in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

Category: Uncategorized

Falling Out

A friend recently asked about something I wrote on Stan Brakhage and Guy Davenport’s friendship, a piece that largely exists largely to quote Davenport’s exuberant letter to Hugh Kenner on first encountering Brakhage’s films. At the time of writing I hadn’t seen this 1965 essay by Davenport, for the National Review of all places, in which he judges Brakhage’s films the crowning achievement of the previous decade of American art. “Brakhage,” he winds up, “a tall Kansan who reminds one of a pony express scout, began his career, after trying various modes of film work, with a startling and beautiful movie called Anticipation of the Night. There had been nothing like it before…”

This was originally published in Canyon Cinemazine #6.

Friendly Fire

Over a long period of months in the mid 1980s, Jane Wodening—then Jane Brakhage—listened and made notes as her husband recounted the painful particulars of his early years. A practiced storyteller in her own right, she then worked this raw material into a memoir narration with the magic quality of fable. The couple separated a few years later, and the text, after being partly serialized in Motion Picture, was left in the drawer until 2014. Already a dual act of retrospection, Brakhage’s Childhood (Granary Books) comes further compounded by a lengthy afterword by Tony Pipolo, a film historian and psychoanalyst who quite reasonably takes Stan Brakhage’s recollections as occasion for analysis. In the course of his probing essay, he seizes upon the filmmaker’s falling out with the writer Guy Davenport, which occurred at roughly the same time as these memories were initially put into play, as being indicative of a strong tendency towards pathological narcissism. The circumstances of that schism, which involved Brakhage undermining Davenport’s chances at a MacArthur and then denying that he did any such thing, make for mortifying reading even at this distance.

Nevertheless, I cheered at the thought of this friendship in bloom. What common ground! Quite by chance, another years-in-the-making volume has appeared to restore some of what was lost in the fire. This would be Questioning Minds (Counterpoint), a two-volume set of Davenport’s correspondence with Hugh Kenner, edited with incredible stamina by Edward M. Burns and weighing about as much as a small bowling ball. Davenport’s friendship with Brakhage is only one of many such relationships detailed in the book, but it is an important one, requiring some two-dozen lines in the index and a discrete paragraph in Burns’ attentive introduction. Happily, we may now balance Pipolo’s account with Davenport’s own exuberant opening salvo, dated 1 May 1963:

This letter already too long, but see addendum’d page for irrepressible enthusiasm. Namely:

Stan Brakhage, maker of movies. He was here last week. He showed the Prelude to a film (probably five hours’ long when finished) that had a whallop like all new and unsuspected excellence. His early movies were so-so, and a nice beauty (all collage and double exposure) about Pere-Lachaise, if that be the spelling of the great Parisian cemetery, left one unprepared for the Prelude. Now my one motor skill is seeing. I know from post-mortems on movies that I see more than the average fellow. BUT the tax on my eyeball was the most demanding I’ve ever experienced, and Brakhage was pleased that somebody was looking at the film. Roughly outlined: a paced metric of briefly-held images, always a superimposition of two, but so arranged that the eye (so slow to lose an image) is always looking at four at once. Source of inspiration? The Cantos of EP. Hence a long and excited talk with B. until all hours of the morning, surrounded by students who carefully drifted away as the talk went haywire in their dull little noggins. The film itself gave up nothing but kaleidoscopic images to the inattentive. I didn’t know what some of the images were until I asked later (the lung’s inner surface, tripe-white and tripe-textured, puckering with exhalation, bubbling like boiling milk with inhalation; corpuscles photographed in perspective, enlarged 2000 times, the shiney red surface of a beating heart). The technical problems of photography were staggering. Sun-surface tidal fire, another image. Many trees in all weathers and all conditions of foliage. A lady’s face in orgasm. These the major recurring images, but when he had made a crescendo of them and the mind couldn’t take in anymore, a magic snowscene, conifers in snowlight, sifting snow, utter peace. The film was clearly a POEM (no other form will answer), so thick of imagery that only Tchelitchew the Rooshian painter and EP in Pisans forward have ever managed such intricacy. Two years in the making. Brakhage is immensely intelligent and humble, a slogging worker. His work only gets by at the ultra-snooty fillum societies. His ideal is for people to own his films (they’re 16MM) as one owns a painting or a collection of poetry books. Damned right, too.

The next part of the film (no title yet) I’m being sent, to show on my wall. When you look at my poor pome you will see how Brakhage and I sustained a longer conversation on flowering trees (aliter nymphs or entwives): he has them throughout his film, and knows what they mean in Tolkien and Greek poetry.

Needless to say, Haverford was bored to tears by brother Brakhage and half the audience left as the only true and real magic I’ve ever seen in films was unfolding on the screen. B. knows the Activists, especially Olsen, but cd never get the nerve to see Ez at St Liz. I must write something about him (he has filled the entire next issue of Film Quarterly with an essay on his work), and I suspect that you would palpitate to see the beautiful Prelude.

B’s a baby, a mere 30, self-educated (he stuck out two weeks at Dartmouth and fled). He has resisted the temptation to film Hitchcock’s TV work under H’s name. He lives in a ghost town in Colorado, with wife and 4 kiddies. Complex, deep, and rich, Mr B.

Davenport’s letters, it ought to be clear, are totally wonderful. “[They] are the best that have ever blessed me,” New Directions publisher James Laughlin gushed—and he would know (the letter goes on, “Ezra’s were too jumpy, and Rexroth’s were too vituperative. Yours have the best style and the way the phrases are assembled is magical.”). Reading Davenport’s report to Kenner about how Brakhage sent along “a yard of film from his newly finished movie…entitled Moth Light,” certainly brings back some of the initial excitement of a long-since canonized work, but perhaps more significant is the way the whole question of character is made freshly vivid reading offhanded observations such as this: “[Brakhage] thinks nothing of putting the family, the cameras, and cat and dog in his car and driving a thousand miles to sit in a man’s kitchen and talk about poetry or whatever.”

Davenport did in fact publish some of his impressions of Brakhage’s Songs in a 1966 article for Film Culture, but I can’t help but feeling that we are missing a more sustained meditation along the lines of those found in collections like Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus. “He is one of the wizards,” Davenport wrote of Brakhage, and how I do wish he made closer study of the spells.[1] We know Brakhage wished to make his films widely available for home use, and in Davenport he had an ideal reader, not likely to be dominated by his genius but more than willing to place the work in a generous intellectual context.

Truly, the glories of friendship are neglected at our peril. Davenport and Kenner had their own falling out, it seems. After thousands of pages of correspondence, there followed long years with barely a postcard. “The intricate texture of their friendship suffered a rupture never explained in these letters,” Burns sagely observes.  

[1] Not that they went entirely unacknowledged. Decades later, reflecting on his own style in an interview for The Paris Review, Davenport remarked: “I took my method of collage from Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos.”

june bugs

Courtesy Warren Sonbert Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard Library

June, in spite of everything. It feels a little silly to be collecting some of my increasingly tangential pieces in light of the untold immediacies and insights making this moment, but this is how they appear:

There is an essay of mine contending with the films of Warren Sonbert at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, many years in the making though only recently occasioned as part of the museum’s “Out of the Vault” grant.

Another long gestating piece, similarly concerned with my archival work, is running in the current Cabinet. It’s called “Scene Missing: An Archivist’s Story” and concerns the actor Charles Korvin, Spanish Civil War documentaries, Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express, and the many trap doors through which the archivist is liable to tumble.

Take care, take heart, take time.

Fair Haven

Aug. 26. Tuesday. More wind and quite cold this morning, but very bright and sparkling, autumn-like air, reminding of frosts to be apprehended,* also tempting abroad to adventure. The fall cricket—or is it alder locust?—sings the praises of the day.
So about 9 A.M. up river to Fair Haven Pond.
I rest and take my lunch on Lee’s Cliff, looking toward Baker Farm. What is a New England landscape this sunny August day? A weather-painted house and barn, with an orchard by its side, in midst of a sandy field surrounded by green woods, with a small blue lake on one side. A sympathy between the color of the weather-painted house and that of the lake and sky. I speak not of a country road between its fences, for this house lies off one, nor do I commonly approach them from this side. The weather-painted house. This is the New England color, homely but fit as that of a toadstool.

*We see no effects of frost yet in garden, but hear a rumor of a little somewhere. First muskmelon gathered.

–Thoreau’s Journal (August 26, 1856)



Here in a new place, collecting a few recent pieces that have seen the light of day:

Punto de Vista’s gorgeous tribute to the filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz is now available (stateside via SF Cinematheque) and includes an essay of mine.

I contributed a short preface to a much-needed reprint of Paul Clipson’s REEL book from the stalwarts of LAND AND SEA. I am told the initial run sold out at SF Art Book Fair but that more will be available by the time of NY Art Book Fair in September.

A report, of sorts, on my reading of the early issues of the News — the newsletter that preceded the formation of the Canyon Cinema distribution co-op (not the other way around) and that surely merits facsimile treatment!

Keeping with Canyon, I sent a short piece on Guy Davenport and Stan Brakhage’s turbulent friendship for the latest issue of the Cinemazine, themed missed connections, that is well worth seeking out.


an absence once felt becomes – presence


There is an article of mine in the current Cinema Scope about this wonderful filmmaker and beautiful person, Jonathan Schwartz, and there is much more to come on Schwartz’s work via Punto de Vista.

To those who show films, show his.

Available Light


What am I — dreaming?

Some odds and ends here and there: words on Dennis Hopper’s rather astonishing The Last Movie (of which, the above still); Alain Tanner‘s films with John Berger; some favorites from the CROSSROADS festival; Lucrecia Martel’s Zama; and Nathaniel Dorsky’s crowning Arboretum Cycle. I was also delighted that SFMOMA could republish my remembrance of Paul Clipson for their lovely tribute to his life’s work.

Paul Clipson

Along with so many others in the Bay Area and beyond, I am crushed by the news that Paul Clipson has died. This is something I wrote in 2010, a couple of years after first finding the pleasure of his company – offered here in grief and memory.


Practiced Distance

The first time I met Paul Clipson, we quickly discovered that we shared an intense regard for Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). I had just seen material that would become Clipson’s short film Union at a San Francisco Cinematheque screening a few days prior and found that its psychically charged shift from rural to urban spaces reminded me of the Ray movie (specifically, a single dissolve as Robert Ryan’s character drives back into the city). Union belongs to a different species of cinema, of course. It’s shot on Super 8 and 16mm, wordless, with a narrative situation (a girl running) refracted as pure kinesis. As became apparent talking with Clipson, however, his deep knowledge of film history is attuned to texture rather than taxonomy. The second time I watched Union, I realized that On Dangerous Ground was just a convenient name for the deeper, more elusive sense of recognition it stirred in me.

Since that first meeting, I have seen Clipson project films on a billowing screen under the stars; in the squat confines of the Café Du Nord for the On Land music festival, where his work expanded several performances; and on the sides of a dome structure atop Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There have been more traditional screenings as well, though Clipson’s eclectic live projections are drawing attention — he’s fresh back from a brief European tour and will be featured in New York’s Views from the Avant-Garde this weekend. Before then, he’ll present a ranging survey of his recent efforts at SFMOMA, where he works as head projectionist.

The shifting context of live collaborations and crystallized short subjects is crucial to understanding Clipson’s work, and so “The Elements” will feature both: a suite of finished films sandwiched between projections with frequent collaborator Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and an ensemble, Portraits. An open frame of performance is a crucial catalyst for the searching lyricism of Clipson’s cinematography. He shoots frequently, building long reels to run with the music. Clipson refers to these unrehearsed dives as his research.

The camera style is at once impressionistic in its technique and boldly graphic in its compositions, haunted by familiar visual forms that, loosed from conventional perspective, are revealed to carry unexpected resonances and rhythms. What do we see? A million suns, made multiple by the surface of water and the curve of the camera lens; neon signs; flitting vertical obstructions; telephone wires; vegetation; intimate, handheld disclosures of vast distances; architectural surfaces. As with Joris Ivens’ early shorts, Clipson’s films register the city in its minor variations. Within the frame, a storm of vision emerges of superimpositions, dissolves, rack focus, zooms, and the interlacing of color and black-and-white stocks. It often seems that the objects he films are bringing the camera into focus and not the other way around.

When I ask about this, Clipson says, “I’ve found that the pulpy intensity of the Super 8 film decides the subject matter in a way. It’s like the film is in your brain telling you to shoot this or that — you can just imagine the luster.” The intuitive nature of his in-camera montage meshes well with the aural landscapes of the live performances; a floating minimalism prevails. As a former member of Tarantel and co-steward of the Root Strata label, Cantu-Ledesme has been Clipson’s primary point of entry to this musical world. Speaking over the phone, he notes their easy camaraderie: “Once Paul is in the moment of filming, he’s just really responding to what is happening on the other side of the lens … and at least when I’m playing by myself, I try to have that same attitude.”

In concert, the physical waves of sound and Clipson’s disembodied images are rich soil for a trance. It’s only in the concentrated shorts, however, that one finds the full extension of Clipson’s lyricism. The elliptical Sphinx on the Seine (2008) is still my favorite. Only eight minutes long, its shots seem to trace a voyage. We see the golden gleam of the sun as reflected by criss-crossing railways and snaking waterways, the shadow-world of a sidewalk, a phantasmal vision of Mount Fuji. Each of these lucid views slides away just as it ripens. Clipson’s collation of different cities is formally embedded in his composited images, which here appear as the fragile clues of some unknown existence. Like Sans Soleil (1983) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), two similarly itinerant films, Sphinx on the Seineevokes a tantalizing sense of placelessness.

One afternoon, both of us a little scatterbrained from a long week, Clipson and I get hung up on CinemaScope. He expresses admiration for the anamorphic framings of Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (2009), and then draws a zigzag of appreciation between George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born (“The first 20 minutes”), Vincent Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running (“When you see it in the theater, it’s so much darker than on a television. You see shadows under people’s eyes”), and Otto Preminger’s general mastery of the form (“To me, those aren’t even compositions; they’re movements of thought”). It strikes me again and again that Clipson’s acute observations regarding film aesthetics are very much part of his creative force — yet his filmmaking doesn’t feel overcooked. Ben Rivers’ films work in a similar way: betraying a cinephile’s intimate knowledge of the medium, but out in the world all the same.

“Sometimes a few seconds of a film can live with you your whole life,” Clipson tells me later that same afternoon, locating one such epiphany in the opening of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948): “There are all these dissolves going through the witches’ cauldron. You see a smoke circle, a storm cloud, what maybe is the surface of clouds from above, the cauldron and hands … I could just make films entirely inspired by that for 10 years because it’s so intangible, with such a beautiful, dense logic of images that resists immediate understanding.” Indeed, it sounds like a Paul Clipson film. (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 2010-09-28)

Leading Lady


Smart money says Ida Lupino never fell for a Hollywood ending …

Brakhage in Pieces


I have a new piece on occasion of Light Industry and Anthology Film Archives’ crucial re-publication of Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision. The careening text is effectively doubled in this new edition, first as a facsimile, reproducing George Maciunas’s eccentric design, and then as a corrected text amply footnoted by P. Adams Sitney (who edited the first version as a teenager). Among these appendages is a bit of social history that helps square the book’s polemical energy. It’s clear throughout the book that Brakhage, whose bold forays into first-person filmmaking marked a new turn in the New American Cinema, looked to poets as his elders. The book recoups lessons learned when Brakhage, himself a teenager, boarded at Jess and Robert Duncan’s place in San Francisco, and concludes with an incantatory recitation of a meeting with Charles Olson. Back to that footnote: in number 192, Sitney observes how among other sources of tension between Brakhage and Duncan was Brakhage’s frustration that an advanced poet could hold such hidebound views of film art, which practically meant championing the work of Ingmar Bergman and expressing the view that Brakhage might hope to make it big in Hollywood. In the event, Brakhage took his vow of poverty and, one imagines, drew on Duncan’s dismissiveness of his medium of choice as so much fuel for the fire.

The Brakhage screening mentioned in the article plays as part of the LIGHT FIELD festival which runs through the weekend and in its second iteration is rare good news.

Spring Sprung


Canyon Cinema 50 is in full swing, celebrating 50 years in circulation. The whole thing started as a ragbag gathering in Bruce Baillie’s Canyon backyard before there was such a thing as “experimental film,” with the better known distribution cooperative following in due course. A few months ago I was hiking alone in Huckleberry Park, and a young couple walking by asked if I knew the way to Canyon. Now and forever.

I wrote a little text for a salon screening last week featuring the Los Angeles filmmaker Laida Lertxundi, and it’s available here. Stay tuned to the CC50 website for updates on future events, including a special screening curated by Guy Maddin celebrating another 50th anniversary: of Robert Nelson’s imperishable The Great Blondino.