Stan Brakhage: The Pioneering Experimental Filmmaker


The things that Stan Brakhage was able to do with the cinematic medium have been endlessly dissected, replicated and revered by film fans as well as scholars. Over the course of more than 50 years, Brakhage experimented with a wide spectrum of techniques and genres while making his extensive oeuvre which foregrounded the visual power of cinema and ended up changing the cinematic experience forever.

Born in Missouri in 1933, Brakhage spent the first three weeks of his life in an orphanage under the name of Robert Sanders before he was adopted. Growing up, Brakhage was interested in music and sang on multiple occasions while forming an intellectual group in school which included future directors and music composers as well. In fact, one of those friends – James Tenney – would go on to score his directorial debut.

Despite getting the opportunity to attend Dartmouth on a scholarship, Brakhage wasn’t interested and ultimately dropped out to make his first film at the tender age of 19 called interim. He moved to San Francisco and tried to continue his education but he ultimately decided to ditch it all. Relocating to New York City, Brakhage was introduced to other pioneers such as Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas along with experimental artist Marie Menken whom he cited as the biggest influence on his life.

As he traversed the landscape of expression through cinema, Brakhage was drawn to the works of masters like Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Cocteau as well as important developments in film history such as the neorealism movement in Italy. However, when he translated his vision of cinema to celluloid, it had a wholly unique quality to it. That’s partially why many of Brakhage’s early works were dismissed during exhibitions.

When he was starting out, it was undeniably difficult for him and he is even reported to have considered committing suicide at one point. Brakhage began to mature as an artist by realizing that the experimental spirit existed within him and the only way he could highlight that was by rejecting the external exigencies of cinematic drama. That revelation marked a turning point in his life which brought him more recognition in the ’60s.

One of Brakhage’s quotes has always stuck with me and never fails to bring about a rush of self-conscious understanding. “I am the most thorough documentary filmmaker in the world because I document the act of seeing as well as everything that the light brings me,” he once said in a very profound way. While most filmmakers were concerned with what the audience was seeing on the screen, Brakhage made up his mind to explore how we processed the images.

This preoccupation with the act of seeing is evident throughout his incredibly complex filmography. Whether it was the unconventional documentation of the birth of his own child in Window Water Baby Moving or the cosmic investigations of the human condition in Dog Star ManBrakhage managed to construct an unprecedented framework through which it was possible to trace the establishment of new dialectics.

Through the usage of avant-garde editing, scratching alongside an entire library of visual techniques, Brakhage didn’t just weave together a new language for cinema but an alternate epistemological phenomenon. The contrast between the silence in most of his films with the vociferous, politico-philosophical noises of the images he constructed was cinematic congruity at its finest.

Brakhage had only realized that films were capable of being vehicles for artistic originality when he had seen Cocteau’s Orpheus for the first time and was mesmerized by its poetry. By the end of his own career, Brakhage became one of the most prominent practitioners of visual poetry which invoked meditations on human mortality and sexuality among other issues that have haunted audiences ever since they laid their eyes on his work.

He passed away in 2003 after being diagnosed with cancer a few years back which had been operated on but returned anyway. The cinematic medium had given Brakhage a new life but his experiments ended up causing his tragic demise as his doctors later confirmed that his cancer had been brought on by the toxic dyes he used for the purposes of making the visual effects he had pioneered.

To this day, Brakhage is rightfully regarded as one of the foremost innovators in the history of cinema and have influenced a wide variety of filmmakers, ranging from Martin Scorsese to South Parks Matt Stone and Trey Parker. However, the academic, as well as the popular discourse around his films, was something that Brakhage felt was excessive as he preferred them when they were relegated to obscure realms of existence.

“It has taken me a whole lifetime of hard work to get to the point of just making a film,” Brakhage mused. “The irony is, that as I get there, I don’t know what to say about it. I now treasure those works about which people don’t write anything or even remember having seen because those are films that exist in a realm which defies the verbal. They are films that are given about wholly to the unconscious.”

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