Jessica Helfand | Essays

Stan Brakhage: Caught on Tape

Stan Brakhage: Filmstrips from Mothlight (1963.)
Photographs by Fred Camper.

In an interview some years ago, the American director Mike Nichols was asked to explain how he had come to be so accomplished as a visual storyteller. Directing, he observed, was a lot like sex: you never actually got to watch anyone else doing it, so you were never quite sure whether you were getting it right.

While contemporary design practice is often characterized as a collective endeavor, the actual core design idea — that lightbulb aha moment — still originates in one person's brain. True, it may require more people, more technology, more hands to bring it to life, but conversely, the model of the artist in the studio — alone and focused, generating form, keenly observing — seems oddly underappreciated, probably because it is, by its very nature, such a mystery.

It is also, for that matter, my secret obsession.

Stan Brakhage: Still from Mothlight (1963.)

I read artist diaries and autobiographies as fast as I can get my hands on them. I read the obituaries online (in newspapers on several continents) first thing every morning, looking for stories that feed my habit. Over the past two years, I have also spent a fair amount of time in libraries and private collections looking at sketchbooks, notebooks, scrapbooks and personal papers, doggedly seeking those rare glimmers of certainty — fleeting indications of what a person was actually thinking while they were making something. Increasingly, I've become attuned to small gestures: the fastidiousness of a line, a chance scribble — a seemingly inconsequential, yet ultimately stunning realization about something intangible.

The American filmmaker Stan Brakhage lived a rural life in Colorado, and kept scrapbooks that combine writing, drawing, collage and poetry. There are many things to say about Brakhage, most of them already said by people far more qualified than I am on the subject of avant-garde cinema. But my interest here is less in the product than in the process that preceded it, because what's so striking about Brakhage's scrapbook is the way he sketched with found objects: the scrapbook, in this sense, became a kind of studio annex, a canvas for working out ideas that weren't quite two dimensional but weren't yet time-based either.

And along the way, if you look really closely, you start to get a sense of what he was thinking.

Working in the early 1960s with wide strips of cellophane packing tape, Brakhage captured fleeting things — among them, blades of grass, pieces of flower petals, dust, dirt and the diaphanous, decapitated wings from insects. His process revolved around using the tape to produce a series of facsimile filmstrips: wider than the elegant Super-8 that was his hallmark medium (Mothlight, a mere three minutes in length, was actually shot on 16mm) but long and geometric: they're a suite of attenuated rectangular portraits. The idea of using adhesive tape as a photographic medium (which is effectively what it is, capturing something in time on a single surface) represents the kind of visual simplicity — indeed, the sheer brilliance — of one man's indefatigable effort to visualize an idea. It is, in a word, astonishing.

Was he struck, as I am, by the sheer impossibility of duplicating the same pattern? By the tension between a membrane of sticky tape and a virtual morgue of natural forms? In page after page, you see this entire world opening up beneath a shiny veil of cellophane tape. It's a world of disembodied shapes, where life is rendered silent and inert, only to be revived into these hauntingly beautiful abstract patterns. One becomes suddenly struck by the realization that these compositions preceded his idea for them — they led, and he followed — and that the intensity of this formal exercise would not have been possible in a room full of visual people collaborating on complex problems.

Apples and oranges, you say: how can you compare the collaborative design problem to an artist making an art film? Then again, how can't you?

Sometimes I ask my students, when they're stuck, how much money they have to get through the day. Once we deduct how much they need to eat, I send them to the art supply store down the street and instruct them to buy something they've never seen before, and to use it. The results are always surprising. They take a hiatus from the computer. Stranded, they are obliged to work differently, to think differently — and to see differently. And it is this act of tacit dislocation, this forced hiatus from one's habitual methods that refocuses the brain and refreshes the eye. I don't know how artists do it, all alone every day in the studio, but I do know this: there is a kind of fundamental discipline to seeing and thinking and making truly original work that many of us are losing. And we need to get it back.

The artist in the studio lives a life of intense isolation, yet one which by its very nature produces work that resonates with broader meaning and relevance. By conjecture, this kind of work benefits immeasurably from the imposed solace of the studio, an environment that begets its own fierce concentration. For Stan Brakhage, that concentration resulted in extraordinary explorations of many things, including the life cycle of a moth, caught on adhesive strips of tape, and subsequently captured on film where it regained — however briefly — the magnificent illusion of mobility. For designers, faced by budgets and clients and deadlines, the luxury of so much isolation seems a distant, if not an altogether perverse paradigm. But are these intentions really so mutually exclusive? The more I dig through artists papers and sketchbooks, the more I look — really look — at bodies of work produced in technology-independent, collaboration-free environments, the more I remain fundamentally unconvinced.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Media

Comments [17]

When Brakhage died in 2003, from a cancer that was likely brought upon by the materials he had been working with, in his obituary it was speculated that in the distant future he might be remembered as the greatest artist of the 20th Century. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen his work--and if you're interested, Criterion has a great collection of it--would probably tell you its quite the treat.

His work is hard to watch; its not music video stuff. Everything he did was totally silent. But that only enhanced the hypnotic trance the visuals lulled you into. Not everything he did was as pleasant as Moth Light or Commingled Containers. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is STILL unwatchable for most people (the title is the literal translation of "autopsy"...you can figure out the rest).

All told, Brakhage made about 400 films in his lifetime. 400! That's remarkable! Its more than the handmade craft of his work; its the raw curiosity he had about what it's like to be alive. The curiosity is priceless--you can't teach it, but you can foster it. In Brackhage's work, there's no pretense. No fashion. No grandiose proclamations. Just sheer, confrontational beauty.

What do we need to get back? We need to get back the joy of creating, of wondering. And we need to ditch the desire for fame and recognition that so often characterizes much of the "art" world.
Brad Gutting

Netflix has a few Stan Brakhage dvds, including the two disc anthology, and a 1998 documentary. Great stuff.

Onur Orhon

FABULOUS post; very enjoyable read, and I absolutely LOVE your blog. Mind if I add you to my blogroll?
Design for Mankind

Brakhage! I showed Mothlight in class the other day and the students just didn't know what to say (except that one of them had seen Mothlight before in another class...). BTW, I love the interviews with Brakhage on the Criterion DVD; he's very articulate, not to mention rather likeable on camera. At one point he talks about the way we're all conditioned by narrative cinema, and Hollywood in particular; how it's so emotionally manipulative - hence the potential liberation of communing with experimental film instead. (Maybe that's what I should have said to my students before playing one of his films.) Thanks Jessica!
Matt Soar

Many years ago Brakhage and his first wife came to my home in Montreal and showed some of their extraordinary films to a class I was teaching at McGill University. To this day, I have not met anyone with his capacity to "visualize" both the world and the metaphors he loved. "Window, Water, Baby Moving" his film about the birth of his first child moves me to tears whenever I watch it.
Ron Burnett

This short interview transcription was just released by the independent label Hallso

Thanks for this post! I was unfamiliar with Stan Brakhage's work, but he's on my netflix list now.

Hi- love the note about how you keep your students inspired and thinking about the most simple change in approach to encourage fresh thinking. --from a recent grad/new employee

Jessica - your post on Brakhage and artistic process prompted me to reread your essay Cult of the Scratchy. I have a sense that while folks like Kyle Cooper and David Carson might be guilty of relying too heavily on fashionable mannerisms, Brakhage seems somehow immune to this criticism, but why? Is it because he wasn't a designer, but an Artist? Because he made films for himself? Because he had a consistent artistic vision that sustained him throughout his life? Because he literally worked 'hands on' with his medium of choice? Because he had a more profound sense of purpose? Maybe the comparison isn't all that useful or even fair, but surely Cooper's title designs (especially for Se7en and Mimic) - and other exemplars of the cult of the scratchy - wouldn't have been thinkable if not for the work of experimental filmmakers like Brakhage.
Matt Soar

Like Stan Brakhage? Go to Ubu Web for film, radio broadcasts and lectures. Absolutely great resource for Avant Garde film, sound, art, design, typography and more. http://www.ubu.com
Mark Kaufman

Cheers! I think addressing exploration/investigation and thinking and not fame is just what is needed. Very difficult to teach however in the day of Cult Celebrity. Ahhh, the good ole days, when your tools were celaphane tape, a blade and some found junk. No upgrades, the boundaries were rigid, the results much more inventive.

Computers, they gloss over your time and soul.
Mark Shepherd

To me Stan was one of the only geniuses I can really idolize. He was a family friend, and has been a true inspiration to me. In my opinion, a completely unpretentious maker, and truly a historical figure. Obviously there's more to Stan than this article, but thanks so much for giving him a place here,
Nick S.

Elegantly expressed series of beautifully quiet musings. The info on Brakhage aside, also informative but it almost got in the way of the writer's charm. Cheers. Nicely done. Blowhards take note.

Brakhage seems somehow immune to this criticism, but why? Is it because he wasn't a designer, but an Artist? Because he made films for himself? Because he had a consistent artistic vision that sustained him throughout his life? Because he literally worked 'hands on' with his medium of choice? Because he had a more profound sense of purpose?

Matt, I think it's all of this and more. Note your capital a in "Artist" to the little d in "designer" — we tend to perceive sustained artistry as a pretension or an indulgence, but we might do better to think of it as a methodology that makes for better work. Yes, as you rightly point out, those who embraced the cult of the scratchy may have been influenced by the formal explorations in his early films, but what's striking about Brakhage is his obsessive, and consummately visual, and deeply human way of making form. And he did this as a result of looking closely at the world around him, sketching, writing, taking pictures, saving debris — he never stopped. A model for us all.
jessica helfand

I first learned of Brakhage as a graduate student taking experimental film. I love his work. Very inspiring.

This post is very timely, too, as I'm about to take a course on 16mm filmmaking. Thanks for reminding me....

AMAZING, Thanks so much for this!!

french & fresh

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