From Stan Brakhage Remembrances:

Brakhage Reminiscences

Steve Anker

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances


I was always amazed by the two distinctly different, even opposite sides of Brakhage, the man. One side was the public figure: an endlessly talkative, challenging and galvanizing proponent of art and the life of the artist—both embattled pursuits in this culture—as sacred activities necessary to a healthy society. The other was the private Brakhage: relishing the relaxed intimacy of his home or hotel room, insatiably needing to connect with friends either in-person or by phone at all hours of the day or night to share his passions, or to simply enjoy each one’s own art, responses, and updates as to what they had been doing.

For ten years I only knew the public Brakhage: I first became aware of Stan and his films in 1968, while I was a student, first of Larry Gottheim, then of Ken Jacobs, at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Being one of the handful of filmmakers whose work was essential to the revolutionary ‘underground’ movement of the era, Brakhage visited Binghamton at least yearly, and the challenging content and texture of his work coupled with the defiant tenor of his presence and words left me and dozens of other young students spellbound and alternately inspired and mystified. I remember such pronouncements as “No parent would ever allow their child to become an artist; it is the least desired and most detested of society’s roles…”, or “Artists do what they do because they have no other choice; I would have done almost anything else with my life if I’d had the choice…”, or “Why can’t people allow art to live in the same way they accept parsley on their plates? They may not like it, but it takes up little space and can be easily ignored…”

By the late seventies I was teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art and had begun a screening series in Boston, and I invited Stan to appear at both in 1979. Even though I had witnessed several Brakhage lecture-presentations by that time, it was the first direct encounter I ever had with him. When we met, I was immediately surprised by how appreciative he was, often effusively, of the seriousness of my efforts. Each of the eight presentations that week had its own locale, character, and contents, and his mood or demeanor changed in each case accordingly. Invariably rising to the theatricality of any occasion, he entered the room when first appearing at Mass. Art by slamming the book he was carrying down on the nearest table and exclaiming “Damn D. W. Griffith!” The next day he shocked a large group of Freshmen—packed tightly into an airless lecture hall—by proclaiming that “No one has done more to destroy serious appreciation for classical music in America than Arthur Fiedler.” (Fiedler, a Boston sacred cow, had died a few days previously.) Brakhage could detect a potential point of contention in any social situation, and lunge towards confronting it in a manner not unlike the way piranhas are drawn to the smell of blood.

We spent many wonderful hours together that week—talking, walking, and going to new Hollywood movies (probably his favorite pastime, and one he shared with most friends)— and I was repeatedly taken aback at how interested he was in the little details of my life, and especially in my opinions regarding art and cinema. Soon after his departure, several boxes arrived at my house containing numerous Songs, each small 8mm box personally and affectionately inscribed (I’ve since learned that Stan gave such presents to dozens, and perhaps even hundreds, of people throughout his life). In this way I began to know the other side of the man.

During the eighties, after I had moved to San Francisco, my relationship with Brakhage remained primarily personal, even though we saw each other infrequently. During a handful of family visits to Colorado, I invariably spent time with him and his own families, first with Jane and some of their children in their mountain home, and later with Marilyn and their children in different Boulder apartments. Regardless of the locale, Stan would treat me like a beloved cousin and have me curl up after dinner to watch films, play with the children and talk about art and politics. Over the years, he would often phone me well into the night to ask how I was doing or find out more about a young filmmaker he had just learned of or discovered. In fact, during the past fifteen or so years, no one of his generation was more supportive of work by younger makers; Brakhage increasingly understood the crucial roles young people need to play in insuring the future viability of the art form.

Stan’s relocation to Victoria struck me at first as a logical, and now in hindsight, as a prescient climactic final move. In addition to freeing him and his family from the clutches of an American culture increasingly hostile to humanistic values, it brought him to one of the most remote and unsullied regions of the North American continent. Here he was surrounded by luminous natural beauty in addition to wide open space, and in contrast to the land-locked mountainous terrain of central Colorado, his earlier retreat from society, this was a small island at the edge of the world. When I attended his funeral, I was struck by just how remote and serene the locale was, how clearly gentle an environment this was in which Marilyn could continue raising their family into the distant future. At the funeral there were only a few local attendees in addition to his two families, two out-of-town filmmakers (Phil Solomon and Mary Beth Reed) and myself. While dozens of bouquets and notes arrived from all parts of the U.S., few of his closest friends and lifelong champions had been able to make the unexpected long and complicated trip. The ceremony was simple, respectfully religious, and realized in accordance with his wishes. The small handful of us participated by either reading his favorite passages from the Bible, offering reminiscences and appreciations, or carrying the casket—all distinctly personal touches he would have especially appreciated. In the end this most public of film artists—as challenging and avant-garde as any who has ever worked with the medium, yet whose work is increasingly celebrated throughout the world—was most firmly committed to the intimacy of private life.