Independent. Avant-Garde. Cult. Underground. Sticks and stones.

from the archives: Brakhage meets Reggio

Originally printed in Cinemad #4

For one program, the 2000 Telluride Film Festival presented three new short films by Stan Brakhage preceding Chris Marker's video documentary on the last days of Andrei Tarkovsky, ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH. Just the catalog page induced avant-orgasms across town.
                        The three Brakhage shorts were from his Persian film series. In the Q&A he noted what he works from: "Every kid rubs his or her eyes to make the multiple feedback - hypnogogic, it's called. That’s my starting point for painting." Brakhage was known only as a legendary filmmaker but fans know he was also one of the most prolific and fascinating painters of our time.
After the screening Brakhage and KOYAANISQATSI (1982) director Godfrey Reggio spoke to a group of high school students whose trip was sponsored by the festival.
            Brakhage was strict like a teacher, well spoken and loud. Reggio is also well spoken and concise, but much more quiet.
"A lot of wonderful things have born here," Brakhage said. "Tarkovsky's last film was born here in his rage at an American woman's soap opera-ish depiction of the end of the world. I don’t remember her name or the film, nobody else does either, even though it had kind of a popular run for a while. He took it in a form, 'I wish I could have such a sentimental view of the end of the world.' And then he went on at some length that convinced me that that was the seed being planted for THE SACRIFICE (1986)."
            Brakhage loved the historical finds that Telluride has every year. While Brakhage knows and teaches films by the relatively unknown filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff, this year the festival had a feature-length film by Kirsanoff (RAPT, 1934) that Brakhage had never seen nor heard of. (After seeing it he declared it a masterpiece.)
            When asked for his influences, Brakhage explained his latest came from a lifetime involvement in Persian art, with Farsi and with the associated calligraphic ways. He looks for a way to reciprocate in his films things he has experienced.
            Godfrey Reggio, director of KOYAANISQATSI, its sequel POWAQQATSI (1988) and ANIMA MUNDI (1992)*, thought his path to filmmaking was not as clear as Brakhage's: "I must say that Stan has an enormous breadth of knowledge about what's in cinema, in image and art. He's not only a practitioner, he's also an extremely knowledgeable person."
            Reggio explained how he came from a completely different direction. He was a monk for 14 years and then worked with street gangs for another 14 years.
"What motivated me was this intensity of trying to understand the world in which I lived in," Reggio said. "After working with street gangs for so long I felt that these gangs were fine, it was the world they lived in that was upside down. So I wanted an opportunity, much like a person who say is an indigenous person - their life depends on understanding the world they live in. If you live in the desert you must understand the earth, the sky, the water, the light. I feel that we live in a world that we are almost incapable of seeing because it is so close to us. I see the synthetic world that we live in as a prison, that we're all rushing to get inside of."
Trying to understand the world is Reggio's motivation. Reggio brings up the fact that he has only made 4 films while Brakhage has made over 300.
Brakhage's films range from 9 seconds long to 4 1/2 hours. "I'm obsessed," Brakhage said, "and I wouldn’t recommend that as a life for anybody (laughs)."
Reggio described his films being about the beauty of the beast: "Those things that America is known all over the world for as the materialistic capital of the universe. Everyone wants to come here because of the so-called freedoms that we have. But maybe it's for the perception of the commodities and the way of life that we live." As opposed to films about the obvious depravation of war, hunger and poverty, which "you would have to be not human to not understand."
In his films, which consist of imagery and orchestral music only, Reggio leaves the thinking up to the viewer. "I believe it is inappropriate to give answers in mediums as powerful as film because we don’t even understand what the image does to us. I think the power of cinema is that it can open within the viewer much like a tarot card, if you want use an example. It can open within your own mind your own answers to things."
Reggio related this idea to Brakhage's work.
"What does it mean?" Reggio asked. "Who knows. I'm never going to get into his mind. So I don’t know what he means. But his work, like art, produces a meaningful response in my life, much like a piece of music."
            While the two filmmakers are both very unique and off the mainstream, Brakhage believes his area of painting on film is similar in the long run to Reggio's images of real landscapes and people. "Because what I'm trying to do is reveal to people or inspire people to be aware of their moving visual thinking. I feel this is the new way to think. Not to discard the old ways…. That can be added to symbols, numbers, words, and pictures in the normal sense. It can add to the streaming of our emotional consciousness and how it is affected by simple forms like Persian motifs or naked bodies."
            Brakhage then moved on to how he is affected by current 'independent' film distribution: "I can say and I've said for many years I've tried very hard to get over into Canada.** Because as an American patriot I feel it is a shame and a disgrace if I can't die in exile. All my contemporaries are dead or worse. Except for six or seven, out of 75 to 150. They weren't taken out and shot like what happens in Russia or sent out to starve. They were killed in the American way: the independent film movement."
Brakhage said he has been totally ignored by the public broadcast system, almost the entire educational system and almost all of the museums. When Brakhage finishes a film, he estimates only five venues for it: The Museum of Modern Art and the Millenium Film Workshop in NYC, the Walker Art museum in Minneapolis, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Telluride fest.
One student asked Brakhage how he made his recent painted films. He paints primarily on clear leader, occasionally on scratched black leader, filling up the scratches with color. He paints in public in order to 'stay sane' around relatively normal people talking about real estate, children, etc. Commonly, he uses dental and engraving tools.
            Brakhage then takes the footage and reshoots it through a step printer owned by a former student of his. [Other former Brakhage students include the creators of South Park: "I think Stanley is an homage to me. Because he's the one that doesn't cuss so much, he has a weak stomach and throws up. They're teasing me. And I'm very proud of that."]
While Brakhage has to use a paint that adheres, he warned against the use of coal tar dyes. His exposure to it over years resulted in the filmmaker's failing health.
Asked about his background, Reggio, who programmed some of the short films at Telluride, added, "I am very happy I never went to film school. Having looked at now, a couple of thousand film entries from film schools, I find remarkably that they all have the same thumbprint on them. Meaning they are all trying to do this story that can get them into Hollywood some way.”
"I worked with street gangs for many years, " Reggio continued. "During the time working with them I saw this fantastic film called LOS OLVIDADOS (1950) by Luis Bunuel. I certainly wasn't entertained by Bunuel's film. Quite the contrary, I had a spiritual experience. I felt that if I could be moved so deeply by something that touching, then it was something that I wanted to check out. I had burnt out working with street gangs. I had spent 90% of the time fighting police. I felt that was counter-productive. To try and keep defending young people against authority was ridiculous.
"It motivated me into choosing film because I learned years ago as a teacher that people learn in terms of what they already know. I found that people are obsessively attracted to the image."
            When explaining the title of his first film, the Hopi word KOYAANISQATSI, Reggio said he was not a white man trying to be an Indian, a la the university department subjectively analyzing indigenous people. Reggio would rather take a subjective category of a Native American and apply that to the current culture and technology.
            "The films I've made are really to be performed with live orchestras," Reggio continued. "The reason I do that is while it limits the number of people that can see them I know that since it is a film the ubiquitous medium unfortunately is an electronic medium of television. It reduces everything.
"But if it is possible to be seen at the complete other end, with an orchestra in a cultural palace as it were, then it raises the way the senses can perceive the event. You can feel the soundtrack. Although I don’t use language that soundtrack is the narration. As music indicates a direct communion to the soul rather than through words. The films aren't for everybody but those open to them they can touch you directly.
"I'm not trying to tell you something specific. That doesn't mean that I don't have specific in mind but I don’t believe in giving people messages. I believe in presenting the context of a situation and let people discover their own truth in it."

*Reggio completed his trilogy after this article, with the film NAQOYQATSI in 2002.
**Brakhage did move to Victoria, BC, Canada, in 2002, where he passed away the following year.