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James Stanley Brakhage (January 14, 1933 – March 9, 2003), better known as Stan Brakhage, was an Americanmarker non-narrative filmmaker who is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th century experimental film.

Over the course of five decades, Brakhage created a large and diverse body of work, exploring a variety of formats, approaches and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid, fast cutting, in-camera editing, scratching on film and the use of multiple exposures. Interested in mythology and inspired by music, poetry and visual phenomena, Brakhage sought to reveal the universal in the particular, exploring themes of birth, mortality, sexuality and innocence.

Brakhage's films are often noted for their expressiveness and lyricism.


Born Robert Sanders in Kansas City, Missourimarker on January 14, 1933, Brakhage was adopted and renamed three weeks after his birth by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage.

As a child, Brakhage was featured on radio as a boy soprano and sang in church choirs and as a soloist at other events. He was raised in Denver, Coloradomarker, where he attended high school with the filmmaker Larry Jordan and the musicians Morton Subotnick and James Tenney. Together, Brakhage, Jordan, Tenney and Subtonick formed a drama group called the Gadflies.

Brakhage briefly attended Dartmouth Collegemarker on a scholarship before dropping out to pursue filmmaking. He completed his first film, Interim, at the age of 19; the music for the film was composed by his school friend James Tenney. In 1953, Brakhage moved to San Franciscomarker to attend the San Francisco School of the Arts, then called the California School of the Arts. He found the atmosphere in San Francisco more rewarding, associating with poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, but did not complete his education, instead moving to New York Citymarker in 1954. There he met a number of notable artists, including Maya Deren (in whose apartment he briefly lived), Willard Maas, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage. Brakhage would collaborate with the latter two, making two films with Cornell (Gnir Rednow and Centuries of June) and using Cage's music for the soundtrack of his first color film, In Between.

Brakhage spent the next few years living in near poverty, depressed about what he saw as the failure of his work. He briefly considered suicide. While living in Denver, Brakhage met Mary Jane Collom, whom he married in late 1957. Known as Jane Brakhage, she became his first wife. Brakhage tried to make money on his films, but had to take a job making industrial shorts to support his family. In 1959, Jane gave birth to the first of the five children they would have together, an event Brakhage recorded for his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving.

The 1960s and Beginning of Recognition

When Brakhage's early films had been exhibited in the 1950s, they had often been met with derision, but in the early 1960s Brakhage began to receive recognition in exhibitions and film publications, including Film Culture, which awarded several of his films, including The Dead, in 1962. The award statement, written by Jonas Mekas, a critic who would later become an influential experimental filmmaker in his own right, cited Brakhage for bringing to cinema "an intelligence and subtlety that is usually the province of the older arts."

From 1961 to 1964, Brakhage worked on a series of 5 films known as the Dog Star Man cycle. The Brakhages moved to Lump Gulch, Coloradomarker in 1964, though Brakhage continued to make regular visits to New York. During one of those visits, the 16mm film equipment he had been using was stolen. Brakhage couldn't afford to replace it, instead opting to buy cheaper 8mm film equipment. He soon began working in the format, producing a 30-part cycle of 8mm films known as the Songs from 1964 to 1969. The Songs include one of Brakhage's most acclaimed films, 23rd Psalm Branch, a response to the Vietnam War and its presentation in the mass media.

Brakhage began teaching film history and aesthetics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicagomarker in 1969, commuting from his home in Coloradomarker.

1970s and 1980s

Brakhage explored further approaches to filmmaking in the 1970s. In 1971, he completed a set of three films inspired by public institutions in the city of Pittsburghmarker. These three films--Eyes, about the city police, Deus Ex, filmed in a hospital, and The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, depicting autopsy--are collectively known as "The Pittsburgh Trilogy." In 1974, Brakhage made the feature-length Text of Light, consisting entirely of images of light refracted in a glass ashtray. In 1979, he experimented with Polavision, a format marketed by Polaroid, making about five 2 1/2 minute films. The whereabouts of these films are now unknown. He continued his visual explorations of landscape and the nature of light and thought process, and through the late 70's and early 80's produced filmic equivalents of what he termed "moving visual thinking" in several series of photographic abstractions known as the Roman, Arabic, and Egyptian series.

In 1979, Brakhage began teaching at the University of Coloradomarker in Boulder. In 1986, Brakhage separated from Jane, and in 1989 he married his second wife, Marilyn. The two would have two children together. In the late 1980s, Brakhage returned to making sound films, with the four-part Faustfilm cycle, and also completed the hand-painted "Dante Quartet."

1990s - 2000s and death

Brakhage remained extremely productive through the last two decades of his life, sometimes working in collaboration with other filmmakers, including his University of Colorado colleague Phil Solomon. Several more sound films were completed, including "Passage Through: A Ritual," edited to the music of Philip Corner, and "Christ Mass Sex Dance" and "Ellipsis No. 5," both with music by James Tenney. He also produced the major meditations on childhood, adolescence, aging and mortality collectively known as the "Vancouver Island Quartet," as well as numerous hand-painted works.

Brakhage was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1996, and his bladder was removed. The surgery seemed successful, but the cancer eventually returned. He retired from teaching and moved to Canadamarker in 2002, settling with his second wife Marilyn and their two sons in Victoria, British Columbiamarker. Brakhage died there on March 9, 2003, aged 70. The last footage Brakhage shot has been made available under the title Work in Progress. At the time of his death, Brakhage was also working the Chinese Series, made by scratching directly on to film.

Though not a practicing Christian during his adulthood, Brakhage requested a traditional Anglican service. The funeral was attended largely by family members, as well as a few friends from the filmmaking world, and included a performance of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.


Brakhage is revered as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, and his work has had some small impact on mainstream cinema. The credits of the film Seven, with their scratched emulsion, rapid cutaways and bursts of light are in Brakhage's style. The concluding credits to The Jacket are an homage, the background imitating his Mothlight.

Among Brakhage's students were Eric Darnell, the director of Antz, as well as the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and he is featured in their student film Cannibal! The Musical. The work of contemporary film and video artist Raymond Salvatore Harmon is often compared to Brakhage's abstract films. The opening track of Stereolab's album Dots and Loops, "Brakhage", is also named after him.

The films of Stan Brakhage are distributed in their original format by Canyon Cinema[28601] in San Francisco.


The Brakhage films, comprising his edited originals, intermediate elements, and other original material, are housed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive, where a long-term project is underway to preserve and restore his entire film output.


Brakhage wrote a number of books about films, including Metaphors on Vision (1963), A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book (1971), and the posthumously published Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker (2003).


  1. Chicago Reader: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes
  2. Senses of Cinema: Stan Brakhage
  3. Senses of Cinema: Stan Brakhage
  4. Before the Beginning Was the Word: Stan Brakhage's by Paul Arthut
  5. Senses of Cinema: Stan Brakhage
  6. Senses of Cinema: Stan Brakhage
  7. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  8. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  9. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  10. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  11. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  12. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  13. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  14. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  15. James, David E. Stan Brakhage : Filmmaker. New York: Temple UP, 2005.
  16. Account of Stan Brakhage's Funeral by Phil Solomon
  17. Interview with Stan mentions Parker and Stone as students
  18. Review of Harmon's film reference to Brakhage

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