The New York Review of Books
“Brakhage: When Light Meets Life” by Max Nelson (June 8, 2017)
To describe the thinking behind his films, Stan Brakhage often quoted a saying attributed to the ninth-century Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena: “All things that are, are light.” He got the line from Ezra Pound, and his attachment to it was one of the few constant principles connecting the hundreds of experimental films he made between 1952 and 2003. Brakhage’s movies could last anywhere from eight seconds (1967’s Eye Myth) to more than four hours (1965’s The Art of Vision, a longer version of his early Dog Star Man); they could be intimate records of his family life or abstractions made by painting, scratching, or collaging directly onto the film stock itself. FULL ARTICLE HERE
“Taking a trip with Jane” by Barbara Lawlor (April 14, 2017)
“A couple months ago, I took a cross-country road trip with Jane Wodening. We made it from coast to coast and back in 72 hours and it didn’t cost me a penny. In that time, I learned how a 50 year-old-woman deals with divorce, the upheaval of her life and her uncertain feelings of self-worth.
The trip was similar to what Australians call a Walkabout, a rite of passage during which indigenous males undergo a journey, between ages 10-16, to live in the wilderness, making the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood. It is often called “temporary mobility.”
Wodening chose to take a similar journey in the late 80s, after her divorce; she set off on a Driveabout, packing up Bobo, her newly acquired older yellow Honda Civic, to find out what to do next.
As she traveled, she wrote in her journal, describing the places she found to car camp, the people she met, the strange and wonderful things she learned about her country…” FULL ARTICLE HERE
Brakhage’s Childhood, one of the most vivid and illuminating books about a (future) filmmaker that you’ll read, was born under fraught circumstances. The book’s genesis dates back to 1982, when Jane Brakhage (later known as Wodening), then wife of celebrated avant-garde artist Stan Brakhage, decided, during a lull in her own creative pursuits, to finally transcribe the many childhood stories and biographical anecdotes that her husband had made a habit of regaling her with over their twenty-five years of marriage. These remembrances, which Jane attentively noted over a period of two years and rendered in vivid streams of first-person recollection, were published serially throughout the mid-Eighties in the film journal Motion Picture. Coinciding with the dissolution of their marriage, these marathon, largely one-sided conversations were a microcosm of Woden-ing’s enforced standing in their relationship: submissive, subservient, and unduiy marginalized.
The manuscripts, which at the time went by the title The Autobiography of Stan Brakhage, after Gertrude Stein’s faux autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, were understandably set aside as the couple separated and eventually divorced. Encouraged to revisit the material over three decades later by avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney and critic and psychoanalyst Tony Pipolo (who provide an introduction and afterword, respectively), Wodening has, with Brakhage’s Childhood, brought to life a crucial record of a personality whose insecurities and myth-making bravura extend as far back into his youth as they did into adulthood.
A book such as this, written as it is in the guise of an autobiography, inherently prompts questions regarding the bounds of fact and fiction. A noted raconteur, Brakhage spent much of his adult life fashioning a sophisticated, charismatic public persona, one that his cinematic output— particularly his more pointedly autobiographical works, such as the Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-70) and Sincerity (1973-78) cycles, Murder Psalm (1980), and Tortured Dust (1984), among others—only worked to complicate with intimations of a troubled past and strained private life. The book begins with Brakhage’s first-person account of his birth, his subsequent adoption at just three weeks old, and reflections on his very early childhood, moments that, even if accepted as truth, are of intrinsically second-hand origin, likely passed down from his adopted parents, Lou and Clara, or another relative altogether. This disconnect—between author and storyteller, mediator and reader—is felt throughout the book, even into the telling of Brakhage’s adolescence, where one can presume a more proximate relationship between story and subject. But Wodening uses these discrepancies to her advantage; in a manner after Brakhage’s own mythologizing, the book adopts an at times fantastical tone in its chronicle of a young boy whose physical disadvantages—in addition to being overweight, Stanley suffered from chronic asthma, constipation, and a lingering hernia— nevertheless cultivated a mind of immense wit and imagination.
More difficult to reconcile is Brakhage’s history of abuse, infidelity, and pathological aggression, which weigh heavily on the reader’s mind as the author gives voice to her husband’s early years, As Wodening writes in her preface, one of the reasons the book was never initially completed was due to Brakhage’s refusal to rationalize the impetus behind his sudden persona! and creative maturation in high school and how these traits came to manifest themselves after such a psychologically vexed upbringing. (Then as now, the book concludes as Stanley enters junior high school at age twelve.) “He had the self-centered arrogance of a lonely and spoiled child who would rage to get his way,” she writes. “He told me no stories of himself raging as a child, but he raged often in adulthood…He had a lot of respect for his rages.” Sitney, in his introduction, also acknowledges Brakhage’s rages, noting that the artist’s constant bullying would ultimately rupture their own long-standing friendship, as it did many of Brakhage’s relationships.
These recollections can’t help but cloud the stories that follow; one of the book’s key curiosities is the contrast between its generally halcyon tone and the frequently traumatic events recounted. By reiterating Brakhage’s indiscretions up front, the book opens up an important secondary dimension, allowing the reader to trace progressions and ascribe meaning to certain incidents in the artist’s upbringing that may have cultivated, in Wodening’s words, the elusive “thread of power” that Brakhage never acknowledged. Pipolo’s lengthy afterword meets these impulses head-on by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of many episodes in the book and demonstrating how these childhood vignettes anticipate similar events in Brakhage’s later life.
The Stanley we meet as the book opens is a chubby, lovable toddler living happily with his adopted parents and grandmother in Winfield, Kansas, His “grandmaw,” as he calls her, would have a sizable impact on his early life, though before he could get to know her in any cognizant sense, the family, in the first of many upheavals, abruptly relocated, first to Arizona and then Colorado and, eventually, to Macomb, Illinois, a small town about 250 miles southwest of Chicago. It’s here where Brakhage, precocious and wide-eyed, would first encounter movies, music, and romance alike. He recalls seeing his first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), at age three, singing popular songs in an “angelic” voice in preschool and, by age four, having a girlfriend, Ryda Rue, a neighborhood girl who would accompany him to Saturday matinees of cartoons, newsreels, serials, and feature films. Relaying details of these formative experiences, Brakhage’s words are spirited and infectiously sincere. The prose, pitched largely from a child’s perspective, is guileless and relaxed, honing in on precise settings and tactile (mis)adventures. (“It may have been at this time that I discovered the cheeseburger. And apple or lemon pie. Lemonade was good and, of course, tomato juice. I didn’t like milk. I’ve never liked milk.”)
The language and syntax seem as much a result of Wodening’s thoughtful ear and compassionate voice as Brakhage’s no doubt vivid storytelling. The childlike tone, however, is broken on numerous occasions as the stories shift from rose-tinted recollections to retroactive reflections. Outings to church, for example, stir not just an impression, but a confident reappraisal: “It was here,” Brakhage recalls, “that 1 felt the power of religion and began my trek along the wrack -ingly painful path to the love affair with the muse called art.”
The book’s primary motif—indeed, the great theme of Brakhage’s life—is his tortured relationship with his mother. Though Wodening claims she left out “the bitterness and hatred” Stanley had for his mother, little in the book reflects well on Clara. Following her separation from Lou (an ordeal, Brakhage recalls, marked by constant arguing), Clara, often at the behest of one of her many new boyfriends, would move Stanley through numerous new towns, from Colorado to Illinois and back again-—and with each move a requisite new school. During this time Stanley was frequently beaten by both Clara and her first lover, an alcoholic neighbor much her junior named Adam, and the abuse at the hands of his mother would continue throughout his childhood. Fed up with his mischief and reactionary behavior (petty theft, lighting fires), Clara would leave Stanley with a succession of caregivers over the years, as well as pawn him off for a particularly traumatic experience at Harmony Hall summer camp.
Brakhage’s memories of these incidents range from the warm (discovering comic books, singing in church choirs, making his first real friend in a classmate named John Stark) to the sour (being bullied, being tormented by a pair of Harmony Hall counselors, inadvertently betraying John to endear himself to his fellow students). Throughout it all one can sense Stanley’s nagging distrust and hostility toward his mother—and, perhaps more than this, his yearning for a father figure, a role Clara’s boyfriends (of which even the most noble— namely Pete, a soldier whom Stanley came to idolize) could only partially fulfill.
Though Stanley’s many trials and tribulations form the crux of the book, it’s the cultural context in which he came of age that subtly gives scope to the narrative. The social matters and minutiae of World War II-era America loom large in his story. Stanley speaks of encountering Adoif Hitler via newsreels and how, as a result, the dictator became the most consistent male presence in his life. As he tells of his experiences growing up, so too does he tell of the war efforts that found families rationing food, recycling newspapers, and organizing support rallies for the troops. Stanley’s development can thus be charted in tandem with the war; as it nears its end and President Roosevelt’s third term approaches its conclusion, Stanley is sent to live with the Hult-mans, a model suburban family and the only caretakers he ever respected, whose democratic household offered a more civil and sympathetic domestic refuge.
But like every promising situation in Stanley’s youth, the arrangement was only temporary. That many of the more distressing events in Brakhage’s youth continued to haunt him well into adulthood presents an unfortunate paradox that he never outlived: weighing on his subconscious and the lives of those who loved him, Brakhage’s adolescence simultaneously hamstrung his psychological and emotional maturation while fueling some of his most personal, volatile, and transcendent work.
Rain Taxi Review of Books
Volume 21, Number 2, Summer 2016
BRAKHAGE’S CHILDHOOD by Jane (Brakhage) Wodening
“Traditionally, history has either downplayed or entirely erased the contributions made by the spouses of male artists, a particularly shameful sexism when the woman in question is an artist herself. Jane Brakhage, now Wodening, was Stan Brakhage’s collaborator. Not only were her body, her marriage, and their children subject matter for her husband’s early lyrical cinema, she was an active participant in his filmmaking, which he integrated into his daily life like no other artist before or since…”
Full Review: RainTaxiReview
“Wolf Dictionary” Preview (March 21,2016)
“Atlanta Series Presents Enigmatic Figure In Film History” (Feb 11, 2016)
ATLRetro caught up with Jane Wodening for a quick interview about her life and collaboration with Stan Brakhage, her artistic influences, the importance of the written word and her desire to write the biography of the Universe.
“Avant-garde legend Stan Brakhage mytholo- gized and poeticized childhood by invoking “the untutored eye” of the child that, as he put it in his 1963 book Metaphors on Vision,“must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.” Yet, as this revelatory new work demonstrates, Brakhage’s own childhood was an adventure less of perception than will, the inchoate artist struggling to form an identity through an upbringing marked by abuse, neglect, loneliness, and fear.
Brakhage’s Childhood is the result of a project started in the early Eight- ies by the filmmaker and his first wife, writer Jane Collom (now Wodening). Over the course of several months Brakhage told Wodening of his infant- hood, boyhood, and incipient adolescence, with his partner planning to mold the material into a first-person “autobiography.” The Brakhages’ divorce in 1986 cut the project short and relegated the fruits of Wodening’s labor to the storage bin, until now.
Brakhage’s first 12 years—coinciding with the Depression and World War II—were almost Dickensian in their hardship and humiliation: adoption, separation of the adopting parents, a litany of health issues, a hysterical mother’s rotating cast of boyfriends, bullying, an itinerant lifestyle that truncated friendships, etc. Through it all Brakhage found solace in movies, self-expression in comics and church choir, and haughty power in commanding others, at one point heading a juvenile gang of drug store thieves. In the preface, Wodening explains that she initially intended to relate Brakhage’s tale in an impressionistic vein but, by putting aside the project, ultimately “left the stories intact as he told them to me.” The incomplete state of the manuscript is a blessing in disguise, however, displaying in raw, unfiltered fashion the wounds that fueled Brakhage’s creativity but also remained a source of unresolved pain. Indeed, more telling than the book are Wodening’s preface and an afterword by psycho- analyst and film scholar Tony Pipolo, which trace both Brakhage’s genius and volatile personality to the demons—and triumphs—of his youth.”
— Michael Joshua Rowin
“Wodening Talks About Writing” (Jan. 29, 2015)
“Author’s latest ties together lifetime of observations” (Jan. 6, 2015)
Works & Conversations
“A Conversation with Jane Wodening: Doors of Perception” (Nov. 30, 2012)
“Artist holds scraps of memories” (Jan. 25, 2009)