Avant-Garde Filmmaker Stan Brakhage Dies At Age 70
by Eugene Hernandez
Stan Brakhage, widely considered the most important avant-garde filmmaker, has died. Brakhage made nearly 400 films during his life, starting at age 19. His works, experimental in their form, range from a few seconds to a few hours. Brakhage was also a film professor, author, and lecturer. He died on Sunday (March 8) in a hospital in Victoria, British Columbia after a battle with cancer.
Stan Brakhage died with his wife Marilyn Brakhage at his side, according to publisher Bruce McPherson, who worked on Brakhage books. On Saturday, according to McPherson, he told his wife, "I've had a wonderful life. Life is great."
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1933, Stan Brakhage was raised mostly in Colorado, according to Fred Camper who maintains a valuable Brakhage web resource ( http://www.fredcamper.com/Film/BrakhageL.html ). He offered the following biographical info to indieWIRE on Monday: "Brakhage was a boy soprano who performed extensively. Interested in poetry and theater in high school, he dropped out of Dartmouth College after a few months and began to make films. He settled in Colorado in 1957, taught at several colleges including Colorado University at Boulder, and moved to British Columbia with his second wife in 2002."
Brakhage recently celebrated 50 years of filmmaking, but last year he retired from the University of Colorado as a Distinguished Professor of Film Studies and moved to British Columbia. The filmmaker's work has been sent to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for preservation, while the University of Colorado Library has, with support from the Donner Foundation, purchased new prints of all 380 of his available titles.
"His work must be considered no less than towering," said MoMA's Larry Kardish in a statement for a recent Bard College retrospective. "He's a major figure in contemporary art, the most important non-narrative filmmaker of the past two generations -- more than anyone else I can think of, he has expanded the potential of cinema."
"Brakhage's work is often said to have widely influenced commercial filmmaking (the credits of "Seven" are one example)," wrote Fred Camper in an email to indieWIRE on Monday. "But his films were very very different from mainstream work, arguably opposed to its ethos. Working mostly alone, hand-holding the camera himself, he produced highly personal works of art. Most of his films were also silent, because as he often said music or other sound tends to dominate the visual rhythms that were his focus. Many were abstract."
"I've come to like the term 'poetic film,'" Brakhage said in an interview with indieWIRE conducted by Ed Halter in April 2001. "Now there are dangers in it. Poetry is a totally different art than film. But it separates what my contemporaries and I do from the Hollywood movie, in a way that doesn't assume that one is greater than the other." Continuing, Brakhage explained, "Novelists and poets have existed side by side forever. The Hollywood movies are more like novels, and the kinds of films I make are more like poems."
Among Brakhage's best-known films were "Window Water Baby Moving" (1959), which Camper described as "a near-documentary lyrical record of the birth of his first child that also mixed up the event's chronology a bit." Also notable was "Mothlight" (1963) in which the filmmaker "collaged moth wings and plants directly onto clear tape and made film prints from that." Recently, Brakhage's work involved painting directly onto film strips, one frame at a time. His works, according to Fred Camper, "were deeply influenced by classical music, poetry, dance, and painting, mostly not through inclusion of those things in his films but by using them as inspiration for uniquely filmic forms."
The first DVD collection of Brakhage's work, a two-disc set, will be released in May by Criterion while a documentary about the filmmaker, entitled "Brakhage," was directed by Jim Shedden and released theatrically in 1998 by Zeitgeist.
Among Brakhage's writings are the books "Metaphors on Vision," "A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book," "The Brakhage Lectures," "Seen," "Film Biographies," "The Brakhage Scrapbook," "Film at Wit's End," "I...Sleeping," and "The Domain of Aura."
Brakhage taught for over a decade at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and spent about two decades as a professor of film studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He was the recipient of Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships; he had three major retrospectives of his work at the Museum of Modern Art; and he had been honored at the London Film Festival and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. His film "Dogstar Man" was named one of the 100 Most Important Films of All Time by the Library of Congress.
"I'm not so bold as to say film *is* an art, but that at least we have proven that a great many people are dedicated to trying to make it so," Brakhage said in the 2001 interview with indieWIRE. "I'd say that to the extent to which we are a hopeful art, the young people that are coming along are responding both for and against their predecessors in the normal ways. Some people are kicking against structuralism and trying to do something different. Some people are still kicking against my aesthetics or that of my generation." Concluding he said, "So there's always that kind of fuss, usually among artists with some degree of respect, because we all know that we're related to each other, and that we're making a tree here in human history that has its lineage."
Stan Brakhage is survived by his second wife, Marilyn Brakhage, his first wife, Jane Brakhage, and seven children.
[indieWIRE readers are invited to please post their memories or thoughts about Stan Brakhage in the discussion area at the end of this article.]