Rick Raxlen is a MediaNet member and filmmaker, who has been involved in avant-garde film for about thirty years.
In this interview, Marilyn Brakhage answers some questions about her late husband, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and his relationship to Victoria and Vancouver Island.
Stan’s DVD, released posthumously by Criterion, has sold some 16,000 copies.
Stan Brakhage died in March of 2003.
Rick Raxlen: When did Stan move to Victoria?
Marilyn Brakhage: Stan had never been here before meeting me. (I think he may have made one trip to Vancouver for a poetry conference back in the sixties or seventies.) I was born and raised here in Victoria. I lived for six years in Toronto, going to University there. I met Stan not too long after he had separated from Jane, (his first wife) when he was visiting Toronto, in 1987. He returned for another visit later that year, in part to visit an old friend, Jim Tenney, who was at that time teaching in the Music Department at York University, had lost his wife to Cancer and was recovering from Cancer himself. Anyway, I knew film people in Toronto, and there was a kind of gathering of film and music people there that Stan became very connected to. At one point he tried to get employment in Toronto, but that didn’t work out, so we ended up living in Boulder, Colorado for years, where he worked for the University of Colorado. Our first trip to Victoria was in early 1988, when a show had been arranged for him at the University of Victoria (and other shows in Vancouver). Then, after our kids were born, (Anton in 1989 and Vaughn in 1991) we started coming up here for summer vacations quite often. We would stay at my parents’ house here in Victoria part of the time, and then go up-island for a bit. The first time we did that, I drove Stan (and Anton) up to Kye Bay (where I always went for my childhood vacations) then to Parksville — as a starting and stopping place for a day trip across to Long Beach. It turned out that Stan really liked being in Parksville, and wanted to stay there longer to do some more filming. In later summers, that became our place to return to repeatedly with the kids: We’d stay at the Sea Edge Motel, the kids had a great, safe place to play, and Stan would walk the beach and film and/ or sit and do some “plein air” painting. He also did some filming and painting around Victoria. I can remember him working at different times around the Cattle Point area, at Gonzales Beach, along Dallas Road . . . but most significantly, in the back garden of my parent’s home (sold now, but it was at 2041 McNeill Avenue, a large property with many oak trees and a colourful garden created by my brother.)
R R: I noticed several films than Stan did in/around Victoria (The Mammals of Victoria; A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea…) are they available through CFMDC or you?
M B: During our visit here in 1990, Stan was working on the “A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea.” He was, he said, trying to imagine my early childhood experience, through the garden I grew up in, the sea that surrounded us, and the encroaching social world . . One could think of it as a more mature and more complex “Anticipation of the Night” on some level. But it’s also a beautiful evocation of place. It is 74 minutes long (and silent).
In 1993, on another summer vacation, Stan decided he would continue this theme with “an imagination of my adolescence.” However, these ideas about “me” were really just starting points, as it were, and the film is really “about” anyone’s adolescence, as evoked through physical and metaphorical presentation of the natural environment. It is 35 minutes and silent.
The third film in the series was “The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him.” This was completed in 2000. It was supposedly about my “mid-age crisis” — but again, not in any obvious sense necessarily about “me” at all. (I don’t appear in any of these films.) This third piece is 50 minutes long, also silent. The title is a quote from “David Copperfield,” which we were listening to on tape as we drove around the island the summer of ’99.
Finally, Stan turned this trilogy into a “quartet” with the 30-minute hand-painted film, “Panels For the Walls of Heaven.” The painting he used had been done over a number of years, the majority of it probably while in this area.
All of these films are available through the CFMDC. I also have prints of my own, but am careful about how and where I use them.
R R: What kept him sort of out of any local scene? Was he just immersed in family and filmmaking? Was he ever asked to show work here, while living here?
M B: Well, those trips were just two or three weeks during the summers of ’90, ’93,’95,’97,’98, ’99 and 2000 — and they were mostly taken up with family stuff (plus his own filming and painting.) So we weren’t really available for much else. Then we decided we would buy a place up here and planned to move when Stan retired from his teaching position in Colorado. We bought a house in 2001, rented it for a year, and then moved up in September of 2002. Unfortunately, however, Stan had had a return of his cancer by that time . . . He was first diagnosed with bladder cancer in the summer of 1996 and went through a major operation plus chemotherapy in ’96-97. There was no further sign of it then, until 2002. We delayed our move while he underwent some radiation and tried some more chemotherapy. But then he decided he couldn’t take any more chemo, and that we should go ahead with our move. He was already pretty sick by that time, but was determined to go through with it . . . So for the first couple of months when we were here, we were just trying to resettle, etc., and then after that his health began to rapidly decline. He died March 9, 2003. But there was not really any way that he could have engaged with much of a scene here, as his strength was already pretty limited and he was focused on more immediate, more practical matters. He did, however, finish (or almost finish — the final printing was done after his death) two more short films. One was photographed, and titled “Stan’s Window.” It was mostly shot inside our house, but there is one shot from Clover Point, taken on a day in December, when I took him down to the waterfront during a big wind. He insisted on getting out of the car to take a shot, and I had to hold onto him because his leg was very weak and he was unsteady. The second film was the “Chinese Series” — the scratched one, which I think you saw last year at the Beacon Hill screening. He did that one in bed, during his last couple of months.
So, he only actually lived here from September 11, 2002 to March 9, 2003. And no, no one asked him to have a show here during that time. But he probably wouldn’t have been feeling up to it anyway. . . There was a screening at UVic, organized by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, early in 2004. They showed “Dog Star Man,” “Mothlight,” “Commingled Containers” and “The Dante Quartet.”
Now I remember another connection. In 1992 my sister passed away. Around that time, Stan was working on another hand-painted film, “Chartres Series.” (He had recently been to Chartres Cathedral and was meditating on that.) After the film was finished, he decided to dedicate it to my sister, and he sent a print up to my mother. As my mother had no other way to see it, she arranged with some people at the UVic film department that she would bring it up there, they would give her a personal screening of it, and then she would donate it to them. She, of course, explained to them her relationship to Stan, etc., and they accepted the donation of this film. But Stan never heard from anyone at UVic wishing to make any further contact with him. That does seem a bit odd. (A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea had been completed by then, and had shown in New York and San Francisco.) Anyway, this now quartet of films has still never been screened here. So perhaps I should be trying to find some way to do that.
R R: What parts of the Victoria landscape/scene did he like? Do you know of any places he liked for the mood or ambience?
Was Stan inspired by much of what he saw around him, living here on the island?
M B: Stan was very inspired by the ocean. He once said — mid ’90’s — that he thought he could easily just spend the rest of his life filming the ocean. It seemed to afford him a rich source of imagery and ideas. A lot of his filming was done up-Island, but in Victoria his favourite beach was Gonzales. When Stan wasn’t filming — or talking about or looking at films, or reading, or listening to music, or talking with people on the phone — the rest of the time he liked to be in bookstores, movie theatres, or restaurants. (He went to practically every movie he could — not because he thought they were “art” in the sense that he was striving for in his own work — but because he just liked movies, appreciated the art of acting, felt most connected to the rest of the society when he was at a movie, etc.) He always had a regular restaurant he would go to in Boulder, where he’d do some painting, have something to eat, talk with friends, etc. . . . After we moved here in 2002, he started walking down to the Oak Bay Village and dropping into the bookstores there, and sometimes eating lunch at the pub. But unfortunately, that didn’t last for long, as walking soon became increasingly difficult. He went to a few movies while he was here, too. The last ones we went to together downtown were “Gangs of New York” (which he admired), “Catch Me If You Can,” and “About Schmidt” (which he didn’t like much).
R R: You mention a DVD put out by Criterion that has sold 16,000 copies…do you remember what titles are on it? I don’t imagine the Victoria films are on it?
M B: That Criterion DVD was under discussion for about a decade before it finally got done. And unfortunately it didn’t come out until shortly after Stan’s death, so he never got to see it. It includes 26 films: Desistfilm, Wedlock House: An Intercourse, Dog Star Man, The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes, Cat’s Cradle, Window Water Baby Moving, Mothlight, Eye Myth, The Wold-Shadow, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Stars Are Beautiful, Kindering, I . . . Dreaming, The Dante Quartet, Nightmusic, Rage Net, Glaze of Cathexis, Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse, Untitled (For Marilyn), Black Ice, Study in Color and Black and White, Stellar, Crack Glass Eulogy, The Dark Tower, Commingled Containers, and Love Song.
Obviously, the DVD was concentrated on earlier work that Stan first became famous for (plus some selections of later, hand-painted work.) There is much more, of course, that was left out. But there is a plan for Criterion to produce another set.
RR: You also mention various books by Stan or about Stan being republished after being out of print…at Alibris a book called ESSENTIAL BRAKHAGE is available…it seems like a good primer for those who are not familiar with his work/writing…?
M B: “Essential Brakhage” is a collection of writings taken mostly from Metaphors On Vision and The Brakhage Scrapbook (both now out of print). It is a good selection. However, some people were also wanting to see Metaphors On Vision, in particular, put out again in its entirety. (Essential Brakhage includes about half of it, I think- Metaphors On Vision will be coming out soon from Wildside Press). Stan’s “Film Biographies” (from lectures he gave on Melies, Griffith, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, Vigo, Murnau, Lang, and Dovzhenko) is also out of print. But Bruce McPherson (the publisher of Essential Brakhage) is more interested in publishing a volume of more recent writings that were never published, rather than re-publishing those older texts.
RR: Are you devoting a lot of your time to answering questions and queries and helping to arrange screenings and such? Any funny stories about requests? Any awkward moments where people seem to be making off the wall requests or such?
M B: Yes, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time answering enquires about Stan and his work, and in some cases helping to set up screenings. Some of the questions have come from grad students doing research, and are very general in nature. I’ve also been participating on the Frameworks listserv from time to time, and find I can address a number of issues with a larger group of people in that way. I’ve also been planning to create a website, so that information can be more readily available, and I won’t have to keep answering questions one person at a time. However, I still haven’t got this done. One major issue I have to keep dealing with is the use of the DVD. It was intended for individual use and home use, and I want people to keep screening films for public events. That is continually contested, as people often feel that the DVD looks just as good, and is easier to deal with, than the films. But I think the imminent loss of actual film is a very sad thing. Another issue that frequently arises is the question of music groups wanting to play live to Stan’s intentionally silent films. In this, I have taken the position that Stan always took: As long as the rented prints were returned in good condition, and as long as the musicians did not ever falsely advertise the events as being any sort of collaboration with him, or in any way approved by him, then what they did during the screening of his films was up to them. However, it has become more complicated because it is no longer just something that happens at various music clubs, but is starting to become the sort of event sponsored by museums and film festivals and the like. And my position is that a music venue is one thing, but that art galleries, museums and film festivals should really be showing films the way the artist intended them to be shown (and that playing music with a silent Brakhage film is a bit like playing music over music). On the other hand, I have been in correspondence with Lee Renaldo (of “Sonic Youth” and “The Text of Light” — a music group actually named after Stan’s film), and he has been very respectful about including disclaimers on all of his work — that they are not approved collaborations and so on — and I have given permission for him to use certain images, etc. . . . But then again, when I was asked by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image to allow a performance artist to play music to The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (the autopsy film) at their festival, I said no, because that seemed like such sensitive material and I thought it would be a serious misrepresentation.
The DVD also makes it much easier for people to access the films for use in their own work, etc. Recently, I was informed that a student from the San Francisco Art Institute had taken the birth film, Window Water Baby Moving, and re-edited it, in a shorter version, calling it “Abortion,” and was submitting it (as “his” work) to film festivals and so on. Some people found it pretty offensive, and so I wrote to this student and protested it. He withdrew it, but I think would still like to find a way to distribute “his” work. These are tricky problems, because I can understand arguments on both sides, but I’ve been trying to maintain some degree of control over what is being done, simply because I did not want everything to fall into some sort of chaotic free-for-all immediately following Stan’s death. However, I do realize that in the long run, many of these sorts of things are inevitably going to happen.
I’ve been working pretty closely with Fred Camper on providing still images to people, and usually this is pretty straightforward — advertising screenings, illustrating articles, or for various film or art books, etc. — but every now and then we get some pretty odd requests. One guy wanted to make some sort of “synaesthetic bubble gum cards” which would have moving Brakhage images on them. I declined that one.