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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

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