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The Stan Brakhage Project by Professor Emeritus David E. James

Last updated 06/17/2022

It is incredibly difficult for an avant garde artist to be recognized by the mainstream. As is the nature of the practice, they are often on the edge of innovation within their medium. This is the case for Stan Brakhage. Although not a household name, Brakhage’s influence can be felt throughout the film world. Being a pioneer of the avant garde film, Brakhage’s contributions can only be noticed after experiencing his work. I would have never known the importance of Brakhage had it not been for a film course I took during my freshman year at USC. The film, titled “Mothlight”, was visceral. There is something unnerving about watching the anatomy of an insect flash before your eyes, but also strangely beautiful. I still don’t know what to make of it.

But not all introductions to Brakhage are alike. Like mine, Professor Emeritus David E. James’ introduction to Brakhage occurred in academia. In 1974 he was teaching at UC Riverside, where he invited Brakhage to be a visiting artist for a semester. Their relationship morphed as James became more familiar with the cinematic work of Brakhage. James became an admirer and eventually, he became interested, not merely in Brakhage but cinema as a whole, specifically avant garde cinema. It was life changing. James changed his teaching subject from English to Cinema, which is what eventually led to his tenure at USC. 

James spent thirty years teaching at USC. His emphasis stayed on the US avant garde, even though it was a minority interest field. Although he maintained a specific academic core, James’ academic interest varied widely which allowed him to write or edit eleven University Press books while at USC. He was also active in the USC arts scene, acting as organizer and curator for film and art festivals. Still, while all of this transpired, David James maintained his interest in Stan Brakhage. 

In 2005, James edited a collection of essays pertaining to Brakhage and his life work titled Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker which was unfortunately not published until two years after Brakhage’s death. Following his retirement, James noticed that nobody appeared to be writing a biography of Brakhage. Concerned that valuable information would soon be lost to time, James began the “Stan Brakhage Project”. The emphasis of the project was to preserve any information that may later serve a biographer. In order to do this, David James set out to interview those closest to the filmmaker as well as collect any and all artifacts still around from Brakhage’s life. 

As if this tall task was not hard enough, adversity poured in. Two of the most important figures passed away before James could interview them. Although this was a major setback, there was still a well of information to be gathered through interviews with other people who had known him. Over a dozen extended interviews were completed, including over eighteen hours with Brakhage’s first wife, Jane Wodening. The sheer volume of this new knowledge presented a new issue: transcription. Initially, James and his wife were dealt the burden of painstakingly transcribing every interview themselves. This brought progress to a lull, and James realized something had to be done. So he reached out to the USC Emeriti Center. The USC Emeriti Center offers a grant named the Faculty Research Fund. The Faculty Research Fund aims to provide monetary support to research that former faculty may undertake in retirement. Often the Faculty Research Fund can provide a much needed and deserved assistance towards research. Thus was the case for David James and his transcription dilemma. With the funds, James was able to pay USC students to transcribe the hours of interviews. This proved to be an invaluable resource for James and the project. Without it, he still might be rewinding his tape recorder to see exactly what an interview subject said. 

In August of 2021, David James deposited all the material related to the project, including the interviews and the transcriptions and the newsletters, correspondence, email correspondence, etc. to the Special Collections and Archives, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, with a second copy to the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at USC. Although he had known Brakhage, James was surprised to the extent at which the project humanized the filmmaker. He was no longer merely an icon, but a human being: a man with flaws, purpose, and vision. The project itself was almost as complex as the man. But if there’s anything that David James took away from the Stan Brakhage Project, it is this, “Every person has the possibility to create entirely original innovation that affects members of their field and community.” 

It is obvious that Stan Brakhage profoundly influenced David James. But Brakhage did not merely transform James into a fan of his work. James’ love for cinema may have started with Brakhage, but it is apparent from talking to him and realizing the scale of his work that he is a man devoted to avant garde film. Whether it’s his own work or the avant garde’s intellectual nature, David James has stayed committed and enthralled, and the Stan Brakhage Project proves that life doesn’t have to end with retirement. Like Brakhage, James is still discovering what his passion can offer him.