Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Brakhage event at Birkbeck University, London

Stan Brakhage was honoured recently by a day devoted to his work at Birkbeck University in London. Entitled ‘New Approaches to Stan Brakhage’ and held on 7 March 2015, it was organized by Marco Lori and Professor Esther Leslie. Ten papers were presented in the course of the day interspersed with screenings of some of his films.


The variety of approaches was admirable, and many of the papers stimulated new trains of thought, from James Boaden on the early psychodramas of the 1950s to Peter Mudie on the non-representational handmade/painted films made in the 1990s. Peter gave his paper right at the end, remarking rightly that much less critical attention has so far been paid to this work, but he made manifest (to me, at any rate) that Brakhage’s late phase contains a number of treasures that the 1950s films did not prefigure, and yet which continue perfectly the trajectory of his art from the beginning through the middle period. Brakhage’s originality was well brought out by the film-maker Nicky Hamlyn who talked about varieties of black (‘grainy’, ‘non-grainy’, ‘video black’ etc.) in the Roman Numeral Series of 1979-80.


Erika Balsom gave an entertaining insight into the idealism of the 1960s when Grove Press promoted 8mm versions of films for purchase and private ownership including Brakhage’s Lovemaking of 1967, i.e. both the sexual utopianism of the period and the bid to give the viewer freedom of access to film, an idea whose time only came with the advent first of video then of digital film.


The most newsworthy paper was by Emilie Vergé talking about the catalogue raisonné of his films being prepared by Paris Expérimental Editions. [www.paris-experimental.asso.fr.] This will be published in November 2015 in a bilingual edition, 560 pages long, and with 180 illustrations. I only hope it is not too expensive. I have relied up to now on Fred Camper’s remarkable filmography published online but a new scholarly listing of the films will be an essential tool for getting some grasp of the breadth and depth of Brakhage’s achievement as a film-maker. 


Other papers offered illuminations in their different ways: Paul Taberham touched on the physical aspects involved in closed-eye (or in his word ‘entoptic’) vision; Gareth Evans intriguingly linked Brakhage to Deleuze’s varieties of vision explored in his ‘Francis Bacon – the logic of sensation’; Marco Lori spoke of spiritual revelation in The Dante Quartet (1987). I was less enamoured with the paper delivered by one speaker while Part 2 of Dog Star Man (1961-4) played behind him in the half-light. We don’t need to be reminded that the films, being silent, are ruined by voice-over and, in any case, all films need decent projection conditions to be appreciated - yet we were reminded, forceably. If Stan saw this looking down from heaven he would not have been pleased – unless of course he’s found some cosmic quality of forgiveness.


It was good to see some films projected in a dark cinema (as opposed in my case to watching them on television or computer screen) but it was a major disappointment that the promised screening of films in 16mm did not take place for technical reasons. It occurred to me that one enlightenment awaiting us would be to watch a film – say Mothlight (1963) – in a digital version and then as a 16mm print, followed by a discussion of the relative merits of the two versions.


© Tim Cawkwell 2015