Suranjan Ganguly on experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage

Categories: Film and TV

Stan Brakhage
Stan Brakhage stars in Dog Star Man, one part of his four-hour series The Art of Vision.
Few filmmakers have pushed the limits of cinema as forcefully as the late Stan Brakhage. His hundreds of films forged a cinematic language that has dominated the experimental media world since the 1950s. Brakhage work is not the easiest to watch. Some films, such as Window Water Baby Moving, use rapid editing and gestural camerawork to document a home birth, a subject that was beyond taboo when it was made in 1959 and still manages to shock contemporary audiences; others, such as Night Music, are explosions of swirling colors hand-painted directly onto film.

So some handholding is helpful for those learning to access the richness of Brakhage's work -- and that's where Suranjan Ganguly comes in. A University of Colorado professor, scholar of poetic cinema and friend of Brakhage, he asks the questions these films demand: What can we see? What are we trained not to see? What realms of experience have we been denied by tutoring our eyes in puritanical moral systems and the oppressive logic of nineteenth century perspective? In advance of Stan Brakhage: An Adventure in Perception, Ganguly's Saturday, March 15 presentation, we spoke with him about Brakhage's work.

See also: Filmmaker Guy Maddin on cinematic séances and the Brakhage Symposium

Westword: Talk about your how you first connected with Brakhage.

Suranjan Ganguly:
When I came to teach at CU, Brakhage was my colleague. There was an instant chemistry between us. We became close friends right from the start. That friendship was reinforced during the twelve years I knew him, before he died. I was not just his colleague but also his close friend. He was my mentor. He gave me so much which I treasure and will treasure all my life. He helped me get into experimental film. I couldn't have had a better teacher. He took me under his wings and taught me how to appreciate the nuances of experimental film. Today, experimental film has become a very important part of my life.

Talk about your friendship with Brakhage.

There was nothing we could not talk about. It was one of those rare friendships where we both felt completely at ease with each other. There were no secrets. There was nothing we would hide from each other. We'd talk about any and everything and meet as often as we could. He had so much to give me, and he was always very generous and would reach out to people and would help as much as he could. He was also very interested in my culture, since I'm from India. He was always interested in finding out more, especially about the arts, cinema and poetry. We both loved poetry and had a great love for the visual arts. We both loved to talk about these issues and exchange books. I have so many books that Stan gave me, mostly books on poetry and art. It was a friendship that was very complex and very simple at the same time. It had so many different aspects to it. We were, like close friends are, able to relate to each other on multiple levels and open up to each other.

Talk about your entry point into experimental film.

I still remember Stan showing me The Art of Vision, which is four hours long. That was my introduction to Brakhage's work. It was trial by fire. I think he wanted to see if I would be able to sit through a four-hour-long, challenging experimental film. It was a special screening. Four or five of us got together that night and watched it. I stayed for the entire screening, and it affected me profoundly. Stan had already invited me to become part of the salon, which would meet every Sunday. He had a select group of people who would meet at his house, and he would show films from his own private collection. He had one of the very best private collections of avant-garde film. Sunday was very special for us. We would watch these films and talk about them.

This went on for quite a few years, until his children from his second marriage began to grow older, and it was time to move the salon to a more public venue. It became a CU campus event. Every Sunday night, it was free and open to the public. We would get maybe 25 or 30 people, sometimes less. It was the same sort of setting where we would watch films and talk about them. That helped me experience a wide range of films I never would have seen otherwise.

Then I started attending Stan's classes during the semester. That was also a way of discovering a variety of experimental filmmakers and their work. We would meet every day or every other day and have a chance to talk about what we had seen together or film in general. He was always there to encourage me, to help me make these discoveries and guide me and help me appreciate the complexities of these films. Experimental film was a new art form for me.

That has to be the world's best introduction to the genre.

I couldn't have had a better guide. He opened my eyes to something so profound and beautiful. I couldn't have imagined a better scenario.

Continue on to learn more about Brakhage's theories of perception.

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