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From a Wide Angle,
This review is from: Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker (Wide Angle Books) (Paperback)
What is the nature of art? What is its bottom line? At first when sent this book I was skeptical, thinking it would be a hagiography of a genuinely difficult artist about whom there are only shades of grey. But editor David E. James anticipated me there, and in his beautifully delineated preface goes right to the heart of the matter, the precipitous decline of Brakhage's reputation, a drop nearly unparalleled in contemporary art. Was he, as Annette Michelson or P. Adams Sitney once claimed, the sort of genius artist for whom whole eras used to be named? A filmmaker who combined a sincerity and authenticity with a true avant-garde spirit and actual hardcore discoveries that forever changed the medium? Or was he what his latterday rep suggested, a driven, masculinist obsessive who was able to hide behind patriarchy the failures of an overdetermined use rule?
James makes it all sound so obvious, and yet he then comes around and suggests that even the haters might find something to cheer about with a new survey of Brakhage's voluminous output. (400 films, of which it was sometimes said that even Brakhage himself had only seen maybe three quarters of them.) Completists will sigh that James' compilation is too meager to do him justice, just as they balked at the recent Criterion release of 27 films, with far too many from the last 15 years of his life with those wild hand-painted strips of film. And not even women writing about Brakhage, but that's one of the issues in the first place, isn't it, and this book merely reflects that. Even so, Carolee Schneeeman and (especially) Abigail Child contribute two of the most cogent essays here. There are a few "poetic" pieces written by Brakhage's contemporaries, such as the essays by Bruce Baillie and Chuck Strand, that not even their mothers could love.
As James points out, there are few notable artists about whom so little biographical information is available. I vote for James himself to give it a go. Not only does his introduction represent and condense a whale's load of original research, but one of his own pieces, "Amateurs in an Industry Town" (on Warhol and Brakhage wrestling with Los Angeles both as metropolis and conceptual freedomland), is a brilliant and focussed article that sheds light not only on the supposed duality between the two filmmakers, but on their mutual interests and fellowship.