Sartre’s Nausea (1961) and Black Vision (1965) by Stan Brakhage / FIFTEEN YEARS? part 3: 2005

In early 2004, I was in touch with Marilyn Brakhage a number of times to arrange the use of material by and related to Stan Brakhage for inclusion in the Academy’s ‘In Memoriam’ segment of the broadcast that year. One unexpected piece of information that emerged from these conversations was the revelation (to me) that all of Stan’s originals were still in Marilyn’s possession, housed at Underground Vaults & Storage in Kansas. I had assumed they were already conserved in an archive somewhere, but this was unexpectedly not the case. Over the course of the next few months, many conversations were had and arrangements were made, with the result that just about all of Stan Brakhage’s originals, filling 56 boxes on three skids, were transported via truck from Kansas to be deposited at the Academy. Amusingly, we realized in the late planning stage that the length of truck that would be bringing the boxes would not be able to turn into our rear parking lot to our loading dock, due to the narrow street and sharp turn required. The alternative was to have the truck instead drop the boxes off at the Twentieth Century Fox lot, as we have a good relationship with Fox’s archive, and they were graciously willing to help us. On August 4, 2004, a group of us took the Academy’s cargo van over to Fox and picked up all of Stan Brakhage’s originals. And it definitely amuses me that for a few hours, Stan Brakhage’s entire body of work was on the Fox lot.

In my previous post, I had mentioned that Robert Nelson’s collection was, fittingly, the very first I had brought into the Academy Film Archive. Between mid-2003 when that started happening and August 2004 when the Brakhage collection came in, I sought out a few other artists’ collections for deposit here, like Will Hindle (via the wonderful Shellie Fleming) and (per Shellie’s suggestion) Richard Myers, whose films I was already a fan of from my Canyon period. These two collections were important to me, representing artists I felt had become unjustly undershown, and also both needing restoration work. But the successful arrangement for Stan Brakhage’s collection to be deposited at the Academy was particularly exciting. It also represented an early turning point for me as a preservationist, in that it ensured that I would, from that point on, be focusing a good percentage of my time on experimental films, if for no other reason than because Brakhage has so many films (well over 300). And since 2004, I’ve never not been working on at least a few (if not several) Brakhage films at once.

The process of preserving Brakhage’s films unfolded in parallel with my inventory of his collection. This process also represented an important turning point for me in my work. Prior to the Brakhage films arriving, it was pretty common for us three Academy preservationists to work with inventory archivists on staff to jointly or fully inventory collections. For example, one of my archivist colleagues at that time (Patti Rhodes) did over half of the initial inventory on Richard Myers’ films. The division of labor was a bit more particular at that point. But with the arrival of Brakhage’s originals, it seemed to me that I should go through everything myself, both to be able to more sensibly create preservation priorities and to also have a more holistic and in-depth understanding of his methods, patterns, tendencies, idiosyncrasies, etc., which would inform other aspects of the larger conservation and preservation project. (Ever since, with very few exceptions, I’ve just personally inspected every artist’s original elements that I’ve brought in to the archive, and can’t really imagine doing it another way.)

So over the course of a few years, I gradually inspected every one of Brakhage’s originals (and other material that arrived with the collection, such as blow-up masters, a few prints, soundtrack elements, etc.). I wanted to make accurate frame counts too, so just about every one of his originals went through this heroic little single-gang B-wind synchronizer:

A couple of years later, when Stan’s internegatives were ultimately moved to the Academy from The Museum of Modern Art, I had crucial and extensive help from excellent interns/friends Mary Beth Reed (so fortunate to have had her help, given her close friendship and collaborations with Stan) and Amy Sloper.

In 2004, as now, Stan Brakhage’s filmography was widely published and more or less a known quantity. But like any filmmaker with a 51-year career, a number of unknown titles, mysteries, and other oddities turned up. This particular stack of rusty cans — all arriving together in the same box — was particularly intriguing, as it featured a number of Stan’s more obscure early titles, as well as a few no one had ever heard of:

When I began preserving Brakhage films pretty much upon their arrival in August 2004, I had to start somewhere. Since I knew the inventory and inspection process would take a while, I decided to pull out a few specific films that Marilyn Brakhage had mentioned might need new internegatives, as well as a few other things that just seemed like they could use some work due to possible problems. This was (and still is) consistent with my general archival/curatorial approach, which is to factor in archival need pretty heavily in deciding which films to prioritize; i.e. not just automatically choosing only the famous titles to work on. So the first few films I started on were a motley assortment: Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection (1953), Cat’s Cradle (1959), “He was born, he suffered, he died.” (1974), and The Wonder Ring (1955).

The above stack of rusty cans was particularly intriguing, since it included some titles that were basically undocumented. So out of sheer curiosity, I pulled out the “Sartre’s Nausea” and “Self Encounter” cans to examine.

I’ll come back to the elements labeled “Self Encounter”. The elements for Sartre’s Nausea were intriguing. There was a roll of negative, a set of A/B rolls, and a roll of outtakes. Upon closer inspection, it turned out the the roll of negative was actually the original camera negative – three 100ft rolls of Dupont and Eastman b/w negative camera stock, spliced together onto one roll. The A/B rolls were composed of b/w print material. Stan had shot 300ft of b/w negative, printed that negative, and then cut the finished film using the print material, to make a set of positive A/B rolls. As I previously outlined in another post about Stan’s practice of almost never cutting on negative, it was not unheard of (particularly in the late ‘80s) for him to shoot on negative, but use the resulting print as his “original”, as he wished to see directly what he was editing, and he didn’t cut workprints, only originals. So these positive print A/B rolls for Sartre’s Nausea would have then been printed (as if they were reversal originals) to a b/w reversal print. The roll of outtakes turned out to be, not surprisingly, “original” pos outtakes from the cutting of the A/B rolls. This unusual production approach meant then that the original camera negative represented the total 300ft of raw footage Stan photographed for the film, a rare (unique, as it turns out) example of the raw footage for a Brakhage film existing as a complete object separate from the edited film. But what was this film that betrayed no trace in any filmography or publication on Brakhage?

I can’t remember how – possibly from sheer recognition of the images – but I realized at some point early in the inspection of this material that Stan’s 1965 film Black Vision shared some footage with this “Sartre’s Nausea” film. Black Vision is itself a lesser known work (P. Adams Sitney told me he thought it was “bullshit”, which still makes me laugh). The only reason it was somewhat familiar to me is that for some reason, Stan gave Canyon Cinema a print of it to distribute when I was working there – Canyon never had it before, and it was an unexpected arrival of a mid-’60s film, so Dominic and I watched it at the time out of curiosity (maybe 2002). As a film it definitely feels anomalous in comparison with other work from the time period, but that’s not surprising, in a way. A bit more on that later.

Realizing Black Vision was related to Sartre’s Nausea somehow, I pulled the original for Black Vision out of its box and discovered that it wasn’t in fact on camera stock, but b/w reversal print stock – it was quite obviously a black and white reversal print made from the Sartre’s Nausea A/B rolls in 1961, and then re-edited, scratched, and inked to make a new original for a new film in 1965.  To make sure it’s totally clear – the original for Black Vision is just a re-edited, shortened, and marked-up print of Sartre’s Nausea.

To ultimately figure all of this out, I synched up the A/B rolls for Sartre’s Nausea with each other in a synchronizer on one bench, and a print of Black Vision on another bench, and did a shot-for-shot correlation between the two. I vividly remember doing this really late after hours and after dark in the Summer of 2005. I had the lights off in the work room, and only the bench lights were on, as the room gradually got darker as it got later. That day the air conditioner had temporarily gone down in the preservation work room, so it was uncomfortably hot and stuffy, but I was nerdily gleeful and excited at this strange discovery of an undocumented Brakhage film, so my enthusiasm got me through the heat. This two-bench inspection and comparison process wasn’t just to correlate the films, but also to help figure out the various fades/effects in Sartre’s Nausea, so it could be printed. The A/B rolls were set up for a number of dissolves and superimpositions to be executed in printing, but a few of them were ambiguously arranged. Normally this is something I’d decipher by comparing with a reference print, but since none existed, I had to use the print of Black Vision to try to decipher the effects as well. Black Vision is a little more than a minute shorter than Sartre’s Nausea (2:41 vs. 3:46), so besides some re-editing, inking, and scratching of the film, Stan had also cut out about 40 feet of Sartre’s Nausea out to make it into Black Vision. Thankfully, there was just enough information where I needed it that I was able to figure it all out that night. Here are some of the notes from the process:

The rest of the project was simple in a way:

Sartre’s Nausea was preserved from the pos A/B rolls as its own film through the creation of a 16mm b/w dupe negative and prints.

Black Vision was also preserved, through the making of two b/w dupe negatives from its original inked and scratched A-roll.

The complete raw Sartre’s Nausea camera negative rolls were also preserved as-is, with the making of two prints and a fine grain master positive.

I also took one print of each and assembled them as a sort of pedagogical show reel, comprising the original uncut footage, followed by Sartre’s Nausea, and then concluding with Black Vision.

But what is Sartre’s Nausea? And why wasn’t it documented anywhere? Why doesn’t the film have a titlecard on it like pretty much every other Brakhage film ever? This brings us back to that other unidentified title I mentioned previously – Self Encounter.

The rusty can labeled “Self Encounter” contained two more sets of A/B rolls, and various rolls of related outtakes and production footage. The only evidence I had to go on to identify this stuff was the title Self Encounter and a few references to KRMA-TV, a Denver public television station.

Some internet research yielded the information that Self Encounter had been a public television program produced at KRMA in Denver in 1961 (but broadcast on various public stations nationally). It was created and hosted by Hazel Barnes, an eminent Sartrean scholar, translator, and author, and an acquaintance of Brakhage’s in the Boulder/Denver area at the time. Barnes’s intention was to explore various facets of existentialist philosophy in a way that made them accessible and interesting to average viewers, often through dramatizations and occasionally experimental audiovisual sequences.

I finished the preservation work on these three pieces in 2005, but continued to do periodic sleuthing to try to find out more. In August 2006, I miraculously reached Hazel Barnes herself, and spoke to her on the phone about the show and Stan Brakhage. She was great to talk to, and despite her age (91!), had a quite vivid memory of the show and Stan, as well as the process of commissioning him to produce some film sequences for the program. There were ten episodes in total, but at the time I spoke to her, no copies of them had turned up. In 2008, a full set of all ten episodes turned up at the Library of Congress on 2” videotape. By the time I discovered this information in 2012, only one of the tapes had yet been transferred. But thanks to the wonderful Mike Mashon at LoC’s film archive, all ten tapes were soon transferred and he was able to get me previews of the episodes to examine.

It was episode 3, “To Leap or Not to Leap”, originally recorded April 19, 1961, which turned out to feature Brakhage’s Sartre’s Nausea. The film appears nearly in its entirety, albeit with some narration over the images (taken from Sartre), and a few additional video superimpositions made at the beginning and end as bookending/transitional motifs. So although Sartre’s Nausea is definitely an edited work with a discrete structure and form, it’s ultimately a fascinating but marginal curiosity, though of definite interest to Brakhage historians and scholars.

I’ve scrolled through the other episodes to try to identify the other material Stan produced for the program, but haven’t had much luck so far. Hazel Barnes had recalled that he made sequences for only one of the programs, but nothing else in episode 3 seems to obviously look like the other two sets of A/B rolls I have. Eventually I’ll probably print these other two “films” to get a better look at them, and perhaps eventually there will be some additional answers about those.

One last thing about Black Vision. Earlier, I mentioned the anomaly of this film appearing in Stan’s oeuvre in 1965. This isn’t quite accurate – it’s both quite anomalous and yet very typical of 1965 for Brakhage, but for entirely distinct reasons. It’s anomalous in that as a film, aesthetically it seems quite regressive. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “bullshit” like P. Adams, but it feels way more superficial and rudimentary than his work of the time, like it has more in common with the films of 1955-57 (Reflections on Black, Daybreak and White Eye, Flesh of Morning) than Dog Star Man (finished in 1964), which is light years beyond Black Vision in terms of conception, vision, execution, etc. Realizing it’s a work modified and adapted from a piece commissioned for television, this makes a lot of sense. In 1960-61, when Brakhage made Sartre’s Nausea, he was in the midst of a major artistic turning point, having just made Anticipation of the Night, Cat’s Cradle, Window Water Baby Moving, Sirius Remembered, and The Dead, among others. He had yet to make Mothlight or Dog Star Man or to write Metaphors on Vision, but they were obviously brewing. Sartre’s Nausea feels exactly like what it is – the work of a visionary artist in his early, radical growth period, producing something lightweight for a television commission that nevertheless bears the tropes and hallmarks of his burgeoning visual ideas and inspiration.

As for why it’s also typical of his 1965 films, though –

As I mentioned briefly in my post on the sound for his film Fire of Waters (also 1965), I have a well-supported theory that Stan’s 16mm films made in 1965 were all created from pre-existing footage. This is based partly on the well-known anecdote about Brakhage’s 16mm equipment being stolen in New York City following the completion of Dog Star Man around 1964, which precipitated his foray into 8mm filmmaking for several years. [It should be noted that Jane Wodening (formerly Brakhage) told me back in 2005 that she didn’t remember Stan having his camera stolen. On the contrary, he had been using a borrowed Arriflex to make Dog Star Man and other films, and was compelled to return the camera, as it had been leased for the making of some educational films that Stan had directed. However, she also recalled that there had been a Bell & Howell camera before the Arriflex, but didn’t remember what happened to it.]

Regardless, he doesn’t seem to have re-acquired a 16mm camera until 1967 (a Bolex, by the way), when he started making the Scenes From Under Childhood films. Parallel to the earliest 8mm Songs in 1964-65, Brakhage also produced a series of films entirely in 1965, all of which are made from footage which had been shot at least a year or more previously:

Fire of Waters (filmed in the late ‘50s)
Pasht (the titular cat died in Fall 1964, according to Jane)
Three Films: Blue White, Blood’s Tone, Vein (filmed approximately 1960-63)
Two: Creeley/McClure (filmed late ‘50s/early ‘60s)
Black Vision

Here are a few shots from Sartre’s Nausea to close, taken from the Self Encounter episode:


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