Review of Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker
by Stan Brakhage (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 2003)
To filmmakers, scholars, students, and enthusiasts, the late Stan Brakhage was an icon of American experimental cinema. The publication of Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker, a collection of Brakhage’s contributions to the Toronto quarterly Musicworks, makes this an ideal time to consider the broader significance of Brakhage’s work.
It is, I believe, time to take Brakhage out of the world of starry-eyed film students and esoteric academics. While Brakhage’s films have recently been made available to the general public—stemming from the release of a DVD by the Criterion Collection—Brakhage’s writings, which waver in and out of print, help to uncover the full picture.
Brakhage used cinema to confront a cold, demystified, and narrowly perceived world. This aesthetic project aimed at the reawakening of human feeling and expansion of perception within a world that had caged both. He did not want to simply change American experimental cinema; he wanted to use experimental cinema to enhance the way we experience the world and to reject the various ways that modern life was, in effect, dehumanizing through the collapse of aesthetic experience.
When Brakhage first took up both pen and camera, cinema was dominated by the massive studio system. Hollywood had turned film into a commodity, hindering its possibilities for more dynamic and human expression. Cinema was trapped by imposed forms and expectations. In response, Brakhage made his films independently of studios. He acted as director, cameraman, producer, and even sometimes performer for his 400 plus films. Yet, nearly every experimental filmmaker was also forced to take on all of these roles. Brakhage wanted to achieve much more than mere independence from Hollywood.
In the seminal aesthetic manifesto Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage argued for the expansion of vision through cinema. He saw that artistic production of all forms was being radically liberated. In music there was John Cage, in painting the abstract expressionists, and in poetry the Beats. Brakhage felt that by similarly liberating the cinema, both filmmaker and audience would be freed from an increasing narrowness of vision, one which was imposed on cinema by Hollywood.
Cinema was the first art form that utilized machinery to express artistic human impulses. The camera was a product of modern phenomena like industrialization, mechanization, and capitalism. These phenomena produced a new world for people, one in which they worked on assembly lines and in cubicles, only to return home to the bill collector. Human emotion and feeling were being sacrificed to the efficiency of systematized life.
This was the concern that motivated Chaplin, for instance, in his Modern Times. There, Chaplin uses the camera, a product of the machine age, to critique its effects on society. Brakhage saw capitalism and the mechanization of everyday life as a radically dehumanizing force, just as Chaplin did. Yet, Chaplin’s film depicts the clash between man and machine. But unlike Chaplin or any other filmmaker, Brakhage shows that a machine, the camera, could be used to reinvigorate the artistic impulse instead of deadening it. He was interested in embracing the machine to extend human vision past the limits placed on it by modern industrial capitalist society.
And it is here that we can glimpse Brakhage’s most interesting and perhaps important contribution as a filmmaker and aesthetician. While so many artists and philosophers lamented the coming of industrialization and mechanization as the very death knell of human feeling, Brakhage responded by aestheticizing the machine itself. Speaking of film, Brakhage wrote in Telling Time, "I am primarily interested in the aesthetic possibilities of the medium, and these are those which promote mental reflection (rather than reflective recollection)."
Cinema could introduce new ways of seeing since the camera becomes an extension of the human eye. Innovative use of the camera would provide insight into human perception, expand its capacities, and allow the viewer to see past the mere surface manifestation of everyday life and penetrate into a deeper, more profound essence. The camera is a machine transformed: instead of being the concrete representation of the machine age, it becomes a tool for an alternative way of seeing a world that was reduced by modernity and technology. The camera puts human creativity back at the center of human praxis.
In Telling Time, Brakhage offers "Light moving in time" as the definition of cinema. Because of its very nature, cinema is uniquely able to artistically engage modernity’s emphasis on time. In his fascination with light, Brakhage deals with another result of modernity. He acknowledges the scientific explanation for light, but because of his interest in the "magical," he cinematically explores light as a mystery. In this way, Brakhage copes with the transition from a world of mystery, magic, and mythology to the modern age of science, rationality, and reason. He uses light and time to reënchant a world that has otherwise become disenchanted by science’s explanations and modern society’s use of time to dehumanize people. Brakhage’s aesthetic allows people to reconcile the modern world with the human feelings that have persisted for millennia.
The publication of Telling Time provides another chance to recognize the importance of Brakhage’s aesthetic agenda. These new writings rely heavily on the older ones and on the films as well to reveal the breadth of Brakhage’s vision. The writings of Fred Camper and P. Adams Sitney are invaluable resources for critically approaching Brakhage’s work. By delving into Brakhage’s work and the critiques of it, it becomes clear that Brakhage was, as Fred Camper has put it, "a poet of freedom." Brakhage’s aesthetic relieves people from the apathy and disenchantment that life in modern society forces them to endure, by asserting and reapproaching human feeling through the camera.