A Snail’s Trail in the Moonlight

By Mark Webber


Remembering Stan Brakhage (1933 – 2003)

Brakhage, James Stanley (Stan). Died Sunday afternoon, March 9, 2003, about 2:10 PM Pacific Time at Victoria Hospice in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, after a brave and difficult struggle with cancer. His wife, Marilyn, was with him.

Announcement of Stan Brakhage’s Death and Statement on his Life

By Marilyn Brakhage, released March 10, 2003

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1933, Stan grew up chiefly in Denver, Colorado and lived for many years in Rollinsville and later in Boulder, Colorado, as well as spending earlier periods in both New York City and San Francisco. Most recently of Victoria, British Columbia, Stan was a world-renowned artist, a creative genius whose complex, brilliant and amazingly prolific body of work in both film and writing earned him a place of prominence within the American avant-garde film movement as well as the entire contemporary art world. With major collections of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Oesterreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna, the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin, and other museums, universities, and private collections around the continent and the world, Stan has been an inspiration to countless students, fellow artists, and so many others, through his films, his writings, his lectures and public appearances, and his work as Instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Most especially, Stan has been an enormous presence in the lives of all who knew him, “a giant among us,” as a friend said. Because of his great love for family and friends, his unending wonder at the world, the strength of his physical presence, the challenge of his mind, the integrity of his being, the light in his eyes, the amazing life-force that he was, Stan’s death will be a huge loss for all of us.

prelude-1-stan-brakhage.jpg Prelude 1

True to form, Stan spent his final weeks and days scratching on film and drawing pictures of his visions, both internal and external, as he worked through his illness. He expressed much love and kindness, and gratitude to others, and said, “I’ve had a really good life,” and “Life is great.” He worried for the world, and he continued to care for and to protect his art, and that of others.

In his well-known Metaphors on Vision of 1963, Stan had written of film artists creating “where fear before them has created the greatest necessity,” and that “they are essentially preoccupied by, and deal imagistically with, birth, sex, death, and the search for God.” Speaking recently of his life, he stated that most of all he had wanted to GIVE something to people – through the arts, through music and painting. He said, “I wanted to give them God.”

Stan is survived by seven children and 14 grandchildren. He will be deeply missed by his wife, Marilyn, and sons Anton and Vaughn, and by his first wife, Jane, and their five children, Myrrena, Crystal, Neowyn, Bearthm and Rarc.

A Remembrance for Stan Brakhage

By Phil Solomon, 14 March 2003

Impossible. It is… impossible. The headline in the local paper read: ‘Stan Brakhage Dead at 70’ but the mind simply cannot comprehend this combination and sequence of words. So perhaps they got it wrong, as they always do. Stan, I think I know the headline you might have written for yourself – something like: It’s a (goddamned) Miracle that I’ve survived for seventy years!!

And we might have written: Stan Brakhage: wondrously, tumultuously, impossibly ALIVE for seventy years…survived by his children, his grandchildren, his great loves, and all of us who were so lucky to have been graced by the shimmering light of this giant soul of a man…

Stan, you would always end your letters with these words:



And all of us who are gathered in union to celebrate your life today were blessed indeed, that you shared your profound and irrepressible love of life with each of us in countless ways. The papers, as they do, offer a neat biographical summation of your life, the 400 films, the honours, and so on – but how could they write about the Stan Brakhage that each of us remembers? Indeed, in awe of your crazy fecundity, Ken Jacobs used to ask, “how many Stans are there? How is he possible?” The papers couldn’t tell them, Stan, about the cosmic wonder that was your laughter, the sheer joy of your Grand Santa Claus Belly Laughs that rang throughout our homes, hallways, movie theatres and phone lines at day’s end…and of course the relish with which you would tell us the latest joke making the rounds – and I, alas, was always a beat or two late on the uptake, but it was your subsequent laughter at your own joke that I would secretly wait for…better than the punch-line…One recent punch-line that particularly tickled you stays with me. “You forgot your hat!” you would say, then a lion’s roar of laughter on the phone…joy…

How could they know what your years of screenings and teaching have meant to generations of students and lovers of film for whom your personal insights into the wonders of art and life would have such deep and lasting import? This past week, dozens of students have written, e-mailed and phoned with testimonials about how you changed their lives with your magical sermons, your eclectic, passionate tales of the tribe, sung with such clarity and eloquence, teaching us about what it means to be human…that Voice that is still so present in this room. You would say, “well, I was lucky enough to have the gift of gab, so I could make a living…” Yes, we say, but …WHAT… GAB…

resurrectus-est-stan-brakhage.jpgResurrectus Est

How could we explain to them, Stan, the glorious nature of the Brakhagean Hyperbole that was, in fact, never hyperbole, that each and every time when you exclaimed “well, this is the GREATEST pizza I’ve ever had!” or “that was the GREATEST movie of the last ten years!” – IT WAS TRUE for you – and when you said it again, on a later occasion, IT WAS TRUE AGAIN, each time, as if you were experiencing life anew each day – such was your inexhaustible vitality and gusto for life, a daily moveable feast, with each of us around your table…

And how could we really describe the Whitman-like expanse of your daily bear hugs, greeting us at each encounter with your powerful, gentle, HUGE embrace, a reaffirmation filled with such a soulful charge…often times, when we were falling and needed your support, your strength and spirit would lift us up, help us through our own Fire of Waters…the assurance we felt from the softness of your gentle hands, even after having passed through millions of splices… there was always such a profound tenderness when you put your hand on ours, to let us know that it would be alright… “So, we go on…” you would say…

And we can still hear, in mind’s ear, the care and delicacy with which you sang us all our “Happy Birthdays” each year, transforming that trite and tired tune into a moving psalm of celebration and renewal…

And ah, yes, your work – the monumental gift you left behind for us, a grand testament to what it means to be truly alive here on earth, what it means to be human…a magnificent singular achievement of unfailing faith, discipline, and devotion that can now stand alongside ANY artist’s great body of work, in ANY medium, in ANY time... So let it be said, that when the Muse called, and she called upon you more than most…that you simply PAID ATTENTION, as we say…daily creativity was just the most natural way of being for you, like breathing…

“All that is, is light”, you oft quoted…and now it can be told that your life-long passion for receiving light NEVER diminished, to the very last…over fifty years of carving articulated scrolls of rainbowed wavelengths into the beams of white light emanating from behind us, in the dark, in your ceaseless, tireless, heroic quest for a SINCERITY OF VISION IN LIGHT ON FILM. I would like to think that you have finally achieved what you were after from the very start – that you have transcended language, transcended picture, transcended the very ‘trick’ of film itself, that so troubled you…I imagine you leaving this body and SHEDDING THE HUSK OF IMAGE ENTIRELY, as you move directly toward SOURCE, toward LIGHT ITSELF, becoming, finally, LIGHT ITSELF, in All Things, Everywhere at Once, a world without end, without limits…

murder-psalm.jpgMurder Psalm

And know, dear Stan, that our screens here, where we are, will never go dark, and your light will never be extinguished…because it lives on, in us, in our glorious communion with you, radiating like an eternal beacon that shines from our hearts, illuminates our souls, opens our eyes…because that is your final testament to us, your greatest gift…you taught us how to simply open our eyes …and see…Everything…

You said, “Art is the truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth” (but now the final unspoken part of that oath remains for us to ponder…)

You said, “All I ever really wanted to do was just to leave a snail’s trail in the moonlight…”

And among the last words that you hushed to Marilyn:

“My life was wonderful. Life is great.” and then, “I can see the river…”

And I remembered what you used to tell your children each evening, right before bedtime, that you would meet them at the rivers of the world in their dreams; tonight on the Yangtze, tomorrow on the Thames, yesterday the Liffey…

And so, my friend, I finally understand why you were so taken with the idea of ‘closed-eye’ vision during most of your lifetime.

Because, now, when we close our eyes, there, amidst the sparks and firings, the glints of the jewelled ineffable,

there you are,
just across the river,
along the glistening snail’s trail in our moonlight,
awash with light,
in the brilliant domain of aura,
forever shining,
with love…


Fred Camper

I was teaching a class called Basic Filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when Stan Brakhage, at the school for his bi-weekly lectures, decided to sit in. I was showing reels of old Hollywood films and TV commercials for an editing assignment; the students were to choose what they wanted and make little films out of it. There was a fair amount of mirth, as the students chuckled at the absurdities seen and at the uses they might put them to.

Increasingly troubled, Brakhage got up and made a little speech to the effect that this footage shouldn’t be taken too lightly, because it had a deeply serious and troubling import. Not long after, when I saw how he orchestrated footage from both a cartoon and an instructional film to depict a skein of deadly societal traps in Murder Psalm (1981), I understood. In the act of viewing, and making, an image has profound implications.

But he had another side. While the muse was of great importance to him, he could also joke about her. At his three screenings at New York’s Millennium Film Workshop in 1997, all the head and tail leaders were projected – including the woman’s face that labs use to test print quality. The filmmaker Ken Jacobs asked why, considering the extreme care Brakhage had taken with editing over the years, he was including all this. Brakhage, whose lifelong film lab was Western Cine (now Cinema Lab Inc.), first appeared bewildered and then feigned surprise, saying, “oh, you mean the muse! That’s the Western Cine muse. They have had many such muses over the years and I love them all.”

I’d like to think that this wasn’t only self-parody: that Brakhage was open to the possibility that the muse could be found in the lab lady too.

Courtney Hoskins

My fondest memory of Stan Brakhage will remain forever in my mind: an audience member brought his young son to one of Stan’s free admission Sunday evening salons. The child kept commenting on the silent films as we watched them. The father calmly asked the child to keep his voice down. When the lights came up between films, Stan told the father that there was no need to hush the child, that he finds it valuable to hear an honest, unadulterated response to the films. At the discussion that followed the films, the child announced that he had a question. When Stan agreed to answer, the child stood up and approached Stan until the two were face-to-face. “What was the movie about?” the child asked, unabashedly. Smiling, Stan asked him if he had ever seen colours when he closed his eyes and rubbed them or brilliant lights even though he was in the dark. The child smiled and nodded in response. “That’s what the movie was about,” Stan happily pronounced. He then pointed at an object in the child’s hands and asked, “And what is your book about?” And to the mild disgruntlement of a few of the die-hards fans with burning questions about Brakhage’s latest premiere, the two new friends discussed Icarus, whose father lamented his own art – the wax wings that melted as they approached the heavens and neared the sun.

Ken Jacobs

Stan’s middle-C was ebullience. He could be brought down by circumstances – there seemed always to be money and sickness problems, and physical pain to bear – but only so far. I listened yesterday to a message-machine recording from early 2002. He so doesn’t want to speak to a machine. Why aren’t we home? He’s waiting to hear about this and that, the New York report. It’s been an impossible day. Teaching so many students. He has a stomach infection, a foot infection: “Can a hangnail do all this?” Yet he ends up belting out Over the Rainbow word for word in its entirety.

Pip Chodorov

One day at the Rotterdam Film Festival, January 2002, I commiserated with Stan that his films had been projected out of focus – he was sitting in the front row and it must have been torture, and I was furious at the projectionist. “Oh, that’s OK,” he dismissed, “I’ve been seeing out of focus my whole life!”

P. Adams Sitney

The night he died, Jonas Mekas telephoned me: “It feels like an era has ended.” Mekas is always so reticent about the deaths of our friends. I had never heard him say anything like that in the fifty years I’ve known him. Nathaniel Dorsky called too: he couldn’t bring himself to shoot film the next day, knowing that Brakhage could no longer film. Even though we knew this death was imminent, the shock comes in realising that the outpouring of films has ceased. For five decades we could always count on new Brakhage films, in the bleakest years, to affirm the continuity of the art. Nothing could stop him but death. (Originally published in French in Cahiers du Cinema 578)

Selected Bibliography
Stan Brakhage: Film at Wits End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers (Documentext, 2001); Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking (Documentext, 2001); Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker (McPherson & Co, 2003); Stan Brakhage: Correspondences (Chicago Review Special Issue, Spring 2002). R. Bruce Elder: The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999); P. Adams Sitney: Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (OUP, 3rd edition 2002).

Filmography & Distribution
London: LUX, www.lux.org.uk New York: Filmmakers’ Coop, www.film-makerscoop.com Paris: Lightcone, www.lightcone.org San Francisco: Canyon Cinema, www.canyoncinema.com.

www.fredcamper.com (an invaluable guide to Brakhage); www.criterion.com (Criterion Collection’s Focus on Stan Brakhage); www.cosmicbaseball.com; www.horschamp.qc.ca (Offscreen’s Brakhage dossier).

By Brakhage: An Anthology Authorised and carefully prepared 2 DVD set containing highest quality transfers of 26 complete Brakhage films plus interview footage and detailed sleevenotes by critic Fred Camper.

Hand Painted Films, Anticipation of the Night (and soon Dog Star Man) from Re:Voir (www.re-voir.com).

Mark Webber is an independent curator of artists’ and experimental film and works as project manager for LUX (www.lux.org.uk).

Images © courtesy of the estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper (www.fredcamper.com)