From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Stan Brakhage (January 14, 1933 – March 9, 2003) was an American non-narrative filmmaker. He is regarded as one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the 20th century, noted for such films as The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes.
Brakhage was born as Robert Sanders in an orphanage in Kansas City, Missouri. Three weeks after his birth, he was adopted by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage, and he was given the name James Stanley Brakhage.
As a child, he appeared on radio as a boy soprano before going to high school in Denver, Colorado and then dropping out of Dartmouth College after several months to make films. He was influenced by the writings of Sergei Eisenstein and the films of Jean Cocteau as well as the Italian neorealism movement. His first film, Interim (1952), was in the neo-realist style and had music by James Tenney.
In 1953, Brakhage moved to San Francisco where he associated with poets such as Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth. In late 1954, he moved to New York City where he associated with a number of contemporary artists, among them Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage.
Brakhage's films are usually silent and lack a traditional story, being more analogous to visual poetry than to prose story-telling. He often referred to them as "visual music" or "moving visual thinking." His films range in length from just a few seconds to several hours, but most last between two or three minutes and one hour. His films were intended to be viewed privately. Even though the earlier films were shot on 16mm, the later films were shot on 8mm. The cheaper and more accessible 8mm projectors urged Brakhage to prefer the 8mm film stock. He frequently hand-painted the film or scratched the image directly into the film emulsion, and sometimes used collage techniques. For Mothlight (1963), for example, he taped moth wings, twigs, and leaves onto clear film and made prints from it.
Brakhage's work covers a variety of subjects and techniques. Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is a record of the birth of his first child, while 23rd Psalm Branch (1966-67) is a meditation on war that intercuts footage of Colorado, where he lived, with shots of World War II. Dog Star Man (1961-64), perhaps his most famous work, features a man climbing a mountain, shots of stellar objects and more footage of his wife giving birth. It is usually read as addressing the unity of creation. The same footage was also made into a much longer film, The Art of Vision. Works from his later periods include the four-part "Faust Series" (1987-89), the four-part "Visions in Meditation" (1989-90), "Passage Through: A Ritual" (1991), and "The Vancouver Island Quartet" (1991-2002). One of his last works was the thirty minute hand-painted film, Panels For the Walls of Heaven, the last of the four Vancouver Island films. He also completed several more collaborations with musicians, including two more works with music by James Tenney, "Christ Mass Sex Dance" (1991), and "Ellipses #5" (1998).
Brakhage wrote a number of books, including Metaphors on Vision (1963), A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book (1971), and the posthumously published "Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker" (2003). He often gave lectures at universities, museums, galleries, film festivals and so on. From 1969 he taught film history and aesthetics at the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1981 taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Brakhage retired to Canada in 2002. He died in Victoria, British Columbia from bladder cancer having made almost four hundred films in all. He believed, and his doctors confirmed, that the coal-tar dyes he used to paint his films caused his cancer.
Brakhage is revered as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, and his work has had some small impact on mainstream cinema. The credits of the film Seven, with their scratched emulsion, rapid cutaways and bursts of light are very much in Brakhage's style. The concluding credits to The Jacket are an homage, the background imitating his Mothlight.
Among Brakhage's students were the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and he is featured in their student film Cannibal! The Musical. The character Stan in South Park is apparently an homage to Brakhage, in name if nothing else. The opening track of Stereolab's album Dots and Loops, "Brakhage", is also named after him.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive is currently working on the restoration of Stan Brakhage's complete film output.
By Brakhage is the title of a DVD anthology released by the Criterion Collection in 2003. The set contains the 79 minute "Dog Star Man" plus a selection of shorter works from throughout his 50 years of filmmaking, including several of the late hand-painted pieces.
- Desistfilm (1954)
- Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959)
- Window Water Baby Moving (1962)
- Mothlight (1963)
- Cat's Cradle (1964)
- Dog Star Man (1964)
- Eye Myth (1967)
- The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971)
- The Wold Shadow (1972)
- The Stars Are Beautiful (1974)
- The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981)
- Kostelansky Was Here (1985)
- Night Music (1986)
- The Dante Quartet (1987)
- Kindering (1987)
- I...Dreaming (1988)
- Rage Net (1988)
- Glaze of Cathexis (1990)
- Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1991)
- Crack Glass Eulogy (1992)
- For Marilyn (1992)
- Stellar (1993)
- Study in Color and Black and White (1993)
- Black Ice (1994)
- Commingled Containers (1997)
- The Dark Tower (1999)
- Lovesong (2001)