Anthropology Stan Brakhage and Ethnographic Praxis
by
Roxanne Varzi, Andrew McGrath
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0257

Introduction

Stan Brakhage (b. 1933–d. 2003) was a visual artist and filmmaker who embodied many of the theoretical tensions and pragmatic themes in cultural anthropology in the 20th century, despite not being an anthropologist and working almost totally through experiments in 16mm film. In traversing, and being claimed by, both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and artists alike, he was a creator as much influenced by the poetry of American Romanticism as he was the harbinger of a millennial deconstruction. He is generally considered, along with the filmmaker Maya Deren, the quintessential savant of American avant-garde cinema. His phenomenological approach to filmmaking and his attention to poesis in visuality, combined with his persistent dispensation with narrative and plot, drew to light still pressing existential questions about the space between structure and individualism, the unconscious mind, myth, and intersubjective experiences in the shared quotidian of everyday being. While his early works of the mid-1950s showed solidarity with the surrealist and Freudian-inspired themes of compatriots like Maya Deren, in the 1960s Brakhage quickly engaged with what he viewed as the untapped potential of cinematic celluloid as a malleable medium with which to both capture and express the immediacy of sensual experience. At the core of his creative impulse was an exploration of visual perception unfiltered by symbolic textuality. To that end, his 16mm films were mostly soundless, color-saturated, nonlinear impressions of the most consequential of life’s relational phenomena; birth, sex, human development, death, and familial intimacies untethered from linguistic discourses, character drama, and traditional act-based storytelling structures. Brakhage’s process of etching and painting directly onto the emulsified film strips he used for shooting enabled his impressionistic questioning of the boundaries of representation in moving images. Brakhage asserted that, much as with human vision, such manipulations punched holes in the epistemic orthodoxy of experiential narrative and instead stressed the messy and affective ways that our sensory organs force us to negotiate our immanent worlds. His early artistic tenure found him characteristically prolific in modernist aesthetics as he explored concepts ranging from the psychoanalysis of dreaming and the Freudian death-drive in Reflections on Black (1955) to the metaphysical man-myth opus Dog Star Man (1961–1964). Such themes paralleled similar theoretical concerns emergent in anthropology in the mid-20th century as evident in both the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and the persistence of the Freudian unconscious as an explanatory hermeneutic. Today, Stan Brakhage’s influence in anthropology is evident in ethnographic filmmaking that challenges the documentary impulse, ambiguates hegemonic truth claims, and explores the modalities of sensorial representation related to human experience through iterative experimentation.

Overviews

Stan Brakhage cannot be said to have had direct linkages to anthropology except in themes, but his influence is implied through his adamant experimental sensibilities. As such, the introductions and retrospectives of Brakhage’s career are generally found in the worlds of cinema studies and film criticism. These overviews are an introduction to Brakhage and point to why he continues to influence anthropologists of various subdisciplines. Camper 2001 and Frye 2002 are brief but concise in considering broader turns in Brakhage’s career. Elder 1998 posits a thicker comparative examination of the filmmaker’s relationship to modernist poetry.

  • Camper, Fred. 2001. By Brakhage: The act of seeing. The Criterion Collection.

    An overview of Brakhage that broadly discusses how the filmmaker worked by pushing film as a medium to include the margins and tactility of visual experience. Also discusses his engagements with Freud on both theoretical content and his affinities with the psychoanalyst as a thinker and creator. The piece has a useful discussion on the differences between film and video, one that begs for reassessment in the digital era.

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

    From a comparative perspective, this book situates Brakhage within the modernist tradition of American poetry in the 20th century. It is a meditation on themes such as aesthetics, embodiment, and interpretive meaning. For anthropologists working through the lens of phenomenology or interpretive hermeneutics, this would be of interest.

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

    An overview of the filmmaker that gives a concise evolution of his thematic attentions, including his shared aesthetics with Maya Deren, a person with a more direct relationship to anthropology in the mid-20th century.

  • Miller, Michael F. 2018. Stan Brakhage’s autopsy: The act of seeing with one’s own eyes. Journal of Film and Video 70.2: 46–55.

    Miller engages Brakhage’s manifesto of praxis through the dialectic of “poesis and techne.” Here the author outlines the ways in which Brakhage was always in tension with his own oeuvre as his poetic vision was both invigorated and constrained by the affordances of the materials of production, notably the handheld 16mm film camera.

  • Sterritt, David. 2005. Challenging the eye: Three avant-garde imagemakers. In Guiltless pleasures: A David Sterritt film reader. Edited by David Sterritt, 226–238. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

    A chapter in a compendium of the works of Christian Science Monitor film critic David Sterritt, in which the author gives a broad overview of Brakhage and his relation to the American avant-garde. Written in the early 1980s, this synopsis of Brakhage is situated within the tensions of the emergence of postmodernism, though this is merely implied in a critique of the filmmaker’s aesthetics.

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