Stan Brakhage, one of the most revered and prolific of American experimental filmmakers, died Sunday March 9 in Victoria, British Columbia, of complications from an infection. He was 70.
During his career, he created more than 320 films, mostly shorts, over a 51-year span, pushing the film medium’s material capabilities to an unprecedented degree.
Working at a vital creative pace up to this year, Brakhage — along with close friend and fellow avant-gardist Jones Mekas — was regarded by generations of colleagues, fans and students as the epitome of the pure film experimenter and increasingly viewed as the prime example of a filmmaker most succeeding in shifting attention of the art form from the industrial Hollywood model to a process akin to the artist in the private studio.
Like most of his peers, Brakhage had suffered up until recently from his work being too seldom screened, the result of numerous factors: a general shrinkage of press and critical coverage and less public interest in experimental film as well as the shuttering of screens and orgs that had regularly unspooled his and others work. But a new, wider exposure of his films increased with documaker Jim Shedden’s 1998 feature profile “Brakhage”; various Park City screenings of many films thanks to ex-students and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who also cast him in their black spoof “Cannibal: The Musical”); and Brakhage’s reluctant, much-delayed allowance for video release of works in his sprawling opus.
Kansas City, Mo., native was raised in an endless string of foster homes. He showed some knack for singing, but his moviegoing habit steered him toward film. Feeling stifled at Dartmouth College, where he quickly dropped out, Brakhage began his life as a personal filmmaker in Denver, where he spent most of his life and whose Western milieu he used for vivid iconic images.
His position as a Westerner very likely helped him forge a distinct identity in the small, New York-centric avant-garde film scene which began to flourish just as he was mastering his art in the early-to-mid 1950s.
His early work, such as the free-wheeling “Desistfilm” (1954) with its wild handheld camera moves, and “The Wonder Ring” (1955), commissioned by artist Joseph Cornell and capturing the abstract beauty of Gotham elevated trains, displays Brakhage’s characteristic curiosity in how the camera operates, what the lens captures, to what extent film stock itself can be pushed and manipulated, and how beauty can be found in the most unlikely sources. An exquisite example of the latter is the revealingly titled “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” (1971).
Before he was celebrated and passionately defended by Mekas in a 1961 column in “Movie Journal” as “one of the four or five most authentic film artists working in cinema anywhere, and perhaps the most original filmmaker in America today,” Brakhage had already established himself as a leading avant-garde visionary, alongside and eventually surpassing others such as Shirley Clarke, Ken Jacobs, Stan VanDerBeek and Bruce Conner.
Although his “Window Water Baby Moving” (1959) is perhaps his most widely embraced work, a brief and charming filming of his first baby being born, it was made around the same time as his more significant and powerful “Anticipation of the Night” (1958), his brilliant Parisian film “The Dead” (1960) and his most important work, the five-years-in-making feature-length “Dog Star Man” (1964), which included deliberate cutting away of film emulsion and lab printing to create many astonishing images.
Other still-startling experiments included optically printing a string of pasted moth wings (for “Mothlight”), a use of single-frame images to produce subconscious effects and, in recent years, hand-painting onto the film. Balancing his formal experiments was Brakhage’s unabashed love for home moviemaking, which included recording his family at every age and his weddings, as in “Nuptiae” (1969).
Until he and wife Marilyn moved to Victoria last year, Brakhage had been a fixture for years in Boulder, Colo., where he had lectured on film at the U. of Colorado. Though a series of health setbacks periodically slowed his output, he remained a steadfast advocate of expanding film language, which included a lifelong preference for film over video.
Besides his wife, survivors include several children.