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An article on Brakhage’s work would, I suppose, make a decent beginning for a column on avant-garde culture — “The Motion Pictures of Stan Brakhage: No, Really, They’re For Watching”, I could call it — but it would also make a predictable one. Much more interesting to focus on the year this luminary of purely visual film had his own radio show. His goals on the air turn out to have been the same as mine are on this digital page: find something odd and lead your audience through it in as friendly and real-person a way as possible.
For 23 years, Brakhage taught at the University of Colorado. (Two of his students were South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but that’s another column.) In 1982, KAIR-FM, the campus station, offered Brakhage the opportunity to try his hand in perhaps the medium furthest from his own métier. In these 20 half-hour broadcasts, collectively titled The Test of Time, DJ Brakhage (not that he goes by that name, but some temptations are irresistible) spins the most personally meaningful pieces of recorded sound in his collection, providing copious interstitial commentary all the while. In the same way a Brakhage fan might invite a few buddies over to finally check out his favorite parts of Dog Star Man or the Songs cycle, Brakhage himself sits you down and plays what he finds terribly exciting while telling you exactly why he thinks it is.
You may have guessed that he doesn’t drop the needle on anything particularly Top 40. This is a program that invariably begins with Gregorian chant — “almost church militant,” as Brakhage describes it — and ends with a little something atonal from Charles Ives. Brakhage’s playlists include Chinese music from between 206 B.C. and 618 A.D., microcassette field recordings of street musicians playing goatskin bags, Tennessee Williams speaking lines from The Glass Menagerie (“I hear a terror in that flat reading”), Glenn Gould complaining about his early recording of The Goldberg Variations, and James Joyce reading Ulysses under a thick layer of cylinder hiss.
This could be insufferable if Brakhage presented himself as an anointed emissary of the avant-garde, here to tell an artistically benighted America what’s what. He instead takes the tack of an enthusiastic, sometimes bumbling (if supremely well-spoken) cultural traveler — an outsider even to the outside. “I have to be free in doing this kind of program to be nothing but personal, which is to say, sometimes — often, maybe always — a fool,” he admits early in the series. “I’ll mispronounce things and falter now and again, and my knowledge is one that is amateur, in that sense of ‘lover.’” Despite being out of his domain, he doesn’t seem to actually get much wrong. But that disclaimer, and his manner throughout The Test of Time, struck me as pretty thoroughly disarming nonetheless.
Yet Brakhage had the same attitude within his domain, proudly calling himself an amateur filmmaker, a producer of home movies, reverence of the cinephile community be damned. As an old taped conversation with poet/critic Parker Tyler in episode twelve reveals, he disliked the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde,” finding them badly wanting for descriptive value. Remembering the work of eighty or so filmmakers at a recent exhibition in Brussels, he says, “There were only between twenty and thirty that I would call artists in film. And out of that twenty or thirty there were only maybe ten that I felt had accomplished anything.”
Brakhage’s baby daughter cuts through this high-minded back and forth, and the wailing gives him a good excuse to stop the tape. Coming back on the studio mic, he explains how pained he was by the conversation at the time, how he could never bear to listen to it between then and now. “Yet as I go back to it,” he continues, “it’s the clearest expression that I have ever been able to make of the beginnings and the continuities of my feeling. Parker brought that out in me, however annoying he was in the process.”
The near-superstitious exhumation of the long-buried recording; the frustration with limiting, marginalizing labels; the crying baby — they all exude Brakhage’s humanness. This isn’t the work of a steely, uncompromising artist-philosopher caricature whose every incomprehensible piece speaks only disdain for the insufficiently evolved human race that ignores it. This is the work of an honest appreciator — a lover — who wants to share the visceral thrill he gets from “odd and strange things, records that are out-of-print, poets reading poetry.” (Besides, I’m pretty sure you need a mindset like this to open a broadcast with lines like, “Hi, I'm Stan Brakhage, and today I feel like talking about love of women.”)
Brief, dreamlike, and almost wholly about their own form, Brakhage’s films are often and rightfully compared to poetry. Given his love of actual poetry evident in these broadcasts, perhaps that’s no surprise. What I did find a potential Deep Insight Into the Mind of the Artist is that he approaches pretty much every other type of art he shares on the show as poetry too. Letters from a young Jackson Pollock? Poetry. Fellow film artist Bruce Baillie rambling into a tape recorder as he wends his way through a 1960s road trip of obscure purpose but desperate motivation? Poetry. Orson Welles lampooning Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society? Poetry.
In Program 13, Brakhage discusses his love of James Joyce. “Surprise, surprise,” those still unconvinced might say, “that guy who made those movies nobody understands is a fan of that guy who wrote those novels nobody understands.” Brakhage includes his response in the broadcast: “Certainly, most people find Finnegans Wake impossible, but I don’t, because I always start with just the music, the beautiful sounds of it, and then let whatever it is that will come to me arise from that.”
Or, as one astute YouTube commenter (to whip out a possible oxymoron) typed into the reply section below a clip of Dog Star Man, “Dude, it's not about metaphors, symbolism, or storylines. That's the mistake people make — they think he's trying to make snooty ‘high brow’ art. He's not. His art is primal, not intellectual and certainly not narrative. In other words, Brakhage isn't making ‘movies,’ he's creating a purely sensory experience that stimulates and invigorates your brain.” Couldn’t we use more filmmakers, broadcasters, and cultural curators who do the same?