If you were channel surfing on November 17, 2000, you might have stumbled on a strange succession of images, edited at unfamiliar rhythms: the surface of the sun, the interior of the body, a man climbing a mountain to chop down a tree. You would have been watching Dog Star Man (1964), a much-revered but little-seen experimental film by the prolific director Stan Brakhage, being broadcast as part of the Sundance Channel's month-long salute to non-narrative filmmaking.
For half a century, Brakhage has made movies that alienate some audiences, transfix others, and leave others wobbling from one state to the other. Today, faced with climbing costs, he rarely uses film to photograph, instead painting and scratching directly onto celluloid. This comes, paradoxically, at a time when moviemaking is increasingly cheap for those who work with video and digital technologies. Another paradox: Though few theaters screen Brakhage and other experimental filmmakers today, their work is increasingly available on videotape, information about it is easily found online, and a commercial cable channel is willing to air it in prime time.
Brakhage lives in Boulder, where he teaches at the University of Colorado. I spoke with him in late November.
Q: Until recently, you wouldn't even license your work to be on videotape. Now it's on television.
A: I still don't care for video that much, but then I'm fortunate to have films to look at. So I'm spoiled, like someone who lives in a city with lots of museums who can see all the original oil paintings and watercolors. Video is getting good enough that it isn't fair for me to withhold [my work] from people who have no other way to see it.
Q: With your kind of filmmaking getting more difficult and other forms of filmmaking becoming easier, is the art at large getting better or worse?
A: It's been my experience that if you can survive your greatest weaknesses and work despite them, there's an enormous strength that occurs. There was a time when film was relatively cheap and grants were easy to come by. I'm talking about the '50s, the '60s—you could live off people's garbage. There was a great surplus of goods.
There came to be excesses, just as now there is in video. One can pick up a video camera and run it any which way, it's so inexpensive—if you don't like it, just erase it. Whereas if you bring home a box of film, it's like a bag of jewels. So there comes to be a deep caring. There's many more people devoted to film as an art now than there were in the '60s, when it was at its height.
Q: It sounds like there's more experimental filmmakers and a smaller audience for their films.
A: Yes. I often wonder what happened to those thousands of people who would gather to sit for hours listening to great poets read poetry. It's not just film—I think all the arts have lost all but a very facile, short-term interest.
Q: On the other hand, there's now a commercial TV channel willing to show the films of Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs and Maya Deren in prime time.
A: This is the first time that this has happened. This movement never was presented by educational television, with a few isolated exceptions in certain towns.
Q: There's also the phenomenon of commercials and music videos that have absorbed some of what experimental filmmakers have done.
A: The main people who rented our work in the '50s were commercial filmmaking companies. They'd rent them, steal some ideas and grammar, and sell something.
I myself made a living in companies that made commercials. When somebody takes something from a film of mine and puts out a stupid thing selling something that's no good, I feel the same way I felt when I was hired to do some stupid commercial for some product that seemed worthless. I would walk off the job and get myself fired.
The other side of the coin is when I see something that I appreciate, not as an art but as a wonderful entertainment, or when I see something advertised that seems to be a worthy thing for people to have, and they use my effects. I remain just completely delighted by Superman , for example. They rented The Text of Light a number of times, and they made Superman's cradle out of it, and the place where he goes to renew his strength. I thought it was a really good movie, the children all enjoyed it, we had a wonderful time, and they certainly made good use of effects I had created.
Q: Have you had that experience watching an advertisement?
A: I don't know if they got it directly from my work, but I was the first to use the interruptive flash frame as a psychological effect. It's in a film called Cat's Cradle.
You've often had single frames used to create fake lightning—single frames of white staggered in a rhythm that was lightning—like. But no one that I know of before myself used a single frame of a previous image so that, fleetingly, you get a kind of memory. Then Gregory Markopoulos did it in Twice a Man; and then The Pawnbroker came out, with Rod Steiger, which used it quite extensively. This is a clear case of grammar coming directly out of independent filmmaking, through Gregory and myself, to Hollywood and then to advertisers.
Q: You had a role in Cannibal: The Musical, made by [South Park creators] Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
A: They were students of ours, and they wanted professors to take cameo roles. I do that for students all the time. The hardest part for me was that I don't like to go up into the mountains anymore. I suffered from the mountains for years and years, contrary to most people's belief that I'm the archetypal mountain-man filmmaker.
Q: They've seen Dog Star Man too many times.
A: Yeah. Look at that poor fool falling down—it's a wonder I didn't kill myself with that axe. I think one reason I'm such a good photographer of mountain scenery is that I'm not sentimental about it at all. I come with a deep fear, a great deal of respect, and some outright hatred for these landscapes.
But I like those guys. I think South Park: The Movie was a great musical—Trey is a marvelous composer. We do quite different things, but they have respect for me. They put on this counter-festival at Sundance, and they showed hours and hours of my work.