The Act of Reading with One's Own Eyes: Fred Camper's "Seeking Brakhage"

In five decades of essays, Camper brings an open-minded spirit of adventure to Brakhage's visual puzzles.
Paul Attard

Seeking Brakhage

When approaching Stan Brakhage’s vast filmography, an attentive viewer will, unwillingly and perhaps unknowingly, become familiar with him as a person. But he’s also a figure who is irreducible to one, or even just a few, of his best-known films: there’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959), in which his first wife (then Jane Brakhage, now Jane Wodening) gives birth on camera. There’s also Mothlight (1963), a four-minute short where Brakhage taped insects and grass trimmings onto a roll of film, a technique that he would revisit two decades later for The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), an equally rustic and tactile effort. There’s the myriad of works where Brakhage would hand-paint directly onto the celluloid, turning a film strip into an oil canvas, like The Dante Quartet (1987) and Panels for the Walls of Heaven (2002), two of his finest achievements in that regard. While most of these share technical particulars—shot on 16mm, projected at 24 frames per second, and, most importantly, devoid of music—many Brakhage titles defy this formula: the Songs series (1964-1969) were all shot on 8mm (though many were re-released on 16mm in the ’80s) and could be projected at silent speed, while largely image-less Passage Through: A Ritual (1990) features a minimalist piano score by longtime admirer Phillip Corner. 

With a career as prolific as Brakhage’s, encompassing over 350 films between 1952 and the filmmaker’s death in 2003, it can be difficult to measure the full extent of his artistic interests and pursuits, especially considering that Brakhage was, very likely, the only person who has seen all of them. However, Fred Camper’s new book Seeking Brakhage—a collection of the Chicago-based critic’s five decades of writing on Brakhage’s films—proves there’s at least one other person who’s come close. So close, in fact, that at the first of two recent New York screenings that he curated for the release of Seeking Brakhage, he admitted that he selected one of the rarer titles—the overwhelmingly beautiful, step-printed Spring Cycle (1995)—because he hadn’t seen it before. That same level of intense dedication is present throughout Seeking Brakhage, an unbridled enthusiasm and formal rigor that P. Adams Sitney calls “unmistakable” in his combative introduction, which includes two entire paragraphs on all the issues he finds with Camper’s writing style, going as far as to call him a “miser with commas” amid claims that he has a tendency to ramble (which he 100 percent does). The pair’s contrasting viewpoints demonstrate the contentious scholarship surrounding Brakhage, as well as the wide range of perspectives these films actively invite and foster. 

Duplicity III (1980).

From the tome’s first essay, the liner notes for the Criterion Collection’s first DVD release of Brakhage’s work, to the last, which was written specifically for this volume of criticism, the level of care Camper has given to these often underappreciated gems is nothing short of commendable. So many of Brakhage’s films can be difficult to effectively gauge on a single viewing; hand-painted titles such as Eye Myth (1977) or Night Music (1986), for example, have running times under one minute, and move so rapidly that they're easy to watch with a disengaged eye, to take them in as quick sequences of bright colors and nothing more. Some of the Songs seem so slight that inscribing meaning to them feels like a fool’s errand. But throughout the book, Camper encourages the reader to vigilantly watch these works over and over again—as stated in “Presenting Light,” no one Brakhage film can be “merely seen” once, as they’re “continually changing, forming and reforming itself in the eye and mind” with each new viewing. That doesn’t necessarily mean one has to scrupulously pore over every minute detail, but one should instead try to pick up on these works’ subtle internal rhythms and small pockets of pure visual ecstasy; to allow themselves to be totally submitted to an uncompromising vision of the world with no easily definable objects or subjects present. Camper suggests the following while watching a Brakhage film: to “relax your expectations; direct all your attention to what you see and hear. Let the image become and define your entire existence for the duration of the film. Let it be you; let yourself be it; simultaneously maintain your awareness that you are apart from it, watching it.” Some of Brakhage’s films “will encourage you to maintain that awareness,” such as The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), while others, like the hypnotic Black Ice (1994) or aqueous Water for Maya (2000), will “literally absorb you, not in the subject matter, but in the unique existence that the images-in-time constitute.”

To read Seeking Brakhage in the exact order that it’s presented is to also read a young critic who’s grappling with these cryptic works in real time. While the book's first few essays deal with broad topics concerning Brakhage’s methodology and ethos, the second section covers specific titles as Camper encountered them, sequenced in the order in which they were written. Fellow writers can attest that there’s something starkly vulnerable about publishing one’s own thoughts on any given piece of art, let alone resurfacing a piece written several decades prior. In an act of incredible humility, Camper hasn’t thrown any of these long-forgotten pieces away; if anything, he’s given them far more visibility. Some of the essays here, like his program notes for The Art of Vision, were written when he was 18 years old, and while some comments made towards the work are, as Camper himself reflects in the book, “unacceptably imprecise” (and, as someone who’s seen it twice now, I find his defense of the film’s extremely repetitive, almost hour-and-a-half fourth section entirely unconvincing), one can easily forgive such minor transgressions, especially given how clearly life-changing he found the film to be. If anything, the crude nature of his early prose, which is divorced from any scholarly jargon or any sense of intellectual pretense, speaks to how accessible Brakhage can be when approached with the right temperament; that a specialized knowledge of art history isn’t a prerequisite to loving any of these films. 

Rage Net (1988).

Since many of these pieces were written to drum up attention for upcoming screenings—Camper regularly contributed to the Chicago Reader from 1986 until 2010—there tends to be a bit of recurring hyperbole in Camper’s descriptions. The title of “masterpiece” or “masterwork” is liberally applied to works ranging from the highly esteemed Anticipation of the Night (1958) to the little-seen Sexual Meditation: Open Field (1973). He’s immensely receptive to just about every phase of Brakhage’s career, and the only piece he ever seems to bad-mouth (at least publicly, as he did earlier this year) is The Stars Are Beautiful (1974), a rare sound film from this period—though, Camper reserves his harshest critiques for Ontario-based curator Jim Shedden’s completely insufficient, sanitized, and horribly disjointed documentary Brakhage (1996), lest you forget who the real expert on that subject is. To a degree, this level of unabashed admiration is to be expected given the time and place of their publication; when one falls in love with a new artistic mode of expression, especially at a relatively young age, nearly everything can seem like an untouchable tour de force. However, for an artist as dynamic as Brakhage, who was regularly chastised and often dismissed for being the most “abstract” of avant-garde filmmakers (a word Brakhage himself hated), a vocal champion like Camper was, and still remains, a strong corrective. Most Brakhage fans will latch on to select periods of his filmography: an enthusiast for his more explicitly autobiographical Sincerity (1973-80) and Duplicity (1978-80) cycles could take or leave his early psychodramas like The Way to Shadow Garden (1953). On the other hand, Camper sees some value to nearly every era of Brakhage’s oeuvre, and his writing, as cocksure as it may come off, serves as a penetrative starting point for any skeptic who may have previously seen little merit to them beforehand. 

Seeking Brakhage also endeavors to be much more than a “how-to” guide on Brakhage’s films. Most vitally, it mounts a strong defense of Brakhage against accusations that his films aren’t political in nature, a critique that’s been lobbed his way since the mid-70s. In 1973, Annette Michaelson wrote in Artforum that “it is a tragedy of our time [...] that Brakhage should see his social function as defensive in the Self’s last-ditch stand against the mass, against the claims of any possible class, political process, or structure, assuming its inevitable assault upon the sovereignty of the Self, positing the imaginative consciousness as inherently apolitical.” As persuasive as this argument is, Brakhage did, in fact, make films that explicitly deal with social issues—most notably, the unsettling Song 23: 23rd Psalm Branch (1967), completed at the height of the Vietnam War and which Camper describes as a “deeply disturbing, horrifyingly powerful meditation on war as perceptual violence.” He also regularly pushed back against such allegations about his work, stating that a film like Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-70) was made in response to “the Shirley Temple representation of childhood” which “served only to aid and abet the abuse of children.” Camper goes further, arguing that Brakhage’s lifelong mission to fundamentally alter the way viewers see the world around them is about as radically political as a film artist can get. “Brakhage stimulates the viewer's mind while never telling them what to think,” he asserts in “Political, or Not,” building off the idea that Brakhage’s films address audience members as individuals, not a collected mass who needs to be told what’s up. While Brakhage’s films may not have immediate and identifiably didactic political content, their unorthodox aesthetics seek to undermine the ever-prevalent cultural hegemony of Hollywood’s image-making practices. 

Additionally, Camper affords ample space to lesser-known Brakhage films, and by doing so, opens a dialogue in which readers can proactively participate. He also provides some imagery for these films in the form of scanned film strips, as opposed to one or two enlarged frames that would fail to properly convey their shot-by-shot relation to one another (as noted, this is what Brakhage himself preferred). As someone who’s seen (and loved) “rare” items such as The Weir-Falcon Saga (1970) and Jesus Trilogy and Coda (2000), reading the relatively small amount of text devoted to each was still enough to conjure images from the recesses of my mind, like the haunting allusions to Christ’s crucifixion in Christ on Cross (2000), the “coda” specified in the latter’s namesake. Camper accurately evokes this film’s imagery by describing “multiple [hand-drawn] lines” which “unexpectedly converge into a vertical pattern, then a horizontal one, several times,” with “fleeting glimpses of a cross, standing as a kind of essence behind all the patterns we’ve seen”; yet, it’s his phrasing, specifically his use of “kind of,” that exhibits his tendency to never outright tell readers what a Brakhage film ever is. Instead, he highlights what it could be—or, more specifically, what it means to him in the hopes that his audience will use his writing as a jumping-off point to shape their own ideas. He goes on to compare the film to Italian painter Tintoretto’s Crucifixion, but again, the verbiage is key, as there’s a caveat that “it recalled for me the huge, spectacular Tintoretto Crucifixion.” Even if you disagree with the analogy, Camper’s casual association with Tinoretto’s painting suggests an open dialogue with the film—one that he hopes his readers are willing and able to join. 

The Riddle of Lumen (1972).

Although Camper would still contend that Brakhage’s most beloved works are all worth seeking out, he finds elusive titles such as The Riddle of Lumen (1972), the “Roman Numeral Series” (1979-80), the “Arabic Numeral Series” (1980-82), or Egyptian Series (1984) to be the true pinnacle of the filmmaker’s abilities. They encapsulate Brakhage’s project to make works that are impossible to describe with written or verbal language, as they consist of subtle textural changes in light and color. No humans are present (save a brief, distant glimpse in Lumen), and no random items are littered about to help make sense of what we’re viewing; just purely cinematic images that refuse to capitulate to easy labels, all part of Brakhage’s “attempt to seek imagery unlike anything he had seen” before, as Camper puts it. And yet, Camper’s own words more than suffice: for example, he characterizes The Riddle of Lumen as “completely transcend[ing] the notion of conceptual juxtaposition of images” which allows for “the purity, the separateness, the completeness of each of its individual images” to become fully realized. Elsewhere, Camper has called the film “an inventory of different kinds of light,” another deeply helpful framework for tackling one of Brakhage’s most mysterious films. Speaking for myself, when I approached a rewatch of Lumen as a sort of visual puzzle, asking myself “which type of light am I looking at now?”—or, more broadly speaking, “what am I even looking at now?”—this strategy radically altered my original perceptions of the film, turning what I originally considered to be a rather confounding experience into rapturous visual exercise.

This is perhaps why Brakhage’s work remains so essential: his films not only stand in proud opposition to the pressures and confines of commercial cinema, but they also set out to subvert accepted definitions of the basic requirements for art in general. But this bold resistance could also lead to blatant antagonism on his behalf, as Brakhage could be grandiose in public and overtly scornful towards those who didn’t abide by his idiosyncratic vision of true art. As Sitney correctly points out, the notion that Brakhage spent the entirety of his life “argu[ing] for the work of other avant-garde filmmakers,” as Camper claims in “Eye-Training,” doesn’t acknowledge his supercilious comments aimed at Jack Smith, Michael Snow, and the structuralist movement as a whole. He once publicly claimed, at the Millennium Film Workshop in 1977, that Malcolm Le Grice’s Abstract Film and Beyond was “such a ridiculous title” that it was “difficult” for him to read it, and later declared in the same lecture that there hadn’t been any video art “of lasting value” produced in the past decade. Yet, it’s this same uncompromising vision of true art that’s spurred Camper on for so long, and what continues to inspire countless devotees over the years. While Brakhage may have been dismissive towards non-believers, his own films are anything but; they actively invite and encourage anyone, and everyone, to form their own interpretations from what they’ve just seen. How you’re first introduced to Stan Brakhage is comparatively irrelevant; how you proceed from that inception point, hopefully with an attitude as adventurous and open-minded as Camper’s, is what’s truly paramount. 

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981).

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