An Adventure of Perception

James Stanley Brakhage died March 9 after a long battle with cancer. According to a statement written by his wife, Marilyn, “Stan spent his final weeks and days scratching on film and drawing pictures of his visions, both internal and external, as he worked through his illness. He expressed much love and kindness and gratitude to others, and said, ‘I’ve had a really good life.’”

Brakhage’s prolific body of work—he authored close to four hundred films over the past fifty years—and his sensitive and accessible writings on art, artists, and perception earned him a prominent place within American avant garde cinema. His experiments with form have vastly influenced contemporary work in experimental film, music video, and advertising.

Every student who has taken a survey of film course has likely encountered his work. He was a consummate independent, yet chafed at Hollywood’s co-option of the term, preferring to call his work “poetic film.” Whether documentary, fiction, conceptual, or abstract, he intended his films to mine new channels of perception and thus spark new forms of understanding.

The extent of his influence stems to a great degree from his accessibility. From his early days in New York, where he worked alongside artists such as Maya Deren and Joseph Cornell, to the weekly informal film salons he held in Boulder, Colorado, throughout the nineties, Brakhage was never an esoteric but rather opened himself to communion and experience, and encouraged his audiences and colleagues to do likewise. He influeced countless filmmakers during his tenures at the Chicago Institute of Art and then later the University of Colorado at Boulder, and toured the globe to present numerous screenings of his own and others’ works in person. (The time I met him he was carrying his most recent work in tight little coils in his satchel; at one point he pulled out a bit of film and held it up to the light to make a point, right over his plate of pad thai. I was somewhat taken aback that such great art could be so casually transported, and delighted with the tactile intimacy of the gesture.)

The Chicago Reader devoted the Winter 2001/Spring 2002 edition to Brakhage. Titled “Stan Brakhage: Correspondences,” the journal packages a number of writings by and about Brakhage to illustrate the correspondences between the verbal and visual arts, reminding us that “Although he is rightly known best for the 370-some films he has made, Brakhage is also one of our most articulate aestheticians.” His writings on film and perception, from Metaphors on Vision to Film at Wits End to more recent contributions to journals, conferences, and radio programs, provide intelligent yet informal entree into a body of work that could have seemed profoundly arcane.

This month the Criterion Collec-tion will release a DVD package of twenty-six Brakhage films.

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Elizabeth Peters was director of AIVF and publisher of The Independent.