flies
bottle around my sight and slowly squeeze
life from the remaining years. They accept
their brief sojourn as a blanket of air.
I wait for my mind to fill up with tales
of Jesse James or Al Capone, or what fails
to incite a poem about them- either/
or. I squeeze the muse, again, and wonder
the small broken windows of poems that were
possible. Then I daze. Not long after
a ray pokes inward. I turn and agree
with the insects whose flights outline, with awe,
the silhouette of your perfect body.
Now, while I can state that this is a good poem, at the least, and its title adds to it, the reason I bring this poem up is not to crow on my writerly prowess, but to use this as an abject example of the perils of poor titling of works of art. So, let us proceed without any qualitative judgment of the Brakhage film or the Schneider sonnet, and simply deal with the essence of what is presented- the ‘noun’ of the art, not the ‘verb.’ If we were to seek a different title for this poem, something implying the sex act- or mere lust could do, since the poem ends seemingly in that manner, a title implying a philosophic comment, insects flying about (say Blue Flylight), or even something relating to the outlawry of the two iconic American criminals the piece names, how would that change the actual sonnet’s content? Also, given the fact that the poem is limited to 14 lines and 112 words, there is not nearly an infinitude of reasonable titles that could work, much less work well- a subset far smaller. But, let us just say I wanted to be a wiseass, a Warholian-level provocateur. Suppose I titled the piece Neil Armstrong’s First Thoughts On The Surface Of The Moon. Okay, since the thoughts are kind of piecemeal, it might work, but barely, since there is nothing about the astronaut Armstrong’s biography to suggest these thoughts, so there would be a definite disconnect. Suppose I titled it Puppy Pissing On A Piece Of Mahogany or Woodrow Wilson On The Toilet or The Bolsheviks Seize St. Petersburg or Vivaremus, Part 34: Concerto In No Minor. All of these would be increasingly absurd titles. And I could go on even further, as, unfortunately, many bad writers, poets, and wannabes do. The fact is that there would be an ever decreasing correlation to the main body of art from the title, as if a Rembrandt self-portrait was titled Dreams Of The Sears Tower To Be Built Centuries Hence. Now, this does not mean that all such titles cannot work. There is such a thing as John Keats’ Negative Capability, but this is often used as a catch-all excuse that many bad artists who think they can simply toss any idea or item together with another and claim some connection – tenuous or vital, only because they formed a link by the mere commingle of ideas. And, while the idea of Negative Capability is rightly first attributed to Keats, the poet’s very lack of ever formally codifying the idea has led to its gross distortion in a bevy of artistic theories. They can do that- try to link anything by mere placement together, of course, but they cannot use the fallback of Negative Capability to do so, for Negative Capability is not about forging connections between things where there are substantively none, rather revealing previously unseen connections that, once manifested, seem obvious in retrospect, to the masses, while to the great artists or thinkers, have been seen ahead of time.
But, the reverse of what might be called the presumption of the title is when the art is so open as to being able to have an infinity seen into it. The imbuement of the audience is not something that an artwork should proffer its bread and butter on, because then all is chaos and subjective, when, in reality, while subjectivity exists in the cosmos, and art, it is only by the application of objective measures that order and criticism can be attained. And, just as a single drop of blood can impurify a whole ocean that was pure water, so can one single objective fact objectify a previously subjective realm. Why? Because then the rest of the cosmos can be objectively related to that objective thing, thereby opening up a Pandora’s Box of objectivity. And this- a cosmos of mainly objective things, with a small flux of subjectivity at the margins, is pretty much what is seen in the cosmos today. But, back to the presumption of the title, and I am not claiming this for Mothlight. In fact, it is one of the more staid films in the DVD canon I watched, but Brakhage’s trend becomes glaringly obvious, especially as one views later films that have almost anything said about them without critical thought. A good example of this comes from a 1999 film, The Dark Tower. In it, we see a repetition of colors, similar to those in Black Ice, Study In Color And Black And White, and Stellar. These all seem to be hand-painted pieces, with the difference from The Dark Tower being that these films lack a slight measure of blackness in the middle of the frame. The DVD liner notes give some explanations of the films’ intents and creation, but that does little to alter the fact that the film stirs nothing in the viewer, just as the other mentioned films do not. In fact, given the general murkiness of the film, without the title, few would even notice the slight non-static black in the middle, much less guess it is the titular tower. Certainly the images that dart about it, similar to the ‘moths about an open flame’ meme, do little to push forward the metaphor. So, all the viewer is left with is a dark, flickering two minute film and….nothing else. Well, not exactly nothing, for there is the title, which is used as an entrée into ‘what the film means,’ by both Brakhage and his chief acolyte/apologist, Fred Camper, who wrote the film summaries for Criterion. Of course, great art needs no explanation. It is its own best explanation, even when all of it is not readily explicable, for that is what rewatch is for. But, watching The Dark Tower five or fifty or five hundred times will still not allow anyone get what Camper claims: ‘Brakhage, citing a line from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Piligrimage, connected the ‘dark tower’ with death, and the central shaft of darkness at the opening exerts powerful, almost gravitational, attraction, even though surrounded by color. The rest of the film constitutes itself as a struggle between darkness and light, as the dark field on which the color appears remains associated with the opening ‘tower,’ which returns as a band dividing the frame near the end. The final burst of color seems especially fragile, ephemeral.’
Now, let’s look at what Camper says. First off, let us strip away the supposed allusions and conflations. Camper describes the film (minus flourishes and imbuements): darkness in the middle of a black palette, surrounded by color bursts. The middle darkness disappears for a while, returns, and the film ends in color bursts. Now, even with the title, who would get the allusion (supposed) to Byron? There are plenty of dark towers in art pre- and post-Byron, so this is mere name-dropping, the artist’s using the appeal to authority fallacy in a way to bolster his art’s bona fides. This fails because a) no reasonable connection can be made, even with the title, to Byron. Without the title, no one will see any Byronic meaning. It also fails because b) the referent work of art is, itself, a largely vainglorious and empty piece of extended puffery and puerile epopee, and using allusions or epigraphs to inferior works of art rarely serves a good purpose, unless in contrast. By Camper’s admission of Brakhage’s ‘intent,’ though, this is clearly not so. But, forget intent, as I’ve stated. We then get Camper in metaphoric hyperbolic overdrive, with terms like death, central, darkness, exerts, powerful, gravitational, struggle, final, burst, fragile, ephemeral. All of these are terms are used to lead the reader into accepting these conditions aforehand, as a part of the work itself, but are they in the work, or just Camper’s mind? If the film comes on, most people would likely shrug, especially had the seen the aforementioned films just prior. In fact, even in this slim DVD selection, approximately only about 6% of Brakhage’s filmic output, the repetition of themes, images, and, frankly, a lack of any real creativity (but much obsession- that thing often mistaken for vision) becomes quite a bore. And the claims about the aesthetic beauty of much of his film output is also a bit misleading, as it is like stating that television static is immanently interesting. On a quantum level, perhaps, or for a few seconds, but not film after film of the same stuff, with little variation, no immanent meaning, and really poor narrative. What say you? Poor narrative? Yes, despite his acolytes’ claims that Brakhage is a non-narrative artist, all art has a narrative of one form or another- the lack of seeing it is a failure in the critic. It’s just that the narratives are so poor or fragmentary that most critics take the easy copout of declaring the art non-narrative, even as its narrative devolves to static. Yet, this is a classic defense used by defenders of non-narrative (or even non-representational) art. Notice how defensive critics always describe the art in narrative or representational terms- i.e.- it’s like the flux of an atomic shell, it’s like the motion of _____, etc. Take the aforementioned The Dark Tower. Cutting through all of Camper’s bullshit, I stated the narrative:
darkness in the middle of a black palette, surrounded by color bursts. The middle darkness disappears for a while, returns, and the film ends in color bursts
Now, what most critics mean when they talk about non-narrative art, like this film or Abstract Expressionist paintings, is that there really is no theme nor metaphor, not that there is no narrative. And we’ve seen that Brakhage and Camper have desperately tried to graft a larger narrative from the Byron poem and Camper’s descriptions of the struggle between darkness and light. But that is, as stated, addenda with little relation to the art as thing. At best, it is tenuous theme and metaphor, but I’ve already shown that to be a bankrupt idea. But, that does not obviate narrative. Here is the narrative, again:
Now, recall how I mentioned Yoko Ono’s dot, and the thought experiment of filming the dot, and making a little film of it? Well, that hypothetical film (which I’m sure actually exists with many filmic authors in the archives of many film schools around the world) also has a narrative. Here it is:
black dot on a white page. Again and again till film’s end
Now, while I will grant that these works of art do have narratives, the fact is that they are simply not compelling nor deep nor interesting narratives. Seen without exegesis or apologia, we can see that works such as this, Abstract Expressionism, single word poems, ‘poems’ consisting of visuals, etc., all have narratives. They simply are bad narratives, of one sort or another. Art, to be art, must communicate highly. If there is no grand idea to be communicated and there is no skill in communication, is it art? Perhaps, if one is generous, but is most certainly bad art or failed art. And I won’t even delve into the obvious correlations of such claims with the assorted forms of mental illness that also try to graft meaning from nothing. So, I have disposed of things such as the criticism of intent (aka the intentional fallacy) and the idea of non-narrative art, for, as shown, art is communication, and to communicate, stasis must be obviated, and any such non-static state necessitates motion in space or time or mind, and thus forms, like it or not, a narrative- even if dull or trite. And this is where a film like The Dark Tower fails, even if we accept all of the artist’s and acolyte’s claims for it: it has a trite title and explanation with vague linkage to a bad poem, so, as such, it says very little for Brakhage’s mind’s ability to be visionary, much less even an interesting artist.
But, I’ve been dealing mostly with the more abstract, later works of Brakhage. Let me turn toward earlier films. The earliest film in the DVD is 1954’s Desistfilm, which has a cacophonous soundtrack laid over black and white images of young people partying. This nearly seven minute long film (in some ways a likely precursor to horror films like Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls and George Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead, as well as the short films of Guy Maddin), has a more complex narrative than the later films, and is also far more visually interesting for it actually plays off images of its own making. In other words, there is contrast, which helps develop narrative complexity. Nothing much happens in the film, save drunkenness and violence, yet even in this early film, Brakhage belabors images and points far too much and long. Its problem is not, as in the later films, that Brakhage simply has nothing to say nor show, but that he simply is not very adept nor skilled at showing it. This lack of technical skill (often alibied for by acolytes as the artist ‘resisting’ the dominant art form or style, even as he has shown no ability to master what he rebels against) is commonplace in the arts. A good example, indeed, comes from the Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Rothko, as well as earlier avant-garde painters like Georges Braque and Paul Klee, whose pre-stylized works were often derivative, at best, and amateurishly poor, at worst. Unlike greater artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, it could reasonably be argued that the reason these lesser artists migrated into the realms they did was simply to stake out new ‘territory’ where their lesser skills would not so manifestly be shown vis-à-vis their superiors. They knew, too well, that ‘originality’ is often declaimed with greater fervor for an artist’s worth than ‘quality,’ even if that ‘originality’ is of dubious quality.
As one peers at the progression of films on the DVD- hopefully a representative canon, in terms of subject matter and expression, as well as percentage related to the whole oeuvre, it seems that, like many of the above named painters, Brakhage’s simplifications of his filmic style coincided with his increase in fame; a case where, again, the mere ‘newness’ of the approach trumped the actual ‘quality’ of the art. Wedlock House: An Intercourse, the second film in the DVD package, a nearly eleven minute black and white film from 1959, is a good example of a film with potential, but poorly structured and executed. We see images of a male and female having sex (in negative), to bookend the film, with mostly dark interludes, punctuated by scenes of a male and female (presumably the negatively filmed couple) smoking, communicating, and seemingly enjoying each other, then not. It has a good narrative (relative to the other films) but it also shows the limits of Brakhage as an artist, in this particular film, and generally. First, I do not know how much Brakhage saw of early pornography, or ‘stag films’, as they were then called. But, there is nothing in his film that innovates any more than many poorly lit stag films of the 1920s through 1940s; with the exception of his use of the negative reels. But, many stag films, made by known and unknown directors- some of which are available at rarity DVD dealers or online, did much more in terms of angles of filming genitalia and penetration (yes, there were such money shots, even then, at least in the real and rare hardcore stag reels) than is attempted here, and the storylines that accompany them, while crude, and almost comical, are no less complex than Brakhage’s in this film. Now, on to the second limit of this film, one that was a happy accident. As I was typing away this last paragraph, I happened to be watching the silent film as I played a George Gershwin CD on Real Player. It was not a formal composition, rather a conglomeration medley taken from a 1920s radio program, yet the Second Prelude’s crescendos and bridges provided a very interesting soundtrack to the film’s sexuality, adding a whole new dimension that, in small ways, improved the film dramatically. And, to return to my first point, since I mentioned accidents, the fact is that many a stag film is now on such degraded film stock that some of the blemishes, blanchings, and streaks actually give the films the same sort of ‘intended’ raw quality that Brakhage sought in this and other films- to have colors, or their lack, inflict ideas into the medium. Now, while Brakhage may have intended his experiments with the film stock, and the worn quality of the stag films was accidental, I- as critic or filmic aesthete, do not care, for intent has no place in criticism. In fact, one need not only look backward, before Brakhage, to see how rather mundane Wedlock House: An Intercourse is, historically, but also look at the current proliferation of online pornography made by couples with voyeuristic instincts and no clue about where to place a camera, and many of the ill-designed and poorly lit scenes seem as if someone like Brakhage had deliberately planned them that way. And this brings up one of the facts (other that intent is meaningless) that art experts loathe- the fact that it is intellectually fatuous, to be generous, to claim that something is art, especially high art, when it can be reproduced by amateurs with swiftness and ease, often to the point that the ‘experts’ can be easily fooled. Many of the Painting World’s –isms of the last century fell to such useful hoaxes. How many times were paintings done by hoaxers like Elmyr De Hory (as depicted in Orson Welles’ F For Fake) accepted as real? How many are still out there? How many Pint-Sized Picassos are there; people (mostly children) who can produce a Pollock in a few minutes, and fool everyone into thinking they have talent? How many elephants or apes? The counterclaim is that a Pollock or Rothko ‘meant something’ by their drips or monochromes, whereas the elephant or child or forger did not. But, since the experts, themselves, are often the easiest gulled, when they are cut from the umbilical of ‘intent,’ this only reinforces the utter fallacy of their claims of artistic intent. Similarly, whether Internet pornographer, stag film pioneer, or Stan Brakhage, just where is the line crossed between deliberately poor construction, for a ‘reason,’ and ineptness due to acknowledged lack of skill? Easy, there is no line. The exact same standards apply, just as if I have a bad poem submitted to me for critique or publication, and it turns out to have been penned by a Nobel Laureate. The fact that it might be written by a seven year old, a herd of people each contributing a word, a poetaster, or a declaimed ‘genius,’ makes absolutely no difference to the finished thing’s claims for grace.
So, looking at the other films on the 2 disk DVD set (all shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio- although about a third of the films are clearly cropped a bit), and leaving aside the self-serving interviews and film commentaries by Brakhage, the first film worth mention is a multi-part film that runs just under an hour and a quarter. It is called Dog Star Man, and the sequences where the sun is filmed, and landscapes appear in filters and negatives obviously influenced 2001: A Space Odyssey’s end sequence, but so many quick cuts, so many repeated sequences, which are often layered on top of each other in succeeding sections, all become static within a few minutes. There is a minimal narrative, of sorts, although claims that it is ‘epic,’ seem to be only due to its relative length vis-à-vis the other films. But epic implies greater depth and cultural traditions aside from mere length, and this film fits none of that criteria. It also should have been about ten minutes in length, because the repletion of the solar images, the landscapes of snow and mountains, adds nothing the third or fourth time (or more) that they appear. The lack of sound really adds to the dullness, and the title adds nothing. Is it about the three named things individually? There are brief snippets of a star (the sun), a man, and a dog. So? Do they meaningfully interact? Then, the title could be seen as meaning a man from the Dog Star, Sirius, but this interpretation adds nothing. It could also be seen as meaning a dog and a starman, but what does that mean? Again, we are left with Brakhage tossing together a random soup of images, distorted or not, appending a title of unrelated provenance, and then telling the viewer that they need to sort out the mess, so that he can act smug and superior.
Another film of his, one with more potential, is the half hour long The Act Of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. To believe the description of the film, one would think there was some grand insight into the matter of life and death in this film. Instead, it is just a color film that shows corpses dissected. There are some throwaway shots meant as ‘relief,’ but overall, little is made of this material, which, is said to be part of a trilogy. Yet, a few years ago, a similar topic, and similar sort of footage, was used in a documentary film by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, called A Certain Kind Of Death. That film actually used the gruesomeness to make the viewer see more clearly, and, unlike many more mainstream documentaries, the film let its own subjects tell what the tale was. Window Water Baby Moving is a twelve minute film that depicts childbirth, reputedly Brakhage’s first wife’s birth of their first child. Having seen many such film records of birth, in health classes and at avant-garde film screenings, there is nothing special to what Brakhage offers, which again makes the claims for his status as a visionary artist quite suspect, much less his claims for ‘greatness,’ as films like this are not so much retouched downward for effect as left in sad shape for laziness. There are, however, a few nice shots of the pregnant woman that evoke the best paintings of Gustav Klimt. The Stars Are Beautiful is an eighteen minute film that has potential for humor and irony. In it, Brakhage narrates the film with assorted images meant to represent stars. But, Dr. Seuss he ain’t, as the stolid, dull, and turgid sentences of narration are made only worse by Brakhage’s monotonous and un-self-aware reading style. What could be ironic jabs at myths of creation or scientific ideas on cosmology, instead just sound like chalk grating on a chalkboard. As this narration shows, Brakhage’s childhood dreams of being a poet suggest that poetry would likely be an art form he was even worse at than cinema. The final film worth commenting on is a later piece, from the 1980s, called Kindering. In it, we see Brakhage’s grandkids (or so we are told by Camper’s footnotes) playing, and the music is discordantly out of synch with the images, but for no real effect. The kids play, the film drones on for a few minutes and ends. There simply is no point, although a filmmaker with real vision could have done something more interesting, visually, narratively, and aurally. But, like too many of his other films, this one stands naked in its pointlessness and absurd desire for acclamation, even as it offers nothing more than accidentally ruined home films of amateur suburbanites do.
The larger problem with Brakhage, as an artist, is that he simply has no idea what he is doing, despite his penchant for running off at the mouth in grand hyperbole, as exposed on the DVD commentaries and interviews, as well as in writings found online and off. Marks of clear technical incompetence are praised by acolytes as deliberate even though their ‘badness’ adds nothing to the films, despite claims to the contrary. And Brakhage often takes the tools of the trade, the techniques of art, and proposes that they are, instead, the art itself. The mere filming of a corpse, as in The Act Of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, is something that could be made into art, but as presented by Brakhage, is not art, not even documentary art. It’s a potential art piece, but that’s all. The recent death of the painter Andrew Wyeth provides a good example of a great artist who used the tools and techniques of his art, and put them into service to make art. A good example is one of Wyeth’s most famous paintings, Christina's World. Look at the lower right quadrant of the painting. Now, visually expand that quadrant into a whole canvas. Now, look at this painting by Ab Ex bad boy Jackson Pollock, called Autumn Rhythm. Now, imagine the colors in the Pollock a bit more tan and rusty, and the Pollock becomes a pretty good analogue for the lower right quadrant of the Wyeth. Yes, some of the drips lean another way, but, color match the pieces, and put the Pollock in as the lower left quadrant of the Wyeth, and what one sees is that Wyeth was using Ab Ex techniques, but in service to something deeper and larger. Whereas the Pollock’s narrative consists of drips go this way or that, the Wyeth painting, seen in bits, can potentially tell many narratives, as well as the grander narrative of the possibly crippled girl gazing toward salvation or rescue, or perhaps just longing? The Wyeth painting is the far greater work of art because a) it shows a far greater technical mastery of the art, b) it tells multiple tales on multiple levels, and c) its quality and narratives are objectively defensible, whereas the Ab Ex painting is all subjective, all based upon whatever the viewer sees, thus actually removing the main act of creation from the artist to the viewer, in an attempt to insulate the art from criticism, lest one denigrate any individual’s feelings for their imbuements. Wyeth’s art is in service to a larger ideal and displays technical mastery, whereas Ab Ex paintings are infinitely malleable and show no technical mastery, lest would not be so easy that children nor animals could produce works equal to or exceeding that of the so-called masters. The larger reality is served in Wyeth, as it is in 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Certain Kind Of Death. None is served in Brakhage’s films. In fact, one can argue that the full paintings of most Abstract Expressionist works are to Wyeth’s paintings what Brakhage’s work is to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and others, for the best most Brakhage films can muster is to make for an interesting filmic opening, closing, or interlude sequence. A film like The Stars Are Beautiful shows that not only does Brakhage lack any real vision or technical skill, but he also lacks a sense of humor. Humor is a key in avoiding pretense, something Brakhage oozes from every pore. But, while I’ve discussed Brakhage’s pretense and lack of technical virtuosity, another element is clearly missing from his art, and that is any aesthetic attractiveness. The later handpainted films jar as they blur into static, but they are not really ‘beautiful.’ There is no symmetry nor grace. And this lack of symmetry is evident in the randomness of each film frame. They are not, in any sense, animated, as there is no natural flow, and the jaggedness of the film sequence is non-inviting and offputting visually, while certainly not beautiful. The more ‘narrative’ films similarly opt for the more easy shock quotient. So there is not even that to recommend Brakhage’s work. His whole worth as an artist would seem to derive from a) originality and b) influence on minor passages in the better films of better directors. But, the former claim is, as I’ve shown, just not so, as Brakhage is quite derivative, so one then has to ask, if a work or artist is highly derivative, but also claimed to be influential, what worth they have must come solely from what they add to the equation between antecedent and descendent. And this gets us back to pretense, by both Brakhage and his acolytes. In scanning through the literature on Brakhage, the arguments of his champions usually devolve down to something like this: his work is meant to be thought about, not to be judged by its content nor visuals. Yet, all art is meant to be thought of, not just experienced, but re-experienced within the mind’s-eye, since communication requires thought. And, if thinking about Brakhage’s films brings to the fore their poverty of ideation, style, and execution, then the acolytes’ retreat to their subjective claims of beauty (marginal, at best) and hermeticism is seen for what it is- all they have left to prop up their fraud. The hermeticism of Brakhage’s art is manifested again and again, not only in the work, but if one scans the online comments on blogs and commercial websites. Here is a typical comment, culled from Amazon:
‘Kudos to Criterion for putting the effort into the compilation. They did a great job. Thank you for putting in the interviews and voice-overs. Otherwise, this work would have been rather incomprehensible.’
The last sentence’s italicization is mine, but it is a key point. If one’s art needs footnotes and explanation it plainly does not work. And note, I said needs explanation. Many films have DVD commentaries, but one can understand those films sans the commentaries, even if one thinks they are good or bad. Brakhage films’ commentaries, by contrast, are superfluous because often their ‘explanation’ has absolutely nothing to do with what is onscreen. Add to that that all but three or four, that run a minute or less, are FAR too long to hold one’s attention.
But, this does not stop the Brakhage fans. His leading acolyte, Fred Camper, writes of Brakhage (in the DVD case and online) in this manner:
Stan Brakhage’s films explode with sensual beauty: bursts of color heightened by extreme contrasts in hue and shape and by stunning depth effects; more monochromatic passages of nonetheless equal intensity that sensitize one to the glories of tiny differences; nearly flat slowly changing fields of color that wave like blankets in the wind, only to be interrupted by a cut that opens up a vast space; rapid explosions of paint that seem just on the cusp of suggesting a namable object. The viewer is taken through such complexities of experience that the effect is a little like having one’s eyes flushed out.
Now, really look at what Camper says. Does it really mean anything, save
that he is obfuscating? Beauty? Generally beauty is a thing borne of symmetry,
and Brakhage’s color bursts are asymmetrical and so brief they staticize. Then
the ‘glories of tiny differences’? ‘On the cusp of suggesting a
namable object’? Really? ‘Such complexities of experience that the
effect is a little like having one’s eyes flushed out.’ Well, I really
doubt that color splatters are a particularly complex experience, given that we
get far more interesting light shows every time we rub our eyes and see
phosphenes. Camper writes:
Brakhage wants to “make you see,” a D. W. Griffith line he often cited, but with a crucial difference: his films eschew the manipulations of mainstream narrative, and instead invite you to a variety of different kinds of seeing.
Well, as I’ve demonstrated, all films have narratives, so Brakhage’s films do, and they manipulate just as any film would. The added difference is that Brakhage and his acolytres then try to manipulate the failure of the films by suggesting the lack in the art is a lack in the critic. Yet, this is nonsense, for even time lapse films are more interesting. And, if Brakhage’s real aim is to get his audience to ‘see,’ then why is so much time spent on obfuscation (or, if one wants to take it on face that Brakhage was merely deluded, then explanation)?
To watch a Brakhage film is to be profoundly alone: alone with oneself, alone in the process of discovering new things about oneself.
This is the sort of pabulum that someone states when they have no real intellectual defense of a work of art. First, all art is encountered alone. We all form ideas on a thing and then interact with others, at a later time, soon after or much later. But, the tacit assumption (or rather expectation by Camper) behind such an iteration is that Brakhage’s work does something unique and profound. It does not (as I’ve demonstated multiple times), and the work, for better or worse, tells the viewer far more about Brakhage (for the ill) than it can ever tell about the viewer. And, as stated, if one has a decent knowledge of what film trends came before and after, then it’s all too banal.
But, if the prior statements are not a dead giveaway of a con, read this:
Thus it’s especially important not to view Brakhage films in the way most are accustomed to screening videos. I would suggest trying to approximate the conditions of a cinema as much as possible. Because of the complexity and subtlety of Brakhage’s films, they prove most rewarding on multiple viewings. Persons new to his work might be better off choosing a few to see rather than trying to watch these discs straight through. Also, the room should be completely dark. One should sit fairly close to, and perhaps at eye level with or even below, the screen. The projected film image has, in its clarity and colors and light, a kind of iconic power that is key to Brakhage’s work, and it’s important to try to see whatever monitor one is viewing these films on in a similar way. Brakhage made most of his films silent because the rhythms of almost any soundtrack tend to dominate the rhythms within an image, and visual rhythms are crucial to his work. Thus the interruptions of chatting, people coming into and leaving the room, the phone ringing, and so on, can prove almost completely destructive to these films’ subtle delicacies.
Look at all these built-in caveats for the art’s failure. It actually reminds me of an old Merrie Melodies cartoon, Fool Coverage, where Daffy Duck tries to sell Porky Pig life insurance, filled in with absurd caveats, and all of them come true, forcing Daffy to have to pay out, except that he keeps adding caveats, only to have them come true. Camper’s alibis for Brakhage’s work are pure Daffy Duck, and climax here:
There is no solidity in Brakhage’s work, no fixity, no predictability, no symmetry—and when one or more of those things is present, one can be almost certain that it’s present as an intended horror, a vision of dread, as in the mirror image symmetries in Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse. His work was made in opposition to, even in terror of, the notion of the static, the fixed, the given.
Yet, as I’ve mentioned, Brakhage’s later films, which are all handpainted, become nothing BUT static. Brakhage’s being held up as a paragon of the experimental film paradigm backfires, as he is revealed as a mere epigone, for most ‘experimental’ art is not nearly as experimental as truly ‘great’ art, and is usually just a label appended for ‘lazy’ art, art that, if it has even one idea, even if mere conceit, the audience is lucky, because even that one idea is usually a banal one that is repeated ad nauseam. One need only look at the experimental non-narrative documentary-like films of Werner Herzog to see the difference between a poseur and a master like Herzog.
Of course, Camper is only the loudest and most ardent of the Brakhage acolytes. A writer named Paul Arthur, writes this, in a post on the Criterion website:
….in Brakhage films we enter into momentary perceptual transactions in which we trade unhindered assimilation of images for intensified contact with pictorial or sensory features that might otherwise go unnoticed. At the same time we register the contours of a distinct subjectivity that regards the world-through-the-camera in an idiosyncratic, frequently revealing manner.
Aside from the fact that Arthur’s prose is self-consciously didactic and dilettantish, the fact is that what he writes is true for, and describes, ANY film, but it is stated here as if it is unique to Brakhage’s work. It’s not. So, if the criticism is utterly generic, it has no relevance, for it applies to all and no films simultaneously.
Let me end this piece by briefly comparing Brakhage’s films to that of another well known avant-garde filmmaker, Chris Marker. Whereas Brakhage's films are often interesting ideas, mostly silent, that could work as portions of a larger film- interludes, or credit sequences, or even old fashioned intermissions, they fail as unique works themselves. By contrast, Marker’s films are not only more experimental, but more experimental on multiple levels, as he played not only with visuals, but narrative, and actually engaged his audience, without foisting off the bulk of the totality of his art onto their shoulders. Brakhage’s films, by contrast, seem like tools for hire, not the things those tools could make. Having seen many Warhol Factory films, and the like- going back from the silent era to late 20th Century ‘experimental films’ shown at garage theaters to modern Internet videos, Brakhage’s work simply does not hold up. They have a juvenile, ‘Look at me, I’m so cool, mom,’ quality to them, as well as being open to almost infinite interpretations; and while multiple interpretations often means a work has a good deal of creativity behind it, infinite interpretations means the work has almost no creativity behind it, and it is therefore not trying to truly communicate a thing.
By contrast, Chris Marker’s films, such as La Jetee, seen here, are so challenging and rewarding that they actually do ‘enter into momentary perceptual transactions in which we trade unhindered assimilation of images for intensified contact with pictorial or sensory features that might otherwise go unnoticed.’ How? Well, aside from a few seconds of footage, La Jetee is composed solely of still images. But, after watching the film, try to remember individual scenes and moments, and your mind will actually make the still images attain motion. The film relies on the brain’s natural impulse to fill in visual blanks to give motion to the unmoving pictures, and that reality is a far deeper achievement than any of the Brakhage films on this DVD come close to doing. And I won’t even go into many of the narrative depths and novelties the Marker film employs, for the conceptualization and execution are so far beyond anything Brakhage did, at least on this DVD selection. In fact, many online filmmakers have long surpassed the visuals of Brakhage’s art- by their skill, imagination, and cyberskill, so, all we are left with to support his ‘genius’ claim is the supposed provenance of the films- that he handpainted them; as if this is a boon to the mediocrity and banality (at best), a point I have shown is meaningless to the art of the thing. Marker’s work, however, give one enough to be a co-creator, and rewards the viewer for their efforts. Brakhage’s films are more like a glint that you might notice, then move on from-, for they staticize, even as they limn the limits of how far from real and genuine communication they veer, whereas Marker made a new language in his mix of static visuals and reworked narrative techniques.
And this dull stasis is all that Brakhage has to offer his viewers. As a critic who detests the brain-dead fodder proffered by most Hollywood studios, and someone who knows that books can’t outHollywood Hollywood and Hollywood can’t outvideogame the videogame industry, I welcome art that does not subscribe to such Lowest Common Denominator trends. But this work is the other end of the spectrum, for Brakhage goes to the ridiculous other extreme, playing the dilettante artist who scorns art that actually connects with an audience, and imparts real meaning and depth. To artists like this, across fields and genres, to connect in any way with a decent sized audience is seen as politically selling out or artistic compromise (and I hate such silly maxims as all art is political, for- aside from the inherent illogic- to say such is to say that art is trivial because politics is so minor a human endeavor). Brakhage did neither, but neither did he create real art, which is the high communication of ideas for into enlightening and entertaining usage. He created wannabe art as fetishism. His is also a minor art (if granting it arthood) that is based in emotion, not intellect, and emotion based art is mono-dimensional, and satisfies only the emotions, and only sometimes, when the percipient is emotionally on. Intellectually based art, which is multivalent, however, when it is good or better, always satisfies the mind, which subsequently gratifies the emotions, as well, so it is deeper, broader, better than that which shoots only for emotional reactions.
If you doubt this, then reread this essay, especially the quotations from Brakhage’s own supporters, for they vividly demonstrate what I have just laid out. Liking or disliking an artwork puts the critique of it on a subjective axis, whereas real criticism acts on the axis of objective good or bad quality. I love some bad art (Richard Brautigan’s poetry) and do not like some good or great art (Robert Frost’s poetry and Ingmar Bergman’s films), but my whims are not defensible. My intellectual rigor and cogitation is. Condescension and thinking far too little of the audience is almost always a giveaway of bad art, and Brakhage’s work fits this bill. Art that looks up (or eye to eye) at its audience generally lasts, while art that looks down on it does not. This last reason is one of the major reasons that the arts, as a whole, are in a major downward spiral, and have been so for the last quarter century of more. Part of this is due to the institutionalization of the corrupt arts-granting system that rewards not quality but connections forged in MFA programs and film schools which homogenize writers and filmmakers, the rush to the lowest common denominator bottom in a plunge for approbation and celebrity instead of quality work (i.e.- the placement of the needs or desires of the artist over those of the audience), the primacy of import being placed on mere perceived intent rather than executed extant quality, and, perhaps, most important of all, the absolute abdication of critical responsibility by arts critics. Film critics have generally been less guilty of this than other arts critics- if only because most film critics are not trying to make it as filmmakers, whereas most literary critics are, indeed, trying to make it as writers- but, in the relentless pursuit of networking over craft, they have forgotten the absolute need for honesty about art, not in art, for that critical quality helps define the very definition of art. While one can argue over the value of any particular artistic quality (a certain bit of subjectivity), the fact that real objective standards can be shown is not arguable, and great art has an objective immanent quality (and bad art has the same) that is not dependent upon mere recognition of it by me, you, nor anyone else, the same way that the quality standards of any produced thing does- be it home, automobile, restaurant food, toys, or anything else. Thus, to ask the old canard, if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?, is not only to ask the wrong question, but it is a pointless one to ask. The tree (or great artwork) is still a tree- fallen, heard, or not- and that is the point. Brakhage (like Jackson Pollock, Karen Finley, Charles Bukowski, or David Foster Wallace, etc.), and his devotees, like all bad artists (or quasi-artists), always seek to change the focus of attention away from that very point, because, if that stays in focus, it obviates all their claims to art (much less great art), and this gives cynical art skeptics all the ammunition they need to broadbrush the very few good and (even far rarer) great artists as artists of confidence, as well. And no amount of willful abstraction nor obfuscation can change that. Fortunately, good, objective, knowledgeable, and fair criticism can, has, and can do more to expose the limits of abstraction and other –isms, as well as descry the purview of cinema, experimental, abstract, or not.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]
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