Three Myths About Brakhage

Fred Camper



In an obituary for Stan Brakhage, P. Adams Sitney states that the filmmaker had requested that a loaded movie camera be kept by his hospital bedside as he was dying.[i] This story is consistent with Brakhage’s own well-justified self-image as a filmmaker who simply had to make films. The only problem with it is that, as Sitney himself now acknowledges, it’s not true; he was misinformed by someone who told him this story shortly before Brakhage’s death.

Last year, Laura Mulvey asked me about a tale she’d heard about how I had once brought a projector to Brakhage’s New York hotel room to show him a Douglas Sirk film. According to this account, he hadn’t liked it at first, but when the projector jammed, and I had to run part of it in reverse, seeing it backwards changed his mind. This is related to an earlier story that Brakhage hadn’t liked Warhol’s early films at 24 fps, but was convinced when he resaw them at their intended projection speed of 16 fps. Both stories play on Brakhage’s well-known sensitivity to a movie’s formal elements, as expressed, for instance, in his advocacy for seeing certain films out of focus to better appreciate their rhythms. But both stories are myths. I remember well the time I showed Brakhage a Sirk film. Not only did the projector not jam, but the projector I was using then, an RCA 400, didn’t even have a reverse. One suspects that Vasari’s great Lives is constructed out of similar fabrications—entertaining stories almost too perfectly apposite to be true.

Photo by Robert Haller

Because, as I have explored elsewhere,[ii] Brakhage’s work and thought are riven by contradictions, and almost any grand thesis one can offer about his work is also accompanied, in the oeuvre, by its antithesis. The maker of almost 400 films spanning fifty years and representing a compendium of the formal techniques, possible subjects, and major themes of experimental or avant garde filmmaking in America, Brakhage offers an achievement so synoptic, even prodigious, that virtually any single claim for it represents an oversimplification. There are at least three major misunderstandings that have dogged his work for decades: that most of his films purport to represent the pre-linguistic seeing of children; that his work was primarily a representation of his own affective life; that his work was socially disengaged from the American culture of which he was a part.



Brakhage’s most commonly quoted statement, the opening paragraph from his first book, Metaphors on Vision,[iii] asks the reader to “imagine a world” in which objects aren’t known by their names but as “an adventure of perception,” and invites a consideration of the possibility that pre-linguistic eyesight might have been different: “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green?’ ”

But only a few paragraphs later, Brakhage acknowledges, “One can never go back, even in imagination,” and as P. Adams Sitney has written, “He was not naïve about the contradictions of this goal; his films always acknowledged the material limitations of cinematic representation.”[iv] It is also the case that many of his films with images of children are chronicles—dramas, even—of the filmmaker’s abject failure to enter into their world. The filmmaker-protagonist represented only via his shadow in Anticipation of the Night remains hopelessly, even violently, apart from the children seen in an amusement park, who seem spinning in circular traps of their own. The children that inhabit Scenes From Under Childhood gradually lose their innocence. The aging filmmaker in I . . . Dreaming appears pathetically alienated from the children around him. A case can be made for some of Brakhage’s abstract films, the “Roman” and “Arabic” series in particular, as reflecting the aspiration to create images not inflected by language, but the shifting forms and profoundly destabilizing compositions of these films reflect the terror of the unknown as much as the free play of some imaginary childhood. And not insignificantly, the related works that followed these (Egyptian Series and “Babylonians”) interrelate abstract images with glyph-like shapes. Many subsequent “abstract” (a word Brakhage hated) films contain explicit references to language via words scratched directly on the image or titles that suggest a scenario—The Lion and the Zebra Make God’s Raw Jewels, for example.

The quest for a “moving visual thinking” that doesn’t depend on language is more an aspiration underlying Brakhage’s films than something fully and finally achieved in any. Brakhage perhaps comes closest in the nineteen “Arabics,” in which shifting shapes and light seem to owe little to linguistic structures. Images don’t control or modify or interpret each other in the way the words of a sentence do; shapes seem to be barely aware of each others’ presence, almost as if existing in parallel universes. But these deeply unsettling films that constitute arguably his greatest achievement don’t achieve greatness by resembling anything a child might make, or imagine, but rather by balancing the sense that the lights and shapes are disconnecting from each other in near-infinite space with an exquisite formal control and precision that reflects Brakhage’s lifelong study of classical music, poetry, and painting.



Brakhage is also seen as a poet of personal subjectivity, the filmmaker who most established the viability of the first-person mode in cinema, marshalling all the techniques of film to express his innermost being. Sitney has identified Brakhage’s “project” as “the representation of a lyrical self.”[v] This is a truth about his work, but it’s is often too narrowly understood. Specifically, one characteristic of the arc of his career is a continual broadening of his own notion of the “self.” As David James points out,[vi] following his marriage to Jane Collum, Brakhage began to claim himself, Jane, and their children as vehicles for his filmmaking, and the “ego” constituted in his works seemed more dispersed. Indeed, the first-person, expressionistic camera movements and montage, the visions of a loner lurching about in the world, that characterized early masterpieces such as Sirius Remembered and The Dead are found only infrequently in his films of subsequent decades. But the dispersal of self was to continue further, and it has always seemed to me a mistake to identify Brakhage, even during the three decades of his first marriage, as primarily a poet of family life.

By the time of his first completely “abstract” films in the mid-1970s, the sense of an individual will traversing and transforming the world starts to become replaced by the sense of an individual being overwhelmed by an onrush of images that, though he may have created them, take on an autonomous life. One notes that closed-eye vision, one kind of non-functional seeing Brakhage sought to emulate, is largely beyond the control of the conscious will. The “self” of the Brakhage’s last three decades of work is one that is simultaneously expanding to encompass the seen and unseen, the real and the imagined world, and dissolving before it. It’s not that Brakhage’s films become impersonal so much as that they chronicle the broadening of the narrow, affective self as reflected in his signature embrace of human physiology (tiny camera movements reflecting pulse and heartbeat and nervous system) by way of an almost out-of-body aspiration suggested by images that are utterly distanced from dailiness through their defiance of conventional compositions, avoidance of easy unities, and the way they seem to sprawl beyond their borders.



Finally, Brakhage is often seen as typically American in his lack of social engagement. This view has been articulated most eloquently by Annette Michelson:

It is a tragedy of our time (that tragedy is not, by any means, exclusively, but rather, like so much else, hyperbolically American) that Brakhage should see his social function as defensive in the Self’s last-ditch stand against the mass, against the claims of any possible class, political process, or structure, assuming its inevitable assault upon the sovereignty of the Self, positing the imaginative consciousness as inherently apolitical.[vii]

One problem with this thesis is that Brakhage has made films that engage directly with social issues. He showed, and lectured around the U.S. on, his deeply disturbing, horrifyingly powerful meditation on war as perceptual violence, 23rd Psalm Branch, at the height of the Vietnam War. Re-editing film images of World War II, he made war as a media event part of his subject. The Governor, in which he filmed Colorado’s then-governor Richard Lamm, was a study in the exercise of power through physical gestures and body placement. Murder Psalm engaged with way mass culture reduces people, and even thought (personified in actual models of the brain taken from an educational film about epilepsy), to objects.

But Murder Psalm is the rare case in which Brakhage engages with the negation of his central aesthetic. Perhaps more to the point, the main line of his masterpieces, particularly those of his last three decades, offers an eloquent—and ecstatically beautiful—answer to the whole object-oriented ethos of American consumer culture, the fetishization of possessions and possessiveness, the location of pleasure in the world of manufactured things, by creating insubstantial patterns of light that seem engaged in an eternal dance. As well, his complex mix of techniques and use of irregular forms make the viewing of each film an “adventure of perception.” Is forging a cinema that seeks a more active, thoughtful, and even participatory role for the individual viewer “inherently apolitical?” To the manipulativeness and star worship of mainstream movies, Brakhage counter-offers films that distance one from both affections and objects, that turn the by now ritualized movie-viewing process from an answer back into a question, a question directed at each spectator. And in so doing, he becomes a poet of freedom.




[i] Cahiers du cinema 578 (April 2003) pp. 50-1; the English-language original is available at

[ii]Brakhage’s Contractions, Chicago Review (No. 47:4 & 48:1, Spring 2002).

[iii] Originally published as the 30th issue of the magazine Film Culture in 1963, its opening sections are most readily available in Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking (see

[iv] Cahiers du cinema 578 (April 2003) pp. 50-1; the English-language original is available at

[v] The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (Chicago: St. James Press, 1984), p.61.

[vi] James, David E., Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), chapter two.

[vii] Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura, Artforum, January 1973, p. 31.


Fred Camper is a writer and lecturer on film and art who lives in Chicago. He has been writing on Stan Brakhage's films since 1966, initially in the form of program notes for showings of those films at the M.I.T. Film Society in Cambridge,  Mass. A former and (he hopes, future) filmmaker, he lives in Chicago, where his art and film reviews and arts journalism appears regularly in the Chicago Reader ( His Web site is