by Jon Cronshaw
He is one of the most important film directors of the 20th century, yet very few people have had the opportunity to see his work on the big screen.
Stan Brakhage is acknowledged as an enormous influence on directors Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly) and David Fincher (Se7en). His series of short films Dog Star Man (1961-64) are regarded as masterpieces of avant-garde film.
Many of his works are abstract and experimental – he wanted to strip film of all unnecessary elements such as sound, character and storyline, instead painting and scratching images directly onto the film’s celluloid surface.
Stan dedicated half a century to his artistic vision, producing dozens of abstract short films. He is being commemorated as part of Bradford International Film Festival. Programme organiser Tom Vincent explained why, a decade after his death, Bradford is paying tribute to Stan’s life and work.
“The festival likes people who plough their own furrow. And Stan Brakhage, more so than any other American filmmaker, dedicated everything of himself to pursuing his vision of what film could be,” Tom explained, “His work fits with the ethos of the festival because we like to show interesting short films in surprising ways. So the way I’ve organised the Stan Brakhage tribute is to show six very short films before feature films as an extra present for the audience – it harks back to when feature films used to be packaged with cartoons or newsreels.”
|Night Music (Still), (1986)|
With his films being more akin to animated abstract paintings than traditional movies, the films always elicit a mixed response from audiences. Tom said: “Film festivals are about people sharing their experience of films, so it’s fun to show Stan Brakhage because you’ll always get the reaction of ‘what’s that?’ and others who try to articulate that they like it or didn’t like it – they’re always a great talking point.”
Stan’s work relied upon the medium of film – the use of physical celluloid to produce his work, but 2013 marks the year that all of the major film distributors abandon the use of celluloid in favour of digital distribution. Tom said: “This is the reason to honour Stan Brakhage now. If there was no film, his films would not exist – you can’t do what he did digitally. The painting, the scratching and the splicing of images can only be achieved with celluloid.”
The films were intended to be a purely visual experience, with the editing making it difficult for the viewer to fix a definite meaning. Tom said: “The very rapid, flickering images create all kinds of associations that are very difficult to express in words.”
When asked why Stan never used sound in his films, Tom said: “We are under strict instructions never to project his films with sound. He thought that the ocular experience and the rhythm of the editing was kind of a sound in itself. He was interested in the psychology of the visual experience. He thought that the inclusion of sound would take something away from that.”
Stan’s films explore the medium of film as a pure art form. These screenings are a fitting tribute to an American director who carved his own path and dedicated his creative life to his own unique vision.
National Media Museum.