experimental films

The man without the movie camera: Stan Brakhage’s daring experiments with cinema

The avant-garde filmmaker, whose birth anniversary is on January 14, questioned the act of creation throughout his career.

The name Stan Brakhage (January 14, 1933-March 9, 2003) immediately triggers a million ideas on non-narrative cinema. This narrative-less approach to film focuses on qualities inherent to the medium, such as the texture of the film, the use of a subjective camera to record an interior monologue, and jagged editing associated with the directors of the avant-garde, both within the domain of the arthouse cinema and outside.

In Brakhage’s words, “You are seeing yourself seeing. You are seeing your own mechanism of seeing expressing itself. You’re seeing what the feedback of the mind puts into the optic nerve ends that cause them to spark and shape up like that.”

Brakhage’s work deals with birth, death and sex through the gaze of an inner eye that brings about something akin to a search for God. Like the trance films pioneered by American artist Maya Deren, Brakhage’s work offers a first-person vision in the tradition of Romanticism. Like Deren, Brakhage came to understand film through poetry, and his earliest films do resemble those of Deren and her contemporaries.

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Stellar.

Brakhage was a pioneer of artisanal cinema. While his earlier films had a lyrical style, this was transformed into a more epic style with Dog Star Man with a focus on broad metaphysical themes.

A believer in the superiority of the visual over sound, the Kansas maverick attempted to present the eye as a source of potential imagination before it became corrupted by representation. For example, Loving, a first-person account of the sexual act, depicts orgasm as a tragic fate, instead of the happy climax that Hollywood and the pornographic industry make it out to be. The objective of this piece is to deliberately confuse perception, hallucination and memory and present them as a unified consciousness.

Brakhage was among the first filmmakers to physically alter the filmstrip itself for metaphorical effect. The most striking example of this technique in his early films occurs in Reflections on Black, in which Brakhage signals the blindness of his protagonist by physically scratching out his eyes, and splices in bits of film negative.

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Reflections on Black.

For Brakhage, it was through language, specifically through the works of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, that the perception captured by the inner eye could be realised. Equally important was Abstract Expressionism, the art movement led by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman that used non-representational forms to reach the deep silence of the interior.

Like in all great modernist art, the link between art and meaning in Brakhage’s films is collapsed so that the viewer can instead participate in the act of creation. This is best seen in his best-known camera-less film Mothlight, for which he collected moth wings, and petals, pressed them between strips of 16mm film, and directly projected the result into theatres. The audience engaged with the materiality of film through objects pasted onto it.

Cinema is essentially a play of moving light captured for eternity. Brakhage was keenly interested in phosphenes, and films like Black Ice and Co-mingled Containers attempted to capture light through forms where light did not actually hit the eye.

His use of colour was not perceptional, decorative, or coded. Instead Brakhage used colour to form an element of the frame. Most important for him, as seen in his films Cat’s Cradle and Scenes from Under Childhood, was red and its tones that captured the consciousness of a baby and symbolised the process of birthing.

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Co-mingled Containers.

In his last films, Brakhage eschewed cinematography altogether and focused largely on painting, scratching and drawing directly on the surface of the film strip itself. As seen most explicitly in his 1989 work Visions in Meditation, film was about moving into a state of trance, something that Brakhage would experience himself whilst making the film. Thus, engaging art, like in the works of Jackson Pollock, was a record of what the artist left behind whilst in a trance-like state.

Stan Brakhage.
Stan Brakhage.
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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.