Transforming film into visual poetry
New center preserves work of CU filmmaker Stan Brakhage, aims to be a hub for other experimental media
By Clint Talbott
Stan Brakhage loved poetry and befriended poets but considered himself a failed poet. Many experts disagreed. He was, they said, a consummate poet—one who spoke in the language of film and measured his meter in frames.
Brakhage, a longtime faculty member at the University of Colorado, is described by colleagues as the most famous visual artist to hail from Colorado. With the support of the William H. Donner Foundation, the university has established a center in Brakhage’s honor and has amassed an archive of Brakhage’s 400 films and numerous writings.
Brakhage’s friends, colleagues, admirers and former students say the center and its collection is only the beginning of an effort to preserve the work of many avant garde filmmakers.
In 2004, about a year after Brakhage had died of cancer at age 70, a New York Times film critic put it this way: “His films, which are mostly without dialogue, text or words of any kind, are more often compared to poetry than are other, presumably nearer forms of visual expression.”
With the recent establishment of the Brakhage Center for Media Studies, the works of the poet will be preserved in the history and for the future of cinema. Brakhage’s work, it is said, has influenced mainstream filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, and has even been reflected in television commercials, cartoons and MTV videos.
Daniel Boord, CU professor of film studies and director of the Brakhage Center, characterizes Brakhage’s work as a “radical departure” in film. “It’s more like poetry, and it’s more like music than the visual arts.”
Don Yannacito, a senior instructor of film studies who knew and worked with Brakhage beginning in the 1960s, concurs. Brakhage was influenced by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, early modernist poet Ezra Pound and others.
Boord joined the CU faculty a year after Brakhage’s death and resolved to honor him. “I wanted to take stock in his accomplishments and to build on that legacy by calling attention to this form of filmmaking through a symposium.”
On March 11-13, the university hosted the seventh annual Stan Brakhage Symposium, but it was the first to be held under the auspices of the Stan Brakhage Center.
The symposium was an extension of a regular salon hosted by Brakhage. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Brakhage would show films at his home or other location. He wouldn’t discuss or explain the films himself, but he would invite his guest to engage in thoughtful critiques.
Though many filmgoers might have never heard of Brakhage, they probably have seen the influence of his work, which was groundbreaking and not immediately embraced.
In the early 1960s, though, his work gained notice and acclaim. Brakhage and his first wife moved to a cabin in Lump Gulch, Colo., just south of Rollinsville, and in 1964 he completed “Dog Star Man,” later included in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress, a distinction bestowed on films of particular importance.
By 1967, Brakhage was still eking out a living but was among several “underground” filmmakers profiled in Time magazine. Time said the “husky hypochondriac” had “radically rewritten movie grammar.”
Brakhage used disparate images and neither narrative nor conventional plot lines. He scratched, colored and wrote on the film itself. He even pasted physical objects perhaps most famously in 1963’s “Mothlight,” which included the wings of moths and other insects, along with leaves and other matter.
“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, 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,” Brakhage wrote in 1963.
As The New York Times wrote on the occasion of Brakhage’s death, “The idea that the physical act of seeing could be separated—liberated even—from the shape and nature of the things seen, and from our preconceptions about them, was the basis of much of Mr. Brakhage’s art.”
What the Times did not note, however, was that Brakhage himself shunned dissections of his art and did not try to “teach” creativity.
“He steadfastly refused to teach filmmaking itself,” recalls Bill Spencer, a former student of Brakhage’s who serves on the board of directors of the William H. Donner Foundation and who helped convince that group to purchase Brakhage’s work, which was being stored by the Museum of Modern Art, and to help establish CU’s Brakhage Center.
“He taught for us, but he never taught filmmaking,” Yannacito says. “For him, the muse was part of his aesthetic and his mind.”
“He always taught you how to see,” Yannacito recalls. “He just wouldn’t do it formally. He would critique films you brought to him, sometimes viciously. … He stopped at the idea that you could teach someone how to be creative.”
One reason, Yannacito says, is that Brakhage did not seek imitators. “He wanted people to be true to themselves.”
While Brakhage eschewed artistic imitation, he remains the subject of much study.
Bruce Montgomery, faculty director of the archives at the CU Libraries and chief curator of the Brakhage Center, emphasized that the collection of Brakhage’s work in the archives is both important in itself and a foundation for a larger collection of experimental media by other artists.
With the longtime support of the Donner Foundation, the Brakhage collection was completed in 2007. Already, that collection is the most heavily used in the archives, by about a factor of four, Montgomery notes.
Like Montgomery, Spencer notes that the Brakhage Center ultimately aims to preserve significant portions of the genre. In many people’s minds, film is the pre-eminent art of the 20th century, Spencer says.
Preserving it is self-evidently important, Spencer adds. He likens failing to preserve such works of art to “letting something like a Picasso just decay in somebody’s attic.”
As Spencer says, the Brakhage Center aims to advance the preservation, research, education and exhibition in experimental media arts. “While it’s not a center about Stan Brakhage, it certainly springs from Brakhage and will go on to many other things.”
As the Times wrote in 2005, “he left behind an enormous and varied body of work, much of which seems to belong less to the history of cinema than to its future.” With help, CU keeps one eye on yesterday and another on tomorrow.
For more information on the Brakhage Center, see www.colorado.edu/FilmStudies/brakhage/center.shtml.