‘The magic circle’

Signature CU series returns to celebrate local film legend Stan Brakhage

Courtesy: CU Archives

Few figures loom as large in CU’s history as Stan Brakhage. As a filmmaker, his influence on the visual medium is incalculable — even if he’s not commonly known. (Brakhage is to cinema what The Velvet Underground was to rock ’n’ roll.) As a professor, he taught his students to see differently. And not just in images, but in the world around them.

“He successfully pulled his students away from wanting to imitate the patterns of commercial filmmaking, away from just learning to reproduce the effects used in the television and movies they had seen,” says Tony Heiderer, a local appreciator of Brakhage’s work. “Many of his films were not art films in the sense that they are not meant to be beautiful in any traditional way. They were often experimental tests of the human visual system.”

Suranjan Ganguly, professor emeritus in the Department of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts at CU Boulder, concurs: “The films are not easy. They’re difficult and challenging.” But Brakhage had a way to cut through that challenge: a weekly salon of screenings and conversations for friends and colleagues. And when Ganguly moved to Boulder to join CU’s faculty in 1991, the pair struck up an immediate friendship and Brakhage invited him to join his weekly gatherings.

The salon “was a very special event in our lives,” Ganguly says. “When Stan died in March 2003, I knew I could not revive that salon … and without Stan, people wouldn’t show up.”

So Ganguly settled on something else: Celebrating Stan, a monthly 90-minute screening of select Brakhage prints. These screenings, always free and open to the public, are curated by Ganguly and followed by informal discussion.

Marilyn Brakhage, surviving wife of the late filmmaker, says Celebrating Stan completes the “magic circle” of connection between his work and audiences by facilitating conversation around his singular art. 

“It was Stan’s deepest wish that his films would continue to be made readily available,” she says. “And I know he would be deeply moved by Suranjan’s dedicated contribution to this process, as the works continue to be so vitally important for so many.”

‘A legacy in itself’

For Ganguly, Celebrating Stan is a chance to give back to the “colleague, mentor and best friend” he gained when he joined CU. The series also allows people who love Brakhage’s work to gather and watch, and for professors to introduce new students to the films.

“I tell them that they have one of the rarest opportunities in the world — they can see Stan Brakhage’s films projected on 16 mm for free,” senior instructor emeritus Don Yannacito says. “Some students have had life-changing epiphanies at some of Suranjan’s screenings.”

And Yannacito isn’t the only one who invokes a spirituality for those who frequented Brakhage’s salons and Celebrating Stan.

“Stan often said that he wanted the salons to be something like going to church, there every Sunday for the faithful,” says Bruce Kindel, who attended Brakhage’s gatherings throughout the 1990s. After the launch of Celebrating Stan five months after Brakhage’s passing, he puts it plainly: “Church was back.”

“I’ve been religiously attending,” Brakhage’s longtime friend Carmen Vigil says of the series. “I’m having a much different relationship with his films now that he is not around … I’m so happy to be able to see his films, and I’m so happy Suranjan has given us all this opportunity.”

Daughter Crystal Brakhage echoes the sentiment: “For Suranjan to ensure the continuation of sharing Stan’s collection and supporting the ongoing audience of filmmakers and poets and visionaries and curious students of all ages, [that] is a legacy in itself.”

And for 20 years now, that legacy has had consistent attendance. Ganguly has rarely had to cancel — even when Oscar night and Super Bowl Sunday roll around, or there are two feet of snow on the ground.

“The Brakhage show goes on,” Ganguly says. “I don’t know how long we can continue, but we hope to continue as long as possible.” 

ON SCREEN: Celebrating Stan. Sundays Sept. 3, Oct. 1, Nov. 5 and Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m. Atlas 100, CU Boulder. Free