A Fever Dream Set to the Hand-Painted Films of Stan Brakhage

The late cinema great's films came together with the work of composer Gustavo Matamoros for a night in Miami that was tantamount to meditating with the gods.

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May 16 2016, 8:45pm

Frames from Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992). Courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper

Watching a Stan Brakhage film, coupled with a soundscape by composer Gustavo Matamoros—quietly, unmoving, in the dark—is like meditating. Brakhage’s kaleidoscopic imagery rotates like mandalas or comb jellyfish across the film’s emulsion, similar to the formless shapes that appear behind tightly-shut eyelids; Matamoros’ work, as meandering as it is startling, pauses for moments of beauty before transforming into something defiantly creepy.

Purveyors of work that seem drawn from the subconscious, the two share an unlikely kinship: In its third edition, the Science Art/Cinema, a program organized by the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, brought pieces by the two together last week—with the support of Obsolete Media Miami—for a screening accompanied by musical entr’actes. The Frost Museum’s new location is currently under construction, so Science/Art Cinema #3 was hosted by the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Like awakening from a dream, it was intense and visceral, and nearly as exhausting.

Courtesy World Red Eye

Dr. Tony Allegro, a filmmaker and professor at the University of Miami, is a passionate Brakhage fan who suffers from a condition (he did not state its name) that occasionally causes a pooling of liquid in the center of his eye; horizontal shapes become vertical, and colors become distorted. “I can close my left eye and see a Brakhage film,” he laughed. He discussed what Brakhage referred to as the untutored eye: “Imagine perceiving without having any language to structure what you’ve just experienced.” One might reference Brakhage’s own explanation of the concept, from his book Metaphors on Vision, published 40 years before his death: “Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects, shimmering with endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the beginning of the word.” It’s said that, in the beginning, there was the word, but that’s probably untrue—in the beginning, there was everything, and words became its descriptors.

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Frames from Naughts (1994). Courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper

Brakhage, Allegro argues, used his films to reference this primordial space, employing his whole body: “His body fused with his eye; the camera fused with his body.” He showed a brief video of Brakhage filming in a forest, moving as if he were dancing, his eye never leaving the lens. The screening traced the last decade and a half of the filmmaker’s life, beginning with I…Dreaming (1988) and ending with Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992), moving aesthetically from instances of poetic realism to abstract expressionism. (As requested by the Estate of Stan Brakhage, the films were shown on their original reels.) Produced following the separation from his first wife, Jane, I...Dreaming, is soundtracked by Stephen Foster songs (composed by Joel Haertling), with lyrics etched onto the film. Allusive shadows, Brakhage’s own weary body, his grandchildren hurriedly moving: it’s a melancholy piece, a fair precursor to Matamoros’ first “performance.”

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Courtesy World Red Eye

Matamoros is the primary founder of the Subtropics Festival and the Interdisciplinary Sound Arts Workshop (iSAW), and his sound pieces utilize a host of electroacoustic mediums, from the musical saw to sound portraiture. It’s a sight to behold, but at the screening, Matamoros was nowhere to be found. Instead, his first soundscape seemed to creep through the ceiling, a heavy, wooden thump with a constant, meditative drone. Though it made the skin crawl, it induced the same sort of frenetic peace found in I…Dreaming. Spectators who expected a visible performer seemed initially confused, searching for the source. They eventually sank into their seats—as the sound quite literally stretched across the room, it became overpowering.

Courtesy World Red Eye

Three of Brakhage’s Babylon Series shorts followed, all of which look like painted gemstones under a microscope. They are mesmerizing, and Matamoros’ second piece came as a sudden, jarring surprise. It grew strangely melodic and just as meditative as the preceding films, echoing from somewhere within the room’s center. After Dr. Allegro’s introduction, each film felt like an extension of Brakhage himself, and Matamoros’ soundscapes like direct responses. The room became something of a vortex. In another archival snippet, hand-selected by Dr. Allegro, Brakhage states, “At first [the camera] may seem like something to hide behind…[but] my whole consciousness goes down the tube of the lens and reaches for life.”

Click here to visit the Pérez Art Museum Miami's website and here to learn more about Obsolete Media Miami. 

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