Stan Brackhage - Last Films LA Film Festival

Not everyone understands artistic vision. How to describe a Brackhage film? Did you ever melt crayons between wax paper to make a stained glass window? Now imagine a series of those, strung together on film and run quickly through a projector. The effect is lots of color, moving at random, no sound.

From "Coupling"

Of course, they don't all look like this. In some, the images have been scratched onto the film. Some are photographic images, transferred to 16mm film in the lab. What's most unique about the Brackhage body of work is that much of it was created in a "cameraless" environment.

I took a film class from Stan Brackhage in 1990, my sophomore year at the University of Colorado. I'd always liked movies, and wondered if I'd be any good at the creative side of them. Turns out, I wasn't.

At the time, I didn't think much about the teacher. He was just some guy who taught film class, just like "some guy" who taught biology or poli sci or whatever. We viewed several of Brackhage's short films during the course of the class, and I remember being unimpressed.

From "Ellipses"

The film I remember most from the time consisted of a flashing image, sort of like the wing of a moth. It fluttered around the frames, causing a strobe-like effect that gave me a headache.

'Isn't it nice that eccentric artists can make a living teaching?' was my thought at the time. This was probably followed by: 'I hope I don't have to put in too much effort to pass this class.'

The semester ended. I passed. Life went on. I didn't think about Brackhage again for thirteen years.

I'd recently moved from Denver to L.A., to be in the creative epicenter of the world, to broaden my experience of life and love and things artistic. I was doing dishes, listening to NPR, when Larry Mantle announced his topic for the day. It was to be a retrospective of the work of Stan Brackhage, the groundbreaking experimental filmmaker who had influenced the lives and careers of elite Hollywood directors. Brackhage had recently died of cancer.

Roger Ebert said nice things about Brackhage's work. Cinematographers talked about the man and his vision. And as I listened, I knew that I had missed something. I realized that I had not been paying attention, that I had sat before a master and never recognized him.

Today, two years later, the academy of motion pictures is restoring and archiving Brackhage's work, a body of nearly 400 films. The last films of Stan Brackhage were allocated two screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival this year. I knew I had to go.

I'm older now than when I last saw a Brackhage film. Smarter, hopefully, and with a greater appreciation of art of all kinds. I expected to see through new eyes, with the knowledge of what this work had meant to others, with a new love and respect for the avant-garde.

The Director's Guild of America has comfortable velvet seats in the screening room. Most of them were full, with people who, I assumed, wanted to pay homage to the man they admired.

Some things change with time and age, and some things don't. My appreciation for this type of experimental film-making had not altered.

I found myself wondering about theme and meaning. Then I found myself annoyed that I should have to work so hard to create theme or meaning, when clearly none was implied by the images. My eyes got tired. I found it difficult to focus when what was on the screen moved so quickly, like an epileptic seizure for the senses.

I watched people in front of me get up and leave. I envied them, but my sense of politeness kept me seated. Well, that, and the placement I had chosen, dead-center of the theatre.

From "Hell Itself"

Eventually, it ended. I exited with the crowd and heard comments like: "probably an acquired taste," and "would be cool on pot."

In many ways, I respect the artists who dedicate their lives to their craft; who go their own way. I understand that Brackhage was passionate, visionary, and not for everyone. Sorry Stan.

At the same time, congratulations on doing what you loved, on making a living, and a life, and a following. The academy of motion pictures has recognized your work, and with that, your films, and your memory, will go on.

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