Saturday, September 13, 2008


I love Stan Brakhage. But out of his almost 400 films, surely not every one of them can be as influential as Dog Star Man or as revelatory as The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes. After watching a handful of his films that did not move me or engage me, I asked myself the same naive questions that I hate hearing from others: "Anyone could've made that film. Why is it special? Why is it worth studying? Simply because it's Brakhage?"

I'm not the type to dismiss the merit of any artwork simply because it looks "easy to do". And as quickly as hundreds of people have looked at a Pollock and said, "I can do that," I'm even quicker to respond, "No you can't." But in the case of Brakhage, I've found some of his films to be not particularly special. And in the case of all artists I admire, I've wondered why some of their lesser known, less special works were worth our attention. Is everything that Picasso ever vomited or shat a groundbreaking piece of art, simply because they're by Picasso? No. Then why do we treat everything he's done as being relevant? Why are so many of Dali's scribbles and notes currently on exhibit at MoMA? I posed these questions -- with Brakhage as the framework -- to my pal Raymond P., a film festival programmer whose opinion of cinema is incredibly credible and trustworthy.

"Because all of his films, good and bad, help complete our understanding of Brakhage as a filmmaker," he said.

Raymond P. told me this a few years ago and I've heeded his words whenever I observed any artwork whose merit I might have debated. His advice pertains to accomplished and "important" artists in particular, whose inclusion in the canon necessitates study of all their works. Every artist is capable of producing stinkers; indeed they should, as they are living and developing human beings whose work evolves. Each individual work gives context for another. And in the case of important artists like Brakhage, in order to understand where The Dante Quartet comes from, we have to watch his unspecial films. In order to connect Underground Fantasy to Red, White and Brown, we should examine Rothko's doodles. In order to appreciate how Ulysses came to be, we should consider Joyce's grocery lists.

[In conclusion, if you feel like you are on a path to importance and would like to facilitate the study of your work, you should consider becoming a pack rat. Or if your friend is going to become important, start saving her scraps. If MoMA doesn't ask to exhibit the detritus, you could always eBay them away...]

Mark Rothko, Underground Fantasy (1940)

Mark Rothko, Red, White and Brown (1957)

No comments: