Sunday, June 13, 2010

Maggie 2010: By Brakhage

#79. By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One

Never have I been so thankful not to have a formal film studies education. To be spared the risk of a professor putting on the Criterion Collection piece, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One and thereafter, in some capacity, asking the mind-numbing question, "Now what do you think the artist was trying to tell us?" -- to eschew, that is, a discourse of meaning for one of raw experience -- in this case makes me feel especially fortunate.

My own background in poetry, personal more than formal academic, helps. This film is poetry, of a school that in words manifests as the post-avant world of giants like John Ashbery and Ron Silliman. I draw this parallel because the instinct is to reach for words that describe directly what Stan Brakhage, epitome and acclaimed genius of the then-emerging avant garde film community, is doing throughout the carefully sequenced programs in this anthology. But I have seen other reviews fall into this trap, creating trajectories of meaning and causality, and I have seen the damage that sort of absolutism does to its subject matter. "Brakhage introduces X images and devices in Y film to comment on Z," the worst seem to go. No, no, and no.

So let me draw instead upon the literary tradition of indirect description. I wonder to myself, in watching By Brakhage, how can the avant garde be so accessible? To watch By Brakhage at home, alone in the dark, is often to long for the shared viewing space of an old-school projection room, the clamour of the film reels whirring in their mounts, the trembling racket of the motor, the scuffing of shoes, the sniffling and occasional coughs from fellow attendees. This isn't to say Brakhage's silent works cry out for sound: rather, they elegantly anticipate it. That is to say, they leave room for viewers to become more perfectly aware of their own presence, their very existence, in the course of the viewing experience. Between Brakhage's use of colour, negative space, shape, shadow, and movement, one would expect the absence of narrative arc (refreshingly toyed with at times in the form of disordered and repeated title frames like "Part One," "The End," "Part Two," "Part Three," "Part Three") to madden and incense the average film-goer. And yet, here, under Brakhage's artful direction, I don't suspect it would. This anthology, to my great surprise, is an eminently accessible window into the avant garde.

So again I ask myself how, while watching repeated images of a man struggling to climb a mountain, autopsy footage, the intimate details of the director's first child's birth, and above all the bursts of estranged colour, shape, and minute, proximate detail that populate Brakhage's films. "How can avant garde be so accessible?"

In answer, I switch media. I recall reading a news story last year about how decidedly ancient the story of Little Red Riding Hood truly is. After studying 35 versions from around the world, cultural anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani found he could trace the story back 2,600 years, with around 70 possible variables in plot and character throughout the ages. This was a far cry from the pre-existing origin story, which held instead that the tale had emerged in France just a little before the 17th Century.

What struck me about this news story was the meaning then offered up by a professor Jack Zipes, an expert on fairy tales and their origins, who suggests that folk tales may have helped people pass on tips for survival to new generations. That there are so many variants of the same, core story here suggests that Little Red Riding Hood thus prevailed because its message and themes were universal.

So too, I would have to argue, is Brakhage. There is simply no way to sustain the kind of cinematic devices he does, for as long as he does, in the varied and yet often repetitive ways that he does, if his work had not, at its essence, struck upon such vibrantly universal human threads. Yes, there is a strangeness to the light his films cast upon the world. But that strangeness arises from the fact that, in watching his films, we realize we've carried that strangeness with us all along.


Larry Gross said...

Dear Maggie:
Thank you for the many perceptive comments in this post on Brakhage's films. But your condescending denigration of academic film-studies and its presumed incapacity to enhance appreciation of cinema aesthetics misses the mark badly, especially in regard to Brakhage. Starting with P. Adams Sitney's magnificent Visionary Film, Brakhage's enterprise has been the object of an exceptional amount of brilliant description and analysis,by a succession of academically trained/ informed writers, including Annette Michelson, Paul Arthur and Fred Camper. And those are only the three best I can name off hand after Sitney. Indeed, I can think of few film makers in film history who have received so much significant and useful academic attention, analysis and description. Are there film-makers out there that the academy has distorted/and or gotten wrong: Absolutely! But Brakhage surely doesn't happen to have been one of them. It's wonderful that you got to your delicate perceptoin of Brakhage through your own self-created route of reading and study--to each their own route to aesthetic bliss! But don't shut down the possibility that others reading and appreciating your post, might benefit from others whose method and background are different.

Larry Gross

MLClark said...

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your response. I am sorry my original post was interpreted as a denigration of film studies to your eyes, but I feel you are responding to an entirely different sense of how the film studies curriculum intersects with this post.

You speak from the vantage point of excellent academic discourse emerging around Brakhage, and I wholeheartedly agree that this enlightened discourse not only exists but also thrives. The only mention I made specifically to film analysis in a negative light was the attempt of general reviewers to make sense of his collections. I do not consider this at all in the same class of rigourous peer-reviewed academic analysis, and thought as much would be clear simply in my use of the word "review" in the original post, in conjunction with the nature of both this blog as a whole and the discrete instances of other film reviews therein. Perhaps I was mistaken in that assumption; or perhaps my review was such that you perceived it to rise above the normal range for film review, and so entered into that higher critical discourse unbeknownst to its creator (in which case, I am flattered, and will remain mindful of that possibility in future film response on this site).

What my opening comparative was instead meant to invoke was the very common experience (perhaps more readily recalled by persons in closer proximity to their own formal educations) of tiring of a work, retaliating against the acclaimed genius of a work, or ultimately finding a work too rudimentary simply as a consequence of the imposed intensity of close study that emerges in academic environments. This happens with works of literature, it happens with philosophical and behavioural-based quandaries, it happens with political theory treatises and policy silos. In my experience, as well as in the observation of others who from time to time also find themselves reactive to an object of study solely due to their regular proximity to the work in question, the best medicine for this common happenstance is often preventative: to have had one's own, distinct experience set with the material prior to its manifestation in a classroom setting. There is, however, a considerable Catch-22 afoot here, which essentially reduces to the realization that one cannot mandate personal experience. As such, considerable luck of the draw is involved in the selection by any individual of material for personal, experiential pleasure that may later fall in the purview of a formal curriculum. And that sense of luck, of good fortune, was precisely the sentiment I came away with when viewing By Brakhage: by engaging first with the work on an experiential level, I now feel better protected against the aforementioned, exceptionally common consequence of good, close analysis of a work.

I sincerely hope this better clarifies the stance with which I engaged the act of reviewing By Brakhage. I am most assuredly not anti-academic, and absolutely believe in the ability of film studies courses to, as you say, "enhance appreciation of cinematic aesthetics" -- but it's precisely the nature of that term, "enhancement," which, by implying a pre-existing state of film awareness that can then be enhanced in formal study, makes me exceedingly partial towards valuing in turn the good fortune (when it strikes!) of having a foundational first experience of a new work or aesthetic outlook that is entirely one's own.

Best wishes,

Maggie Clark

Larry Gross said...

Dear Maggie:
Thank you for your detailed thoughtful reply.

I''m giving the game away when I say that I had seen some Brakhage for the first time, in (gasp) 1970 and totally been able to connect to it. (I was 17 at the time)

I had in terms of my own education at the time, zero art history and almost zero twentieth century American poetry of the Pound, Williams, Olson, Creeley etc. tradition that had so much of an impact on Brakhage.
In 1971-72 I had the astonishing good fortune (life changing for me really, nothing less melodramatic will do) to participate in a small seminar P. Adams Sitney gave at Bard College where I was a sophomore, in which he laid out his fundamental ideas about Brakhage. Luckily, in that particular iteration, Sitney was also working through his own complicated indebtedness to the literary critic/professor Harold Bloom (who had yet to publish anything really important yet but with whom Sitney had a close link)--in any case, Sitney "read" Brakhage in connection with Wallace Stevens--and this time I was ready. I was reading Stevens on my own for the first time at that time and the top of my head was coming off from a completely different place. The work opened up and I not only came to admire it enormously, but to learn some painful lessons about needing a certain kind of preparation in order for some work to be adequately appreciated.

Sitney used a particular phrase to describe the framework of short lyrics by Brakhage, principally Riddle of Lumen, Siriius Remembered and The Dead (a phrase he derived from reading Stevens) he suggested that Brakhage replaced narrative causality with a poetic process whereby the film --like a Stevens poem-- "tested an image..." presenting a succession of test cases examining whether or not an image could be commensurate with cognitive-emotional experiences it sought to represent. Suddenly the films made sense.

This notion of a visual structure that involves a subtly systematic "testing" of an image, has kept on reverberating for me for almost 40 years as a way of describing what difficult original fimmakers of all kinds are doing, not just Brakhage. (the notion works I believe fairy obviously, for the lyric cinema of Malick and in a different way the analytic cinema of Godard) So you could say in this case for me, an academic's descriptive vocabulary became a foundational first experience.

This is more convoluted autobiography than I'm sure you wanted to hear. The question of how why and when any of us have got the context to read --or not be able to read--demanding original work is a mysterious and vexing one. Context is a disconcertingly
strong factor in anyone's response to anything (anyone whose watched their own reactions to new work, manically ebb and flow during a film festival's highs and lows, has an obvious and emphatic experience of this). I do think that it is one of the strange disconcerting parts of "learning" demanding new work ithat one has to either subsequently or retroactively create discover previous "foundational" experiences if it's going to make sense.

The more you have the capacity to internalize something new the more enigmatically enough, your past changes.

any way, thanks again for your clarification and thoughts.