In the fall of 1980, while entering college as a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was in a quandary. I was an engineering student and needed to fill a hole in my schedule designated “general elective.” I fanned through the class catalog for days and nothing caught my eye. “Why do I have to take a damn elective anyway?” I mumbled.
I wasn’t interested in much at the time. I liked math. I liked physics. I liked tormenting my mom by playing “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones as loud as possible. I was about to fill in the blank with a physical education class – volleyball, I seem to recall – when a friend suggested, “Take ‘Intro to Film.’ It’s an easy ‘A’ and all you have to do is watch movies.”
I was sold – easy sell as I was – and away I went. Up to that point in my life, I’d seen only a few dozen movies. I was a go stand in line with the crowds and catch “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” kind of guy. The strangest thing I’d seen was the boat ride in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Soon, I found myself getting hooked on all of these movies that I’d never heard of like “The Searchers,” “Blow Up,” “Rashomon,” and “Citizen Kane” – often lured in by the infectious enthusiasm of the professor and his two young student aids. They’d point out little things like a blanket hanging on a rail as John Wayne approaches the ranch house and how it disappears when the movie cuts to the reverse angle showing Wayne enter the house.
When they’d theorize that it was intentional and was meant to symbolize that Wayne’s Ethan Edwards had been accepted back into the home, many of my classmates would shake their heads and utter back and forth, “No, ‘John Ford the Great’ just made a mistake.” I, on the other hand, was fascinated. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. But the very fact that it could be intended symbolism opened my eyes to a cinema filled with possibilities that I’d never before considered.
One day – as if to pose the ultimate litmus test, as if daring his students to either follow him to the ends of the Earth or to abandon film studies forever – the professor (I wish I could remember his name. I’d love to thank him) dimmed the lights and unspooled something I’ll never forget – even though I’ve never seen it since and don’t really remember it in any detail.
What flickered upon the lecture hall screen was a dance of blurry splotches of green and red. No sound, just abstract light and color creating an endless series of pulsating patterns. And then, as abruptly as it began, it just ended. No story, no particular meaning that I could tell, just pure pleasure that had seemingly been set free from the prison of the projector to frolic.
The professor described the movie as being a documentary of open heart surgery that had been filmed by detaching the lens from the camera body, one part in each of the filmmaker’s hands. This made such things we usually expect in a movie like stable compositions and images that are in focus impossible. This also meant that light would leak into the picture haphazardly from all directions. The effect was images that were photographic disasters – and images that I found to be breathtakingly beautiful.
I sat still for a long time as most of the other students made a mad dash for the exit – some probably headed to the registrars to see if they were too late to drop the class. I felt as if someone had taken my brain out of my head, reversed the wires, and plugged it back in.
I still remember the professor saying, “That film was by Stan Brakhage. I hope you liked it.” (I later deduced that it was probably “Deus Ex.” Hopefully it will be included on “By Brakhage: Volume 3.”)