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Essay

Stan Brakhage (1959)

IN THE WINTER OF 2014, I was teaching a course in the history of experimental film at the University of Tennessee. I primarily make fictional films, and I’m no scholar of avant-garde cinema, but a colleague had fallen ill and I had been asked to cover the course. I was happy to help out, and I had a lot of affection for some of the films on the syllabus.

One night I was screening several Stan Brakhage films that I especially loved. It was a sampling of works from across his career—from early “trance” movies to the films that he painstakingly hand-painted, frame-by-frame, at the end of his life. The centerpiece was Window Water Baby Moving, a twelve-minute silent film from 1959. It’s a diary (albeit a tremendously artful one) of Stan’s wife, Jane, giving birth to their first child. Though I did not share my opinion with the students before screening it, I love this film. Dearly.

I was only a few years older than these students when I first saw the film for myself. I had rented a 16mm print from the Film-makers’ Cooperative and projected it on a white wall in a small artist’s studio. I’d never seen Brakhage’s work; it was hard to come by in those days, unless you lived in New York or some other city with a thriving experimental film scene. In my case, I was on my own.

Like a lot of Brakhage’s work, Window Water Baby Moving celebrates the natural processes of life with a mix of poetic and plainspoken imagery. The film starts with the image of Jane’s full belly as she reclines in a bathtub. Then comes a sequence focused on the birth. We see the literal emergence, in extreme close-up, of his newborn daughter. The film does all of this without music or sound of any kind, which makes the experience both confrontational and strangely serene.

I considered myself an adventurous movie watcher in my mid-twenties, but I had never seen a film as vulnerable, loving, or graphic as this. The director Maya Deren once reportedly called the film a “blasphemy,” too graphic, and not something that men should see. And while it’s true that the film refuses to avert its gaze from anything (Brakhage shows the afterbirth pushed out and opens the amniotic sac before our eyes), I wasn’t shocked. At least, not in the way that we normally mean that word.

Instead, I was tremendously moved—moved, of course, by the intense vulnerability shown by Stan and especially Jane (they collaborated on the film, each operating the camera at times), how they showed their bodies so frankly and matter-of-factly. I was even more moved, though, by the close-ups of their faces. I had never seen two people so in love. Not on film, not in life. I had certainly never felt that kind of love myself. It scared me to think that someday I might. It scared me even more to think I might not.

Years later, back in that classroom, I watched the film unspool again. This time, I found myself seduced completely by Brakhage’s apparently seamless marriage of life and art. I wondered if I should give up the fictional narratives I had been making for a more intimate, diaristic approach. I had just spent three years making my first feature with my wife; we were only a couple of weeks from premiering a film that had been, if you’ll pardon the phrase, very difficult to birth. At the time, I did not fully understand how our making this film would contribute to the end of our marriage. And I did not know that, in the early weeks of our separation, I would begin hand-painting films—for only myself—as one way to relieve the anxiety of our split. I only knew that Brakhage’s film was again teaching me something. In my gut, I knew that my life to that point had been more about art than life. And I knew I would want that to change.

When the film ended I brought up the lights and invited the students to offer their impressions. A hand shot up in the front row, from a senior whose resistance to other films I had screened that semester suggested deeply conservative values. I called on her first.

She said, “I’m angry.”

The class fell silent. I wasn’t completely unprepared for this. Maya Deren, after all, had called the film blasphemous.

“Okay,” I said. “Tell me what you are angry about.”

“I am angry that I am twenty-one years old and I’ve never seen this until today.” She was shocked, she said, that for her entire life, she had been sheltered from ever seeing such a basic process. The human process. Then she talked very warmly about how loving a portrait it was, despite its graphic, almost scientific nature. And then she thanked me for showing the film.

I am often moved by the things my students do and say. But by any standard, there was something special in this moment. I feel like I saw a woman claim her life for herself that day. As I look back on it, in some ways, I claimed my own life that day as well.

Love is both a noun and a verb. Love (n.) changes. And in order to love (v.) we have to change. This is a lesson we all learn, often over and over, and rarely painlessly.

Stan and Jane Brakhage made a beautiful film as their daughter was born. Their marriage, however, ultimately ended. I won’t ever know the details, nor do I care to.

But Window Water Baby Moving exists, like all the best works of cinema, as a record of love. It reminds me that such tender, romantic, passionate, and quiet love, even if it changes, even if it goes away, has existed. And in that reminding—the reminding that is, for me, the heart of cinema—it manages to exist in a kind of continual, mysterious, and eternal present.

 

Paul Harrill’s films have screened around the world at festivals, museums, and on television. Something, Anything, his debut feature, was a New York Times Critics’ Pick and was named one of the top debut films of 2015 in IndieWire’s critics’ poll.


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