From the Archives: Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage rants about bad art

The late Stan Brakhage, a Denver-born experimental filmmaker, was a pioneer in avant-garde cinema and a notable successor to Maya Deren and the film artists of the 1940s. A professor at the University of Colorado, he's remembered with an annual symposium and weekly film series -- and at least in part, we can thank Brakhage for the cultural gift of South Park and The Book of Mormon. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were students of Brakhage's at CU, and the animation of South Park resembles the collage style that Brakhage often used in his experimental films.

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Though Brakhage had a positive influence on the cultural community here in Colorado and the film community around the world, he also had strong ideas on Denver's art scene and the state of arts in general. In letters to CU professor Donald Sutherland, Brakhage vehemently dismissed what he called Sutherland's "defense apathy," calling it "galling." The letters are housed in the Auraria Library's Special Collections Department.

Brakhage didn't mince words about the local arts scene. As he wrote in a January 1969 letter: "I'm not 'flip'ing when I say 'There is no audience in Denver': I'm taking a STANCE against the...deaf who supported a puppet -- absolutely attached to a metronome -- as conductor of the Denver Symphony for years, who set up 'the blind leading the blind' with Otto Bach as head of the Denver Art Museum, etcetera...those who set up Art as a Church of Lip Service and thereby blight the natural growth of sensibility in the whole area.... While it is true I'm 'better known' in 'Brussels than home in Denver,' it is more to the point that I'm better known in Salt Lake City than in the whole state of Colorado -- and that has nothing what-so-ever to do with the peculiarities of geography here shaping special sense-abilities: it is the result of an active force against any continuity of good sense..." He went on to lament a society that gave any serious consideration to pop culture: "I think a good deal of whatever rancor in my reaction to your article is due to the coincidence that, shortly after reading it, Forest Williams -- with some Univ. of Colo. funds to spend on films -- called and actually consulted me seriously as to whether he should purchase 'Frankenstein', 'The Bride of Frankenstein' or 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man'.... I see I've got to become...some tough and raging old bastard...if my very sanity is to survive 'madhouse' encounters such as I'm having these days; or I could take the wit tack, call Forest back, and discuss 'seriously' with him the philosophy of Will Rogers."

Somehow art survived, though, and while there's an audience for pulpy pop flicks like Atom the Amazing Zombie Killer, the sort of film that Brakhage called the "Holy Drift Wood of penny-dreadfulism," today there's also an audience for the films of Stan Brakhage.

Below is Brakhage's 1963 film Mothlight. Many more are available to view on YouTube -- though Brakhage would argue that there's something lost in the translation from film to digital media.

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Shaughnessy Speirs