Thursday, October 12, 2000

Visionary like no other

In town for a retrospective, director Stan Brakhage spreads his passion for experimental film

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        His films do not play at the multiplex, but millions have felt the touch of his hidden hand.

        Anyone who has watched movies by Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola or even Troma Films' Lloyd Kaufman, creator of The Toxic Avenger, has seen the influence of Stan Brakhage.

        David Fincher, the director of Seven, was a student, so were Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the demented geniuses behind South Park.

    Except for the Saturday lecture at the Contemporary Arts Center, all events take place at Cincinnati Museum Center in Union Terminal, 1301 Western Ave.
    Ticket prices are $5-$25. For details, call 251-6060.
    Today, 8 p.m., Screening Brakhage: A Documentary by Jim Shedden. Both Mr. Shedden and Mr. Brakhage will be on hand. Reakirt Auditorium.
    Friday, 4 p.m., Screening Ephemeral Solidity, Studies in Color and Black & White, Black Ice, Boulder Blues and Pearls and..., Naughts, Commingled Containers, Yggdrasill Whose Roots are Stars in the Human Mind. Reakirt Auditorium.
    Friday, 7 p.m., Screening Night Music, Rage Net, Faust's Other: An Idyll, Faust IV. Reakirt Auditorium.
    Friday, 9 p.m., Mr. Brakhgage will introduce a program that includes The Lion and Zebra Make God's Raw Jewels, Coupling, The Dark Tower, Cloud Chamber, The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him. Reakirt Auditorium
    Saturday, 4 p.m., Screening I Take These Truths..., The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm, ...Number 5. Reakirt Auditorium.
    Saturday, 7 p.m., Screening Dog Star Man, Reakirt Auditorium.
    Saturday, 8 p.m., Mr. Brakhage lectures at the Contemporary Arts Center, 115 E. Fifth St., downtown. Admission is free; reservations are recommended; 721-0390.
    Saturday, 9 p.m., Screening Marilyn's Window, Agnus Dei Kinder Synapse, Christ Mass Sex Dance, Crack Glass Eulogy, Passage Through: A Ritual. Reakirt Auditorium.
    Sunday, 5 p.m., Screening Brakhage: A Documentary by Jim Shedden. NewsReel Theater.

        Mr. Brakhage visits this weekend for a retrospective series sponsored by the Cincinnati Film Society. He will answer questions at some screenings, meet with students in a concurrent video-production workshop, speak at the Contemporary Arts Center — and take time out to visit the Turner paintings at the Taft Museum of Art.

        The filmmaker is legendary among film fans as a visionary experimenter with the medium. In 48 years he has made 300-plus works, ranging from nine seconds to four hours long.

        He, with a handful of other artists, pioneered techniques that test the powers of the medium.

        To that end he manipulates film by hand; he scratches it, paints it, layers it with close-ups so extreme the original object disappears. Sometimes he films actors, sometimes the people in his life, sometimes only abstract images.

        In Mr. Kaufman's words, “He wants us to see things as a child would; he wants us to lose our preconceived notions about the world around us and about film in particular.”

"Music for the eyes'

        Now 67, Mr. Brakhage has been teaching film studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder for some 20 years. He has been both a Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellow. He has been honored by institutions from the Museum of Modern Art to the American Film Institute. His film Dog Star Man is in the National Registry of Film at the Library of Congress.

        Yet for all the reverence accorded him, most filmgoers shy away from his rigorously unconventional, sometimes difficult films.

        “People are put off because they think they need an explanation or something,” he said. “What they need to do is relax and let the music happen.”

        That is not a casual metaphor; he considers his work “visual music for the eyes,” meant to touch the viewer as viscerally as a symphony or a jazz improvisation.

        In conversation, he is dazzlingly erudite. He speaks of using his work to seek “hypnogogic vision, what you see when you rub your eyes,” of re-imagining the human relationship with mythic archetypes, of aesthetic process, morality and poetry.

        But he is no snob, particularly about film. “I see everything that comes to town,” he said, even the stinkers.

        “If you really want to appreciate movies, you have to take a chance and go see a lot of not-so-good movies. Then you can really appreciate the beautiful movie when it comes along,” he said.

        In the beautiful category, he lists Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, American Psycho and Chicken Run, among recent arrivals.

Film's future exciting

        He also is excited by the unforeseeable future of the medium he loves.

        “I know there are more young people today who are seriously dedicated to an art of film, or poetry of film, than there were in the '60s in (the avant-garde's) heyday.” Despite a lack of financial or social support, “they go right on being creative.”

        He imagines those “people who have to buy their film one roll at a time” will help define the future of film.

        “Film has never completely separated itself from its family of arts,” he said.

        “We don't quite know what the art of film is. We know how it is closer to Aunt Music than to Uncle Still Photography. We know it's been dominated by Father Stage Theatrics and Mother Novel. We don't know what it is going to be when it is out on its own, and that's exciting.”

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