Stan Brakhage, as told to Jennifer Dorn:
Brakhage Pans Telluride Gold
The following is taken from Brakhage, Stan: Telluride Gold: Brakhage meets Tarkovsky, Rolling Stock, no 6, 1983, p. 11-14. Also in Chicago Review’s Stan Brakhage Correspondences 47:4 Winter 2001 / 48:1 Spring 2002, pp. 42-46. Thanks to Eugene Borzov for tracking down a hardcopy of this article for us, based on an entry in our bibliography section. We also thank Terrance Grace for his kind assistance. See also [ Tarkovsky’s diary, on the 1983 American Visit ].
The meeting of Stan Brakhage and Andrei Tarkovsky at the Tenth Telluride Film Festival this summer  was bound to create some interest. Film critic J. Hoberman thinks that Stan Brakhage, given the budget the size of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz would make a film similar to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror: “Tarkovsky’s mid-career autobiography uses a two-tiered time frame to blend dream sequences and sound footage, childhood memories and scenes from an ongoing marriage with the jolting fluidity of Brakhage’s Sincerity — another ambivalent celebration of family — which was produced in Colorado at virtually the same time.”
No wonder Bill and Stella Pence, the organizers of the Festival, anticipated a “meeting of minds” when they arranged a private showing of Brakhage’s films for the Russian during the weekend. They did not, however, expect it to cause the kind of drama that Stan Brakhage describes in the following recapitulation.
I was shocked, when I arrived, to see that the Tenth Telluride Film Festival was dedicated to the New American Independent Cinema. I felt the irony of this and I really didn’t understand the distinction between this “independent” cinema and Hollywood. That term means to me people who are paying for whatever they’re doing themselves. As soon as money is involved, in almost every case, it means you are beholden — and the more ephemeral the strings are that are attached, finally the tighter they are. It’s like the invisible string they use for garrotting people. They don’t use a big piece of brown rope.
So I was shocked when I saw the program and heard everyone talking about these new independent filmmakers when in fact — because George Cuchar broke his ankle and they cancelled his program as he wouldn’t be there — from my viewpoint we were down to one minute of truly independent American filmmaking, that is, my film, Hell Split Flexion.
The terrible irony for me was that, not content with having ripped off artistic and poetic and experimental and avant-garde and every other term they thought might earn them another ten cents at the box office, they usurped “independent” which is about the last term we had.
So I gave it up. I wanted to enjoy myself, see the movies. I didn’t want to be crabby.
It was just a miracle that Andrei Tarkovsky made it to the Festival. I was getting reports from Bill and Stella Pence every time he cleared a border someplace, was on the plane, was through customs at New York City. He’s been very important to me and I’ve encouraged the showing of his films at every opportunity — Andrei Rublov at the Denver Film festival and Solaris here at the International Film Series — and I had just seen Stalker. As far as I know, Solaris is the only film of his that was shown widely in Russia and I know there are others of his that haven’t been shown at all there.
Not Since DeMille
He’s in this peculiar position of being for export only. It must be terrible for him because Russians love their country and their people and so exile in any sense — perhaps especially exile of your work — must be excruciatingly painful. So the man has a most problematical and in a way torturesome existence, except that one thing he does have on his side, that he can spend unbelieveable fortunes such as we haven’t seen in this country since Cecil B. DeMille. In terms of budget, Apocalypse Now would look like a B movie in comparison. As long as the Russians agree to make it, he can have as big a crowd as he wants in his film and he can string them out in beautiful patterns across the mountains or he can rebuild villages and towns.
But the films essentially aren’t shown there. They’re for export, to give the idea to film buffs in the west — because no one else would care — that there’s freedom of expression in Russia. It’s worth it to them apparently to have this illusion even though everyone who looks beyond the surface of the silver screen can find out very easily that these films are not for Russia.
I’m grateful that he can make these great movies under whatever circumstances but I also know the price for him, for this Russian people and for the rest of the world.
His latest film was an international production and he was allowed to travel to Italy and to stay to make the movie. He came to Telluride direct from Italy, without official permission form the Soviet Union. Bill and Stella Pence have been trying to get him to the festival for seven years, and five years ago they were so close Bill had edited the shorts that were to be shown at the tribute. So he’s had five years of work on that footage and he did it beautifully. He is a master at this, at presenting inter-related themes from someone’s whole life of movies in such a way it’s like an aerial survey.
A Kind of Chill
I was very honored that Bill asked me to present the medallion to Tarkovsky at the tribute because I know, of all the medallions he wanted to present, this was the most important to him. I was also very nervous.
In the first place, the Opera House is so packed and the crowd so compressed, it feels like a bull ring. It’s an enthusiastic audience but it can be very cruel and it certainly has been to me, at times.Whenever I have to get up and do anything in front of that crowd, I know I could get gored badly.
We also had the shadow of the Korean jetliner that had just been shot down hanging over us. No one knew what was going to happen. I’d been there when Leni Riefenstahl was getting her medallion with people up there threatening to kill her. It was bad enough having to get backstage and stumble around in the dark and be positioned. Then to come out and give the microphone to the interpreter at just the right moment, and to handle the microphone and the medallion which I had to get over the man’s chin…
But I did manage to say exactly what I wanted to say, and it was this: “Some people have asked me, What do you mean, Tarkovsky is the greatest living narrative film maker? Well, enthusiasm is jumped on these days and any designation such as that, in the competitive atmosphere of film making, gets you into trouble. So I want to explain why I said that.
“I personally think that the three greatest tasks for film in the 20th century are (1) To make the epic, that is to tell the tales of the tribes of the world. (2) To keep it personal, because only in the eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chances at the truth. (3) To do the dream work, that is, to illuminate the borders of the unconscious. The only film maker I know that does all these three things equally in every film he makes is Andrei Tarkovsky, and that’s why I think he’s the greatest living narrative film maker.”
That went down very well and the medallion went over his head very easily and then I handed the microphone to [Krzysztof] Zanussi, the Polish film maker, who was the interpreter. Tarkovsky got up and delivered a long speech with Zanussi translating. The audience wasn’t used to that. Usually the people receiving the medallion are rather old and either they’re overwhelmed or simply gracious — they talk for two or three minutes, everyone applauds and they go off.
Cruel Crowd Quieted
But Tarkovsky held the audience for about seven minutes. It was a good speech although it sagged a little in the middle which is often the case. He assumed a lot about the audience that just was not true. Obviously he was very nervous about being a Russian in an American box canyon on this weekend, and having to face an audience of such packed intensity.
I was worried that the airline incident would predominate, too, and that people — especially reporters — would be up there for blood. But in fact it was never mentioned once by anyone during the whole weekend and that made me nervous. There was a kind of chill. It was one of those things you don’t even dare mention in case everybody comes apart.
So his speech went down well and what it came down to was that all he had to give any audience was himself. Therefore he made his films for himself because that was all he had to give. Then, after the scenes from his films that Bill Pence had put together, his new film, Nostalghia came on.
The movie is about a Russian who is in Italy to gather biographical material on a Russian composer who had lived there in the 19th century. It was autobiographical to the extent that Tarkovsky was also in Italy and working on a project. When someone asked him at the seminar if he was going back to Russia, he said, “Have you seen my movie Nostalghia?” When that person said yes, he had, Tarkovsky said, “Then you know the answer to that.”
This is an ambiguous answer and in the movie the Russian is always wanting to go home but never quite able to leave. But by my reading, he certainly is going back.
Masterpiece of Subtlety
The film itself seemed to be the hardest of all his movies, even for Tarkovsky fans. Some of the scenes are the most elliptic in the history of cinema. People around town were saying, “You should go see My Name is Ivan — that’s when he was making great movies you could understand.” Nostalghia is full of ambiguities. The Russian has a relationship with a curly-headed, innocent looking Italian girl, who looks like she stepped out of a Renaissance painting of an angel. It’s obvious from the beginning that she’s a slightly tarnished angel. She drifts around him, very close as if she’s his girlfriend and yet finally it seems they haven’t had any sex. There’s even a scene where it seems she has got pregnant, in his bed, but then it turns out she isn’t and nothing happened.
The whole film is like a dream and it’s very slow. He talks about his wife back in Russia and how lonely he is. There are scenes made out of piles of Italian mud that has seeped into some doorway which the camera moves in on and then opens out on the whole Russian landscape with peasant huts and presumably waiting wife. There are long scenes which, if you’re not enjoying the twilight between color and b&w, the ephemeral, flickering glints of almost-color and the shifting, slow-changing of light and moods, then you’re going to be bored.
I was absolutely enchanted, even though I have a prejudice against long, structural scenes, and even though at first it seemed like the long takes were irrelevant to the plot. Later it turned out they weren’t, both because of the mood which effects you and because of little interweaving subtleties, objects you almost didn’t see which turn out to be crucial to the weave of the entire film. Some of them are bizarre and grotesquely normal and some are so mundane you hardly notice them and you can hardly see them except he makes them glint in an otherwise totally dark scene, a scene so dark you can’t tell if it’s b&w or color. He goes back and forth between b&w and color and between combinations of the two.
When I stumbled out, it was like a religious conversion, but unlike a religious convert, I was absolutely free. I didn’t have to believe in something or sign anything and I don’t know what the religion is except humanitarianism in the deepest sense. Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. I came out into the dark where the sky was flashing with lightning and held off its rain long enough for us to get back to our room where I must have spent all night thinking about the movie. I woke up the next morning still thinking about it.
Poetry Before Money
The next day, I was asked to be on a panel in the park. I’ve stopped going to these panels in the last few years because they always end up talking about money and they continue to talk about money for the next hour and a half. Two years ago I got up and blew my gasket at Robert Wise for calling himself an “Independent” film maker. Here was the maker of Sound of Music and all these huge, mainstream extravaganzas calling himself an Independent film maker.
The only other thing you get, which makes me equally mad, is Hollywood movie makers comparing themselves to giants of literature and music. The most extreme example of that was the maker of Bugs Bunny one year. I said to him: “If you’re a great artist, then what in the world is van Gogh?”
The panel this year was the only one I’ve been to in which the question of money did not arise once. The panel consisted of Annette Insdorf, myself, Tarkovsky, his interpreter, and Zanussi who actually did the translating.
I’d like to think that money didn’t come up because I was allowed to ask the first few questions and I asked Tarkovsky about poetry. I asked him if Appolinaire’s poem Zone had anything to do with his senses of “zone” in Stalker. He said no, he’d never read the poem. I hope he will now because the poem deals with what I think is one of the main themes of Stalker, the inter-relationship of the old and the new.
My next question was what he thought of the poet Osip Mandelstam. He said he very much liked Mandelstam, Ahkmatova and Pasternak but that poetry was not translatable. So he didn’t think any vision we had of Mandelstam was of any use in relation to his work. I was also disappointed that he didn’t want to talk about his father, who was a poet, and I sensed he wanted to get off the subject of poetry.
My third question was, had he ever read Samuel Beckett? He said yes, he had read Molloy, which he though was and absolutely realistic novel and had thoroughly enjoyed. However, he himself was working in the tradition of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky. It was interesting that he mentioned Gogol because I think Gogol was probably an awful lot like Tarkovsky. I got the sense from Troyat’s biography of Gogol, that he was this particular kind of difficult Russian and I have the feeling Tarkovsky’s affinity with him is more personal than literary.
From that point on, the questions were turned over to the audience, but the tone had been set. Tarkovsky finally said that there were two kinds of humans. There are those who think of themselves as here to have fun and “eat up the earth” and there are those who feel they are here to work and to suffer and to endure and accomplish something. And he feels he’s the latter sort of person.
Unfortunately he contradicted himself several times because although he kept saying there were two kinds of people or two kinds of attitudes, he was constantly saying he didn’t believe in dualities.
Everyone was pretty shocked at how short and how thin — much thinner than any photograph implies — and bent over he was. He’s constantly in a crouch that’s like for in-fighting. One of the jokes around town was, “Have you seen Tarkovsky smile yet?” No one had. Not even the ghost of a smile. He has a very wizened face and looks extraordinarily tortured and intense.
He was there with his rather large, Russian wife with blonde hair. Tarkovsky himself has blue black hair and moustache and is very dark skinned. She stands up tall and broad shouldered with bright yellow hair. And she smiled and laughed at times.
La Petite Cinema
After the panel, they had arranged for Tarkovsky to see some of my films. I had warned Bill Pence that he might not like my films and I was nervous about showing them. All they could arrange, under the circumstances, was a little room in the old Sheridan Hotel. It was about 6 feet by 10 feet and it had in it a brass bed, a bureau on which the projector sat, and eight people: The projectionist; next to him on the bureau, the Polish animator Zbigniew Rybczynski, who won an Oscar this year for his short Tango; a Russian student of film and Tarkovsky’s assistant, Olga, a plump, sweet, charming girl; then I sat in the corner, as far back as I could get; and next to me Tarkovsky; then his wife; and then, since the only room left was the bed, Jane [Brakhage] and Zanussi lay down on the bed.
Everyone stares at the sepia-toned wallpaper of faded floral design against which is shown my film, about TV size. The film dominates the wallpaper which is very old and faded. This is a very cramped room, the windows have been covered with blacking, there’s no air and it’s very hot and when the projector goes on it adds to the heat. But all this was nothing compared to the films when they hit the wallpaper.
The first film was Window Water Baby Moving. First of all I got nervous because Olga, who is teetering over me on the bureau, begins to sway. I’ve seen people faint at that film and I don’t know, maybe she’s never seen childbirth before. And then I see Tarkovsky’s wife averting her face from the screen at times as you get to see some of the more explicit details of childbirth.
So first of all I’m afraid that somebody’s going to faint. And then I’m afraid that I’m going to have insulted his wife. I almost got killed once in South Dakota for that. I showed the film to a bunch of people and they shot at me because they felt I had insulted their wives. So I’m getting very nervous but I didn’t expect what actually happened.
Tarkovsky starts talking in rapid Russian, with Zanussi answering him, and whatever he’s saying it’s obviously angry. Finally, after a lot of these exchanges, Jane had the presence of mind to say, “What’s going on? What’s he saying?” So Zanussi starts translating and he says, “Well…” and we all wait, “Well… he says,” and we wait some more, “he says that Art must have a mystery to it and this is too scientific to be Art.”
This doesn’t bother me too much. I told Zanussi to tell him to just wait — we had another film coming shortly. Because I know what’s coming next is Dog Star Man, Part IV. And this is not going to look scientific.
So, the leader comes through, the room’s heated up, on comes Dog Star Man, Part IV. He starts exploding in Russian the minute the hand painted frames are flickering on the screen, along with the layers of superimposition. He’s obviously raging! No one’s heard him talk so much since he’s been here. He’s hammering away in incredibly rapid Russian.
He ran, in the course of an hour and a half, through every argument against my work and any other individual’s work that I have ever heard, from the Emperor’s New Clothes argument through this-is-too-rapid-it-hurts-the-eyes, through “this is sheer self-indulgence,” to “film is only a collaborative art.” And in detail, “the color is shit” and “what is this paint? Why do you do this?”
Next comes Untitled No. 6 of the Short Films of 1975 and I thought this might move him because it’s based on a Mandelstam poem. The poem was my source of inspiration. In the film you see light moving slowly over different household objects and the rabbit’s eye and the chicken with the bloodied wing and all these are in a stretch of purely metaphorical combinations. But that threw him into an even greater rage. Now he’s yelling! He’s standing up in his chair, he’s sitting down, he’s looking at the film out of the periphery of his eye as he’s yelling things at Zanussi, and he won’t look at me at all. My shoulder’s up against him but he doesn’t look at me and he’s about the level of my navel.
In the mean time, Jane and his wife are laughing and they’re holding hands, and smiling, like “isn’t this a wonderful cock fight!” Because I must say I gave for everything I got. I ran through my whole repertoire of any kind of answer I’d ever given in the briefest and simplest way I’ve ever done. I’ve had twenty-five years of practice in being beat up in public. At one point he lashed out in a diatribe against innovation itself, which I haven’t heard before and maybe the only place you could hear it from would be Russia. The Avant-Garde crowds I’ve played to never thought of that one.
I said, “What do you think Cézanne would say to that?” To which the answer came back, “I’m sure Mr. Brakhage knows perfectly well what Cézanne would say to that. However what I say is, innovation is reckless and destructive.”
The next one was Made Manifest. That’s just waves coming in, with sparkles and so on and by this point there was so much talk and heat and radiation, I felt we could blow the whole town away and show that — not only countries, but people can do this too. The nineteenth-century surroundings are absolutely imprinted on my mind. No telephone even. Even in the wildest of Tarkovsky’s places, even in the “Zone” in his movies, there’s a telephone that rings. There’s no way out in this room.
It was excrutiating. Every now and then the Polish animator is throwing in a comment or two that Zanussi isn’t even bothering to translate because it’s so rapid it never stops.
I can laugh now but my heart was absolutely breaking for the films. At that point I was feeling that I had rather it had not occurred at all, than these films running against this absurd wallpaper, with all these angry aesthetics…
But still, I’m not giving up. The next film was going to be Arabic 3. I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had after Window Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming. Because he’s arguing, this isn’t music, it has symbols, things that are nameable. It was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent I’ve ever had, but it’s totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of my kind of films.
Then comes on Arabic 3 and this maybe tripped him off the most. “What is this? It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just capricious.” And I’m coming back and saying, “Shut up and look and you’ll see there’s a melodic line and shapes don’t just occur anywhere in the frame, there’s a balance.” “But what does it mean?” “What do you mean what does it mean? You have a lot of statements about music in your films…” “But this isn’t the same as music,” and it goes on and on.
At this point I’m determined that one film will have a chance. The only film I have left to show is Murder Psalm. So I got up and gave an impassioned appeal that we be able to just look at a film now, there had been enough talk. I explained the reasons I’d made the film and that I was being as true to moving visual thinking as I could and this is how I think and here it is. And actually they paid me the great homage to remain silent during Murder Psalm.
And then they broke into rages and screams and carrying on. By they I mean Tarkovsky although Zanussi is agreeing with him and adding some of his own comments. The only affability I had in the circumstance was when Olga turned to me and said, “You know I’ve never had the chance to see anything like this ever before in my life. There have been three books written on you in Russian but nobody has ever seen any of your films. When I get back to Russia and tell them that I have seen your films, they won’t let me talk about anything else for months, maybe years!”
Then, a further irony, we all had to sit there and watch a film by a Russian emigre that Tarkovsky had promised to watch. We had to endure a stupid, senseless movie in which the Russian girl who’s fat can’t get a boyfriend or adjust to America. It felt about ten hours long although it was only half an hour. I did hear afterwards that Tarkovsky told the Russian emigre that it was the stupidest film he ever saw.
They didn’t say any more to me and after the film ended they all walked out. But the next day I sat down and the Polish animator offered me some vodka — wonderful, sweet-tasting vodka with spirit grass in the bottle — and turning to his friend and interpreter, I get the message that he would like to express what he feels about the films that we saw yesterday.
I wasn’t too sure I wanted to know but I said OK. He started out by saying he’s never seen anything like them, like Olga, and that it’s a total change in the history of art. However, he says, art is irrelevant. The greatest artists of the nineteenth century are not Cézanne and the Impressionists but are Daguerre and Napier. For the whole history of the world humans have only been trying to project themselves to live for all eternity. The wheel was invented in the same impulse and spirit that created the Lascaux paintings, and now the real artist is the technician and everyone’s going to be able to live forever. It took an hour for him to go through the history of the world and he wouldn’t let me speak. I finally said, “Either I speak or I leave.” So the translator refused to translate from him any more and I was allowed to speak. He said artists destroy ecology, that the stone that’s carved by Michaelangelo is destroyed from the stone’s viewpoint. So I said, Jean Cocteau, Orpheus, I saw the movie, and that caused him to turn red.
His pitch was that the new technology is not going to be destructive and we’re all going to live forever. So I said, “Do you recognize the destruction of ecology in making film? That it’s compounded of the slavery of people digging silver and picking berries for the dyes, the ugly working conditions of people working with chemicals that kill them, even the Argentine clippings of bulls. How can you make films if you feel that way? Why don’t you wait for the new technology?”
He never did answer the question although it bothered him very much. But I know the answer. Filmmaking isn’t his work, it’s his job. He’s damned good at it and he’s a good talker. At one point I said I hoped he’d see my films sometime, because I don’t make my films silently out of caprice. I feel they need a silent attention and they had a non-stop sound-track of the most distracting order yesterday against a floral pattern and I hoped he didn’t take that to be a representation of my work.
He looked puzzled as it was being translated to him and he said, “Don’t you know that Tarkovsky went on talking about this for the rest of the day? For two hours they were raging and carrying on. And he’s still talking about it!” He said he’d known Tarkovsky for years on and off in Poland, and many people think he’s taken a vow of silence like in Andrei Rublov. For weeks he’ll never say a word. He said he’d never heard him talk so much all at once and he said, “I’m very jealous!” He said he’d never seen him so excited about anything and that my films would cast a shadow through his work.
I was very grateful to get that perspective from the Polish film maker, a perspective I might never have known.