Stan Brakhage, Window Water Baby Moving, 1959

Stan Brakhage, Window Water Baby Moving, 1959

Marjorie Keller, Misconception, 1973-77

Marjorie Keller, Misconception, 1973-77

Jane Brakhage’s face in close-up in Window Water Baby Moving

Jane Brakhage in bath in Window Water Baby Moving

Misconception’s title card



Section 1 card

Chris painting the home interior

Chris and Lee in yard discussing the difficulties that come with raising children



Re-conceiving Misconception:
birth as a site of filmic experimentation

By Roxanne Samer

How then can we define [cinema]? It is still embryonic. A new art must create its own organs. All that we can do is to help to deliver them out of chaos. — Elie Faure[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

Childbirth, procreation: the ever-ready metaphors for artistic creation, newness and originality. In some cases, no other word play is more apt. Such is the case with U.S. avant-gardist Stan Brakhage, who trained his camera throughout his prolific career, which spanned the second half of the twentieth century, on his own family, including filming the births of his first five children.[2] This, in and of itself, was a revolutionary act, as prior to the 1950s childbirth was for the most part off limits as subject matter for filmmaking. As Amos Vogel states in his well-recognized text Film as a Subversive Art, due to its inextricable ties to sex and blood taboos,

“The cinema has treated birth as a guilty secret of mankind, a mystery to be kept from the impressionable young, a clandestine medical event reserved exclusively for physicians.”[3]

This all began to change in the 1950s when both documentary and experimental filmmakers such as Brakhage began testing censorship laws and the public’s tolerance by making their own films of the event. Furthermore, Brakhage’s filming of his wife Jane giving birth to their first child, which resulted in Window Water Baby Moving (1959), was done at a time when he was experimenting with his filmmaking style as well as beginning to theorize as to the significance of the medium as a whole in what would result as his first book Metaphors on Vision.

It was a time of change and growth in Brakhage’s career, as he abandoned his earlier psychodramas in favor of what has been described as a lyrical or personal filmmaking aesthetic.[4] Window Water Baby Moving was one of four films he made in 1959, a productivity level that has been seen as “a sign of a major breakthrough in his art.”[5] This stylistic shift was also accompanied by his abandoning the use of sound in his films. Seeking to distance himself from commercialized Hollywood cinema in all of its kitschiness and to appeal to the more autonomous visual arts, Brakhage’s new filmmaking style becamez for the most part devoid of sound and keenly attuned to the sense of sight.[6] As the filmmaker himself stated in a letter of 1966:

“The more informed I became with aesthetics of sound, the less I began to feel any need for an audio accompaniment of the visuals I was making. I think it was seven/eight years ago I began making intentionally silent films…I now see/feel no more absolute necessity for a sound track than a painter feels the need to exhibit a painting with a recorded musical background.”[7]

This lyrical mode of filmmaking had begun to show itself in Anticipation of the Night (1958) but did not solidify until 1959. It accentuates visuality and is defined by its positing of the filmmaker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist, whose vision is equated with the images occurring on the screen. In order to convey himself looking, he uses an emphasis on movement in the camerawork, editing or harmonization between the two, and more often than not tends to accentuating the flatness of the screen rather than give an illusionary depth.[8] While this filmmaking style was to become extremely prevalent in experimental films of the late-sixties, P. Adams Sitney, a primary exegete of the U.S. avant-garde, considers it to be single-handedly forged by Brakhage a decade prior to its period of popularity.[9] Thus Window Water Baby Moving played a principle role not only in registering the delivery of a newborn child into this world and making this taboo content public but also in the conception of a new mode of filmmaking

Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, which was published as a special issue of Film Culture in 1963, echoed the attention to issues of the visual that he was simultaneously developing in his films. [10] In the text, Brakhage posits the prelingual child as an ideal viewer of the world, asking his adult readers to imagine what it might be like to mobilize a mode of seeing based on an eye untutored by culture. He challenges Western rules of perspective and color, postulating them as unnecessarily and messily bound to language. As an alternative he advocates a return to seeing “before the ‘beginning was the word.’”[11] Brakhage asks, “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?” He says it is the eye that “reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature.” In such passages of Metaphors on Vision such as these, Brakhage first develops his idealization of the child as visionary exemplar, which would permeate his career. As film historian and filmmaker Marjorie Keller, who responded to Brakhage’s work in both her writing and her films, has succinctly stated:

“Simply put, the infant is a metaphor for the filmmaker at his best moments.”[12]

Although Brakhage’s work dominated the U.S. avant-garde scene of the 1950s, throughout the following decades he would encounter opposition from fellow filmmakers and critics. In order to earn a living, he taught and lectured incessantly, which often brought him into contact with those with alternative positions on the function and purpose of independent filmmaking. The social movements of the 60s, in turn, led to an increasing interest in identity politics both inside and outside the art world. Artists and filmmakers alike began to rethink the conditions of perception and to challenge the autonomy cultural objects had acquired in their theorization as neutral or disembodied. Mediamakers, artists and scholars began to insist instead that the race, gender and sexuality of practitioners and viewers be considered as integral to the understanding of aesthetics. Feminist film theory and praxis developed a particularly strong base in the United States and Britain, and as David E. James has concisely put it,

“At exactly the time when the search for nonpatriarchal sex and family roles had greatest cultural urgency, Brakhage, interchangeably ‘bring[ing] forth films and children’ in the Colorado wilderness, appeared to embody not the solution, but the problem itself.”[13]

Feminists took particular issue with the manner in which Brakhage captured his wife and problematically utilized her as an objectified muse in his films.[14] His intense close-ups, hand-held camera movements and fast-paced editing seemed either to fetishize or commit violence to Jane Brakhage’s body. In a 1978 interview, Amy Taubin stated:

“In Brakhage what I think those formal aspects point to is that out of the unlimited access he has to his subjects’ lives, an access that is given to him by law, these are the final things that he culled, the final distillation of the myriads of footage which he could expose of them and on which he exposed them. It’s an ugly metaphor but I always think that Jane has no right, even if she wanted to, and I’m not claiming that she ever does, to close her legs.”[15]

Anne Friedberg, in a 1979 article for Millennium Film Journal, similarly wrote:

“As a filmmaker making a film about the birth of his first child, Brakhage endows Jane with a pregnancy both literal and figurative. Perhaps through his ownership rights as paternal head of a nuclear family, her body becomes his artistic material: vagina, mouth and window are intercut as comparative metaphoric apertures. In Brakhage’s film, Jane-as-woman is pregnant in a double sense—she is both bearer of his child and bearer of his meaning. ”[16]

Feminist film critics, including Taubin and Friedberg, began to identify and champion examples of women’s films to counter the male-dominated avant-garde and women’s historical exclusion from the history of cultural objects and artistic practices. One such example was Marjorie Keller, whose birth film Misconception (1977) would come to be positioned as a feminist response to Brakhage. Rather than filming her partner or herself giving birth, Keller was invited by her brother Lee and sister-in-law Chris to film the birth of their second child. Feminist critics found it important that from the start Keller was further removed from the process at hand and thus able to offer a more critical position on childbirth, its divisions of labor and past mythologizing in the eyes of men.

And yet the manner in which Keller has been positioned and utilized as a political tool by these same critics — including alongside Taubin and Friedberg, B. Ruby Rich, Linda Reisman and Kaja Silverman in the late-70s and early-80s, to a lesser extent Robin Blaetz more recently — is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, there has been little solid formal analysis done in order to understand Misconception’s relation to Window Water Baby Moving. Instead, critics tend to mention Brakhage and his film in passing or allude to it vaguely, while noting briefly that Keller uses a few of the same formal techniques as those working in the lyrical tradition.

Second, Keller’s complex relationship to Brakhage is hardly, if ever, mentioned. In 1973, the year in which she filmed the footage for Misconception, Keller was finishing her undergraduate studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and taking courses with Brakhage.[17] From 1974 through 1983, she was a graduate student in Cinema Studies at New York University, her research culminating in a dissertation on Jean Cocteau, Joseph Cornell and Stan Brakhage. In 1986, it was published as The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage by Associated University Presses. The third chapter of the book, quoted earlier, focuses on Brakhage specifically, looking at four of his films from 1964 through 1980 as well as Metaphors on Vision in order to study the evolution of the filmmaker’s treatment of childhood and its relation to his development as a filmmaker.[18]

Last, and perhaps most important, past critics writing about Misconception have largely ignored the filmmaker’s own language. As a filmmaker and film historian, Keller produced a number of essays, articles and reviews, as well as her book, within which she articulates her position on a series of film-related issues, including the Brakhage tradition and the development of Lacanian psychoanalysis as a methodological approach. Notably included among these is her review of E. Ann Kaplan’s text Women and Film, which appeared in the Millennium Film Journal in the winter of 1984-85. It is a brief and yet scorching critique, panning the text’s “overdetermined nature” and failure to provide the overview and summation that the title suggests.[19] Keller states that Kaplan’s semiological/psychoanalytic approach severely limits the range of films covered, glaringly condensing Maya Deren’s influence to two paragraphs and not even mentioning some of the other most influential female filmmakers such as Carolee Schneemann and Marie Menken. Put most blatantly, Keller writes: “By elevating the ‘theory’ film over others in the avant-garde, Kaplan obfuscates women’s filmmaking in the name of feminism.”[20] Here as well as elsewhere, Keller appears hesitant or at times hostile to the academicizing of artistic practices, postulating avant-garde films as having more to offer than that which can be explicated by a particular theory—namely, a subjective and personal mode of expression.

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