Stan Brakhage


Semaphores of Vision Cosmic Record External Links References 1998 Poetics

Semaphores of Vision

Each frame a flag, a sign of nature.

In 1993, when he was 60 years old, Stan Brakhage was called the "world's foremost living experimental film maker." (Sight & Sound). The prior year his visionary epic Dog Star Man had been added to the National Film Registry. In 1986 he was the recipient of the first "Maya Deren Award" given by the American Film Institute to independent film and video artists. (Maya Deren herself is considered one of the great mothers of the "personal" film.) In 1974, P. Adams Sitney published Visionary Film, the first detailed history of the American avant-garde film movement. A dominant focus in that history is the work of Brakhage, who by then had completed over 50 films. Brakhage began making films in 1952 when he was 19. His first film was called Interim (1952). The Way to Shadow Garden (1954) and Desistfilm (1954) followed. Referring to Desistfilm Jonas Mekas called it "one of the most influential of all modern American films" (Mekas, 1962). It was Brakhage's dynamic camera movement, Mekas observed, that initiated a "stylistic revolution" that influenced the "cinema verite" style of filmed documentaries and the French "nouvelle vogue." Although considered an "art-for-art's-sake" artist, Brakhage's art, steeped in Romantic aesthetics, is a deep study of the artist and the metaphors artists use to find meaning.

In anger at his uneternalness, that he'll never see his biography unless he autos it himself, the aesthete begins cocooning towards his innards by demanding immediate internal return, release in creation, self-knowledge, etc. Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision.


Stanley Brakhage was born in Kansas City, Missouri on January 14, 1933. As a young boy he was trained as a singer and pianist. Until the age of 13 he was a talented boy soprano. After dropping out of Dartmouth College he lived in Colorado where he began making films and running a small theater group. A year later he went to San Francisco to study at the Institute of Fine Arts. In San Francisco he ran into the cultural avant-garde when he met the poet Kenneth Rexroth and other members of what would later be called the San Francisco Renaissance. A year later, in 1954, Brakhage went to New York where he continued to experience the avant-garde art world. He met and informally studied with the composers Edgar Varese and John Cage. It was during this period in New York that he also met Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken and other participants in the avant-garde milieu.

The artist Joseph Cornell commissioned Brakhage in 1955 to make a film about a section of New York City's elevated railway which was going to be torn down. The result was the film Wonder Ring. Since many readers will not have ever seen this film, here are two descriptions:

The film's visual complexity emerges from an intensive examination of the soon-to-be-destroyed platforms and train cars of New York City's Third Avenue elevated subway. The multi-colored virtual spaces of glass reflections, the saccadic movement of light through the train, the web or girder silhouettes and the rippling distortions of window panes that Brakhage records and edits into a rhythmic form that recapitulates the jerking movement of a subway ride, reveal the wealth of visual stimulation available to an attentive eye. (Liebman, 1976)

Wonder Ring records a trip on the El as if it were a round dance. Its formal texture springs from an alternation of plastic cutting with collision montage, the repetition of shots and of slow panning camera movements, and rippling distortions from an imperfect window in the car. Brakhage assembled the minute parts of his film in a continual flow of movements; not only of the train itself, whose forward motion is inferred from the passing sights outside the window, but also of reflections moving in the opposite direction within the car, and of the bouncing patches of sunlight intersecting both the movement of the train and the inverted movement of its reflection. A continual lateral rocking motion suggests the rattling of the train to the ear's imagination in this silent film. Finally, the rhythmic structure follows the slowing down and speeding up of the train as it enters and leaves stations; for in those moments all the elements (passing view, reflection, and sun play) reduce, then pick up speed. (P. Adams Sitney)

Wonder Ring is a four minute silent film. It is not a conventional, linear, narrative film with actors reciting lines. In commenting on the film, one reviewer writes that with the making of Wonder Ring Brakhage began "his long apprenticeship to the modalities of visionary experience which would become his principal theme." (Liebman, 1976)

Here are several frames from Wonder Ring (1955):

I am devoting my life to what is inappropriately called "The Experimental Film" in America, because I am an artist and, as such, am convinced that freedom of personal expression (that which is called "experiment" by those who don't understand it) is the natural beginning of any art...There is no place for an artist in the film studios, because they have universally adopted theatrical or literary forms and have become [an] extension of the art of the theater at best, or the novel at worst. There is virtually no art of the film to be found in any formalized motion picture producing system I know of and probably never will be. Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision.

The "freedom of personal expression." How could such expression ever find the light of day in the commercial movie making industry where stars and fantasy stories mixed to produce profits not visions? Films that have been called "experimental," "avant-garde," "personal," "subjective," "trance," "lyrical," "independent," "underground" and so on are films in which the artist's motivation is more poetic than commercial.

Brakhage's vision would not make him a wealthy man. It would, however, make him an important, albeit difficult to understand, 20th century artist.

The "auteur" theory, designed to enhance the "artistic" value of Hollywood's crass materialism was radicalized by Brakhage as he made the camera a metaphor for the eye and the eye a metaphor for the artist's cosmic and poetic vision.

The artist is one who leaps that fence at night, scatters his seeds among the cabbages, hybrid seeds inspired by both the garden and wits-end forest where only fools and madmen wander, seeds needing several generations to be...finally proven edible. Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision.


In 1957 Brakhage married Jane Collum. Coincident with his marriage Brakhage's work became more or less focused on his domestic life and environment. When he got married Brakhage was editing Anticipation of the Night (1958).

This is an important film. P. Adams Sitney explains why:

With the making of Anticipation of the Night [Brakhage] forged the new form for which he had been searching: the lyrical film...The lyrical film postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the first person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are what he sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision. In the lyrical form there is no longer a hero, instead, the screen is filled with movement, and that movement, both of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a man looking. (Sitney).

The lyrical film has removed all psychodramatic content. The "meaning" of the lyrical film is discovered by understanding its form. The film theoretician Ken Kelman calls Anticipation of the Night the first totally "tectonic" film. It is the camera's movement encapsulated by editing which generates the "meaning" of this film.

Anticipation of the Night is the "story" of a man's suicide. Kelman transcribes the action of the film:

The unknown here is the night, the experience is suicide, the anticipation is the investigation...A man, seen only as shadow, since seeing is only through his eyes, plays with a glass sphere filled with water in which there is a rose. (There is here, of all things, a double distorted echo of Citizen Kane: the glass sphere filled with "snow" and the word "rosebud," which are germs of vision at the start of that film.) The shadow-man goes out a door, walks over grass, perhaps sees an infant lying there, goes to a tree, tosses a rope up over a limb, knots it, hangs himself. Between the acts of walking and hanging occurs what can only be called the vision precipitated by imminent death, something like the traditional "life passing before one's eyes," but more anticipation than recollection. (Kelman, 1975)

This film is a bold investigation of consciousness. But, as Kelman notes, the only humans in the film are the shadow-man and children. It is the consciousness of the child that is being displayed. A key ingredient of the Romantic aesthetic is the centrality of innocent vision. Metaphorically speaking, this means the child. This is vision uncorrupted. But it is also a vision that the more sophisticated (adult) eye has difficulty seeing.

Here are several frames from Anticipation of the Night (1958)

Once vision may have been given-- that which seems inherent in the infant's eye, an eye which reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature, an eye which soon learns to classify sights, an eye which mirrors the movement of the individual toward death by its increasing inability to see. Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision.

In 1960 Brakhage began work on his epic Dog Star Man. It took four years to complete. It was during this period that Brakhage wrote and published Metaphors on Vision (1964). The film is the epic tale of a man climbing a mountain to chop down a tree. The book can be used as a manual to help us understand the aesthetics with which Brakhage was engaged.

But the complex collection of visions contained in the 83 minute film (consisting of a Prelude and 4 parts) has to be experienced, has to be seen. (An expanded version of this film called The Art of Vision runs over four hours. The length of the film is produced by running the various rolls of films used to create superimpositions separately.) What makes this film so remarkable that the Library of Congress selected it to be part of the National Film Library?

Like all epics it has its hero, the Dog Star Man. It has scope-- the four seasons are apparent. It has conflict-- man against nature. It has music, despite the fact that it is a silent film. It has a philosophy: vision is polymorphic. It is Einstein's relativity theory absorbed by the artist. Brakhage's central message, reinforced polemically in his lectures and writings, is that the adult eye is trained to filter out the wondrous and imaginative world of the innocent, young and untrained eye.

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green?" How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word." Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision.

Collage of frames from Dog Star Man

I take it that The Arts afford the last ungoverned public surfacing of Person and constitute thus the greatest threat to those who feel they could/should enslave sensibility Brakhage, "Manifest, August 16, 1974" in Film Culture No. 67-68-69.


Brakhage is the romantic visionary. He is apart looking in(side). The classical polarities of Romanticism are known and can be articulated by anyone who has matriculated through a liberal arts curriculum in an institute of higher learning. The opposition of the individual to society is a drama played out in Brakhage's life. Most people in the culture who have seen a Brakhage film are probably the types of people who go to museums and plays. They probably interact with the so-called "higher" culture. They might even understand the meaning of words like "post-modern" and "deconstruction" and "tectonic." Brakhage appeals most likely to a rather effete class of cultural consumers.

However, his influence (and art is always very much about influence on one scale or another), is far more widespread. For example in the Spring of 1998 a Hollywood film called The Suicide Kings was released. Its opening is described by the Denver Post:

Scratchlike lines appear and disappear upon the otherwise-imageless and seemingly overexposed film. Then credits appear as if being violently etched. (April 10, 1998).

The Suicide Kings, which apparently is nothing like Anticipation of the Night is Peter O'Fallon's first theatrically released film. O'Fallon it turns out was a student of Brakhage's at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The opening sequence of The Suicide Kings is an homage to Brakhage. "Watching all of Stan's experimental films inspired it" O'Fallon told the newspaper.

But Brakhage is clearly anti-Hollywood. He is at his polemical best when he castigates the "dream factory" of capitalism. That too is part of the Romantic gestalt.

Like the writer Jack Kerouac of the Beat Generation (the Beats are an obvious influence), Brakhage distanced himself from the 1960s counter-culture. He suggested that its ethos was steeped in covert fascism.

So the polarities and dualities are there. They are superimposed on top of each other. What makes the Romantic visionary artist so compelling to some of us is precisely this struggle between the individual and the collective. In an age when the collective has become globalized and bureaucratized, the solitary soul climbing a mountain is a metaphor worth looking for.

Stan Brakhage
Official Cosmic Record
YEAR TEAM ERA IP ER Walks Ks Won Lost WinPct
1985 Beasts 2.86 198 63 81 118 16 9 .640
1986 Beasts 3.28 214 78 71 132 17 8 .680
1987 Beasts 4.12 201 92 69 118 11 15 .423
1988 Beasts 3.22 207 74 89 132 16 15 .516
1989 Beasts 3.83 216 92 57 109 10 12 .455
1990 Beasts 3.37 203 76 80 125 14 11 .560
1991 Beasts 3.15 186 65 59 120 17 6 .739
1992 Beasts 2.81 202 63 106 133 18 9 .667
1993 Beasts 2.84 206 65 67 126 13 7 .650
1994 Beasts 3.66 182 74 69 92 14 14 .500
1995 Beasts 4.30 180 86 68 104 16 9 .640
1996 Beasts 3.92 195 85 74 116 11 15 .423
1997 Poetics 3.42 237 90 84 141 13 16 .448
Total 13 Seasons 3.44 2627 1003 974 1566 186 146 .560
ERA-Earned Run Average; IP-Innings Pitched; Ks- Strikeouts; WinPct- Winning Percentage




External Links


Stan Brakhage died of cancer at the age of 70 on March 9, 2003. He died in a hospital in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada). Brakhage was born in a Kansas City, Missouri, orphanage in 1933.

CBA menu Player Plates

Stan Brahkage- 1998 Cosmic Player Plate (Poetics)
Published: April 20, 1998
Updated: March 19, 2003
Copyright © 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association