Tag Archives: Stan Brakhage

observation the first

As part of my Nonfiction course, we are currently doing several exercises in observation, miniature studies in perceiving the world that will, hopefully, help us observe and render the world as we perceive it, through the medium of film.  Taking our cues from the untutored vision and searches for “the tree with lights in it” of Stan Brakhage and Annie Dillard, we are supposed to look and listen and hopefully have transcendental experiences.  This is the first in a series of writings on these observational sessions.

“Find something that is hidden and observe it.”

I am entering the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of Burton residence hall.  I am brushing my teeth with the toothpaste on my finger, washing my face with foam from the soap dispenser, drying my face with rough recycled paper towels.  I am the only one in the bathroom, alone with the sounds I am making and some room tone, most likely the ventilation.  I look in the mirror to assess the level of exhaustion revealed by the strain under my eyes, quiet with myself, and to my left I discover a sound that is persistent, but distinct, not of the over-riding ventilative hum of the linoleumed space, but its own strain of sound waves.  At first it is a bit annoying, because it is quiet, but just so as to pick at my attention even as my other senses (or rather, my eyes) are focusing on the mirror.  But I look for the source, an exact point, bring my ear close to this spot on the partition and feel the relative volume swell as the distance between me and this hidden sound is traversed with the shifting of my shoulders.  At first, I think of it as a buzz.  It intrigues me.  I stand on my tip toes to bring my ear flush with the source.  I feel a tiny push of particles against the top of my earlobe, the movement of space around this border between the sound and its perceiver, the air moving with perhaps the sound itself, or at least some rush of air that is perhaps the reason for the sound, a pent up microcosm of swirling gaseous potential within this wall that is spitting itself out through the tiniest of punctures in the partition.  It is no longer a buzz; I give it the word ‘hiss’.

I come back two days later, and stand in the bathroom, leaving the lights off deliberately in order to sense the sound of this hissing wall spot as if I am just a pair of ears.  Standing in the center of the room, it is faint, among the other steady noises of the space, among the external bangs and creaks and footfalls and uttered words that pass through the walls from the hall beyond.  I go directly to it, listen with my right ear pressed against the wall, turn my head to let the left ear have a turn.  The hiss passes through my sensory perception as if subject to a Doppler effect, but one created simply by the slow turning of my own sense of perception in relation to this hissing sound, the constancy of which is growing to be a comfort.  There is a story of a Russian cosmonaut who goes into space, alone, and there in the cockpit of his spacecraft, begins to hear a steady clicking noise.  It is driving him insane, he tears up the dashboard in search of the origin, hoping to alleviate his growing madness, but he can find no source.  Knowing he will be alone with the sound for weeks before his return to the Earth, he is convinced he will go crazy; he will surely die.  But then, instead of succumbing to the agony of the sound, he decides to fall in love with it.  It becomes the most beautiful sound he has ever heard — it becomes music.

I make this decision from the start.  After some minutes with my hiss, I begin to understand that it was not one sound but many; it has a layered quality where different lines take on tonal qualities, one soft high pitched sailing along above a rhythmic central hum, with fluctuating strains of midtones and a bass buzz below.  It is a chord, the dynamics of which were subtle and shifting with the slight tilting and turning of my skull beside the cold linoleum wall.  I fall, bit by bit, in love with this sound.  I do not care that I am uncertain what it is, although a physics major who discovered me in releve with my ear against the wall suggested that it might be electricity or the like.  It may be electricity to a scientist, but it is also music hidden in the walls and in the daily workings of our lives.

defending my rights

I have just re-read the opening on Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision.  Lately, I’ve been trying to re-evaluate how I approach Brakhage, or rather how to defend my enjoyment of his work.  When we screened The Stars are Beautiful in my Non Fiction class, it elicited quite dispassionate responses from some classmates (a reflection of a larger dispassion or antagonism towards the avant-garde in general by the non-CAMS major population as well, I would suggest).

The argument was raised that what Brakhage does in his films, technically or aesthetically, is being done “better” by other more mainstream filmmakers in more traditional narrative formats, to which our professor responded that the cynical interpretation of that point of view is that the avant-garde is constantly pushing the edge of what is acceptable in form and content, constantly innovating, and then the mainstream simply comes along and picks and chooses and appropriates what it likes aesthetically, without necessarily maintaining the conceptual or ideological meaning behind the techniques and styles that it acquires from pioneers such as Brakhage.

Which is exactly what I had been about to rebut with, so I was forced to pause and wonder: Am I a cynic in this regard? And if so, what’s up with that?  When did I become cynical about film, and where does that cynicism come from?  Is it legitimate?  I love the avant-garde and experimental traditions of the mid 20th century — is this love real or imagined?  Why do I love it?  Not because I find it more captivating (in the easy, narrative-drags-you-along-without-your-even-noticing sense), necessarily, but perhaps… These films do not exist in a vacuum, and the context of the artists, and their lifestyles, and their ideologies, and my own artistic aspirations, and certainly their writings create a world of captivation that is larger than but functions in concert with their films — hence my musings today beginning with my return to Brakhage’s own elliptical-poetic treatises in Metaphors on Vision.  Even when I watch a structural film that seems to resist pleasure, such as Wavelength, there is a certain kind of elitist, intellectual self-gratifying feeling from simply sitting through it, from the process of engaging with something that is not just a piece of film for entertainment or even edification, but a questioning of art and meaning and consciousness and perception.  And knowing that one has made the decision to turn your attention to these ‘higher’ questions of form and content is a different kind of good feeling, but good nonetheless.  While narrative film may message the senses, these films can also work on the level of massaging the intellect.

This is why returning to my copy of Essential Brakhage is exciting for me.  Brakhage is not Saturday night with coke and popcorn fare (he even, in fact, invokes popcorn as his anthithesis at times, or at least as a powerful synecdoche for the commercial theatrical cinema to which his work is perpendicular).  I think Brakhage demands repeated viewings.  I think you start to get so much out of it, too, when you let him create a context for his art, especially since his prose is itself as beautiful, arcane, stimulating, and challenging as the hundreds of films that make up his body of work.

There.  I have defended my right to take pleasure in difficult cinema.

plundering my past

I am currently in the [slow] process of unpacking everything that I own and settling into my room in Memorial Hall.  In doing so, I have come across two flash-drives, ancient but still functional relics of my high school and very-early college writings, academic work, and even, lo, film-making efforts.

Like anyone, I find it rather surreal to be re-reading things that I penned (or typed) so many years ago, watching bits of film I crafted or perusing half-finished screenplays I abandoned.  It’s like meeting yourself from the past all over again, cringing at the ferocity of your tweenage angst or the frequency with which you referenced Catcher in the Rye in all of your poems, remembering that you were quite the rap-writing enthusiast back in the day, and re-discovering how you tried to sell yourself in prose to the college you are now attending.  Most of the things I have encountered this afternoon are probably of little interest to anyone but me, but I’d like to share a couple of them here.

When you apply to Carleton (or at least when I did, so many falls ago), you are asked to answer several supplementary questions in addition to submitting your Common App essay.  This was one of the questions.

Do you have a tentative (or firm) career plan (or dream)? Please describe it.

In my heart of hearts, I would like to make films.  I want to capture human relationships and emotions and mix them together in just the right way so as to make people stop and think and perhaps behave a little more humanely to one another.  This is definitely more of a tentative dream than a firm career plan, but nonetheless, film is a powerful and glamorous medium, and I am drawn to it.

I think that somewhere between leaving home and arriving at Carleton and beginning to discover that theory exists, the person who said this got a little lost.  I’m rather thrilled to find this proof of my own passion, almost objective in its feeling of having been written not by the me of today, but about the me that will always be in love with the cinematic.  And to have my 17-year-old self quietly and boldly remind my 21-year-old self that we must be humane, and that art can humanize us, and that is within my power — that strikes me.

For one of the later questions, I had also written two responses and labeled one as “Director’s Cut” and the other as “For Release in Theatres”.  This amuses me immensely, but even more, it echoes this sense of a historical inclination to film that I am encountering in my digging through my own past.

I also found something that I have been looking for since the beginning of this summer, the first little experimental film that I made during Fall Term of my sophomore year, as a part of the illustrious Profesore John Schott’s Avant-Garde Film and Video course.

It is based, roughly on the e.e. cummings poem “a total stranger one black day”:

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me

who found forgiveness hard because
my (as it happened) self he was

but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each

I don’t claim to be proud of it, but I find it interesting in its first-ness: a rather sketchy imitation of Brakhage and shades of Deren, an overly dramatic banter with the ability of Final Cut Pro to overlay many many layers of video of varying opacity, but an earnest attempt to create a sort of cinepoem, to strive for what Deren suggests is the greatest form of the film, the vertical communication that defies narrative and allows the interplay of image and suggestion and light to create a psychological space.  The imagistic relationship between the poem and the film continues to intrigue me.

And so, the artist that the me of today is becoming has communed with the person that the artistically-inclined me of the past was intending to be; how very different and yet the same our conceptions may have been and are.