Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Arts of Life: A Stan Brakhage Screening

Last Thursday, January 24, I met with the students at the Arts of Life, an art studio for the mentally disabled on the west side of Chicago. I visited the studio for the first time last July and was floored by the skill level of the artists, but mostly found a lot of joy in watching them work and listening to them speak about what they do with surprising clarity and exuberance. Most, if not all, of the painters and sculptors of various ages no doubt knew about popular movies (one artist shouted out the title Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as his favorite movie), but none had ever seen films that utilize the same techniques and materials they use on their own canvases. They paint on cardboard, plywood, canvas, window panes and found objects; they use materials ranging from acrylic and tempura to watercolors and markers, but they had never seen an experimental film that takes some of the same practices they are familiar with and applies them to a strip of motion picture film stock. I knew the students and artists would be curious to see how the kind of work they do on a canvas translates to a moving picture onscreen, and it was in this spirit that I introduced a series of Stan Brakhage films, to show them for the first time movies of a truly artistic caliber.

I wanted to show the artists a good sampling of Brakhage's work while limiting the films to those that were either painted or constructed with physical objects, like Mothlight (1963), a collage of organic materials stuck to the film with a piece of transparent tape. It was the first movie we watched and the students loved it. Their initial oohs and aahs quickly led to more complex questions and observations, and the group collectively noted things like the tempo and rhythm of the images speeding vertically across the screen. I told them the title of the film and we watched it again. They shouted out each object they saw: grass, leaves, moth wings, and occasionally they named objects that weren't there at all, as if the film administered a kind of Rorschach test.

I brought in a small roll of 35mm color stock motion picture film. I wanted them to feel it and get a sense of its texture. I always think that, as elementary as it may seem to pass around an object like playing a game of show-and-tell, one of the greatest ways to understand the medium is to actually hold a piece of film in your hand; in this, you make a very real connection between the physical object and the ephemeral sight it becomes once threaded through the projector. More simply, I wanted them to see the size of real motion picture film in comparison to their painted canvases--usually feet in width--and understand the intricacies of painting, drawing or etching onto its surface, which is not much larger than the length of a thumb nail.

After three screenings of Mothlight (the film is just over 3 minutes in length), there was a downright emotional explosion in the room when the next two films Eye Myth (1967) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) burst onscreen with their vibrant and energetic colors. The artists loved these, and I do believe this is my first time watching Brakhage where there was response of such unrestrained delight. Surely academic settings call for a more introspective response to the movies, but even in my own private settings I have only witnessed quiet sighs of admiration and affection toward Brakhage's dancing patters of light and color. Hearing their instant visceral response made me excited about these films in a whole new light; it was indeed a reaffirmation of Brakhage's cinematic dexterity.

A minute or two into The Dante Quartet (1987) I asked the class what they were thinking about as they watched. Did it look like any of the paintings they create on a canvas? How was it different? More keen observations about motion and rhythm entered the conversation, and with very little guidance the group agreed the picture was a lot like poetry, only without any words. Before the screening I spoke with each artist and told them what I'd be showing them that day. David, who sat diligently dabbing his brush tip into tacky globs of oil paint, smiled wide when I said hi and told me he once won first place in swimming at the Special Olympics. A half hour later as The Dante Quartet flickered on the television, he eloquently responded to my questions to the class saying, "It looks like a feeling."

For an hour we watched these movies, and more, including Night Music (1986), Rage Net (1988), Glaze of Cathexis (1990), Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1991), Love Song (2001) and more, and with each movie these students with severe mental disabilities (some even confined to wheelchairs, others not able to speak much at all) contributed interesting and exciting ideas.

It was a pleasure to share what still remains to be some rather obscure cinema to the Arts of Life students, and it was even better to witness their genuine appreciation of some of the finest experimental work ever done on film.

If you'd like more information about Arts of Life, visit their website, There you can find profiles of each artist, browse their work, and buy one of the many amazing paintings, if you are so inclined, which I should add are all reasonably priced, affordable works.

Special thanks to Kodak for their generous donation of 35mm motion picture film used during the presentation. It served as a wonderful teaching tool.


Karen said...

Wow, Pam. Way to crank out the substance when it comes to actually connecting cinema art with real life application and helping to show that connection to the rest of the world (wide web!) to see!

I am very impressed. It sounds like just a fabulous experience. :)

Anonymous said...


How rare and special that film should be considered an art instead of a medium for hot bodies, product placement, and profits. I applaud you for not only taking the time to highlight film's beauty through this project and through your blog, but also for taking the time to share your insights with those who do not have the same advantages that we do. I hope that your actions inspire others to follow your footsteps.