Stan Brakhage’s Fire of Waters and sculpting in sound

Fire of Waters (1965) is one of Stan Brakhage’s more elusive films, even though it enjoys quite a good reputation among those familiar with it.  Its extremely striking, minimal, black and white imagery and very atypical and unusual use of sound make it fairly memorable, and yet it doesn’t seem to be as well recognized as one would expect.

Brakhage would continue to make films for another four decades, but Fire of Waters is actually one of his final black and white films, followed only by Song 12 (also 1965 and generally printed on color stock) and the even more elusive Sluice (1978).  The film’s overall comparatively spare minimalism prefigures some later works such as The Wold Shadow (1972) and Passage Through: A Ritual (1990), but it’s curiously out of step with the semi-maximalism of his other work of the early-mid ’60s (coming as it does right on the heels of Dog Star Man (1961-64)).

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Runaway (1969) by Standish Lawder

The initial instigation for this blog was my desire (in November 2007) to share a photo I’d taken of filmmaker Standish Lawder’s coffee can contact printer with whomever might find that interesting, which turned out, much to my surprise, to be a decent amount of people.  Over the years, as I’ve irregularly kept this blog, I’ve been amazed and quite happy to learn that people actually read it, and that the photo of Standish’s printer remains a favorite search/discovery for people.

Standish passed away in June of this year.  I hadn’t been much in touch with him over the past couple of years, during which time he had departed from his Denver Darkroom and moved to the Bay Area, though I would occasionally receive news.  We’ve been able to restore a few of his films, including Necrology (1970), Raindance (1972), and the little-known but quite lovely Catfilm for Katy & Cynnie (1973).  Many others are in the works.  Some present quite unusual challenges, and may someday be the subject of another post here.

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Neuron (1972) by Robert Russett

NEURON (1972)

A quick update (9/3/2013) – since I now have a couple of stills of the film, I thought I’d add them to the post, though I’ll leave the photos from Robert’s book (below), as they give a better sense of what happens in the film on a frame-by-frame basis.

Sorry I don’t have proper stills of the film handy – instead, here are a few photos of film strips taken from Robert Russett’s book, Robert Russett: A Retrospective Survey:

I have to thank the wonderful Michelle Puetz for turning me onto Robert Russett’s films.  Her enthusiasm for them really encouraged me to seek them (and him) out, eventually bringing his collection to the film archive in 2011 after a couple of years of correspondence and discussion.

Various originals for the films of Robert Russett as they arrived in 2011.

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Stan Brakhage’s two negatives

Here’s a picture of the can that contained the original negative for Stan Brakhage’s late film Max (2002), a loving portrait of the family cat. It’s a lovely film, but it’s fair to say that it’s not necessarily a particularly well-known or widely acclaimed work from Stan. But what does make it particularly significant is that it is one of only two films that Stan ever shot and finished on negative, and the ONLY film he ever shot and finished on color negative.

For anyone reading who may not be familiar with film stocks and their history, it was far more common for 16mm independent/experimental filmmakers to shoot and finish in reversal film than in negative film until about the 1980s. Reversal film essentially refers to film that, when shot and processed, yields a positive (rather than negative) image. The earliest 16mm film stocks (beginning in 1923) were reversal, as they were primarily designed for amateur use – the filmmaker would shoot a movie, process the film, and then be able to project the original directly.

Goodbye, Bob.

Robert Nelson (1930-2012)
Can’t really express at all how very sad I am to report that Robert Nelson has died. He was 81. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer about a year ago, and had decided to not receive treatment, to go out in his own way, as he could only do, as Chick Strand had decided to do before him.

All things considered, Bob was doing pretty well all year, actually. He had moments, sometimes days, of fatigue and feeling kind of lousy, but had plenty of good days too. I last spoke to him about a week ago and we talked about meeting up soon. He sounded great, and was as sharp as ever. So when I got the call from Wiley today, the news was a bit of a shock to me, as Bob had still seemed so vital and alive a week before.

He hadn’t been taking any medication or treatment beyond the herbal kind, and had continued to live on his own in the mountains in the small house he built in gorgeous Mendocino County. An inimitably homespun and offhand philosopher, he would say things to me like, “what the hell, I’ve had a good run.” I made him some CDs to check out a few months ago, and after he’d listened to and enjoyed them a few times he unexpectedly sent them back, saying “they were really good, I just don’t want to accumulate any more shit.”

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