In the 1950s and '60s an adventurous cinematic movement flourished in basements, museum auditoriums, apartments, coffeehouse back rooms or wherever anyone could set up a 16mm projector and improvise a screen. Called variously the New American Cinema, Independent Cinema (an expression that meant something quite different than it does today) or, most popularly, Underground Cinema, it preached a revolution in the very definition of cinema, a radical reworking of every aspect of motion pictures, from the frame to the sprocket holes to the eye of the spectator, and at the peak of its influence its practitioners and followers even saw their work infiltrating the mainstream, inspiring and influencing such aboveground films as Easy Rider and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Of all the artists, visionaries and theorists who popped up during the heyday of the Underground Cinema, none were more influential or better respected than Kansas City-born Stan Brakhage, whose filmography now includes more than 300 films, ranging in length from four hours to nine seconds and in content from the intimate details of his family life (his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving is a graphic recording shocking for its time of the birth of his first child) to abstract images scraped onto the film stock with a knife. Other filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol may have had more imitators, more viewers, even more commercial opportunities, but in most accounts of avant-garde film, Brakhage stands alone, a visionary among visionaries.
Jim Shedden's Brakhage is a purely laudatory portrait of the 66-year-old filmmaker and his work, with new interviews, historical footage and extensive excerpts from the work of both Brakhage and his contemporaries. Shedden is obviously an enthusiastic admirer and embraces the subject without wasting time on too many biographical details or background material. He presumes perhaps justly that the viewer already knows the pertinent names and details of the avant-garde or they wouldn't be watching his film in the first place. There are ironies here: that the Underground Cinema would survive solely through the patronage of the academic world; that Brakhage comes off less as an iconoclastic artist than as a kindly grandfather who just happens to make films as a hobby; or, the greatest irony of all, that an account of an unconventional filmmaker like Brakhage must ultimately rely on that most conventional of forms, the talking-heads interview. Shedden, however, isn't troubled by any of this: He's here to praise Brakhage, not explain him, and although uninitiated viewers may not walk away from the film with a full grasp of the details of Brakhage's life or work, they'll certainly see why it deserves respect.
Plays at 8 p.m. Oct. 8-10 at Webster University.