On Sunday, March 9, avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage died after battling cancer for several years. He was 70 years old.
On his deathbed, the artist remarked to his wife, Marilyn, "I’ve had a wonderful life." It may seem ironic that one of America’s most influential experimental filmmakers — whose impact on the cinema has been compared to that of John Cage or Jackson Pollock on their respective mediums — would, in his final hours, reference Frank Capra even obliquely. But Brakhage, born in Kansas City, Missouri, grew up on a steady diet of Saturday serials, and never withheld his admiration for Hollywood movies. Brakhage loved Richard Donner’s Superman(1978), for instance, and not only because his seminal The Text of Light(1974), a celebration of refracted effulgence in a glass ashtray, was Donner’s model for the luminous crystals of the superhero’s ice palace. Such homage is how most filmgoers have experienced Brakhage’s work, a sprawling corpus of almost 400 films that spans five decades and countless aesthetic expeditions, regroupings and assaults.
Brakhage was a 19-year-old college dropout under the thrall of neo-realism when he shot his first short, Interim, in 1952. By the end of the decade, he had emerged at the forefront of the New American Cinema, a spiritual leader of homegrown experimental filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Marie Menken and Kenneth Anger.
In his earliest works, Brakhage, guided by poets such as T.S. Eliot and Robert Duncan, collapsed narrative and documentary filmmaking to reconstitute them as mythic storytelling. For subjects, he stuck with the basics: birth, death, war and sex. In Dog Star Man(1961–1964), arguably his best-known work, a bearded Brakhage, ax in hand, dog at his side, climbs a snowy mountainside in Sisyphean agony. Intercut and superimposed shots of solar flares and pulsing capillaries suggest an epic journey through inner and outer space by way of Jack London. Later, he turned to an exacting exploration of film in its purest form, painting and scratching on the celluloid itself. Though a trained musician, Brakhage eschewed soundtracks as a distraction from his meticulous visual rhythms.
As a filmmaker, writer and teacher, Brakhage could be as dogmatic as he was dedicated. In a 1997 interview he said of postmodern art: "It’s not church-worthy." And yet watching his work remains one of the cinema’s most liberating experiences. In a culture bombarded with visual input, Brakhage’s films recalibrate the eye to recognize the depths of consciousness in something as simple as the play of light, showing us just how wonderful life can be.