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Stan Brakhage with Pip Chodorov

Portrait of Stan Brakhage (inspired by Friedl Kubelka's photo of the artist). Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Stan Brakhage (inspired by Friedl Kubelka's photo of the artist). Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

In February 2003, I had the opportunity to transcribe the audio recordings that Pip Chodorov had taped for his film, A Visit to Stan Brakhage, a brief, 15-minute portrait film of the great American avant-garde filmmaker, commissioned for French television. The interview was to be Brakhage’s last. At the time, I had known that Brakhage was ill, but listening to the tapes I began to doubt the extent of his illness. His voice was vital, even forceful at times. He laughed frequently. And with great patience—with a touch of weariness perhaps, for later I learned that the clarity of his speech had been compromised by the medications he was taking—Brakhage made the case for cinema he’d been making in over four hundred films for the past fifty-two years: the case for a personal cinema, visual poems of pure light, the reaches of vision itself.

In the interview’s final question, Brakhage was asked if he could find a continuous theme throughout all his works. He paused deeply, the first and only time during the interview that his tremendous outpouring ceased. Gently, he avoided the question. It seemed that he had grown tired, or perhaps didn’t wish to reveal himself. I was wrong. Moments later, Brakhage rebounded in a joyful song, and gave of himself in an altogether different and moving way. Singing, he exclaimed, “I can’t give you anything but love, baby!”

The following interview took place at Stan and Marilyn Brakhage’s home in British Columbia on January 4-8, 2003, two months before his death.—Genevieve Yue

Chodorov (Rail): Could you read these opening lines from your 1963 book, Metaphors on Vision, and expand on them and explain how these ideas influenced your filmmaking?

Stan Brakhage: Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective. What a way to take it. Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective. Our whole structure of visual thinking is based on manmade laws of perspective and so on! But imagine! I say in my youth, 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. In other words everything you see, you have to be having an immediate adventure with it. It’s not canned in any sense. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of green? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? In other words, can we actually see the rainbow at all unless we’re squeezing the eye in that particular way that causes that diffraction? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? In other words, can you really see the quivering, the actual quivering little wavelets through which every little shaft of light is, you know, feathered onto your consciousness? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects, imagine it just alive with things we don’t know what they are, incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movements, everything moving. There’s not a moment of stillness anywhere and innumerable gradations of color. I mean, you start naming the different shades of, let’s say, these pants, blue-black? Are they gray-black? Are those socks then black-black? You have all these varieties…Here’s a blue…And you start naming: is this Prussian blue? Is this cobalt blue? Is this navy blue? And those are just blunt gradations, names that are given, and you can go on and on and on and you run out of words, finally. You’d end up with a dictionary full of words trying to delimit and otherwise describe a quality of blueness, very shortly, just along the line of these black pants and black shirt and black socks on this quilt which I will make no attempt whatsoever to try to describe. [laughs]

Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.
Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.

And all that shimmering and movement and gradations of color, imagine a world before—this is the point—imagine a world before the beginning was the word. [Max the cat enters] Hey that was a good entrance, cat! [laughs] Look at the shimmering across that cat’s body. It’s just absolutely incomprehensible that at some point I became aware of that. Look at the brown blacks and the sheen of the blue black coming up, bouncing off. Look at how he enrobes himself, Max the cat, with the beauty of all that gradation. Without giving it a thought, how do I know what he’s thinking. Huh? You like that Maxie-moo? All that massive, shimmering, feathery, fragile, splintering, weaving, unweaving, revolving world in which we move and live, I began to be aware of it in some overwhelming sense so I could no longer disregard it. I could no longer just take a shot. I could no longer do a take. I could no longer steal in that simple sense in which I always had, like any filmmaker. I could no longer shoot.

Now, you can only do that if you’re using film, if you’re using what all the light is bouncing off of all around you and you’re using it in order to tell a story or something like that, something that film is ill-equipped to do. Film is so distractive in all the things that it presents as a possibility of recorded busy-ness that it’s ridiculous in a way to chop it down to a love story. I always liked best what Hollis Frampton said (a great filmmaker, Hollis Frampton, a teacher and an aesthetician as both of us hoped to be). He said the whole history of Hollywood movies, any movies, was comparable to birdsong. He discovered after years of listening to the birds that there are only five things that birds say, and he discovered that there are only five things that movies do. They say “Good morning!” “I found a worm.” “Love me.” “Get out!” “Good night.” And then there were variations of these. Some films, it was primarily “get out”—that’s what most gangster movies seem to be—but also it was “love me” woven in there. At any rate, you were telling every kind of movie that ever could possibly be conceived of or thought of, narrative or dramatic. You can see that film is ill-equipped to deal with that. Why? Because film is so many other things! You just open your eyes and you see what an overload you’re dealing with and in the midst of that overload you’re supposed to do such delicacies as “get out” and “love me”? No, forget it! They would be buried in a shimmering mass of…. But of course, by the bluntness of the film stock itself, by the limitations of humans, all these sensibilities have been shoved through machinery. They’ve broken it all down to something that can indeed be made into a movie.

But that was no longer interesting for me to be doing. I mean, my life was in too much of a crisis. I couldn’t think of a reason to get up in the morning. Couldn’t think of a single reason, my childhood had been so wretched. Well, everyone’s childhood is but that didn’t help me, to realize that not only me, but everyone else was suffering the same indignation and horror. I was born in a natural condition of, you know, the Heart of Darkness. Oh, the horror, the horror! It’s perfectly clear to me and I don’t need any buffer–bufferting, by T.S. Eliot. [laughs] Oh, I don’t want to start criticizing Apocalypse Now, which was after all a good faith attempt to say something about the war, one of the very few until Malick came along with A Thin Red Line. Coppola was really the only one who attempted to deal with war in the prose movie way that he did.

I early learned that I was not going to be able to do this kind of movie because I was aware of all these things that I just read in this opening statement. The simpler way in which I found it out was I went to Hollywood and I had an actual way to get a job there. I had what every young person dreams of, a literal letter of entrée through some actors that I met in Central City, Colorado, Wendell Correy, Paul Douglas, Jan Sterling, and finally, via them, Charles Laughton. And the week I arrived in Hollywood to get that job, to carry a chair or whatever you do when you start in Hollywood, Charles Laughton got drunk with me and a couple of people and said, “Get out of Hollywood! Get out, it will kill you, it will destroy you!” It was a whole ugly night, between his lurching to the john and the pissoir, and the vomit smell on his breath and the horror and the anger over having accomplished, to me, one of the few great narrative films of Hollywood history, Night of the Hunter, and having had that taken away from him. Having made that film and then to see it fail at the box office. (It fell out just that week I arrived in Hollywood.) It was his chance to do The Naked and the Dead, one of the more interesting books of the Second World War, Norman Mailer’s great book. So there I was, drunk in a booth at the Turnaround Theater with Charles Laughton, being given every reason, as if I needed any, for giving up the whole course of narrative drama.

The letters had actually gotten me a job with Alfred Hitchcock, but by that time I was already making Flesh of Morning and off on my own track and turned it down. I had the guts, I don’t know where I got them, to say “No, don’t call me, I’ll call you.” But that’s not too hard in a way because I always had hated Hitchcock. I’ve been perhaps unfair to Hitchcock. But no, I don’t think so. I think he’s an ugly man, and I think he uglified even that province of film that was given to him to do. That’s my vision of it, so naturally, how was I gonna go and carry a chair for him? Laughton I could have done it for.

Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.
Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.

Rail: But how did you get to making Flesh of Morning and your earlier films? You were making art before this, right?

Brakhage: Me and art. Here. [pulls out a drawing] That’s as good as I am, as art goes. We got pictures of Max (the cat) here, not very good. They’re good faith attempts. Here I am as a drafter, drawer of the large page. [flipping pages] Ho-ho! Looks like my answer to John Wayne riding across John Ford’s Monument Valley. Or is this an attempt to make a background for Hollis Frampton’s film “love me”? [flipping pages] There, that’s more “love me.” In other words, I can draw ok but I’m no artist. What I really wanted to do was be a poet. That’s what I dreamed of since I was very young, since I was two or three, having no sense of what a poet was. Since I was nine, between the ages of nine and nineteen, I really wanted to be a poet. And in that period, toward the end of it, I wrote such things as “Oh to find the lips of the sympathetic drinking water, then to the softest unconcealings must one, must one, must one…” Which is a lovely piece of verse. But no poet, won’t find a poet there. [flipping pages] Now, there’s another attempt at the cat. Look at that, what all that cat is. Here’s my trying to see through my hypnogogic vision even, the blue sparks that I see embodied as a flashing manifestation of bits and particles of life of this black cat. It’s a nice little kitty cat picture, maybe, but a total failure. So there I am as a drawer and a poet. Let’s see, what else did I do as a poet?

Ah, here’s one: “The tree is bare…” I made a song, which is a lovely little round. [sings] “The bear is fur, the fir is bare, the bear is walking everywhere, here, there, near, far, beaaar fuuuur.” Well, you know you’re never going to beat Allen Ginsberg at his game with something like that. Allen Ginsberg—I mention him because he’s been a big puzzle to me all my life. Is Allen a poet or is he not? It goes on after his death and I suppose after mine. [laughs] I came to respect him and he was a friend and shall be always, but I will say I, who gave up being a fake poet, have been very touchy as to whom I would call a poet and would not. Because I so much wanted to be one, and if I wasn’t going to get away with any fakery, why should they? But then of course I began thinking maybe it’s not fakery in his case, maybe that’s what he is as a poet, etc, and you get into all of that. At least my integrity didn’t allow me to fake being a poet and for that reason I believe that the muse who permits—who is that part of human consciousness that permits the creation of an art or not—allowed me to do something with film. I gave up any false poetics or singing or painting for that matter and was given film. Huh! And you can say, what! For me? Film for me? Thanks a lot! Every time you turn around it costs a fortune, it’ll destroy your whole life, you can’t.... Press the button but once and you’ve spent fifty dollars. But anyway, that was the gift that was given to me, and so long as I remain true to that and the other arts (and I’ve always been very careful therefore to do so, to be so), I could be a filmmaker. But then that was going to lead me down paths as to what film could be.

So that’s where I’m essentially centered. I think people have to try to understand film as an art in this way. There is something that could be called the prose of cinema and that’s all the movies that we see, all the five different stories that Hollis Frampton says movies can tell. That’s the prose of cinema. I’m putting this in quotes: “It produces novels. It produces all our prosaic information including much of our documentation.” It is really prose, just as it is in the books that we get at the library and read. Then there’s poetry, and poetry is something distinct. And the only problem with making a distinction of poetry is that people tend to think poetry is more important than, or greater than, or more significant than prose, or vice versa. That needn’t be the case at all, and isn’t as far as I’m concerned. I mean it is in the sense that I love poetry very deeply and I’m more involved with and care more about poetry, but otherwise there is a distinction between prose and poetry which is not based upon one being better than the other. One goes to the movies for a certain kind of experience just like one reads a novel for a certain kind of experience. And one would be hard put if you started trying to read a poem in the way in which you read a novel. I mean, it would be very discouraging in fact. Poetry would come to seem to be hard rather than, which it truly is, different. And I think those people who regard my films as hard are simply disregarding the fact that they’re poems, that they’re little cine-poems. They’re to be looked at completely differently. You’re not trying to find out who’s going to ride off into the sunset with whom. Is this beautiful yellow shape going to ride off into the sunset with the purple phallic shape or what? No, it’s absurd. A poem is a poem.

Which leads me right into Gertrude Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. She was the best definer of what poetry is in our time. Let me give you two of her definitions that I think should do for us. She always said she distinguished herself and knew who she was because of her animals. “I am I because my little dog knows me” is one of Gertrude Stein’s most blessed and beautiful statements. Now hear this one: “I learned the difference between prose and poetry listening to my little dog drinking water.” There’s a total difference in drinking that occurs with lapping it up, you know, getting your prose mouthfuls up. It’s quite a curl of the tongue that the dog must do in order to soif his cups. “I learned the difference between prose and poetry listening to my little dog drinking water.” Ok, but there’s a really deep and clear way in which you could come to understand my films as being some visual equivalent, something with pictures, which is more like poetry than like prose.

Gertrude Stein took one poem that actually turns out to be the most famous poem of the twentieth century. “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” It’s famous because people laugh at it all the time, it’s a big joke, and they’re making fun of her and it and themselves, I suppose. But while they’re doing that, they’re forgetting…. (I got a natural rhyme out of that. Did you notice how it lent itself immediately to a rhyme scheme, “I suppose”, “a rose”?) It’s a wonderful device for being clear. She, when pressed on the issue of what this meant, said “All I can tell you is that the rose has not bloomed so beautifully in English poetry for hundreds of years.” Now poetry always did take certain terms and they become signatures. Rose means something in English poetry; it means something right off the bat as distinct from what it means in prose. In prose: your order at the florist shop, so many roses, a dozen roses or whatever. But in poetry, rose immediately has to evoke (voke, vocal…) in the person the sense of birth, sex, death. And then it spins off in a kind of mysticism, the mysticism of the rose, the Rosicrucian, the holy rose, the rose windows of the great French cathedrals. But let’s just take it as flat as you can, because that’s how it was originally arrived at: she wrote it as a little poem that a little girl carves around a tree in a book called The World is Round—a children’s book that Gertrude Stein wrote. She meant it in the simplest sense—not having the most ecological sense of trees, one could be a bit horrified—but she needed that tree because, probably without consciously realizing it, she needed to ring in the Tree of Life. Now that’s the tree Yggdrasil which comes out of the Norse, the Tree of Life, the tree whose hairs are stars, whose throat is the voice of the world, whose trunk is what the world is planted in. It’s also the holy tree, the tree in Christian heritage, for example, on which Christ is crucified. That is where the tree is in our culture. And then in relation to the rose. Let’s set the tree aside for a moment and say “rose is a rose is a rose.” Well how do we know birth, sex, and death in poetry? There’s the sister that pulls in the wool, and then there’s the one that makes the thread of it, and there’s the one who cuts it. The first one is giving it birth; the second one is giving it its fulsome maturity, its life, its usefulness; and the third one is death: give it a snip and it’s over. Sis. Three sisters and the three sisters of Fate are certainly famous enough; you can hardly read a page of Shakespeare without encountering them. They can come on vicious as in Macbeth, or etc. Rose is a rose is a rose. Now listen. If you’re listening you’re hearing “sis, sis, sis”. You’re even hearing that that’s moving towards snip. Sis sis sis. Rose sis a rose sis a rose sis. The three sisters are in there. A rose, arose, arose, a-r-o-s-e means like an arising, an ascension. It can be the ascension of Christ into heaven, it can be a hard-on coming to find its place. [laughs] A rose is arose, that can be arrows of Cupid shooting the arrows that pierce the hearts of lovers and make them fall in love. Rose is Saroz, sis arose, s-o-r-r-o-w-s is sadness and, along with the arrow, both of those can also stand for death. Sorrows and death. The end. Rose-is, eros, e-r-o-s, the god of love out of the Greek. So within these few little words you have a whole gem of language that’s interrelating, these words knocking back and forth among each other giving us a largesse that you can hold for a meditation piece for the rest of your life. And it certainly has served me well.

Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.
Photo courtesy of Re:Voir/Jeff Guess.

Now the tough thing to do when you come upon my films or any poetic cinema is to think of pictures in some similar way. If you’re not just making a picture to show the young man bringing the roses to the young lady, “ding, dong” the doorbell rings and there it is, a bunch of roses all sort of soft-petaled, mistily photographed, and etc. If it isn’t, in other words, a furtherance of the plot, of the love affair, of the story that the prose movie is telling, then it’s open to all these other possibilities. In fact it almost inevitably starts becoming these other possibilities. They become probabilities, they become absolutes, and one moves with every single picture. When you see a picture it doesn’t just knock the story along, it takes all your own personal relationships to the flower, but not just the flower as a piece of language, but the shape of the flower. That it’s so many-petaled, that its petals are all interwoven with each other in a certain way, that does open up into the rosace, into the rose windows of the great cathedrals; the mystique of the rose is already there in the shape. As a shape it exists and it moves as a shape along the line of our feeling and thinking and thus becomes a film as it’s moving. A film is something quite distinct and different from a piece of prose storytelling. Well that’s what I do, and that’s the difference. It takes a little getting used to, to open yourself to just letting the pictures flow over oneself and feel them in this way.

And there’s this: film is the very, very closest to music of any of the other arts because it relies upon time. It’s a continuity art, it happens across a period of time. You have to read a poem, you have to experience a film across a passage of time. And across that passage of time you have to feel its textures, its color, its tones in other words. Now, to be sure, they are hearable tones as distinct from tones of color—blue, rust, so on. They are hearable: [sings opening notes to Beethoven’s 5th symphony] “Buh buh buh buum.” “Rust rust rust apple-green.” “Rose rose rose—which can also be a color—pea-green.” And one can go on editing a film so that it has melodies, so that its colors keep shifting and changing as one would expect them to when listening to a little piece of the 5th symphony of Beethoven. [sings] “Buh buh buh buum, buh buh buh buum.” Then it all depends on how you place these tones and melodies, these tones of these flowers that are so pictured and what they come to mean as a compendium of music. Because it is really close to music, and it’s dependent finally upon a mystique that none of the other arts have. So that, and I believe it was Carlyle who stated, quite correctly whoever it was, that “all the arts aspire to music.” And they do because music is the fulsomeness of what art can be: it can be experience. To wit, if one has the wits to make that of it, you’re actually having a poem like you’d have a moment very close to your own personal being. You’re not having it as something you’re throwing out there, like a throw of the dice for chance. You’re having a film that’s close to your own heart’s beat, like in music: “Buh buh buh buum, buh buh buh buum.” The feet begin to move, the heart beats as one listens to the symphonies of, or dance music of, a great composer. Similarly, in an auditorium where people are experiencing the poetry of film: we can’t thump and stamp our feet (though sometimes that does happen), but basically there’s a whole feeling in that auditorium of bodies moving. One becomes aware of one’s body moving, of one’s bodily being. And thus one is having the experience of some kind of loving, of a mystique, that is dedicated to the celebration of the rose, or whatever is being pictured, what is being photographed. It’s the celebration of it in relation to everything else that’s appropriate that enlarges that celebration. You can say it is the thanks that a human gives back for all the goodness that is given to our eyes as we move through life seeing, seeing. “Oh I see!” we say, which is really like saying “Thank you God for…” Like in prayer. “I see.” Which is considered the compendium of thought. “I see! At last I get it.” And that doesn’t mean I understand two plus two equals four. That means I feel it down in my bones. It’s become one with me. I can dance it. I’d die for it. More, and harder: I’d live for it. I’d live for it… And that’s the best I can do on the distinction between prose and poetry in cinema.

Rail: Did you start making films without a camera, to account for your changing vision of the world?

Brakhage: A little should be said about the way in which I see, because most would say that I see very strangely. Though I don’t see in any way that’s stranger than others can approximate or approach in their visions, if they want. But it is true that when I was very young I had what’s called poor eyesight. I had a wandering eye, this eye always drifted wherever it needed to go. Which is called the thyroid eye of the poet and I had the thyroid problems that go with it. So that I had every reason to suspect I might be a poet, though I didn’t know what a poet was, which was perhaps one of the major reasons I didn’t become one at that time. I was dyslexic, clearly, what they call these days dyslexic. I had all kinds of asthmatic wheezing and coughing. I had practically everything wrong with me that you could have as a child. I was gasping and wheezing, I had a hernia so that if I wasn’t wearing a truss, or if the truss slipped out of place, the hernia would jam down into my left scrotum and I would begin gasping for breath. I couldn’t get my breath unless someone knew to come and push the truss back into place. So I grew up wearing a harness through childhood just so I could breathe. I had thicker and thicker glasses, which was that terrible mistake people make when someone is having trouble seeing something. It seems to me that all kinds of people rush in and compound that problem by adding instruments through which they’re supposed to poke and peer, and they’re of course doing the best they can, but it was a disaster for me until I outgrew it. There came a point where I set these glasses aside because I wanted a sex life. Clark Kent with glasses: that did not attract young ladies to young men when I was growing up, alas. So at some point, just so I could have a life in common with what was expected of a movie hero, I set the glasses aside and lost them finally. For several weeks I was as if blind. I could hardly cross the street; it was dangerous for me to cross the street. Then gradually, slowly I struggled through to my own form of seeing. And that’s what the poet Charles Olson always praised me so much for. He said, “You had the sense, the God-given sense to insist on your own form of vision. That which was given to you, and you alone of all creatures on earth, to see with. From that place you can then move out and touch all other human vision.” And that certainly turned out to be true. I mean, within a short period of time I not only could cross the street safely but I could cross it with less danger than most of the rest of society. Because I was sharp to every movement. I became aware of the slightest of movements and was clear about the shift of shape. Any shape-shifting that went on in my environs was quickly picked up by me, my mind coming at it, having to deal with it. I had an entire life that was searching for that, that I and I alone could have. And where I discovered what again I share with all humans. And people can try this if they want. You take a hand and let your eyes go out of focus where you’re not squeezing the eyes to get a focus on. And look at the lines on the hand as you move it, you know, the lines that we’re supposed to read for the fortune of our futures. And let that hand drift somewhere until, while it’s focused on infinity, on way out there, beyond the solar system, let it move until those lines of the hand, come sharp, focus. For most people it’s somewhere between nine and twelve inches. Without any squeezing at all, without any musculature of your optic nerve system, you achieve what’s called natural focus. Whole societies painted for this area of seeing. The Mayans did. Charles Olson told me that that’s why you read their pictures crawling on your back through caves where, as you look up with your tallow light, only somewhere between nine and twelve inches the pictures come into and out of focus for you. Societies were involved in that as natural focus. That was your focus which, oddly, you shared the most with other people. It’s that irony that the word that you most share with other people is that which makes you most distinct: “I.” “I.” I share that with you! [laughs] And you and so on, with everyone.

Rail: Did your ways of seeing change from decade to decade, and as you changed, your film techniques changed?

Brakhage: Yeah, because as I grew older I began to have the sense that I couldn’t just paint my inner eye, my closest, most secretive eye, even if that was what I shared the most with other people. I was obligated to adopt, to some extent, the norms of my culture. So just as I started by making narrative dramatic films (certainly Interim is a love movie inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists), similarly, as I got older I went back to narrative forms with a renewed sense of what narrative could be. That film did not have to be slavishly tied to conveying a story. That it could also be playful, like Blue Moses, and search and range among all the possibilities of what to be a narrative figure, a character in a story, would be, might be. And then also, I felt a compulsion, as I moved towards films like photographing the birth of children, I felt drawn to the shared societal sight. To what I share most as a culture with the rest of my fellow humans, you know? What do I share with them really, when it comes down to these crucial moments that are so deeply meaningful to us, like when a baby is being born? Oh my, such a moment. And at such moments one also moves to what all of one’s contemporaries are. And let me say also that as I began to have to face death, knowing I was in my forties, a man who’s lived in the sun knows that his time is running out at some point. Facing that sense of death, I also came to a more societal sight and made what’s called the Pittsburg Documentaries, the ones on the police, and on the hospital, on basketball. And the act of seeing with one’s own eyes, which is literally what autopsis means, autopsy. So there was a shift there.

Photos courtesy of Re:Voir/Nicholas Rey.
Photos courtesy of Re:Voir/Nicholas Rey.

If it comes to where you need to share with people, like, in the face of death we all need to share something close with each other, or birth, or sex (talk about the need for sharing) in these modes of being one can be more drawn to the normal story, to the normal way in which people write, or paint, or sculpt, or sing songs, or make movies. That’s where you find my work pulled toward just telling a story or making a picture, where what’s at play is my trying to reach out to the society in that simple desperation which I share with everybody, you know? [calls] “Hello out there!” [laughs] Somewhere we do have equivalent visions of the universe. But what’s really exciting is how different we are from each other, too. So the ideal is to carry both along, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in my work. And that’s the function of poetry, really. That is what poetry is and does. It is making the great dance in language, in the case of poetry, and in pictures, in the case of moving pictures, mine. The great dance where I can feel that I’m the closest to anyone else’s ways of seeing just because I’m showing the uniqueness of my seeing. That is something for sure that I share with everybody that each and every one of us is completely unique. There’ll never be any two creatures on earth at all like you [laughs]…or like me, I’ll speak for myself. Never ever again is it conceivable that there can be such a thing because there is such a compendium of all things that have gone to make up what I am. Starting right on the cellular level, when they’re starting to put together the bare bones of what it is I’m going to grow up to be just as an animal creature. And then all and every little movement and shift and change in my life, when you say the word “red,” everyone hears that completely differently. Some are thinking of reading, some are thinking of the color. And if you say, “No, I mean the color red,” you delineate that. Then what a shift of reds we have before us, and what do they mean! In addition to the social things that have been attached to it, one’s communist affiliations and so on [laughs]. But within all this, art is that which permits us to reach out across the chasm to each other. And to do so lovingly, like as a dance, with rhythm and with the joy of tone. To sing of oneself and in joyful exuberance in relation to another. Loving.

And in one sense that’s why the most difficult thing for art to—we can say—re-present—and I don’t really think it’s the business of art to re-present in that normal sense, but to the extent to which it can be said to do that—is sexual loving. I say sexual because I want to get right down and bring in the whole flesh body and everything that has to do with it, not leave it as some ideal [laughs] only. I think that one of my struggles has been most critically there. To the Love Songs. Every time that I deal with lovemaking it’s always seemed to me some kind of a failure. And Marilyn first made it clear to me why this was: because the acts of being involved in art as an aesthetic experience are so completely different from those of loving. Such an alternate, such an other, they almost don’t seem to exist in the same world. But then the drive is ever more fervent to enjoin such differences, to create a film that truly is what it’s about, and is sexual loving. I’m hoping that Love Song achieved that finally, and certainly there have been little achievements, both with camera and with hand-painting along the way, attempts at least.

But how do you get such feelings, the complexities of someone feeling loving, all the way over onto [picks up and starts to unwind a roll of film] — and I’m using 35mm here, most of my work’s been on 16 and a great deal of it on 8, but we’ll be lavish today and pull out a hunk of 35mm—how in the world do you get such tenderness of feeling and being, of a person moving through the world? You can take a picture of some young man who’s an actor portraying me or you with a bouquet of flowers, a picture of him walking up to a door that’s opening with a lovely lass, a corny old forties picture. But is that a way to represent? It certainly would be so used. And yet it’s blasphemy. In agreement with Marilyn’s discouragement with representing love in film is Orson Welles. I think the only thing she shares with Orson Welles [laughs] is that he said it’s blasphemy to attempt to show sexual lovemaking or prayer. Those two things can never be represented on the screen, because it’s just a blasphemy for that to happen. [Marilyn, his wife, enters with a cup of tea.]

Now this may be the blessing and the reason why I made a major shift in my work when in a midlife crisis, fully expecting I was finished, Marilyn and I found each other, and she announced at some point that she did not like to be photographed. In fact it was stronger than that, I forgot how you put it, but it was “I don’t want to be photographed.” And I was just shocked, because so much of my life had been photographing the story of my life and suddenly that was being cut off at the knees, you know, cut off altogether. She did not want that. She, who I was already deep in feeling I would be needing to be with for the rest of my life, being, and never any more autobiography then coming out of me. It took, I don’t know, thirty seconds or a long while, and suddenly I felt an immense sense of relief. As if I was relieved of an enormous burden and one that was almost hopeless to begin with anyway: to make the occasion of a film on the same grounds as that of loving. “Ode to a Coy Mistress”: who knows the coy mistress, or if she was coy, or how she felt about a poem being written about her. All we know is it’s a vast mystery and poetry doesn’t finally seem to have existed only to send valentines to each other. In fact that would be a horrible denigration and usage of it. Anyway. So you have a movie where Marilyn brings me a beautiful loving cup. I take it to be silver, but she said it’s stainless steel, sent by Ken and Flo Jacobs as our housewarming present. You can see how it all falls into a story. This can be a little story about some loving, but what a delimiting of the kind of loving feelings we’re having if we end there. That’s just a little story: we did the shot, that’s it, and what’s next, you know?

In order to have feelings that are appropriate to such a thing, I have to open up to this in ways that must engage the most inner thoughts, the sparking and synapting, the cathexis of my brain waves ticking. [Unrolls a section of hand-scratched, black 35mm film] Here is one second carved onto this film that is an approximation of what I see when my eyes are closed and I’m re-membering, putting together the members of something. I’m seeing at most the hints of shape, not an entirety of some photographed documentation, but hints that are left free in the line that they can reverberate with the sense of feeling that’s appropriate to such senses of loving. This happens to be a little section that I’m working on called A Chinese Series in which after twenty years of studying the Chinese hieroglyphs and so on I finally feel I’m emboldened to attempt to do a little Chinese film called The Chinese Series. I thought this would be it, one second, and then I sent it to Mary Beth Reed who does the printing for me. I said “No, if you print it,” (not knowing at what stage it will arrive to her), “you have to double-print it, do every frame twice because I don’t want to be upstaging Hollis Frampton’s one-second movie.”

I thought that’s it, then. But then I went on a little ways and one day I started going and I suddenly started doing, guess what? More! More! [laughs, unrolling the film] And I thought, what is this? But of course I knew what it was. It’s exegesis. The Chinese had the wisdom that often they’d spend more time on the explanations of, or commentaries as they call them, of a painting or a poem that had been placed before them than they did on the original thing itself. So call that the original second, one-second, and call this what I have to say about it. Because these lines are all related to that first two seconds (if double-printed, two seconds) they’re all commentaries upon that.

[Unrolling more of his film, he comes to a short section that is all black.] Now here’s a little break. Is this it? That’s it? We’ve said enough. Is that it? I can’t believe it. No! [laughs] There’s more that needs to be said. There’s more that needs to be said. And this is the saying, this is the saying that wags the dog, you know. This is the saying that wags the cat, I would rather say, in homage of dear Max who keeps me company in my illness. And this is made when I’m up to it, when I’m enabled. It’s made with my fingernails, with my spit. I spit upon this and loosen the emulsion and that gives me just enough so I can get in there with the fingernails and usually, with my eyes closed feeling, feeling what I’m shaping. Knowing very well that it’s nicely delineated, the individual frames. Knowing the frame very clearly, I can get in there, and I can work from my meat out, to what this is. So in one sense you could say, “This is the spit of the poet!” The spit of the filmmaker, as I won’t fancy myself a poet, nope. And it’s made from the nails themselves, feeling, pressing, making an impress of whatever feelings there are to them in space and shape and so on. So maybe a little film is being born, maybe not, who knows. But I’m trying, I’m trying. [laughs] I’m trying from this sickbed to sing a song.

So, what’s tough about that? Well, it’s tough because if one came and wanted to see a movie, you’d say, well, without my soundtrack here — see, I’m sitting here blathering and filling in the narrative, what’s missing, what most people go to the movies for: the narrative, the soundtrack! “Sound, sound!” You remember that pathetic cry when the movie comes on but they haven’t turned on the sound: “Sound! Sound!” people call out across the darkened auditorium. [laughs] Well, I’ve made a number of sound films too, and I’d not kid around about that. I honor the sound films that I’ve made and I’ve been very, very careful. The great master of the sound films, for me, is Peter Kubelka, and he’s given me the caution to not do anything easily or capriciously. He honors that I went silent. You know if a man can’t say it or has nothing to say, best silence for God’s sake. Don’t sit, you know, blathering. Which I fear I may be doing because I’m on a thousand hydromorphine milligrams a day here. It’s just monstrous how my body seems to gobble up narcotics, and it’s important that it be known because I’m fighting through all that difficulty of narcotics to make an articulation. But I couldn’t otherwise, what would I do? I’d sit here and scream. Not probably get quite that bad, I’m being dramatic. I almost had to stop making movies and get out of drama.

I’ve been very fortunate I think. It may seem right for me to say so, sitting here all crippled up with cancer. But the truth of the matter is I’ve been very, very fortunate and I’m grappling still and struggling with the cancer too. With “vision therapy” as it’s called. Marilyn’s sister is involved in teaching self-hypnosis, which has helped me. I did some of that previously in my life. In fact I think every film I’ve ever made was involved in self-hypnosis primarily. But then once you get into that first step you soon get into the grounds of vision therapy where one is literally grasping with the mind’s eye, almost tactically, almost with touch, the cancer itself, and struggling with it. But one has to know something about me: I would never grasp anything hideously (that is out of That Hideous Strength, as C.S. Lewis put it). I would not hideously struggle to kick against the pricks or to ruin my destiny. I take it as it comes and not always easily. It’s just that I don’t fight and fight against whatever it is it’s supposed to be. I just want to make things as good as I can for my loved ones and for film, yes, dear film that sustained me throughout so much of all my life.

Rail: Phil Solomon recalled a fascinating argument between you and Ken Jacobs last summer, in which you said “It didn’t take...” essentially. That your influence and utopian visions of changing the visual culture and visual thinking was lost in the muck of what’s happening in both the art world and popular culture. Where did it all go?

Brakhage: Yeah, I remember that and I have those moments where I think we’ve failed somehow to implant poetry in cinema, or to bring out the qualities of cinema that are truly where film can be pulling. Because there’s so much overwhelming attention given to the movies and to every conceivable usage of film except that for which I most naturally feel it was born, that was to be a poem. So I feel very often that we’ve lost the social battle. The movies sail along; most universities don’t even use film anymore. They don’t know the difference between film and video. And so they, whatever cheap purveyor they can bring—by cheap I mean inexpensive purveyor of the image, that they can equip their classrooms with, suffices in their wants. And in fact it’s moving; it moves very much as it does in relationship to prose and poetry and pictures. For example, there is now a determination in many classroom teachings to do away with the original source material altogether. If you’re doing a course on Don Quixote, for instance, to say, “We know enough now about the artist to know that he didn’t know what he was doing. Cervantes didn’t know what he was doing, he couldn’t, didn’t have the least comprehension. So why study and spend that much time on the original source.” And people in some classes are even forbidden to read the source! [laughs] They say, “No! One thing you do not do, you do not read Don Quixote. But we read every fine text that’s been written on Don Quixote, every critique of it and so on.” Well I would say this is going to an extreme with what the Chinese seem to have done in a more balanced way with their commentaries. Their commentaries are lovely if you think of them as a furtherance of whatever it is that was given to them by the original poem or the original painting, and so they do their commentaries. But when it comes to, say, forbidding looking at the original source, one begins to suspect that there’s a battery of people that cannot make a poem, that cannot make a painting, that have betrayed the muse in some deep sense, which means they have betrayed their own life forms in some way, and then tried to sneak themselves and all their ideas in under the coattails of Cervantes without even the grace to honor the source material they’re using. They’re just an ultimate extreme of bastard academic that we’ve had biting at our coattails all along the way here in the whole history of studying the arts. You know, why read Shakespeare when after all you could study Frank Harris on Shakespeare. Well, I worry about that too, what am I doing sitting here blathering when one could just be showing some film?

Rail: But you do change the world by making work. Isn’t that what you meant by a snail’s trail in the moonlight?

Brakhage: I said that I would rather think of what I was doing as making a snail’s trail in the moonlight. The snail knows muscularly what he or she is doing and is at one with every shift and shape of body in leaving this line of exuded spit along the rose. There’s an image for you that the poets like to pounce on, the snail smearing the leaf of the rose. But they’re just talking with words when they do that. There’s another side that’s just literal. In the moonlight one can leave a trail that can be lit by the moon, that’s soft, gentle light in the dark. Not a gloom but rather a frieze of shapes and forms. Such as Phil Solomon when he makes his Seasons, which is based on my paintings. He takes the paintings themselves and he takes them out for air, gives them air. I would rather think of myself as leaving a snail’s trail in the moonlight than of someone sitting and consciously making an art.

Rail: Can you say something about what unites your vast and disparate body of film work?

Brakhage: Mm… No, it drifts away from me. Not because I’m drifty or lazy or whatever, though that I may be also, it just drifts away from me … I think I’m done. I think I can’t give you more than that. [sings] “I can’t give you anything but love, baby! That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby! No-dah, dah…” See, most people don’t know more words than that to the song [sings “La la”] and I don’t want to botch it up, it’s such a lovely tune. So let’s call it a day and a year. 2003, made it through to 2003, hard to imagine. Sun is coming out, if I was just a little stronger I could go to a movie. [laughs] I don’t have the strength, yeah, I would love to. But, not today, maybe it will come back next week.

Text edited in collaboration with Genevieve Yue.

The films of Stan Brakhage, published by Pip Chodorov, are now available at:


Pip Chodorov


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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