From Stan Brakhage Remembrances:

David James

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

Along with William Blake and Karl Marx, Stan Brakhage forms the troika that drew me to whatever intellectual work it has been given me to do. My debt to him is categorical. I can’t imagine how I would have even been meaningfully employed had it not been for him. Before I saw Dog Star Man, my interest in film had been limited to essentially adolescent enthusiasms like King Creole and Last Year at Marienbad, and it was not until I found his art that the medium made any real sense to me. Since then, much of my life has revolved around cinema and so around him. But apart from one occasion when he was so prodigiously generous to me I am embarrassed to record it, I had little personal contact with him. In fact I deliberately kept my distance, fearing that his objections to the politics of my understanding of his achievement would precipitate, not friendship, but a feud of the kind that he relished but I wanted to avoid. So I cannot supply any telling personal anecdote. Here’s what comes closest.

In Spring 2002, when the professional body of the trade I practice decided to recognize him, I was asked to supply an accompanying statement. Since the task seemed otherwise impossible, I spontaneously wrote the following:

Over the past half-century, Stan Brakhage has created more than three hundred films, a life’s work that stands as a contribution to cinema without parallel in the medium’s history. Taking his lead from Maya Deren’s seminal distinction between the personal and the industrial use of the camera, and working initially in an era of utopian innovation in American culture, he elaborated the idea and practice of the filmmaker as a lyric poet; he created a mode of filmmaking in which the intricate and minute particulars of human subjectivity and visual perception play among the most subtly elegant yet vigorously expansive explorations of the expressive resources of the cinematic apparatus. Conjuring film to see what it had never seen before, he discovered new dimensions of sensibility.
Though Brakhage phrased his own sense of his life’s work within the mythos of Romantic individualism, the achievement and legacy of his work are none-the-less social. His example has inspired countless other artists similarly to forge their own ways of seeing and to pursue their own visions, visions inevitably different from and incompatible with those of the financiers and corporations who have managed the medium’s industrial use. Though their stylistics differ from his, the great community and minority film movements of the recent past grew in the environment created by him and his peers. Insistently personal, his own filmmaking too was deeply political, and found itself amidst a generation’s revolt against American imperialism; its relevance now, in an era when new imperial fantasies are being most dangerously mobilized, can only grow. Here in Denver, so close to where he has pursued his life in art, the Society of Cinema Studies greets him with love and respect and, in anticipation of his seventieth birthday, presents him with an Honorary Life Membership; he honors us all by joining with us to show us again what, with film, he has made it possible for us to see.

The only things I would now add to this are: Recently I screened a number of his late handpainted films; they are among the most supremely beautiful sights I have ever seen. And, the synchronicity between his death and the U.S. invasion of Iraq (an epochal predatory advance of what Blake called Empire) reaffirms my belief in the unique significance of Brakhage’s lifelong struggle to sustain alternatives to capitalist culture.