Friday, February 22, 2008

Stan Brakhage

I read his Film at Wit's End ages ago, but happened upon it at the library the other day. Even if you are not all that into the vague, hermetic world of experimental film, this book eschews the dry scholarly tone with which most people come at art and offers a very personal take by a very personal artist on filmamker's he loves.

He decalres Maya Deren as the sexiest woman he's ever met, a handshake with her had more charge than intercourse and describes a scene in her apartment where, in a Voodoo trance, she throws a refridegrator across the room. My other favorite scene is when he invites speed-addled Christopher MacLaine to stay at his house only to be woken by the deafening sound of bagpipes in the living room and the sight of MacLaine leading his own children out an open window like the Pied Piper.

The tone of the book, culled from lectures Brakhage delivered, is over-blown, anecdotal, self-agrandising and overwhelmingly given to perpetuating the mythology of those he considered his contemporaries in filmmaking, and will likely cause an academic to toss this out the window for its frivolities, but after reading this slim volume, you feel you not only know the film-makers, but understand where their art is coming from and are ready to champion them as well. And, unlike almost all other books about film besides John Waters' Shock Value, Film at Wit's End is a compelling read.

I once was in the same room as Stan Brakhage. On my only foray to NYC about 15 years ago, I sat through the 4 1/2-hour version of The Art of Vision (meticulously dissected by Fred Camper here) at the Anthology Film Archives. the audiance started with about 20 people, two of which I brought, but by the thrid hour, dwindled down to myself, a guy three rows back and a bearded guy in the back. It became a test of will to make it all the way through - the film largely consisted of sections of his already tedious Dog Star Man further diced up and repeated over and over and over. I must have seen a young lumberjack-looking Brakhage tumble through the same snowdrift about 100 times. Did I mention it was a 4 1/2-hour silent film?

Here is a segment of Dog Star Man, just to give you a taste.

and here is a better copy that doesn't allow embedding

Once it was over, I looked up to the room and saw what I'm pretty sure was the filmmaker himself making a hasty exit, probably to wisely avoid talking to me and the other guy and having to endure us both vociferously miss the goddamn point of his magnum opus. I shook the other guy's hand in admiration and asked him if he wanted to grab a beer since its likely that I will never be able to talk about this film with someone else whose seen it again, and my friends had long abandoned me to this dubious activity. Wide-eyed, the guy said, "No thanks I'm gonna go see if they will let me watch it again in the projection booth, and see if Stan will watch it with me." I was clearly out-classed and went on my way.

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