Brackhage

I was your friendly disaster man. I called myself the Roof Dancer. Usually I was on one of the first planes in after the hurricane or tornado, the earthquake or great balls of hail. We grew the home insurance of the little company from Bloomington to the largest in America by convincing them that an angry insured told all of his friends and neighbors that he or she had just been screwed out of $50 or $150 or whatever. Since all of the companies did the same thing it was a game of musical chairs. Policyholders switched companies after every claim, but saving the small change cost a lot on the profit sheet. Pay what you owe and take the time to truly explain what you don’t owe. More important, a happy insured told everyone, too, and the new clientele would swell their ranks. I was at the right place at the right time. The little fledgling grew and grew and became the largest insurer of homes and non-skyscraper buildings in the business.

But what was I doing there with my background in the arts? Well, I was earning a living in a strange, little known area where disasters were a specialty. Everything was pandemonium and panic, except for the hundred or so men who specialized in catastrophe claims as independent from the companies. The work was 7 days out of 7 and 12 hours was the minimum. A cool, clear head was vital. So were organization, efficiency, and speed.

Of course, you couldn’t work like that all year long. In 4 months one had logged in about the same amount of time that an ordinary worker had put in in a year. After 4 or 5 months I usually headed for where I was going to write and travel until the next disaster season. In addition to that, after the initial burst of intensity, there was a slowing down. One could go to a movie or do a barbeque with the other displaced roof dancers. Personally, I headed for the theatre groups or painting exhibitions.

The east side of the Rockies and across the flats all the way to the Mississippi is the great hail belt and the catastrophe season begins with hail. One evening in the aftermath of a great hailstorm in Boulder, Colorado things were slowing and I noticed the projection of some films by a local man named Stan Brackhage. I believe the word experimental was used in the notice. They were to be projected at the University of Colorado. I had never heard of him, but it all sounded interesting so off I went.

We were in a big classroom, not much of a theater. There were not a lot of people there. Stan was thirtyish, with a wide forehead, square chin and deep-set dark eyes. He had an odd mustache that sort of curled around the ends of his mouth. He was busy fiddling with a cantankerous projector and several students were trying to be helpful. It became obvious that those who were there all knew and admired him; it was just that the numbers were few. It turned out that he was showing mostly friends and cinema students a film he was finishing, Moth Light, but this piece is not about the complex world of Brakhage films; it’s about a most extraordinary man.

I am one of those whose relations come from some kind of instant recognition rather than friendships that “grow on you.” They are neither describable nor definable; they’re just “there”. What I saw in Mothlight was exactly what the artist had hoped people would see. What I saw in Stan was an instant friendship. He was the very definition of the hopeful, young creator. His work was strange, unrelated to anyone else’s films. Like many people who break new ground in the arts he felt unappreciated, unrewarded for his love’s labor. Essentially, he was depressed, but not defeated.

It was the period between Beatniks and Hippies. Stan and his beautiful, Earth Mother wife, Jane, lived in a mountain cabin lost up in the Rockies above Boulder with their 3 children and Jane was pregnant again. Stan and I would meet up and go to the cinema together. He insisted on sitting in the first or second row where one was “in the film”. He swore that when he was at a commercial film he saw it frame-by frame, because that is how he saw and created his own work, especially the Mothlight I’d seen.

Since he had no money, except for the occasional commercial film he was paid to shoot, he worked with out-of-date WW II army film stock he had found. He couldn’t pay actors and so he had invented the techniques of working directly on the film and its emulsion. He scratched it, painted on it, put objects on it and one frame at a time created his images. Why do moths attack light bulbs, he asked himself? Is it suicide? That was a subject he admitted often considering himself.

So he picked up the dead moths from the dining table and placing them or parts of them on frames of film with leaves and grasses that cost him nothing, he laboriously constructed the life of a moth as a movie. A strange movie, to be sure. It demanded one’s attention. It was not cinema for the couch potato, but it was Brakhage’s way of keeping moving, continually inventing in a world with no money.

He told me about his ability to see the aura around people’s bodies and that the Celts had a special word for it Stan was convinced it was something that humans had unlearned, so to speak. I had read Paracelsus and Madame Blavatsky back in the university library’s stacks when I had a cell back there. A little mysticism didn’t disturb me – and maybe it was true. Eventually I noted that a certain disproportionate number of visual artists had very deep set eyes and wondered if it was coincidence.

We spent a lot of time together until I had to run off to some hurricane or other - Houston, I think.
The next year I was back on the Front Range doing another hailstorm. One day I drove up to Boulder and the Brakhage cabin. “I can’t offer you anything. There isn’t anything here.”

I assumed he meant they were out of Coke and beer and such until he added, “There’s not even food for the kids and hasn't been for days. I don’t know what to do.’

I opened a cabinet door and there was literally nothing. He had had no work, no income, and everything was gone. I was horrified. It explained why he was looking gaunt which made his piercing, dark eyes seem to recede even further into his head. I got him into the car and went down the mountain to Boulder. When no more groceries would fit in the trunk or back seat we headed back up the hill. Their life could go one for a while longer, at least until the U of C asked him to do another lecture or he got another industrial film commission. But nothing stopped him. It’s like breathing and heartbeats. Stop and you are dead.

By then, Brakhage had won an award from the magazine Film Culture and his work was in demand on the university film circuit. It wasn't a lot, but starvation was over. We saw each other often until, in 1966, I stopped doing disasters and lived primarily in Europe for 9 years.

The last time I saw Stan was when he was going into a chic hotel on 57th St. south of Central Park. He was scheduled to give a lecture. It was great hugs and Hellos. We went for a coffee. He had become famous and at least comfortable, if not rich. As Wikipedia says: “He is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th Century experimental film”

It’s the kind of story you read about in books about artists. Unfortunately, many of them don’t survive.

Jack Siler
Bethlehem, CT © 2015

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