In Memory: Stan Brakhage 1933-2003
Realm Buster: Stan Brakhage
Michael McClure & Steve Anker in Conversation
MICHAEL McCLURE: Stan is a realm buster, and I use "realm" as the word is used in Biology and in Zen. Stan uses his energy and it's almost like moving his shoulders powerfully to break the walls between realms. Some of these realms are the concept of painting, the idea of poetry, the meaning of music, what portrait is, what personal physiology is; other realms that Stan opens up are human and other biology, also the nervous system, ideation -- how things are conceived; and then there's the separation between hearing and seeing, sound and silence, and music and sound, which are all explored and more or less brought into one shape in his work. When enough realms are opened, the walls between them are torn down or ignored away, then consciousness and concrete experience become one sizeless event in the sizeless event of the Taoist uncarved block which is either the universe or the body, as you see it.
Stan likes to say that he was frustrated in his early desire to be a poet and that his hundreds of hours on film are closer to music than to poetry. I can appreciate that, especially in terms of Messiaen or Vivaldi. I also hear his delight in Madrigals, as much as the other music. But Stan derives some of the organicity of his huge body of wrier from the style and thoughts of some liberated poets of today. I'm thinking of the works of Robert Duncan, as they branch like rivers and streams, one from another, lighting in the dark of the night or lighting the dark of the body and mind. There's also the sizeless willingness of Charles Olson's spirit in Stan's films -- Olson's willingness to let things break, to let things fall down and go boom, and to trust that they will land on all fours. Further, there's the sheer trusting experimentality of Gertrude Stein in Stan's work and there's Stan's love of the wry, aesthetic wit and intellective delicacy of Louis Zukofsky.
I first met Stan in 1954, at which point he has described himself as being "the houseboy of Robert Duncan and Jess Collins," meaning by that that he helped them fix meals, do dishes, and slept in the flat below their place. I had just begun to know Robert Duncan and Jess Collins through Robert's first poetry workshop at San Francisco State, which included myself and Helen Adam, a balladeer of the strange and haunted, who was in her girlhood in Scotland called the Fairy Poet. On what was perhaps my first visit to Robert and Jess's San Francisco flat in 1954, Stan came upstairs to visit. My impression was that Stan was inhabiting the floor below Robert and Jess, which was the housing, as I understood it, for the Centaur Press of Kermit Sheets and James Broughton. Stan is the same age as I am, within a few months, and also as I am, Kansas born. When I saw his huge head with dark, tousled hair and intense eyes that were simultaneously focused and staring, I recognized a kindred spirit.
I saw Stan visiting Duncan's lectures at the workshop he was teaching on a number of occasions. Stan was absorbing the energetic principles of the concept of field from Olson via Duncan, and he was taking in the intensively biological shaping-ideas of Robert Duncan and the beautiful, unique concepts of collage of Jess Collins. Stan was a young man who was sui generis and coming up as a member of an artist foster family of sui generis individuals. Stan's myriad-mindedness is both on the surface and below the surface. Surface-wise, Stan is myriad minded in the art of film, and so busy freeing realms from walls between them, that it's impossible to keep up with him. On the less visible field he is tirelessly investigating not only the arts and history with a voracious love for them, but he's also digging through realms of science -- particularly the biology of seeing and the neurochemical anatomy of the nervous system. Stan agrees with Thoreau that, "One must stand up to live before one sits down to write," or to edit film for that matter. And Stan stands up not only with his travels and his varied adventures and family mountain life and film, but also wit the large scale of his passions, his happinesses, his pleasures, his modesties. He's fought a battle with the arts just to be the genius that he is and to create his won art of the film. His wars have not made him cruel or small minded, but allowed his full generosity to come to scale and to empower him to love and help friends.
STEVE ANKER: I find your idea about Stan being a realm buster very exciting and actually very pointed. Since you mentioned that he feels that his art is closest to music, I'm wondering if you think his constant return to poetry -- both in terms of specific works of the poets you alluded to, but also in how he uses poetry and central ideas of modern poetry aesthetically in his own work -- has a direct correlation to a world of words embodying impulses and ideas as distinct from the world of images?
MM: What I meant to say was that Stan attributes a greater resemblance of his work to music than poetry. I honor the fact that his work is deeply akin to music, but I feel that it has its roots in, among others, Robert Duncan's poetry, wherein for instance the long serial poem Robert wrote called "Passages" shifts over and becomes another poem and then returns to the streambed of its poemness, and then disappears while he's writing other poems, and then these other poems connect with other poems, creating what people have compared to a tree or a stream, but in fact it's more like the mycelium, the unseen part of the mushroom that brings forth the fruiting body that we think of as the mushroom. It's a big, unseen, vital presence going on underneath the creativity, which we then see as teh flowers of individual series or circuits of films or as films themselves. And then also, one of the things I didn't mention, but you had spoken of earlier, is Stan's relationship to Creeley as an inspiration for some of his vision. Stan speaks well of Creeley's work himself, but I would add that he sees Creeley's improvisation. I don't think Stan follows jazz and Creeley has followed Jazz, and through Creeley, Stan is inheriting a sense of jazz improvisation which neatly accompanies his sense of Pollock-like improvisation. Also, with Creeley in many of the short, early poems and parts of the later, longer poems, there is an almost hypnogogic imagery following the poem. I know Stan sees that as much as I do when I read Creeley.
SA: One of the aspects of Stan's work which has had the greatest impact, especially in the world of film, is it's relation to the dailiness of his own life and how he's able to make use of this through film images. That was radical especially in the beginning, but remains so -- in fact may be even more radical now than it was thirty years ago.
MM: I agree completely. I see it as still more radical now. He has gone through what could on one hand be perceived as the ordinariness of life in the home, and then on the other hand, to my way of seeing it, is seeing life in the home, in the family, in the body, with one's pets, with the floor, with the window, as being free of realm -- not fitting into the idea of, it is a tree, it is a floor, it is a pet, it is a wife. It isa life and it becomes more extraordinary at a time when ways of perceiving in the sciences, as well as in art, are being carved smaller and smaller. I agree with you: it's more extraordinary now. People may have tried to do what Stan is doing, but good luck to them. I hope more of them can. Stan stands there looking more extraordinary as he continues his work, and even more unique.
SA: Stan's art is really about allowing the viewer to have a sense of discovery of even the most mundane elements in life, that there really is a uniqueness to everything, at least as manifested in his films visually.
MM: What I get from Stan is the sizelessness of myself. He views himself in a sizeless way. He sees these things as not having size. By not having size, I mean not having scale. I suppose one could say he sees everything monumentally, but that's not true either, because he also sees some things microscopically. But microscopically and monumentally are beside the point if there isn't any sense of scale. And if there isn't any sense of scale, if there's no proportion, if there is sizelessness, we're free in it. We're free for the first time.
SA: We're especially free from the ordinary and the conventional ways of making sense with our eyes.
MM: Stan is against making conventional sense with the eyes. He is committed to it. But it may be because he can't. I mean, this is Stan. This is part of the wonderful thing about it -- we're seeing his physiology. He may have made a manifesto out of this, but we're seeing what he does. We're seeing the critter. We're seeing the man there doing what he does.
SA: We're also being given a direct way to experience his kinesthetic sense of moving through the world. I think in addition to the dailiness of his art, which has been so radical going back to the beginning, one of his great achievements is how his work embodies his own particular kinesthetic energy. This is brought out in the rhythms -- in a sense, the music -- of the flow of his energy. I think that direct comparisons to poetry have to do with repetition, rhythmic gestures, or particular phrasings within each film. I think what's been so remarkable in his work, is his ability to free images -- the way that he's been able to record elements in his world, free them as images and position them within the flow of his own kinesthetic energy. That's something we're much more used to, recognizing the worlds of poetry, music, and other time-based art forms.
MM: Unfortunately we don't see it in a lot of poetry. Maybe that's why Stan likes to ally himself with music. Maybe we can see more of it in music. We see it intensely when we see it in poetry, but this is not what we're finding in the recent generation of free-verse poets. Free verse died and there's nothing left that's constructive. There are people doing it, but...well, Stan and I come from the same direction. That's what interests me. He mentions in an interview somewhere finding the article on Jackson Pollock in Life magazine in 1948, and what it did to his life, what it did to his world view. There's also what it did to mine. It's different, but we're both coming from the same direction, and my reaction to seeing Pollock in Life magazine, was there's something really exciting going on out there. I want out there! I was prepared to the extent that, although I was pretty young, I had seen and was familiar with the Surrealist painters -- Dali and Picasso for instance -- but Pollock was big news! Soon after that I was becoming initiated into jazz by going to late-night jam sessions. It was in the same manner of experience, although it was different experience. You do get the thought sometimes that all moments are the same moment -- the content of them is just different for different people. I felt sometime like Stan and I were having the same moment. He was having his Jackson Pollock moment; I was having my jazz moment; he was having his Messiaen moment. But also, we were both headed out of Kansas. We had both been born in the year that was the height of the dust bowl and in which soil electrolytes had ben stirred to such disturbances; it probably was rare even in the state of Kansas. There literally was energy in the air and energy in the seasons which maintained themselves like that for a couple of decades afterwards, and we were taking that out with us when we left. We had crazy Kansas eyes and crazy Kansas ways of seeing the violence of things that we did see there, as well as the sensitive human crudeness of things. I remember seeing, as I'm sure Stan does, reapers reaping by hand, not by mower. An then I remember seeing people reaping with horse-drawn reapers, and then later the tractor began to come in.
SA: It's fascinating to me that so many remarkable people have come out of Kansas. Do you think that coming from the Midwest, which is relatively flat, by comparison with the mountains of Colorado and the East and West coasts, has made you guys more sensitive to and responsive to upheavals, including as manifested in art?
MM: I do think that the violence of the weather that we saw in our childhood, which I believe was probably more extreme than it is today, extremes of heat and snow and wind, and in the violence of the people of Kansas, whether it was manifested as bar fights or tent revivals, which we saw a fair amount of in those days, probably quickened sensitivity to emotional whirlings as much as to seeing the mountains or the oceans. In Stan's case he went to the mountains; my case, I went to the ocean.
SA: Could I ask you something about the world of myth, which has always been very central to Stan? Many of the titles of his films reference the worlds of classic mythology, classical thinking and learning, and of course classical art. This has become an increasingly hermetic practice over the last thirty years, and I think at this point in time only rare specialists and poets are actively engaged in the world of myth and the vast numbers of cultures that have added to and referenced this world over the centuries. It's always been interesting to me how much Stan, more than any other filmmaker, recognizes the importance of this, and how much it informs his world. I'm curious how much you've thought about that over the years, especially since the world of myth is so much more central to the domain of poetry.
MM: Myth is death, which makes it completely useable for the romantic poets. For instance, take a sonnet of Keats where he braids up a vision out of Dante and the myth of Zeus changing his mistress into a heifer, so that she can escape from the watchful eyes of the hundred-eyed peacock god, Argos. That Keats would take Dante and classical Greco-Roman mythology and mix Dante's vision with that mythology and turn it into an incredibly beautiful and delicate sonnet of his own, shows just how dead myth was in the pre-Victorian Romantic period where myth was being used heavily. You see Blake reinventing myth from ground zero. We see Stan using a myth, but what Stan produces doesn't really have anything to do with the myth, it has to do with what Stan is living when he thinks of that myth.
SA: In one of his earliest writings, Stan says that he is learning to be a transformer. He's learning the magic of transformation and calls himself a "magician."
MM: I think you mentioned that Stan spoke about spells. And when I hear the word "spell," I think of two things: I think of the spells by the old kindred, the pre-Celtic people, the Cruithins of the British Isles, and I also think of the Asian tradition of the spell. One of the forms of the spell is the tantra -- pre-Buddhist, and shifting into Buddhism in its early stages there's a period where tantra pours into the infrastructure of Buddhism. Tantra originally meant a ceremony or set of actions or imaginings to change the shape of the universe. I would think of that as being the closest can think of to a spell, in my life. Over the phone I read Stan the very last of my "Ghost Tantras" as I was writing them. They were spontaneously written, a book of ninety-nine poems in what I call "Beast Language." I'd been writing them for about three or four months and Stan gave me a call -- this was in 1962 or '63. Stan called me up from wherever he was. I was back in San Francisco after a trip to Mexico, and I said, "Wait just a minute, Stan," and I finished the last tantra. He waited for a moment and I said, "Here it is, Stanley!" He didn't have any idea what it was or what the "grahhhhrs" were about. Nobody knew I was writing these, and I read him the ninety-ninth tantra in Beast Language. It was the first one to be heard by another person. I'd been hermetic and secretive in the writing.
SA: One of the ways in which Stan understands his task is that he is making the art of cinema sacred -- both in the making, but then of course in the experiencing. And I think what you're describing is the process of a sacred act; it really allows the person a chance for transformation and to recreate their universe.
MM: You're absolutely right. I think that's a beautiful definition of what his work does. To further verify that, I think of the next to the last time I saw a work of his at the Pacific Film Archive, and they had blacked out the exit signs so that it wold be as black as the inside of a skull. It was a high-level experience and something almost knightly or grail questly about it -- particularly for me since they were films I hadn't seen before, and were particularly gorgeous flms -- the one with the title about the cat and the green worm...
SA: I'd like to ask something concrete: Stan's been making films for about fifty years, and you've been watching films no doubt for most of your life, also well over fifty years. These are the same years in which there's essentially been a revolution in understanding film -- not just in the more poetic realms of film, but even in terms of narrative, commercial film. In these years we've had French and many other new waves; we've had a new understanding and redefinition of narrative films, including within the terms of American cinema. I'm curious how our sense of Stan's work has developed alongside and in relation to other forms of film, and how you have continued to see the value of film in the course of your own life over these last fifty years?
MM: Stan is a true alchemist in the sense that I honor, and is a true visionary in the sense that I honor a visionary. I cannot even place his films on the same ground with anything that comes out of Hollywood. I can't make the comparison. Stan and a few other enormously gifted persons ranging from Jack Smith to Bruce Conner to Bruce Baillie to Kenneth Anger created a new art, and I can't see mixing it up, with the narrative film, much less the Hollywood film. My recent experience in seeing The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm was one of the deepest -- and of course the film was set in a nest of other films of Stan's. It was set in a nest of handpainted films, which were stimulating, like looking at the paintings inside of a Paleolithic cave, except abstract; also slightly reminiscent of the eye visions that you get on hearing Stockhausen's music. But then, to come up with this Cat of the Worm's Green Realm! That's wonderful. I felt like when a caterpillar makes its pupa and the being of this maggot-like, worm-like eater of leaves, lovely little thing in itself, melts into a primal substance, in an alchemical process where it is cojoining and introducing mercury and sulfur, and creates a butterfly as a result. I have seen this process where the pupa has been opened and a glass wall has been inserted in the cocoon. The transformation takes place so that you can see it through glass. I felt as if the same transformation was taking place inside of me, particularly in that film, that I had been melted inside into mercury and that I was transforming and I wasn't going to be the same again afterwards, and I didn't want to be. And it wasn't going to be the biggest thing that ever happened in my life, but it was going to be part of my life. It wasn't going to be a movie that I went to and walked out of, and ho-hum I can't even remember what happened.
SA: One of the things that comes to mind as you speak about this is that Stan's recent films, pretty much all of his hand-colored ones, can seem so slight and can seem in comparison, to melt or blend into one another. But they are in fact so delicate -- in the end so very distinct from one another -- and I think they can be so easily misunderstood because of their simplicity and their delicacy, that they can be taken for granted. I think as you speak about the caterpillar and the butterfly, you're talking about common insects which seem so second-nature to us all, and yet they are so miraculous. The process of transformation which you describe is also so miraculous, and when this is understood with a renewed appreciation one realizes that it is one of the great aspects of living. But it can also be so easily overlooked. I think that that's part the lesson of his later films: that they can seem to be only scratchings, to be only crude, basic, elementary kids of expressions. But they really demand and in the end offer a unique piece of yourself to have any value. If you allow them to enter yourself, they take up a very special place which I don't think is occupied by anything else of this kind. So it's special -- in other words, as simple as they may seem and as seemingly crude as they may seem, they become incredibly precious parts of our beings.
MM: I don't think it could be said better than that. I would like to say, it's wonderful to be able to observe a truly great artist in a new art form working, as perhaps Monet, worked in his old age, and what an enormous pleasure it is, and what an enormous pleasure it is for us to have this conversation.
September 15, 2001
previously published in Chicago Review 47:4/48:1, Winter 2001, which was devoted to the work of Stan Brakhage.