Joel Haertling on the Myth of Stan Brakhage and the Faust Films

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Avant-garde film legend Stan Brakhage has been both mythologized and demonized. But few deny he was an unstoppable cinematic force, and his best-known works -- Window Water Baby Moving, Mothlight, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes and Dog Star Man -- are critical parts of the avant-garde film canon.

In the 1980s, musician Joel Haertling collaborated on six films with Brakhage. The filmmaker shot them and Haertling provided the soundtrack -- a rare honor, considering that most of Brakhage's films were entirely silent. In the Faust film series, Haertling also acts -- an experience that was both rewarding and embarrassing. And tonight Haertling will show all four of the Faust films in one program, something that has only occurred a handful of times. In advance of the event, Westword spoke with Haertling about his collaboration with the late filmmaker.

See also: Suranjan Ganguly on Experimental Filmmaker Stan Brakhage

Westword: When did you first learn about the Faust films? Joel Haertling: I think when we went to Telluride Film Festival in '86. That's when we were talking about doing it. I said to Brakhage, "Well, don't you have a script or something?" We were sitting in the restaurant there, you know, and some light was coming through the window and going through a glass of water, making this weird pattern through the glass, and he said, "There is your script right there," and he pointed to it.

The next thing we heard, it was off and then it was on again. Then when we started shooting, he seemed to think everything was going pretty well. He was very superstitious about whether these kind of funny, last little pieces of film got lost or not, and they didn't get lost. They were all right there. He said, "Oh, that's a real good sign."

The main thing that was kind of interesting about that film was that it was one that he had written in 1952. Now [in the 1980s], he's 52 or 53, and he wants to do it, and he thought I looked like the right guy for it. There was a review in the LA Times that said, "Brakhage's Faust is an ordinary-looking guy." I always thought that would be nice on my tombstone: "Ordinary-looking guy."

How did you meet Brakhage?

I grew up here in Boulder. I went to the library all the time to see movies. This was in the days before VHS. When you wanted to see a movie you had to go someplace, and the library was a place where they were showing older movies.

I had first seen Stan in 1974. That's forty years ago. I'm 56 now. He did a show in the library, a packed house. I was very interested in experimental film at that age. I saw Stan there. He was a tobacco chewer. He would spit into what would look like a flask. People thought he was drinking liquor. He was in fact spitting tobacco juice into the thing.

In 1976, the library started The Young Filmmakers Competition. Young filmmakers made films; a judge would give out prizes. First year, I came in second, and in the second year, I came in first. I just beat out Bear Brakhage, Brakhage's oldest son who had made a film called Winter Dreams, which is actually real good. When we were there, Stan saw my movie called Villanelle, which is based on a song with a French horn piece. I used to play French horn. It was not as good as Bear's, so I went up to him and said, "You really deserved the first price." I still took the $150, and he took the $75, but Brakhage thought that was kind of nice. I would see him around, but I didn't have any rapport with him.

When did you start collaborating with him?

I started a music group in '83. This guy, Rick Corrigan, got involved with it. His wife, Denise Judson, was sitting in on classes that Brakhage was teaching at CU. She was having an affair with Brakhage. She played a cassette of the music of Architect's Office, which was the name of the group, with Rick and some of the rest of us. Brakhage liked that music, and that's how we became acquainted with Brakhage more than superficially. Can you see the convolution of the thing? In other words, the way I started working with Brakhage was because my best friend Rick's wife was having an affair with Brakhage. He didn't care, because he had his own imbroglios going on, as he later put it.

This was all in the midst of a bunch of films: the first Faust film and also one called I... Dreaming. It's kind of a big one. It's on the Criterion Collection. In 1988, we had no clue. During this time, we were shooting all these other movies, but he created this masterpiece called The Loom. Unless you've seen it on film, you wouldn't see it on a DVD. It's a four-part thing about the animals up at the cabin. It's absolutely incredible. It's the 1980s masterpiece. We'd go up there all the time. He'd say, "Oh, I want to show you this movie." Here is this '80s masterpiece. He was making [films] secretly almost all the time.

Read on for more from Joel Haertling.

How were the films funded?

The Faust film started with a grant. Then Brakhage got another grant to make the second Faust film. This one didn't have much of the psychodrama stuff in it. There was no nudity or masturbation scene. He tried to get me to do a masturbation scene, and it was embarrassing. I couldn't do it. I put my hands in my pants. It was a terribly embarrassing thing.

Brakhage stood by me, despite them all telling him, "Why are you working with that crummy guy?" That was me. He stood by me until Faust Part 4. I don't know where he got the grant. By this point, the granting organizations were telling him he's too old to write for grants: "You're too famous and too old to keep writing grants here." He was always one grant behind. You need the next grant to pay for the last grant. He got to this point where he was one behind.

At this point, he had now met Marilyn [whom Brakhage eventually married] from Canada. I had big plans for Faust Part Four. I thought we'd do this thing where we'd spend three or four thousand dollars to go to Europe, and we'd visit some of the great musicians over there. Faust 4 was going to relate to experimental music. I got this kind of grand "Fuck you," and he shot all of this stuff driving around with Marilyn from Canada. I thought it was a huge betrayal of the whole Faust thing.

At that time, since Rick and I weren't talking because of a breakup, a him-stealing-my-girlfriend type of thing, Brakhage said that I'm going to do half and Rick is going to do half. I said, I'm not doing that, so it's half silent. Rick did his part, and I let my part run silent. I've actually refused to do two Brakhage soundtracks. There were eight altogether, and I chose not to do two of them.

It's pretty rare for Brakhage to be using sound in this way.

Brakhage thought that film was an art unto itself and that the marriage of film and sound was an aesthetic error.

Why do you think Brakhage started collaborating with musicians?

Maybe he was lonely making experimental films with no collaborators and no sound at all. That could have been part of it. He was turning 50-55, and I don't think he felt well. He was always saying that he finds his life unbearable. Was Faust your last collaboration with him?

No, in fact, after that came I... Dream. That would have been the fourth of the silent films I did with him. Then we had a fight about Faust Part Four, where I refused to do the soundtrack. For two years, we didn't even talk. Brakhage called it oedipal. He said I was trying to kill the father. I call it reverse-oedipal, that he was trying to kill the son.

What caused the fight?

This was real common with Brakhage and a lot of his male friends, probably females, too, though I'm sure he treated females even worse. There would be a strong friendship, enthusiastic, and then there would be this great kaboom, and you weren't friends anymore. He'd tell you off.

It was a terrible betrayal for me because I thought it was so important that I was working with Brakhage and doing soundtracks for him. Over the years, I realized that was some of the best work I did in sound. And I never did any other acting.

What was it like to work with him?

None of us were getting laid at the time. If you really were to refuse to masturbate, you could have a nocturnal emission right. I told him about that. He said, "Oh, those are very difficult to photograph." He'd go, "Ho, ho, ho." He had a real funny laugh. He'd get really sweaty.

It was awful for me. But for him, he was getting sweaty. He's in a trance. It was called "the trance state." He couldn't remember his name, and he couldn't talk. He'd lose his ability to communicate. He'd get into this frenzy. He was communing with his muse. His muse was some kind of ethereal, beautiful woman. How did your actual lives entwine within the shooting process?

It was a real rotten time in the world. We'd almost gone into a nuclear war by accident in 1983, and in 1986 was Chernobyl. We were all thinking, we're not going to live past thirty. And now, almost thirty years later, we're thinking, "Oh, I wish I'd taken care of myself better in those days." You know, smoking and drinking, we thought we weren't going to make it. Did the life experiences get entwined to make these movies? The life experiences got entwined to make these movies. It's all kind of along the lines of feeling sorry for yourself. It was pathetic.

Those were the early days of the AIDS scare, too. It was difficult to get laid. It wasn't like it was before. In the '60s, girls were chicks, and now they were men-hating women. He was real upset about the effect of women's lib. Women's lib had taken a stronghold for at least five years. It was an anti-men version of women's lib. That was pretty hard for fellas, too. Now, we're at the AIDS scare. It's like the right-wing had invented this to get all us out-of-control fornicators.

It was terrible for other reasons, too. Reaganomics was hard. None of us seemed to have any job or any money. That's why we had so much time to make the movies.

The screening of the four Faust films starts at 8 p.m. tonight, November 24, at Glob, 3551 Brighton Boulevard. For more information, go to the event's Facebook page.

Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris.

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