Few filmmakers have pushed the limits of cinema as forcefully as the late Stan Brakhage. His hundreds of films forged a cinematic language that has dominated the experimental media world since the 1950s. Brakhage work is not the easiest to watch. Some films, such as Window Water Baby Moving, use rapid editing and gestural camerawork to document a home birth, a subject that was beyond taboo when it was made in 1959 and still manages to shock contemporary audiences; others, such as Night Music, are explosions of swirling colors hand-painted directly onto film.
So some handholding is helpful for those learning to access the richness of Brakhage's work -- and that's where Suranjan Ganguly comes in. A University of Colorado professor, scholar of poetic cinema and friend of Brakhage, he asks the questions these films demand: What can we see? What are we trained not to see? What realms of experience have we been denied by tutoring our eyes in puritanical moral systems and the oppressive logic of nineteenth century perspective? In advance of Stan Brakhage: An Adventure in Perception, Ganguly's Saturday, March 15 presentation, we spoke with him about Brakhage's work.
Westword: Talk about your how you first connected with Brakhage. Suranjan Ganguly: When I came to teach at CU, Brakhage was my colleague. There was an instant chemistry between us. We became close friends right from the start. That friendship was reinforced during the twelve years I knew him, before he died. I was not just his colleague but also his close friend. He was my mentor. He gave me so much which I treasure and will treasure all my life. He helped me get into experimental film. I couldn't have had a better teacher. He took me under his wings and taught me how to appreciate the nuances of experimental film. Today, experimental film has become a very important part of my life.
Talk about your friendship with Brakhage.
There was nothing we could not talk about. It was one of those rare friendships where we both felt completely at ease with each other. There were no secrets. There was nothing we would hide from each other. We'd talk about any and everything and meet as often as we could. He had so much to give me, and he was always very generous and would reach out to people and would help as much as he could. He was also very interested in my culture, since I'm from India. He was always interested in finding out more, especially about the arts, cinema and poetry. We both loved poetry and had a great love for the visual arts. We both loved to talk about these issues and exchange books. I have so many books that Stan gave me, mostly books on poetry and art. It was a friendship that was very complex and very simple at the same time. It had so many different aspects to it. We were, like close friends are, able to relate to each other on multiple levels and open up to each other.
Talk about your entry point into experimental film.
I still remember Stan showing me The Art of Vision, which is four hours long. That was my introduction to Brakhage's work. It was trial by fire. I think he wanted to see if I would be able to sit through a four-hour-long, challenging experimental film. It was a special screening. Four or five of us got together that night and watched it. I stayed for the entire screening, and it affected me profoundly. Stan had already invited me to become part of the salon, which would meet every Sunday. He had a select group of people who would meet at his house, and he would show films from his own private collection. He had one of the very best private collections of avant-garde film. Sunday was very special for us. We would watch these films and talk about them.
This went on for quite a few years, until his children from his second marriage began to grow older, and it was time to move the salon to a more public venue. It became a CU campus event. Every Sunday night, it was free and open to the public. We would get maybe 25 or 30 people, sometimes less. It was the same sort of setting where we would watch films and talk about them. That helped me experience a wide range of films I never would have seen otherwise.
Then I started attending Stan's classes during the semester. That was also a way of discovering a variety of experimental filmmakers and their work. We would meet every day or every other day and have a chance to talk about what we had seen together or film in general. He was always there to encourage me, to help me make these discoveries and guide me and help me appreciate the complexities of these films. Experimental film was a new art form for me. That has to be the world's best introduction to the genre.
I couldn't have had a better guide. He opened my eyes to something so profound and beautiful. I couldn't have imagined a better scenario.
Continue on to learn more about Brakhage's theories of perception.
Talk about the title of the talk: "Adventures in Perception." I think that speaks volumes about Brakhage's work.
It was a phrase Brakhage used himself. It addresses his lifelong obsession with vision, the act of seeing, the sensual processes. Any program on Brakhage has to take that into account. Stan's work focuses on making us conscious of what we do not know that we see. One of the premises of his work is that we are denied various ways of looking at the world. Our vision has been constricted by language.
The word has always come first for us, whereas Brakhage believes there is a whole way of receiving the world that is based on perception, not on language. For him, sight comes first, not the word. Because we are so conditioned to give names to things and put labels on things and create these semantic categories, right from the start, as we are going through this acculturation process, we are losing out on our capacity to experience the world in all its visual splendor and richness.
Stan talks about how a small child crawling in a field of grass doesn't know or understand the word green. He can see a vast array of shimmering greens, which we are no longer capable of experiencing as adults.
We only see what we've been taught to see, what we have learned to see, things that have been given names. Stan is very interested in children and their vision of the world, because they have what he calls "untutored eyes." They are able to take in so much more than we can as adults. Their vision has no beginning or end. It is full of visual possibilities. It is almost endless in terms of what we can see and experience. Though we can't ever go back to that kind of vision, Stan hopes he can un-tutor our eyes while making us conscious of the different forms of seeing, which we have learned to suppress.
There are multiple ways of seeing, which Brakhage emphasizes. He believed that seeing, on the one hand, is very simple, and at the same time, it can be very complex. We have forgotten how to see. For him, vision is a better word than seeing, because vision involves both the images which we take in through the open eyes, but also images we take in through imagination, memories, hallucinations and dreams. There are images that come in through what he would call hypnagogic or closed-eye vision (what we can see when our eyes are closed), which is basically optical feedback. Another form of vision is peripheral vision, that which we can see from the corners of our eyes. Vision involves a wide variety of ways of seeing which affect our eyes, our nervous systems, our bodies and our minds.
So he believed that cinema was ideally suited to capture these various forms of seeing or to give us a visual equivalent of the act of seeing itself. He feels, for example, the graininess of film corresponds to what we see with our eyes closed. Rapid cutting or montage becomes the equivalent of what he calls the saccadic movement of the eyes. A single shot or a superimposition could be an equivalent of memory recall. Editing corresponds to the processes of remembering things: We often leave out things; we keep certain memories and discard others. So there are various ways that film can be described as a form of recreating or reproducing this whole complex process of vision or seeing.
At the same time, he felt that the camera and the cinematic apparatus were not adequate in terms of capturing these various forms of seeing or perceptual processes, because the camera had already been designed in a certain way. For example, the camera lenses have been ground, in such a way, as to create nineteenth-century perspective or compositional logic. That becomes a problem, obviously, because you cannot create these various equivalents of seeing with a machine that has already been predesigned to exclude various forms of experiencing the world.
Continue on to learn more about Brakhage's theories of perception.
What are your thoughts on how he challenged dominant forms of vision?
He began to reinvent the cinematic apparatus: He did away with the tripod; he obliterated perspective; he began to shoot and experiment with different film speeds; he also got rid of sound. There are only thirty films with sound. Considering he made about 350 films, it's a very tiny percentage of his oeuvre.
But that was not enough. To give his viewers a true sense of the immensities involved in experiencing the world and the complexities of that process, cinema cannot, for Stan, provide us with an equivalent of the act of seeing. Even with the choices he made and the reinvention of the cinematic apparatus, it was not enough to capture certain forms of vision, especially the hypnogogic (the closed-eye) forms of vision with a camera. So he had to find other ways of doing that, and that meant directly working on the filmstrip with his hands. For example, if you go back to his early films, he started scratching on film and then began to paint on film. By the time I met him, painting on film had become his most important form of filmmaking. He was getting less and less interested in using the camera, though he was still occasionally shooting with the camera, but he was primarily committed to directly painting on film. It was a fascinating process, and it was something that we would watch him do.
He would sit in a cafe here in Boulder and paint while he was having his lunch or his Irish coffee, which he would take every day. People would sometimes gather and watch over his shoulder as he would paint, and he had no problem with that. Why was he painting on film? Because of this interior vision, which he thought the camera could not capture or reproduce. How do you capture the singing of the cells or the screaming of shapes and forms that you can see with your eyes closed or even with your eyes open.
Seeing is not just seeing. It's intimately related to the process of thinking. He was also exploring thought process. Thought process goes beyond what we consider to be concrete thoughts that we can understand with words. That's where the abstraction comes in, to a large extent. He's trying to capture these shapes and colors and forms, which are integral to the process of thinking. Since thinking is intimately connected to the act of seeing, they go hand in hand. To create a corollary or an equivalent of these complex forms of seeing and thinking, he had to start scratching on film or start painting on film to achieve some form of a corollary.
Looking at his hand-painted films, you get a sense of that inner vision that I was talking about, or certain forms of thinking that are either preverbal or pre-symbolic. You see that form of thinking that is done without words, without language, which is shapes and forms and colors. Looking at these shapes and forms and colors, you get a sense of the complexity of the mind itself and how the mind works in response to the world outside it.
His films help us not only to see life fully but also to live life fully. All these things will lead to the big question, of course: What makes us truly human? It's also about becoming complex and complete human beings and recognizing what we are capable of and our potential as human beings. That sounds kind of grandiose, maybe, but what I'm saying is that I hope that those who come to see these films will take away something that will have personal resonance or meaning for them in terms of how they relate to the world around them. It's so interesting to look at experimental film from the last fifteen years and see so much of Brakhage's influence. It seems like the challenge facing experimental filmmakers today is to wrestle themselves out from under Brakhage's legacy, to honor it but to move on.
It's kind of fashionable to think of rebels today breaking away from traditions and striking out on their own. That's fine -- but for me, the work which I appreciate and that interests and surprises me dialogues with the past and recognizes the lessons which can be learned from the past, so there is not just a sense of rupture, but a sense of learning.
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Join Ganguly for "Stan Brakhage: An Adventure in Perception" at Counterpath, 613 22nd Street, at 6:30 p.m. on March 15. For more information, go to the Counterpath website. Ganguly also hosts the Brakhage Film Series at 7:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month of the fall and spring semesters at the CU campus in Boulder, in Atlas 100.