In This Article Stan Brakhage

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies and Collections
  • Filmographies
  • Journals
  • Modernism and Postmodernism
  • Avant-Garde Culture and Aesthetics
  • Books By Brakhage
  • Biographies and Interviews
  • Brakhage Radio Broadcasts
  • Images From Brakhage Films

Cinema and Media Studies Stan Brakhage
by
David Sterritt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0056

Introduction

Stan Brakhage (b. 1933–d. 2003) is widely considered to have been the most innovative and prolific avant-garde filmmaker of the 20th century, exerting powerful influence on the field of nonnarrative cinema known variously as avant-garde, experimental, or poetic film. Although he initially planned to be a poet, he decided that his visual proclivities were stronger than his verbal ones and set about developing new forms of cinema that embodied what he later called “moving visual thinking.” His early works were emotionally fraught expressions of youthful anxiety, but after his marriage in 1957 he settled with his family in the Rocky Mountains. He then embarked on the mature phase of his career, having a series of artistic breakthroughs that culminated with his epic Dog Star Man (1961–1964), in which images of a man and dog scrambling up a mountain are intercut with a vast array of other material so as to evoke the intertwined themes of “birth, death, sex, and the search for God,” which subsequently dominated his work. In all, Brakhage made nearly four hundred films, ranging from nine seconds to several hours long. Many are photographed with a handheld camera, which he used as an extension of his body, engaging with his subjects in a sort of intuitive dance; others were made by painting on film, etching or scratching shapes into the emulsion, and otherwise breaking the rules of “correct” cinematography. Some observers have objected to what they see as sexist and patriarchal elements in Brakhage’s work, and many critics find the very idea of avant-garde film to be irrelevant in a culture where Hollywood movies reign supreme. Brakhage’s career amounted to a lifelong affirmation of poetic cinema, however. A self-described romantic who referred to his philosophically dense, structurally intricate films as “home movies,” he remains an important influence on younger generations of filmmakers and visual artists as well as critics and theorists of the moving image.

Overviews

Camper 2001 and Frye 2002 offer clear, knowledgeable introductions to Brakhage’s films, theories, and influences. Elder 1998 leans more heavily toward poetic and philosophical interpretation and is considerably more demanding, whereas Elder 1995 is very concise and accessible. Sterritt 2005 gives a sketch of Brakhage’s approach for general readers. Michelson 2004 sets forth the views of a particularly learned and sensitive critic. Shedden, et al. 1998 is an engaging feature-length documentary including extensive interviews with Brakhage and excerpts from many of his films.

  • Camper, Fred. “By Brakhage: The Act of Seeing . . ..” The Criterion Collection (2001).

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    An excellent introduction, with insightful remarks about such major Brakhage interests as death, physicality, and the dread of fixity, symmetry, and predictability. Also comments on the differences between film and video and offers suggestions on how to view his films most effectively.

  • Elder, R. Bruce. “On Brakhage.” In Stan Brakhage: A Retrospective 1977–1995. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1995.

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    A mid-career appreciation by a fellow filmmaker, focusing on Brakhage’s conception of “moving visual thinking,” his ideas about representation and referentiality, and his efforts to convey “our experience of light before our minds have formed it into nameable images.” The booklet also includes an introduction by curator Larry Kardish.

  • Elder, R. Bruce. The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998.

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    Written by a Canadian avant-garde filmmaker, this comprehensive study examines Brakhage’s theories of meaning, embodiment, individuality, and aesthetics in the context of American modernist poetry and the ideas of such philosophers as Emerson, Hulme, and Whitehead. For graduate students and scholars.

  • Frye, Brian L. “Stan Brakhage.” Senses of Cinema 23 (12 December 2002).

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    Excellent brief introduction, tracing Brakhage’s evolution from psychological themes to works with an abstract-expressionist aesthetic. Includes a filmography.

  • Michelson, Annette. “Stan Brakhage (1933–2003).” October 108 (Spring 2004): 112–115.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228704774115744E-mail Citation »

    A concise summary of Brakhage’s centrality to avant-garde modernism, noting his redefinition of cinematic space, his institution of a new temporality constituting a continuous present, his commitment to evoking the stages of human development that precede access to language, and his key importance to modernism in visual art. Available online by subscription.

  • Shedden, Jim, Alexa-Frances Shaw, and Stan Brakhage. Brakhage. Toronto: Sphinx, 1998.

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    Productions. An engaging general-audience documentary about Brakhage’s life and work. Contains much interview material with Brakhage and excerpts from many of his films. Available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.

  • Sterritt, David. “Challenging the Eye: Three Avant-Garde Imagemakers.” In Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader. Edited by David Sterritt, pp. 226–238. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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    Written for general readers, this describes Brakhage’s filmmaking, noting drawbacks as well as merits, and briefly discusses several films. A different version is available as “His Message: Film Is an Art; Beyond Hollywood’s Goals: The Stan Brakhage Style.” The Christian Science Monitor (30 April 1981).

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