Brakhage was part of America’s first generation of independent filmmakers who practiced filmmaking throughout their entire lives. His own role within this larger endeavor was to fight for the filmmaker as poetic visionary artist, equal to and in frequent dialogue with the traditional arts, and this insistence on defining himself foremost as an artist galvanized thousands of filmmakers and students over the decades. Although it is impossible to divide his work neatly into periods, the earliest films were mostly quasi-narrative “psychodramas” (Desistfilm, 54), those made during his middle years were largely centered on his family life (Scenes From Under Childhood, 67-70), and the later films increasingly explored what he called “hypnogogic” vision (Chartres Series, 94), frequently reducing all imagery to non-representational essences, much as abstract painters had done over the past century. His work made bridges between film and poetry by learning from the rhythms and mythos of Pound, Stein, Creeley, and Duncan; music through the structures of Bach, Webern, and Feldman, painting through the expressive gestures of De Kooning and Pollock, and collage through the material sensitivity of Cornell (with whom he collaborated on several films in the Fifties). Sometimes drawn to grand statements, he was most eloquent when dealing with the humility and fragility of human existence: his 30-film 8mm Song cycle, epic in scope but small in scale, remains possibly his most intimate work, incorporating and elevating the understanding of traditional “home movies” to the status of art.
…the main reasons Brakhage’s films are still little known remain the same as when he first emerged and was briefly embraced during the Sixties: in contrast with the seductive high-glitz tactility of Matthew Barney or the chic philosophizing and clever conceptualizations of Bill Viola, both of whom have been totally embraced by the high-art collector culture, all of Brakhage’s values – the core of his aesthetics – exist to resist being handily consumed and canonized. Brakhage celebrates life in all its sprawling dimensions, embracing even its blemishes and uncertainties, and this remains as distant from society’s ideals as ever.