Frampton, Brakhage, RE:VOIR

From: David Tetzlaff (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Feb 19 2010 - 15:50:43 PST

I regret you've felt the need to take the rhetorical low road, and
respond not to my actual comments, but to hyperbolic straw-man
parodies of my remarks. I shall restate and clarify my position again,
but this time also place it in a broader context indicating 'where I'm
coming from.' I do claim a wider validity for my position extending
beyond my own idiosyncratic taste, but in no way do I suggest that
this invalidates any other points of view. Remember, this discussion
centers around a highly celebrated art work, about which much has been
written, yet which is comparatively difficult for many people in the
United States to see, and everything I have said has been to explain
my reasons for hoping this work will become more accessible to more

For the last 10 years I was employed as a professor of Film Studies at
a small liberal arts college. The requirements to obtain a major in
any field in such a school are limited to a certain number of credits,
as students are expected to receive a broad general education. As
such, the faculty are limited in terms of which of the many elements
in their field they can introduce to their students. Furthermore, the
college where I was employed chose to take a broad-based,
interdisciplinary approach to film - including both filmmaking and
film analysis, covering a wide range of genres, and a wide range of
critical approaches, and I was hired because of my eclectic expertise
and interests. The program was very different from a school like Bard
which has a specific specialization in art film; different from the
many larger schools that focus on production training along industry
lines; different from conventional Film Studies programs that focus on
scholarly approaches to Hollywood narrative. I expect my students to
know how to shoot and assemble a narrative scene using both standard
conventions of continuity and the principles of classical cutting to
create a psychological backbone for the action. I expect them to
understand Mulvey's argument in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema." I expect them to not only understand the concept of
associative montage, but to be able to create an effective piece of
visual poetics of their own design. I expect them to grapple with the
tension between the 'concrete real' and 'the demand for formal unity'
that underlies every celebrated documentary from Nanook on down, and
to experience this first hand in making documentary shorts within
their own world. I expect them to be able to think about the cultural
politics of a media space where, as Baudrillard says, "signs lose
their meaning and collapse in exhausted fascination." And a bunch of
other stuff.

In other words, I cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time.
That involves making a lot of decisions along the lines of, 'well this
is all very interesting, but this is more important than that,
especially in terms of how all the different pieces of the curriculum
fit together.' As part of this broad take on 'Film' as an object of
study, I felt it essential to include a course on Experimental Film (a
topic, I shall point out, from which most of my fellow 'generalists'
tend to run away screaming). But I only have one course, 13 weeks, and
there's so much material. If you have never put together a college
course on some fairly wide topic, you can have no idea how difficult
and painful it is to whittle it down to size, and still have something
that is coherent, engaging and that might encourage students to look
deeper into the topic somewhere down the road. So I wind up leaving
out a lot of wonderful filmmakers and a lot of wonderful films, and
even major figures like Stan Brakhage have to fit into a day or two.
So, of necessity, I must ask myself, "If there is one thing about
Brakhage I want these students to take away from this experience, what
would that be?" That is my job, and it is a very different job than
Fred's job, or Marilyn's job, or Mark's job. But I think it's an
important job, and I took it very seriously.

I didn't answer questions of that sort based entirely on my own ideas
or taste. There is a scholarly field here, with some intellectual
history, and while I do not slavishly follow its received wisdom, it
is worthy of some respect. It seems to me something more than
historical accident that the period starting with Anticipation running
up through Dog Star Man is the most widely discussed of Brakhage's
work. To a teacher, there's also the practical matter that some films
have received more and better critical attention than others, and
since damn little of the writing that exists is particularly
accessible to undergraduates, the choice of films to show gets
influenced by the availability of suitable readings to supplement the
screenings. (And no, the kids are not up to Visionary Film, even if I
liked the book, which I don't.) Unfortunately, Brakhage did not
include a chapter on himself in Film At Wits End. I do find however,
that students can appreciate the interview Brakhage did with Sitney in
1963, reprinted in _The Film Culture Reader_, in which he talks at
length about Anticipation, Window Water and other films of that period.

Anyway, I answered my Brakhage question: "The one thing I want
students to take away about Brakhage is that he searched for a way to
free filmmaking from what he called [in that interview] 'seeing as
I've been trained to see -- Renaissance perspective, three-dimensional
logic, colors as we've been trained to call a color' and create films
along an opposite principle, works that were true to 'the patterns
that move straight out from the inside of the mind through the optic
nerves.' And circa 1957 he found what he was after and created a kind
of cinema no one had ever seen before."

Now, I did not say that this particular creative breakthrough was the
'be-all and end all' of Brakhage's career, or that his contribution
ends there or anything of the kind. I said, and I absolutely stand by
my opinion, that I think this was the most important of Brakhage's
many artistic achievements, and that a person does not need to know
about the whole arc of his prolific career to understand that
particular achievement and it's importance in terms of the history of
experimental film or it's significance in terms of film history and
theory in general. This has nothing to do with visibly traceable
'influences' in the work of other filmmakers, experimental or
commercial. It is, along the lines of Marilyn's comments about the
power of individual reactions to art, something about how art has the
capacity to shake up how we think, how we understand, even how we see.
IMHO 'Anticipation' was the big shake-up, the one work more than any
other that changed the game for everything that came after. To widen
that out beyond a single work, I'd call Brakhage's output from 1958 to
1964 (have to include Mothlight in there) the extended version of that
shake-up. Now Fred and Marilyn and anyone else may well disagree, but
to suggest that the perspective I have just stated is invalid or
idiosyncratic would simply be intellectually dishonest. Anyway, I take
Anticipation to be the paradigm of this thing that to me is the most
important thing of all the many wonderful things Stan Brakhage did,
and it upsets me that a work of this magnitude will apparently remain
difficult to see for young people in America. That's my point. I want
more people to be able to engage this work. If anyone has a problem
with that - kush mein tuches, shtik drek.

As for Brakhage's later qualms about Anticipation due to the ending:
well, just read the Sitney interview for an account of the last shot
as a completely organic expression of the life experiences that
informed the making of the film. We can't always expect artists to be
the best judges of their own work, especially given the passage of
time (e.g. Robert Nelson destroying his films or turning them into
stool cushions.) And so what if Brakhage was only 25 at the time? I
could fill a phone book with the names of artists who never equalled
the heights of their first great youthful bursts of inspiration. Not
that I would put Brakhage in that book by any means. I'm not dumping
on his later work or denying that he made important contributions to
film art right up to his tragic death. My point here is simply that
there is no reliable correlation between 'genius' and time spent on
the planet, and an artist's age at the point of creation one way or
the other is just irrelevant to the value of the work.

I think I did use the term 'hypnagogic vision' incorrectly, and so my
apologies for any confusion. I was trying to reference the kind of
perception that would correspond to the famous quote from Metaphors,
"Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye
unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to
the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in
life through an adventure of perception... Imagine a world alive with
incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of
movement and innumerable gradations of color." There's a technical
term for that, and I thought it was hypnagogia, but I looked
hypnagogia up on wikipedia and it seems that it means the space
between waking and sleep, which is not what I think Brakhage was
talking about. If anyone would care to point me to the term that now
eludes me, I would be thankful. (I know that the language of the quote
also fits the Lacanian definition/model of schizophrenia, but the term
escaping me is not weighed down with such negative connotations.)

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