Jim Sledden’s 1998 documentary Brakhage is an interesting, well-constructed portrait of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who made almost 400 film in the 50 years up to his death in 2003. Along with fellow artists Jonas Mekas and Maya Deren, he’s regarded as one of the most important of American experimental filmmakers, and his influence can be seen in everything from music videos to title sequences from such films as Se7en. Starting with the psychodramas so typical of young filmmakers, he eventually moved into more abstract films, even physically manipulating the celluloid itself by gluing things to it or scratching it with a variety of implements.
Roughly structured around the chronological presentation of excerpts from 16 of his films, the documentary is both an introduction to Brakhage’s principles and work, and a portrait of the man himself. We learn from documentary footage about Brakhage’s early realization that typical camera movements don’t duplicate how the eye moves, and that he often filmed his family and surroundings as a means to avoid separating his art and his life. Extensive home movie footage gives us more insight into Brakhage’s personal life, his two wives and his children, and his working conditions and methods. There are excerpts from several other documentaries on Brakhage (two of them included as extras on the disc), as well as from films featuring Brakhage by underground luminaries George Kuchar and Jonas Mekas. Rounding out the diverse source materials are fairly extensive interview clips from filmmaker and Brakhage collaborator Phil Solomon, as well as a host of other associates and friends.
Brakhage has garnered some criticism for its rather sugar-coated portrait of its subject, and it’s probably safe to say that it accentuates the positive. We do get brief glimpses of Brakhage’s darker side from his wife Jane’s description of his sometime eccentric behavior, and his son Neowyn’s regret that he rarely got attention from his father other than when he was being filmed. As an accurate reflection of Brakhage the man, Brakhage the documentary may be a bit wanting, but this is a thoughtful, engrossing film, impressive in its variety of source materials, and useful in appreciating those little squiggles moving across the screen.