Special Note: Scenes from Under Childhood will screen Saturday November 29 at the Anthology Film Archives
Screened November 17, 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York, NY
Stan Brakhage’s approximation of what it’s like to see as a child, drawn from years of footage of his own children, is nothing as crude as a literal re-enactment of a child’s point of view, but something much more vivid and disturbing. The film opens with a series of red screens, suggesting light filtered through closed infant eyes, before launching into lightning flashes of white: a nascent gaze opening to the world and hardly able to take in its brilliance. This traumatic sensation is the underlying emotion that runs through the film’s four chapters, and it’s a marvel how Brakhage’s panoply of images – progressing from the abstract to the very literal – can be such an emotionally affecting account of how children come to perceive the world. Mostly shot in handheld with the flickers and jumps one expects of Super 8, the film has been described as the greatest home movie ever made, with children playing in a yard bathed in impossibly beautiful tree-dappled light or a close-up the upturned carcass of a dead wasp on a bathtub lip strike the heart of a uncanny left behind by adulthood. There’s little nostalgic about this wonder though, as such images will be interspersed by recurring fades to a haunting, ghostlike formation of undulating crystals, suggesting human cells regenerating feverishly. At times the gaze is simply blank, looking at nothing or noone in particular, focusing more on negative spaces than objects, the indeterminate time of childhood with no purpose but to be. A soup of memory, liquid and light, churning with life.
Want to go deeper?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Scenes from Under Childhood on the TSPDT 1000:
Manohla Dargis, Profil (2004)
Michael Snow, Sight & Sound (1992)
Simon Field Time Out (1995)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI list) (1998)
Village Voice 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits (2006)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Brakhage sometimes refers to his films as documents of consciousness. He considers them works that impart to their viewers the energies of the events that occur in the manifold of his vision. The scrupulous care with which he remembered (sometimes through a feat of imagination) and conveyed the evolution of his vision from earliest infancy to later childhood in Scenes from Under Childhood testifies to the importance he accords the study of subjective life. Scenes from Under Childhood makes equally clear that he deems the scrutiny of consciousness to have moral importance. He began work on the film upon the birth of his first boy, when he realized he had a male rival for his wife Jane’s love. To feel unalloyed love for the boy, he posited, he must empathize with him; and to empathize with him, he must strive to understand his inward life, so far as is possible. The qualification is cardinal: Brakhage’s dedication to an individualism of the thoroughgoing Emersonian brand commits him to the belief that nobody has access to the contents of another’s mind. The alternative he conceived to knowing his son’s mind was to recollect how he saw at stages in his own childhood development, to reactivate, as far as that is possible, the visual mechanisms of his own childhood. He strove to see again as he had seen as a child. Through seeing as a child, he would come to understand one child’s – his own – fears, delights, exhilarations, and despairs, and awareness of that child’s fears and delights might enlarge his capacity for having sympathy with children.
– R. Bruce Elder, The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998. Page 106.
Since 1966 Brakhage has been working on an autobiographical piece, Scenes from under Childhood, which in several self-contained episodes shows the experience of the environment through seeing from the early beginnings until adulthood. In the first episode he delivers the earliest memories of childhood. It’s the representation of the earliest phase of seeing, in which objects are experienced in a blur. Blurred pictures of a room and people step out of a red color-fields. Sometimes the curtain is torn and the objects become clearly visible. Brakhage films almost everything from a child’s perspective, from which a piece of furniture can seem like a huge monster. The first part is accompanied by distorted donkey-screams, which repeatedly emerges from the silence and conveys a notion of a threatening outside world. In the following episodes he has abandoned sound. He even decided, never to use sound in a film again. … In the meantime, episodes 2, 3 and 4 have been finished, in which he depicts the investigation of the immediate environment by showing objects like a faucet, a tube of toothpaste or a wash basin.
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.’
– Stan Brakhage, cited by Courtney Hoskins
A visualization of the inner world of foetal beginnings, the infant, the baby, the child – a shattering of the ‘myths of childhood’ through revelation of the extremes of violent terror and overwhelming joy of that world darkened to most adults by their sentimental remembering of it… a ‘tone poem’ for the eye – very inspired by the music of Olivier Messiaen
– Brakhage, cited by Anthology Film Archives
Excerpts from interview between Scott MacDonald and Brakhage, published in A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Published by University of California Press, 2005:
MacDonald: How did this idea about child vision develop? And to what extent was it a function of seeing your children born and watching what they were experiencing as they grew?
Brakhage: It was very largely that. I was very involved with the children and, at one point, was horrified to realize that I was guilty of what I came to call the “Shirley Temple syndrome”: in other words, of finding them very cute and thinking of their lives as bucolic and happier than mine – in other words, not meeting them on the level of their own lives. And at this point I decided to start photographing them, because that enabled me to see more deeply into what they were. I had this sense in the back of my mind that a film might come out of it, but that was not the initial impulse. I wanted to see their world.
Now, I also understood that you can never really see inside another person’s world; so at the same time that I’m looking at them, I’m remembering, as best I can, my own childhood. Scenes from Under Childhood arises out of a superimposition of those two things. My children were providing tender material, which I gathered; and as it came into the camera through the lens and later, during the editing process, my memories of my own childhood were sparked by their activities and in one way and another found their way into the films.
MacDonald: Your films are the family movies maybe we wish we had.
Brakhage: Or do we? You may think you wish you had them, but the interesting thing is that my grown children are not very involved in looking at those films.
MacDonald: Were they ever?
Brakhage: Not really. They’d look at them when they came out, and that seemed okay. It was a normal part of their growing up, a daily activity. But they haven’t shown much interest in their own photographed lives as children. Occasionally, they will ask to see the births, but otherwise they are not really interested – because, in a way, it isn’t really their childhood. They are not remembering their childhood the way I was imagining them. The films confront them with my feelings about my own development, which they are only the occasion for.
And by the way, that was quite conscious. When I first started photographing, I got down on the floor and was rolling around with them with the camera, but I realized quickly that that was too much the Shirley Temple syndrome. So you’ll notice that, pretty consistently throughout all of the footage in Scenes from Under Childhood, the viewpoint is slightly above and looking down at the children, to keep that sense that this is adult envisionment, and that it is affected by and affects the quality of the maker’s childhood coming through and coloring, shaping, twisting the forms – through apple jubs or whatever – into the production of an aesthetic.
About Stan Brakhage
Biography by P. Adams Sitney at Film Reference.com
If Maya Deren invented the American avant-garde cinema, Stan Brakhage realized its potential. Unquestionably the most important living avant-garde filmmaker, Brakhage single-handedly transformed the schism separating the avant-garde from classical filmmaking into a chasm. And the ultimate consequences have yet to be resolved; his films appear nearly as radical today as the day he made them.
– Brian Frye, Senses of Cinema
Quotes found in the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Brakhage
“At some point in the future, when authoritative histories of twentieth century art begin to be written with the wise judgment that only distance from the present time can confer, I believe that Stan Brakhage will loom not only as one of the very greatest of filmmakers but as one of the major figures in all the arts. The sheer virtuosity of his work, the sensual beauty of his films’ shapes and colors and textures, his creation of a unique and complex kind of visual music (most of his films are silent because the music comes from the screen), his appeal to the viewer as individual rather than as a member of a crowd, the ecstatic unpredictability of his spaces and rhythms, all assure the monumental importance of his close to 400 films, both individually and as a body of work. ” – Fred Camper (Stan Brakhage on the Web)
“Among the most influential figures of the American avant-garde, he is a technical innovator and outspoken social observer…His experimental films, mostly short, have often been concerned with the manipulation of light…Overcoming limitations of funds and resources, Brakhage poured out an astonishingly large number of long and short films in a wide range of themes and style. A poet with a camera, he consistently endowed his prolific output with a pathfinder’s zeal and innovate personal vision.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“The heart of Brakhage’s theory is the notion of cinema as the imitation of the act of seeing, which includes simultaneously the perpetually scanning eyes, the visual imagination and memory, and the phosphenes which are most distinct when the eyes are closed. For him, the act of making a film intensifies and makes conscious this perpetual process of vision. Any dramatic representation whatsoever is anathematized by him.” – P. Adams Sitney (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“His personal life so affects his work that Brakhage sees his eyes and camera as one. Compelling examinations of people, places, things, and ideas put him into the forefront of avant-garde filmmaking..” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“We have the notion that we exist but we have no way to prove it. ‘I am’ is the closest foundation we can get.” – Stan Brakhage