From Stan Brakhage Remembrances:

Howard Guttenplan, September 2003

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


The first time I saw Stan Brakhage was at a Filmmakers’ Cinematheque screening at the Astor Place Theater on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan. I was a kid living in Brooklyn, coming in regularly to see “underground films” that I was reading about in the Village Voice. I was struck by this tall, unusual looking man wearing a flowing western-style shirt. He was standing in the hallway of the theater talking to someone while rubbing his eyes. Moving closer, I realized he was describing his theory of “closed-eye vision.”

I remember his first show at Millennium in the 1970s, when we premiered his powerful film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. It was crowded with filmmakers and others; the atmosphere was truly electric. His talk was fascinating and covered the gamut, from the making of the three films in the program to his theory of personal cinema. It was apparent that we had to have Stan Brakhage back, again and again, as these shows were so provocative and important to all concerned. He did come back, almost every year with his newest films until just before he died.

It’s hard to believe that we won’t be talking on the phone again and that there won’t be any more letters about his upcoming shows. I won’t be stepping over and through crowds of people to introduce him at the Millennium, nor see his hulking figure stride up to his seat in front of the screen, nor hear his booming voice, his words, his stories, and his provocative theories. He was the connecting tissue of postwar American avant-garde film, reaching back to Deren and Peterson and forward to the 21st century. He was incredibly prolific, not only as an extraordinary visual artist, but as a writer and talker. His films had an influence on my own film practice and photography. His stance as an uncompromising, personal filmmaker who, despite everything—little money and continuous problems with his health—managed to create more than 300 films, including a number of masterpieces, and to influence two generations of artists.

He was in touch with many, many artists and provided emotional support to scores of people. He was gregarious, humorous, and curious about the world, and he really listened. Of course, he was imperfect, like all of us. He could be moody, self-centered, and hyperbolic, but he was a great man that brought us all a special gift of light. I remember fondly his reaction to descriptive film terms during his first talk at Millennium: “Movements are great but the whole problem we’ve always had is having terms to fit them. I mean no one ever liked avant-garde. I mean it was French and we all hated that. We did not like experimental. That was an insult, implying that we didn’t know what we were doing but were just puttering. In fact, if we were called putterers, we could have made better use of that. If we were puttering filmmakers, it would have been more fun than experimental, which was a little too pompous to be just dismissed. Then what were the others?

Underground. I always hated underground, Velvet or otherwise. I mean, I don’t identify with Jean Valjean moving through the sewers of Paris, or something, with my camera, and I hated it. So terms are difficult and they always will be, or at least will be in our foreseeable lifetime in relation to film—because it has taken language centuries to be halfway sensible, if you think it is, even now, about poetry. The criticism of poetry should really properly be poetry.” –S.B.