From Stan Brakhage Remembrances:

Stan Brakage: A "Quiller" Man

Kathryn Elder

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


I first encountered Stan Brakhage and his films in a public lecture at a summer session of the New England University Film Study Center in the early 1970s. The Center’s curriculum covered film and video production and the history of cinema. An especially nice feature of the summer school was that each instructor would do an evening presentation so that all the students could get a better sense of his/his contribution to the program. As a Canadian, my understanding of the contemporary avant-garde had been formed by the work and writings of Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and Jack Chambers and so when Brakhage did his presentation, I was quite taken aback at the intensity of this artist and his films. But it was evident to me then that Brakhage was a filmmaker to be reckoned with and so I took every opportunity to know his work better, often driving to SUNY Buffalo where Gerald O’Grady, that wonderful teacher and promoter of the American avant-garde, organized week-end events, like “Autobiography in the Avant-Garde.”

Over the years, Stan and I met many times and it became one of my great pleasures to develop a personal friendship with him. Many know that he was a voracious reader - especially of poetry, biography and art - and that he would generously share his finds. With me, however, he passed along books of a different sort—detective fiction and espionage novels. I don’t remember what triggered the exchange, but once it got started I had difficulty keeping up with his gifts. He did expect me to comment on each one and I didn’t want to let him down. Reciprocating in kind was hard - he really loved the American “blood and guts” approach while I preferred British writers. But my training as a librarian made me game for anything and so I read whatever he sent. Among the authors he liked were Thomas Harris, Walter Mosely, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Sanders, Michael Connelly, Len Deighton and John le Carre. I passed along Peter Robinson, early Phillip Kerr (his Berlin Noir trilogy and Dead Meat), Laurie King (Stan really enjoyed her take on Sherlock Holmes) and John Farrow (Montreal stories set in winter). When I reflect back on why he read these books, I can only assume that, like going to the “movies,” it helped relieve the stress of art making. Certainly his favourite fiction character, Quiller, the creation of Adam Hall (a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor), suggests this.

The plots of the Quiller books seemed similar to me - the exhausted secret agent, known only as Quiller, would return to London headquarters following an assignment. He would be having second thoughts about continuing his work, and he would be chastised by his supervisors for going against their directives in the field. But before the night was out, Quiller would be on his way again either to rescue a fellow agent or to escort an important political figure or step in for someone who had been murdered. What I found unique about the Quiller books is that the reader experiences the character’s response to a horrible situation through the physical changes in Quiller’s body as he rises to the challenge. And so in retrospect, that Stan would take so much pleasure in such a character doesn’t seem at all strange, when you consider the place of the body in his art.

The last book I sent Stan was James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. I know he was looking forward to getting it, and it saddens me not to have had that chat with him about it, or to share any more authors.