Meeting with Stan Brakhage

Discussing Abstract Film Imagery with a Master
- by Jon Lybrook


Had an interesting meeting with Stan Brakhage two weeks ago. After several attempts at getting together with him I finally caught up with him at his office at University of Colorado at Boulder's art building and he agreed to take a look at my work.

Appearing at his door I smiled to see him sitting at his desk in his cramped office talking on the phone. His walls were covered in photos. 4x6 photos, color, mostly of his family. Among them were larger wall hangings, film show posters, original art, a portrait of Beethoven in the corner, peeking out from behind his editing bench and catty-corner to his film bin, upon which hung strips of original 16mm film.

At first he said he had no time at all, then thought and said he had an hour, before he had to teach. "That's an eternity!" I said. He seemed amused and made the disclaimer that he needed to make a few phone calls first. Apparently he had a dispute with his colleagues earlier in the day when he had left a meeting in a huff and slammed a door. He left a message, apparently returning a phone call from C.U. Film Professor Phil Solomon and he said he wasn't sure of his future at the University...

He then talked with his film distributors at, I think, Canyon Cinema where he spoke about raising the price of his film "Mothlight", since that seemed to be all anyone wanted anymore, or so he believed. He also asked about his distributor's knowledge of the filmmaker who made the dark, homosexual fantasy film "Sodom", which I had seen a year before. Stan said he was interested in getting the filmmaker to come speak at CU Boulder, if the filmmaker wouldn't "make a scene and wasn't difficult, like Bruce Conner."

When finally he was off the phone I told him, while not a film, my work did require projection and I needed an outlet and some desk space. He accommodated me by moving some of the plastic Target store bags and papers out of the way. He also said he would have to be honest in whatever he said to me about my work, and that I should only take away that which was useful to me. I said I would and set up the first "film painting", or luminogram, for Stan to view.

He sat in his chair, hunched over to peer at my work. He looked intently for a moment and said he liked the tones I managed to get, but had a problem with one part of the work. The piece was "Gossamer". He then pointed to the lower left corner of the piece where he said he saw what appeared to be a little creature - a baby seal or something. I saw what he was looking at and asked why that was a problem for him. He replied that he was an Abstract Expressionist, and in his work he tries to squelch anything recognizable. I nodded and changed pieces, careful to block the light as not to blind the aging filmmaker. He asked a little about the process and I told him. When I showed him what I thought was one of the more contrived pieces, "Across the Universe" he said he liked the piece and that even though he could pick out some universal themes, there was nothing so literal that it bothered him. He said we always are looking for something like that: a plant, mountains, a tit or the like. As an aside, I once read a quote that said something like "We are most apt to believe what we desire and what we fear."

In another piece, Stan made reference to what appeared to be some scary creature. I said I saw it, but that I had an even scarier one coming up. When I showed him "Dharmapala" he said he saw a cat. I volunteered that I saw an angry evil Indian god with skulls around his feet. Stan acknowledged it and said he knows of artists that use those kinds of forces to create and that while he respected it, he himself didn't ascribe to it. When I asked what he meant, he said "Black Magic". Stan went on to say that he believed he was a channel for other beings, spirits, or what have you, and that it was important to him that he distinguish between those beings with good intent, and those with less than good intent and keep the latter from entering into his work. He cited his "Babylon" series as one such evil influence trying to break through. This influence forced him to stop work on the series, he said. Another film with either the work "killing" or "Murder" in the title was another such piece. Subconscious is another term Stan said people liked to use for this influence, and one with which people were more comfortable. When I asked him if he really believed other beings were really speaking through him when he worked, and that he was not just being metaphorical, he replied "Yes - That tells you what kind of a kook I am!"

When I asked him if he thought my work was Abstract Expressionism he grew hesitant. The last piece I brought to show him, "History" suggested something organic, in a pond to him. "That's Nature!" he exclaimed. He asked if there were more pieces to see and seemed disappointed (as was I) when I told him that was all I brought. Stan decided he liked the last piece I showed him the best. I insisted on making it a present to him, in exchange for his insight and time. He started to decline, but soon conceded.

Stan said he really liked the weight of the pieces and asked if I had Art Hardware help me with the presentation. I told him the work was my own design.

He then told me to wait a minute and scurried around and stopped for a minute at his work bench. He then smiled, and handed me a piece of 16mm film he had been working on and had just scratched his initials into to give to me. On the film was a series of markings indicative of Stan's film work, which I've known for many years, along with his signature.

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