After Ego Death: Final thoughts on the films of Stan Brakhage - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

After Ego Death: Final thoughts on the films of Stan Brakhage

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Final thoughtsI began watching Stan Brakhage's films in June of 2013.  Barely two weeks after I started the project my body suffered a major catastrophe.  A 5mm x 8mm x 13mm kidney stone was growing in my left kidney, and over the next few months I was mishandled by my urologist.  I was left with drugs and a two month waiting period before I could have surgery for the stone.  During this time my body deteriorated, and to this day I am still combating the cumulative effect those months now stretched into years have had on my body.

This is to say, I was a much different person when I started watching Brakhage's films.  I've never been shy about my ego and in all honesty I started the project mostly so I could have some "film buff cred" and say I watched all of Brakhage's films.  After my health crisis, having "cred" with a group of hypothetical people who would have interest in Brakhage seemed more pathetic than anything else.  So why did I go back to watching his films?

I realized I was stuck in a rut with my writing and needed to shake up my perception of film.  So on June 11th, 2014, a year after I watched my second Brakhage, I began watching two films of his a week to see if he was the talent to expand my perception of film.  My ego needed to be set aside before I could watch his films with an honest and careful eye.  Fitting, then, that ego death is a concept I learned more about in the near two years since I started this project and became a recurring motif in Brakhage's films.

For those unfamiliar, ego death has a number of meanings depending on the field.  Broadly speaking it's a sort of self-aware disappearance of the self.  Extremely powerful hallucinogens have made people feel their personality touch a void that removes their sense of identity.  In psychoanalytic terms, Carl Jung referred to the ego death as a psychic death in which the self dies and is reborn with a more existentially pleasing alignment with how the individual wants to live their life.  Considering one of Brakhage's films is titled Glaze of Cathexis and his stated desire to experiment with the limits of unconscious reception of images in cinema, it's safe to postulate that Brakhage was experimenting with film as part of his own death and resurrection of the ego.

This sensation has been reported as negative with the subject feeling themselves so close to nothingness that it terrifies them.  But the opposite end of the spectrum is what is important in Brakhage's films, where the death of the ego is part of a merging into a universal consciousness where the self is not entirely eradicated by made part of something greater.  Brakhage was constantly working toward different shifts of perspectives in his films to show how animals might perceive existence and their own death.  He attains this sensation most spectacularly in Burial Path where the imitation of flight is mixed with a profoundly respectful burial for a dead bird.

But Brakhage wasn't thinking of traditional living norms when considering the shifting landscape of the ego.  In the four-part Visions in Meditation he captures the ego essence of physical locations, mountains, caves, and the desert landscape.  He paints a spiritual tapestry where the artificial installations of men coexist within the earth while horses graze peacefully on small patches of fertile land amidst the seemingly lifeless desert.  It's all part of an eternal cycle that's unique to this specific place where time does not matter.

There's never a sense of hopelessness in his films but a transcendent cycle of rebirth.  Even when he's at his lowest, and it's hard to get much lower than the despairing Rage Net, each experience he seeks to capture on film is just another layer of life cycling in on itself.  Part of the strength of The Dead is how Brakhage captures the hubris of trying to distill the essence of life and death into single symbols, because symbols can be subverted while existence keeps rolling on.  Again, the end result is not despair, but a sort of wearying sigh that we could struggle so violently over which one of these symbols we should choose over the others.

I left the church a long time ago, and thought I had abandoned spirituality as well, but my life experiences combined with Brakhage's films to transform my perception of existence into something less limiting.  This first happened when I watched Window Water Baby Moving as Brakhage starts the film focusing on universal sensations before communicating the experience of childbirth.  Because of the gradual escalation my body tingled along with the hot water and gentle touch, growing more involved and complex as the film progressed and when the birth finally happened I disappeared for a moment as I had no reference point for this experience.  My mind fluttered with sparkles trying to come up with something and I felt connected precisely because I had no reference but my mind was still trying.

Brakhage's films are always in search of those connections and while I did not have an experience similar to that watching any of his other films I still felt the touch of the unknown.  It's not a void, but an incommunicable connection which Brakhage nonetheless attempted to convey over decades.  These experiments, such as the pseudo-poetic The Stars Are Beautiful, were sometimes a slog to get through but it was all in the aim of communicating the unknown to audiences in a way that transcended language.  I am grateful, and humbled, to have spent this long watching a master at work.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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