At Nineteen, A Visionary in the Making: Stan Brakhage’s INTERIM
Made when Brakhage was 19, Interim marks the debut of one of the most remarkable and important filmmakers in the history of the medium.
Interim marks the debut of one of the most remarkable and important filmmakers in the history of the medium: Stan Brakhage. Possessed with knowledge of Brakhage’s five decade body of work and his radical innovations in film shooting, editing, and theory, it would be easy for one to read too much into this 1952 short, made when the future avant-garde pioneer was a mere nineteen years-old. Nonetheless, Interim is a fascinating starting point, less a seed containing the genius of everything that would follow than exactly what its title suggests: a transition between two phases, between the artist as an intelligent and ambitious young man and the full-fledged artist.
In 1952 Brakhage was also in between stations in another sense, having recently dropped out of Dartmouth College and having not as yet enrolled in the California School of Arts in San Francisco. Though he had already forged friendships with likeminded artists Larry Jordan and James Tenney (the latter of whom composed and performed the soundtrack to Interim), the would-be imagist was still a couple of years away from moving to New York and—along with Maya Deren, Joseph Cornell, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Willard Maas, and Marie Menken—helping establish the city as the capital of America’s post-war cinematic avant-garde.
Though he would go on to make over 350 films, Brakhage was at the time of Interim in the process of finding not only his voice, but also his calling. Inspired by Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Gertrude Stein, his first love was poetry, but after becoming familiar with the films of D.W. Griffith, Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Cocteau, and Roberto Rossellini, he gravitated toward cinema. The last of these masters appears to be the primary influence on the rarely discussed Interim. Compared with the style that Brakhage would begin to develop in the mid-to-late-50s and that would culminate in the Dog Star Man cycle—rapid editing, kinetic handheld camerawork, and a persistent and often disorienting first-person point of view—Interim is evenly paced, conventionally though artfully composed, and driven by a clear-cut narrative with easily identifiable characters and situations. A style modeled on Italian Neorealism can also be discerned in the film’s humble production values, location shooting, and focus on an individual’s relationship to his environment.
The story Interim tells is fairly simple. Strolling along a bridge, a young man (Walter Newcomb) looks out over the city and spots a staircase leading to the ground below. He walks down the steps and underneath the bridge encounters a young woman (Janice Hubka – only 15 when cast by Brakhage, and who passed away last May at 73). The two walk along together until they arrive at a pleasant river atmospherically worlds away from the concrete pillars and railroad tracks. Their tentative flirting is interrupted by the first drops of rainfall; running for shelter as the drops become a storm, the young man and woman discover an abandoned shed where they finally embrace. What follows is an oblique but poignantly recognizable sequence of teenage sexual shame.
On the surface, Interim seems to be just one of many initial attempts at filmmaking by sensitive youths armed with artistic aspirations and some experience of romantic frustration. But Interim transcends such a dismissive categorization, and not only because it was made by Stan Brakhage. In the first place, for a debut film by a teenager it is expertly and confidently shot. Its continuity editing (something that would soon be almost completely disregarded in Brakhage’s films) is flawless; its black and white photography is evocatively realistic; and its compositions are striking in framing characters against either forlorn industrial landscapes or regenerative natural scenery, both reflecting the mood of their respective moments. Due to his fervent desire to divorce cinema from theatrical drama, Brakhage is not known for his direction of actors. But when he did so – as in Interim – he was extremely good at it, obtaining subtle and empathetic performances from his two leads.
More significantly, in Interim Brakhage starts developing several themes and motifs that would preoccupy him throughout his life, with the conflict at the very heart of the film going on to play a central role in his prolific oeuvre. The struggle between a man and woman to successfully connect—either through sex, love, marriage, or all of these states—subsequently found expression such later Brakhages as the dark psychodrama of Reflections on Black (1955), the fragmented, repetitious montage structures in Cat’s Cradle and Wedlock House: An Intercourse (both 1959), and the cosmic dimensions of Dog Star Man (1961-64); in Interim that conflict is represented literally and traditionally, even if Brakhage suggests a mythic reading of his tale by crediting Newcomb and Hubka in the title sequence with the male and female gender symbols.
Likewise, Interim begins Brakhage’s obsession with nature. His personal retreat from the city and suburbs to the mountainous rural terrain of the American West would eventually be reflected in the changing settings of his films, while his complex relationship toward nature would be captured in a multitude of meditations, from the refusal to look away from a forest’s unforgiving decaying process in Sirius Remembered (1959) to the eerie confrontation with a supernatural force within the woods of The Wold-Shadow (1972). Mixed feelings toward nature are evident in Interim, where a quiet stream presents a respite from the ugly trappings of civilization, and a storm that drives the lovers indoors seems to both reflect and foment uncontrollable passions.
Despite hinting at these pathways in his later work, Interim lacks an essential theme of the mature Brakhage style: vision. That is, Brakhage’s unique understanding of cinema’s potential to rediscover “unruled,” “unprejudiced” vision—a prelapsarian vision possessed by each individual before his eye is “taught” through cultural and social conventions (especially that of Renaissance perspective) how to see—had not been thought out during the period of Interim. Though it is worth pointing out a couple of extreme close-ups of his characters’ eyes, reflecting a point of view editing technique to convey the meaning of the moment without dialogue (what Hitchcock once called “pure cinema”):
It’s a striking, highly erotic moment of mutual gazing. Aside from it, there’s little indication in Interim of the ideas of a man who soon would attempt to weld human and camera sight with an entirely new cinematic grammar combining complicated montage rhythms, superimpositions, anamorphic lenses and other techniques. The breakthrough arrived only a couple of years later with The Way to Shadow Garden (1954), in which Brakhage-surrogate Newcomb gouges out his eyes and enters a magical garden of inverted imagery, a powerful metaphor for the filmmaker’s rejection of standardized vision and embracing of the “mythopoetic” vision he would thereafter continually seek. Until that explosive moment Interim serves the tentative first step of an artist poised to leap into cinema itself.