Stan Brakhage
Close-up black-and-white portrait photograph of a man with wavy medium-length hair and a Walrus moustache
Photo of Brakhage by Friedl Kubelka, c. 1976
Robert Sanders

(1933-01-14)January 14, 1933[1]
DiedMarch 9, 2003(2003-03-09) (aged 70)
OccupationFilm director
Years active1954–2003
Known forExperimental film, art film, collage film
Notable workDog Star Man, Mothlight, Window Water Baby Moving

James Stanley Brakhage (/ˈbrækɪ/ BRAK-ij;[2] January 14, 1933 – March 9, 2003) was an American filmmaker. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th-century experimental film.

Over the course of five decades, Brakhage created a large and diverse body of work, exploring a variety of formats, approaches and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid, fast cutting, in-camera editing, scratching on film, collage film and the use of multiple exposures. Interested in mythology and inspired by music, poetry, and visual phenomena, Brakhage sought to reveal the universal, in particular exploring themes of birth, mortality,[3] sexuality,[4] and innocence.[4] His films are for the most part silent.

Brakhage's films are often noted for their expressiveness[4][5] and lyricism.[4][6] While they were for many years obscure and hard to find, many are now readily available on DVD as well as other media.[7]


Born Robert Sanders in Kansas City, Missouri on January 14, 1933, Brakhage was adopted and renamed three weeks after his birth by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage.

As a child Brakhage was featured on radio as a boy soprano, and sang in church choirs and as a soloist at other events. He was raised in Denver, Colorado, where he attended South High School with the filmmakers Larry Jordan and Stan Phillips, and the composers James Tenney and Ramiro Cortes. At South he and other friends (Larry Hackstaff, Walt Newcomb, Gordon Rosenblum, Tom O'Brien, Stan Phillips, and others) formed a social and intellectual group, calling themselves "the Gadflies", after Socrates.

Brakhage briefly attended Dartmouth College on a scholarship[6] before dropping out to make films. He completed his first film, Interim, at the age of 19; the music for the film was composed by his school friend James Tenney. In 1953, Brakhage moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, then called the California School of Fine Arts. He found the atmosphere in San Francisco more rewarding,[6] associating with poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, but did not complete his education, instead moving to New York City in 1954. There he met a number of notable artists, including Maya Deren (in whose apartment he briefly lived[6]), Willard Maas, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage. Brakhage would collaborate with the latter two, making two films with Cornell (Gnir Rednow and Centuries of June) and using Cage's music for the soundtrack of his first color film, In Between. Brakhage is recorded to have said "If there is one single filmmaker that I owe the most to for the crucial development of my own film making it would be Marie Menken."[8]

Brakhage spent the next few years living in near poverty,[6] depressed about what he saw as the failure of his work. He briefly considered suicide.[6] While living in Denver, Brakhage met Mary Jane Collom (see Jane Wodening), whom he married in late 1957. Brakhage tried to make money on his films, but had to take a job making industrial shorts to support his family. In 1958, Jane gave birth to the first of the five children they would have together, a daughter called Myrrena, an event Brakhage recorded for his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving.

The 1960s and beginning of recognition

When Brakhage's early films had been exhibited in the 1950s, they had often been met with derision,[6] but in the early 1960s Brakhage began to receive recognition in exhibitions and film publications, including Film Culture, which gave awards to several of his films, including The Dead, in 1962. The award statement, written by Jonas Mekas, a critic who would later become an influential experimental filmmaker in his own right, cited Brakhage for bringing to cinema "an intelligence and subtlety that is usually the province of the older arts."[6] Writer/critic Guy Davenport, an ardent admirer of Brakhage, invited him to the University of Kentucky in March 1964 and tried to get him a residency there.[9]

From 1961 to 1964, Brakhage worked on a series of five films known as the Dog Star Man cycle. The Brakhages moved to Lump Gulch, Colorado, in 1964, though Brakhage continued to make regular visits to New York. During one of those visits, the 16mm film equipment he had been using was stolen. Brakhage couldn't afford to replace it, instead opting to buy cheaper 8mm film equipment. He soon began working in the format, producing a 30-part cycle of 8mm films known as the Songs from 1964 to 1969. The Songs include one of Brakhage's most acclaimed films, 23rd Psalm Branch, a response to the Vietnam War and its presentation in the mass media.

Brakhage began teaching film history and aesthetics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1969, commuting from his home in Colorado.

1970s and 1980s

A hand-painted image from The Dante Quartet (1987)

Brakhage explored new approaches to filmmaking in the 1970s. In 1971, he completed a set of three films inspired by public institutions in the city of Pittsburgh. These three films—Eyes, about the city police, Deus Ex, filmed in a hospital, and The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, depicting autopsy—are collectively known as "The Pittsburgh Trilogy".[10] In 1974, Brakhage made the feature-length The Text of Light, consisting entirely of images of light refracted in a glass ashtray. In 1979, he experimented with Polavision, a format marketed by Polaroid, making about five 2+12 minute films. The whereabouts of these films are now unknown. He continued his visual explorations of landscape and the nature of light and thought process, and through the late 1970s and early 1980s produced filmic equivalents of what he termed "moving visual thinking" in several series of photographic abstractions known as the Roman, Arabic, and Egyptian series.

Stan Brakhage taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder off and on, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He separated from Jane in 1986, and in 1989 married his second wife, Marilyn; the two went on to have two children together. In the late 1980s, Brakhage returned to making sound films, with the four-part Faustfilm cycle, and also completed the hand-painted film, The Dante Quartet.

Brakhage was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1989.[11]

1990s – 2000s and death

Brakhage remained extremely productive through the last two decades of his life, sometimes working in collaboration with other filmmakers, including his University of Colorado colleague Phil Solomon. Several more sound films were completed, including Passage Through: A Ritual, edited to the music of Philip Corner, and Christ Mass Sex Dance and Ellipses Reel 5, both with music by James Tenney. He also produced the major meditations on childhood, adolescence, aging and mortality collectively known as the "Vancouver Island Quartet," as well as numerous hand-painted works.

Brakhage was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1996, and his bladder was removed. The surgery seemed successful, but the cancer eventually returned. In a video interview in 2002, he explained that his cancer was caused by the toxicity of the aniline dyes he had used to paint directly onto film.[12]

Brakhage retired from teaching and moved to Canada in 2002, settling with his second wife Marilyn and their two sons in Victoria, British Columbia. Brakhage died there on March 9, 2003, aged 70. The last footage Brakhage shot has been made available under the title Work in Progress. At the time of his death, Brakhage was also working on the Chinese Series, a work that was achieved by scratching directly on to film, a technique that was employed by the French artist Isidore Isou in 1950.

Though not a practicing Christian[13] during his adulthood, Brakhage requested a traditional Anglican service. The funeral was attended largely by family members, as well as a few friends from the filmmaking world, and included a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.


In 1961, Jonas Mekas wrote that Brakhage is "one of the four or five most authentic film artists working in cinema anywhere, and perhaps the most original filmmaker in America today".[14] Among Brakhage's students were Eric Darnell, the director of Antz, as well as the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and he is featured in their student film Cannibal! The Musical.[15]

Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ uses Brakhage's painted film style to depict the death of Jesus on the cross.[16] Scorsese has framed samples of Brakhage's films on his office wall.[17]

The work of contemporary film and video artist Raymond Salvatore Harmon (1974- ) has been compared to Brakhage's abstract films.[18]

The credits of the film Seven (1995), with their scratched emulsion, rapid cutaways and bursts of light are in Brakhage's style.[19]

The opening track of Stereolab's album Dots and Loops (1997), "Brakhage", is named after him.[20]

Sonic Youth, joined by percussionist Tim Barnes, played along with silent Stan Brakhage films at a 2003 benefit show for Anthology Film Archives. The live recording is available as SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui.[21]

The concluding credits to The Jacket (2005) are an homage to Brakhage's 1963 film Mothlight.[22]

The opening titles to the BBC television series The Living and the Dead (2016) use an excerpt from Mothlight.[23]

The 2011 film The Tree of Life and Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) include sequences reminiscent of Brakhage's work.[24][25]


Main article: Stan Brakhage filmography


Brakhage wrote a number of books about films, including Metaphors on Vision (1963), A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book (1971), Film Biographies (1977, Turtle Island Books) and the posthumously published Telling Time: Essays of a Visionary Filmmaker (2003). Transcripts of his talks at the Chicago Art Institute were edited and published as Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers, (Kingston, New York, McPherson & Co., 1989).


Brakhage's archival material, including correspondence, manuscripts, and audio recordings, are held by the University of Colorado as part of the collection of the Brakhage Center.[26] Brakhage's films, including original elements and prints, are held by the Academy Film Archive in the Stan Brakhage Collection.[27] The Academy Film Archive has preserved and restored many Brakhage films and continues to do so; films preserved include Window Water Baby Moving, The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, Anticipation of the Night, and Interim.[28]


  1. ^ "Stan Brakhage: The Art of Seeing". Legacy. 14 January 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
  2. ^ "Stan Brakhage interview 1969". YouTube. March 27, 2018. Retrieved 6 October 2023.
  3. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2011-03-26.
  4. ^ a b c d Senses of Cinema: Stan Brakhage Archived 2008-12-20 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Before the Beginning Was the Word: Stan Brakhage's". Archived from the original on 22 July 2013. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h James, David E. (July 13, 2005). Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker (Hardcover ed.). New York, NY: Temple UP. ISBN 978-1-59213-271-3.
  7. ^ Lanthier, Joseph Jon (2010-05-24). "Blu-ray Review: By Brakhage: An Anthology on the Criterion Collection". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 2023-10-21.
  8. ^ Kudlácek, Martina. "Notes On Marie Menken (2006)". Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  9. ^ Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, ed. Edward M. Burns (Counterpoint, 2018), pp. 595, 597-98.
  10. ^ "Stan Brakhage: The Pittsburgh Trilogy". 5 April 2012. Archived from the original on 5 January 2018. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  11. ^ "MacDowell Medal winners 1960-2011". The Telegraph. 13 April 2011.
  12. ^ Stan Brakhage interview with Colin Still, 2002, "By Brakhage: An Anthology: Volume 1" Archived 2015-08-18 at the Wayback Machine Criterion Collection, disc 2. Released 2004.
  13. ^ Solomon, Phil (March 20, 2003). "Account of Stan Brakhage's Funeral by Phil Solomon" Archived 2008-09-27 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2011-03-26.
  14. ^ Koehler, Robert, (11 March 2003). "Stan Brakhage" Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine Variety. Retrieved 1 April 2014.
  15. ^ Jesse Walker (February 2001). "Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man Show" Archived 2009-09-03 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  16. ^ Hynes, Eric. "The Last Temptation of Christ". Archived from the original on 2014-12-25. Retrieved 2014-12-24.
  17. ^ Elliott, Marshall (24 December 2014). "Stan Brakhage quotes from my old college notes" Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine. Brakhage Said. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  18. ^ Jazz, All About (23 May 2007). "Chicago Underground Trio: Chronicle". All About Jazz. Archived from the original on 4 January 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  19. ^ "Experimental Filmmaker Stan Brakhage Has Passed Away". Archived from the original on December 9, 2012. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  20. ^ Stark, Jeff (22 September 1999). "Surrealist manifesto" Archived 2015-08-15 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  21. ^ Linhardt, Alex (15 January 2006). "Sonic Youth: SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui: Album review". Pitchfork Media. Archived from the original on 20 July 2012. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
  22. ^ Film Freak Central - The Jacket (2005)
  23. ^ Radford, Ivan (15 Jun 2016) "The Living and the Dead: A horror show to savour" Archived 2016-08-10 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ The Tree of Life - Little White lies
  25. ^ 'Twin Peaks' Part 8 is David Lynch at His Most Abrasively Avant-Garde Best|Decider
  26. ^ "Collection and Resources". University of Colorado Boulder. 11 August 2015.
  27. ^ "Stan Brakhage Collection". Academy Film Archive. 3 September 2014.
  28. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.