Stan Brakhage, as told to Jennifer Dorn:
Brakhage Pans Telluride Gold
The following is taken from Brakhage, Stan: Telluride Gold: Brakhage meets Tarkovsky,
Rolling Stock, no 6, 1983, p. 11-14. Also in Chicago Review's
Stan Brakhage Correspondences 47:4 Winter 2001 / 48:1 Spring 2002, pp. 42-46.
Thanks to Eugene Borzov for tracking down a hardcopy of this article for us, based on an
entry in our bibliography section.
We also thank Terrance Grace for his kind assistance.
See also [ Tarkovsky's diary, on the 1983 American Visit ].
The meeting of Stan Brakhage and Andrei Tarkovsky at the Tenth
Telluride Film Festival this summer  was bound to create some interest.
Film critic J. Hoberman thinks that Stan Brakhage, given the budget
the size of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz would make a film similar
to Tarkovsky's The Mirror: "Tarkovsky's mid-career
autobiography uses a two-tiered time frame to blend dream sequences and
sound footage, childhood memories and scenes from an ongoing marriage
with the jolting fluidity of Brakhage's Sincerity — another
ambivalent celebration of family — which was produced in Colorado at
virtually the same time."
No wonder Bill and Stella Pence, the organizers of the Festival,
anticipated a "meeting of minds" when they arranged a private showing
of Brakhage's films for the Russian during the weekend. They did not,
however, expect it to cause the kind of drama
that Stan Brakhage describes in the following recapitulation.
I was shocked, when I arrived, to see that the Tenth Telluride Film
Festival was dedicated to the New American Independent Cinema. I felt
the irony of this and I really didn't understand the distinction
between this "independent" cinema and Hollywood. That term means to
me people who are paying for whatever they're doing themselves. As
soon as money is involved, in almost every case, it means you are
beholden — and the more ephemeral the strings are that are attached,
finally the tighter they are. It's like the invisible string they use
for garrotting people. They don't use a big piece of brown rope.
So I was shocked when I saw the program and heard everyone talking
about these new independent filmmakers when in fact — because George
Cuchar broke his ankle and they cancelled his program as he wouldn't
be there — from my viewpoint we were down to one minute of truly
independent American filmmaking, that is, my film, Hell Split
The terrible irony for me was that, not content with having ripped off
artistic and poetic and experimental and avant-garde and every other
term they thought might earn them another ten cents at the box office,
they usurped "independent" which is about the last term we had.
So I gave it up. I wanted to enjoy myself, see the movies. I didn't
want to be crabby.
It was just a miracle that Andrei Tarkovsky made it to the Festival.
I was getting reports from Bill and Stella Pence every time he cleared
a border someplace, was on the plane, was through customs at New York
City. He's been very important to me and I've encouraged the showing
of his films at every opportunity — Andrei Rublov at the Denver
Film festival and Solaris here at the International Film Series
— and I had just seen Stalker. As far as I know, Solaris
is the only film of his that was shown widely in Russia and I know
there are others of his that haven't been shown at all there.
Not Since DeMille
He's in this peculiar position of being for export only. It must be
terrible for him because Russians love their country and their people
and so exile in any sense — perhaps especially exile of your work —
must be excruciatingly painful. So the man has a most problematical
and in a way torturesome existence, except that one thing he does have
on his side, that he can spend unbelieveable fortunes such as we
haven't seen in this country since Cecil B. DeMille. In terms of
budget, Apocalypse Now would look like a B movie in comparison.
As long as the Russians agree to make it, he can have as big a crowd
as he wants in his film and he can string them out in beautiful
patterns across the mountains or he can rebuild villages and towns.
But the films essentially aren't shown there. They're for export, to
give the idea to film buffs in the west — because no one else would
care — that there's freedom of expression in Russia. It's worth it to
them apparently to have this illusion even though everyone who looks
beyond the surface of the silver screen can find out very easily that
these films are not for Russia.
I'm grateful that he can make these great movies under whatever
circumstances but I also know the price for him, for this Russian
people and for the rest of the world.
His latest film was an international production and he was allowed to
travel to Italy and to stay to make the movie. He came to Telluride
direct from Italy, without official permission form the Soviet Union.
Bill and Stella Pence have been trying to get him to the festival for
seven years, and five years ago they were so close Bill had edited the
shorts that were to be shown at the tribute. So he's had five years
of work on that footage and he did it beautifully. He is a master at
this, at presenting inter-related themes from someone's whole life of
movies in such a way it's like an aerial survey.
A Kind of Chill
I was very honored that Bill asked me to present the medallion to
Tarkovsky at the tribute because I know, of all the medallions he
wanted to present, this was the most important to him. I was also
In the first place, the Opera House is so packed and the crowd so
compressed, it feels like a bull ring. It's an enthusiastic audience
but it can be very cruel and it certainly has been to me, at
times.Whenever I have to get up and do anything in front of that
crowd, I know I could get gored badly.
We also had the shadow of the Korean jetliner that had just been shot
down hanging over us. No one knew what was going to happen. I'd been
there when Leni Riefenstahl was getting her medallion with people up
there threatening to kill her. It was bad enough having to get
backstage and stumble around in the dark and be positioned. Then to
come out and give the microphone to the interpreter at just the right
moment, and to handle the microphone and the medallion which I had to
get over the man's chin...
But I did manage to say exactly what I wanted to say, and it was this:
"Some people have asked me, What do you mean, Tarkovsky is the
greatest living narrative film maker? Well, enthusiasm is jumped
on these days and any designation such as that, in the competitive
atmosphere of film making, gets you into trouble. So I want to
explain why I said that.
"I personally think that the three greatest tasks for film in the 20th
century are (1) To make the epic, that is to tell the tales of the
tribes of the world. (2) To keep it personal, because only in the
eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chances at the
truth. (3) To do the dream work, that is, to illuminate the borders
of the unconscious. The only film maker I know that does all these
three things equally in every film he makes is Andrei Tarkovsky, and
that's why I think he's the greatest living narrative film maker."
That went down very well and the medallion went over his head very
easily and then I handed the microphone to [Krzysztof] Zanussi, the Polish film
maker, who was the interpreter. Tarkovsky got up and delivered a long
speech with Zanussi translating. The audience wasn't used to that.
Usually the people receiving the medallion are rather old and either
they're overwhelmed or simply gracious — they talk for two or three
minutes, everyone applauds and they go off.
Cruel Crowd Quieted
But Tarkovsky held the audience for about seven minutes. It was a
good speech although it sagged a little in the middle which is often
the case. He assumed a lot about the audience that just was not true.
Obviously he was very nervous about being a Russian in an American box
canyon on this weekend, and having to face an audience of such packed
I was worried that the airline incident would predominate, too, and
that people — especially reporters — would be up there for blood. But
in fact it was never mentioned once by anyone during the whole weekend
and that made me nervous. There was a kind of chill. It was one of
those things you don't even dare mention in case everybody comes
So his speech went down well and what it came down to was that all he
had to give any audience was himself. Therefore he made his films for
himself because that was all he had to give. Then, after the scenes
from his films that Bill Pence had put together, his new film,
Nostalghia came on.
The movie is about a Russian who is in Italy to gather biographical
material on a Russian composer who had lived there in the 19th
century. It was autobiographical to the extent that Tarkovsky was also
in Italy and working on a project. When someone asked him at the
seminar if he was going back to Russia, he said, "Have you seen my
movie Nostalghia?" When that person said yes, he had,
Tarkovsky said, "Then you know the answer to that."
This is an ambiguous answer and in the movie the Russian is always
wanting to go home but never quite able to leave. But by my reading,
he certainly is going back.
Masterpiece of Subtlety
The film itself seemed to be the hardest of all his movies, even for
Tarkovsky fans. Some of the scenes are the most elliptic in the
history of cinema. People around town were saying, "You should go see
My Name is Ivan — that's when he was making great movies you
could understand." Nostalghia is full of ambiguities. The
Russian has a relationship with a curly-headed, innocent looking
Italian girl, who looks like she stepped out of a Renaissance painting
of an angel. It's obvious from the beginning that she's a slightly
tarnished angel. She drifts around him, very close as if she's his
girlfriend and yet finally it seems they haven't had any sex. There's
even a scene where it seems she has got pregnant, in his bed, but then
it turns out she isn't and nothing happened.
The whole film is like a dream and it's very slow. He talks about his
wife back in Russia and how lonely he is. There are scenes made out
of piles of Italian mud that has seeped into some doorway which the
camera moves in on and then opens out on the whole Russian landscape
with peasant huts and presumably waiting wife. There are long scenes
which, if you're not enjoying the twilight between color and b&w, the
ephemeral, flickering glints of almost-color and the shifting,
slow-changing of light and moods, then you're going to be bored.
I was absolutely enchanted, even though I have a prejudice against
long, structural scenes, and even though at first it seemed like the
long takes were irrelevant to the plot. Later it turned out they
weren't, both because of the mood which effects you and because of
little interweaving subtleties, objects you almost didn't see which
turn out to be crucial to the weave of the entire film. Some of them
are bizarre and grotesquely normal and some are so mundane you hardly
notice them and you can hardly see them except he makes them glint in
an otherwise totally dark scene, a scene so dark you can't tell if
it's b&w or color. He goes back and forth between b&w and color and
between combinations of the two.
When I stumbled out, it was like a religious conversion, but unlike a
religious convert, I was absolutely free. I didn't have to believe in
something or sign anything and I don't know what the religion is
except humanitarianism in the deepest sense. Don't do unto others
what you would not have them do unto you. I came out into the dark
where the sky was flashing with lightning and held off its rain long
enough for us to get back to our room where I must have spent all
night thinking about the movie. I woke up the next morning still
thinking about it.
Poetry Before Money
The next day, I was asked to be on a panel in the park. I've stopped
going to these panels in the last few years because they always end up
talking about money and they continue to talk about money for the
next hour and a half. Two years ago I got up and blew my gasket at
Robert Wise for calling himself an "Independent" film maker. Here was
the maker of Sound of Music and all these huge, mainstream
extravaganzas calling himself an Independent film maker.
The only other thing you get, which makes me equally mad, is Hollywood
movie makers comparing themselves to giants of literature and music.
The most extreme example of that was the maker of Bugs Bunny
one year. I said to him: "If you're a great artist, then what in the
world is van Gogh?"
The panel this year was the only one I've been to in which the
question of money did not arise once. The panel consisted of Annette
Insdorf, myself, Tarkovsky, his interpreter, and Zanussi who actually
did the translating.
I'd like to think that money didn't come up because I was allowed to
ask the first few questions and I asked Tarkovsky about poetry. I
asked him if Appolinaire's poem Zone had anything to do with
his senses of "zone" in Stalker. He said no, he'd never read
the poem. I hope he will now because the poem deals with what I think
is one of the main themes of Stalker, the inter-relationship of
the old and the new.
My next question was what he thought of the poet Osip Mandelstam. He
said he very much liked Mandelstam, Ahkmatova and Pasternak but that
poetry was not translatable. So he didn't think any vision we had of
Mandelstam was of any use in relation to his work. I was also
disappointed that he didn't want to talk about his father, who was a
poet, and I sensed he wanted to get off the subject of poetry.
My third question was, had he ever read Samuel Beckett? He said yes,
he had read Molloy, which he though was and absolutely
realistic novel and had thoroughly enjoyed. However, he himself was
working in the tradition of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky. It was
interesting that he mentioned Gogol because I think Gogol was probably
an awful lot like Tarkovsky. I got the sense from Troyat's biography
of Gogol, that he was this particular kind of difficult Russian and I
have the feeling Tarkovsky's affinity with him is more personal than
From that point on, the questions were turned over to the audience,
but the tone had been set. Tarkovsky finally said that there were two
kinds of humans. There are those who think of themselves as here to
have fun and "eat up the earth" and there are those who feel they are
here to work and to suffer and to endure and accomplish something.
And he feels he's the latter sort of person.
Unfortunately he contradicted himself several times because although
he kept saying there were two kinds of people or two kinds of
attitudes, he was constantly saying he didn't believe in dualities.
Everyone was pretty shocked at how short and how thin — much thinner
than any photograph implies — and bent over he was. He's constantly
in a crouch that's like for in-fighting. One of the jokes around town
was, "Have you seen Tarkovsky smile yet?" No one had. Not even the
ghost of a smile. He has a very wizened face and looks
extraordinarily tortured and intense.
He was there with his rather large, Russian wife with blonde hair.
Tarkovsky himself has blue black hair and moustache and is very dark
skinned. She stands up tall and broad shouldered with bright yellow
hair. And she smiled and laughed at times.
La Petite Cinema
After the panel, they had arranged for Tarkovsky to see some of my
films. I had warned Bill Pence that he might not like my films and I
was nervous about showing them. All they could arrange, under the
circumstances, was a little room in the old Sheridan Hotel.
about 6 feet by 10 feet and it had in it a brass bed, a bureau on
which the projector sat, and eight people: The projectionist; next to
him on the bureau, the Polish animator Zbigniew Rybczynski, who won an
Oscar this year for his short Tango; a Russian student of film
and Tarkovsky's assistant, Olga, a plump, sweet, charming girl; then I
sat in the corner, as far back as I could get; and next to me
Tarkovsky; then his wife; and then, since the only room left was the
bed, Jane [Brakhage] and Zanussi lay down on the bed.
Everyone stares at the sepia-toned wallpaper of faded floral design
against which is shown my film, about TV size. The film dominates the
wallpaper which is very old and faded. This is a very cramped room,
the windows have been covered with blacking, there's no air and it's
very hot and when the projector goes on it adds to the heat. But all
this was nothing compared to the films when they hit the wallpaper.
The first film was Window Water Baby Moving. First of all I
got nervous because Olga, who is teetering over me on the bureau,
begins to sway. I've seen people faint at that film and I don't know,
maybe she's never seen childbirth before. And then I see
Tarkovsky's wife averting her face from the screen at times as you get
to see some of the more explicit details of childbirth.
So first of all I'm afraid that somebody's going to faint. And then
I'm afraid that I'm going to have insulted his wife. I almost got
killed once in South Dakota for that. I showed the film to a bunch of
people and they shot at me because they felt I had insulted their
wives. So I'm getting very nervous but I didn't expect what actually
Tarkovsky starts talking in rapid Russian, with Zanussi answering him,
and whatever he's saying it's obviously angry. Finally, after a lot
of these exchanges, Jane had the presence of mind to say, "What's going
on? What's he saying?" So Zanussi starts translating and he says,
"Well..." and we all wait, "Well... he says," and we wait some more,
"he says that Art must have a mystery to it and this is too scientific
to be Art."
This doesn't bother me too much. I told Zanussi to tell him to just
wait — we had another film coming shortly. Because I know what's
coming next is Dog Star Man, Part IV. And this is not going to
So, the leader comes through, the room's heated up, on comes Dog
Star Man, Part IV. He starts exploding in Russian the minute the
hand painted frames are flickering on the screen, along with the
layers of superimposition. He's obviously raging! No one's heard him
talk so much since he's been here. He's hammering away in incredibly
He ran, in the course of an hour and a half, through every argument
against my work and any other individual's work that I have
ever heard, from the Emperor's New Clothes argument through this-is-too-rapid-it-hurts-the-eyes,
through "this is sheer self-indulgence,"
to "film is only a collaborative art." And in detail, "the color is shit"
and "what is this paint? Why do you do this?"
Next comes Untitled No. 6 of the Short Films of 1975 and I thought
this might move him because it's based on a Mandelstam poem. The
poem was my source of inspiration. In the film you see light moving
slowly over different household objects and the rabbit's eye and the
chicken with the bloodied wing and all these are in a stretch of purely
metaphorical combinations. But that threw him into an even greater
rage. Now he's yelling! He's standing up in his chair, he's sitting down,
he's looking at the film out of the periphery of his eye as he's yelling
things at Zanussi, and he won't look at me at all. My shoulder's up against
him but he doesn't look at me and he's about the level of my navel.
In the mean time, Jane and his wife are laughing and they're holding
hands, and smiling, like "isn't this a wonderful cock fight!" Because
I must say I gave for everything I got. I ran through my whole
repertoire of any kind of answer I'd ever given in the briefest and
simplest way I've ever done. I've had twenty-five years of practice in
being beat up in public. At one point he lashed out in a diatribe against
innovation itself, which I haven't heard before and maybe the only
place you could hear it from would be Russia. The Avant-Garde crowds
I've played to never thought of that one.
I said, "What do you think Cézanne would say to that?" To which
the answer came back, "I'm sure Mr. Brakhage knows perfectly well
what Cézanne would say to that. However what I say is, innovation is
reckless and destructive."
The next one was Made Manifest. That's just waves coming in,
with sparkles and so on and by this point there was so much talk and
heat and radiation, I felt we could blow the whole town away and
show that — not only countries, but people can do this too.
surroundings are absolutely imprinted on my mind.
No telephone even. Even in the wildest of Tarkovsky's places, even in
the "Zone" in his movies, there's a telephone that rings. There's no
way out in this room.
It was excrutiating. Every now and then the Polish animator is
throwing in a comment or two that Zanussi isn't even bothering to
translate because it's so rapid it never stops.
I can laugh now but my heart was absolutely breaking for the
films. At that point I was feeling that I had rather it had not occurred
at all, than these films running against this absurd wallpaper, with all
these angry aesthetics...
But still, I'm not giving up. The next film was going to be Arabic 3.
I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had after Window
Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming. Because he's
arguing, this isn't music, it has symbols, things that are nameable. It
was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent
I've ever had, but it's totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of
my kind of films.
Then comes on Arabic 3 and this maybe tripped him off the most.
"What is this? It doesn't mean anything, it's just capricious." And I'm
coming back and saying, "Shut up and look and you'll see there's a
melodic line and shapes don't just occur anywhere in the frame, there's
a balance." "But what does it mean?" "What do you mean what does it
mean? You have a lot of statements about music in your films..." "But
this isn't the same as music," and it goes on and on.
At this point I'm determined that one film will have a chance.
The only film I have left to show is Murder Psalm. So I got up and
gave an impassioned appeal that we be able to just look at a film now,
there had been enough talk. I explained the reasons I'd made the film
and that I was being as true to moving visual thinking as I could and
this is how I think and here it is. And actually they paid me the great
homage to remain silent during Murder Psalm.
And then they broke into rages and screams and carrying on. By
they I mean Tarkovsky although Zanussi is agreeing with him and
adding some of his own comments. The only affability I had in the
circumstance was when Olga turned to me and said, "You know I've
never had the chance to see anything like this ever before in my life.
There have been three books written on you in Russian but nobody
has ever seen any of your films. When I get back to Russia and tell
them that I have seen your films, they won't let me talk about anything
else for months, maybe years!"
Then, a further irony, we all had to sit there and watch a film by a
Russian emigre that Tarkovsky had promised to watch. We had to
endure a stupid, senseless movie in which the Russian girl who's fat
can't get a boyfriend or adjust to America. It felt about ten hours long
although it was only half an hour. I did hear afterwards that Tarkovsky
told the Russian emigre that it was the stupidest film he ever saw.
They didn't say any more to me and after the film ended they all
walked out. But the next day I sat down and the Polish animator
offered me some vodka — wonderful, sweet-tasting vodka with spirit
grass in the bottle — and turning to his friend and interpreter, I get
the message that he would like to express what he feels about the
films that we saw yesterday.
I wasn't too sure I wanted to know but I said OK. He started out
by saying he's never seen anything like them, like Olga, and that it's a
total change in the history of art. However, he says, art is irrelevant.
The greatest artists of the nineteenth century are not Cézanne and
the Impressionists but are Daguerre and Napier. For the whole history
of the world humans have only been trying to project themselves
to live for all eternity. The wheel was invented in the same impulse
and spirit that created the Lascaux paintings, and now the real
artist is the technician and everyone's going to be able to live forever.
It took an hour for him to go through the history of the world
and he wouldn't let me speak. I finally said, "Either I speak or I leave."
So the translator refused to translate from him any more and I was
allowed to speak. He said artists destroy ecology, that the stone that's
carved by Michaelangelo is destroyed from the stone's viewpoint. So
I said, Jean Cocteau, Orpheus, I saw the movie, and that caused him
to turn red.
His pitch was that the new technology is not going to be destructive
and we're all going to live forever. So I said, "Do you recognize
the destruction of ecology in making film? That it's compounded of
the slavery of people digging silver and picking berries for the dyes,
the ugly working conditions of people working with chemicals that
kill them, even the Argentine clippings of bulls. How can you make films
if you feel that way? Why don't you wait for the new technology?"
He never did answer the question although it bothered him very
much. But I know the answer. Filmmaking isn't his work, it's his job.
He's damned good at it and he's a good talker. At one point I said I
hoped he'd see my films sometime, because I don't make my films
silently out of caprice. I feel they need a silent attention and they had
a non-stop sound-track of the most distracting order yesterday against
a floral pattern and I hoped he didn't take that to be a representation
of my work.
He looked puzzled as it was being translated to him and he said,
"Don't you know that Tarkovsky went on talking about this for the
rest of the day? For two hours they were raging and carrying on. And
he's still talking about it!" He said he'd known Tarkovsky for years on
and off in Poland, and many people think he's taken a vow of silence
like in Andrei Rublov. For weeks he'll never say a word. He said he'd
never heard him talk so much all at once and he said, "I'm very jealous!"
He said he'd never seen him so excited about anything and that
my films would cast a shadow through his work.
I was very grateful to get that perspective from the Polish film
maker, a perspective I might never have known.