One of the most important traits Willie Varela inherited from his mentor Stan Brakhage is his sense of light. Brakhage, a true master on par with Turner in terms of his ability to depict the subtle, almost imperceptible nuances of luminance, explored light in all its forms and through all possible variables. It was not only a physical force in Brakhage’s films, but a deeply conceptual one as well. Varela extends this approach, synthesizing it with his own unique aesthetic sensibility and cultural background to forge a vision truly his own.

In Ghost Town (1974), a super 8 short exploring the decaying remains of a small Southwestern mining town, Varela’s camera is animated, moving through and around the rotting structures. But he consistently interrupts this action, stepping away from the scene to gives us carefully composed establishing shots with bold, painterly streaks of light refracted across the frame. Other works, like Bent Light (1976), A Neon Crescent (1976) and Becky’s Eye (1977) move further into the realm of abstraction, exploring light in various forms and via various sources (a television screen, moonlight, fire, neon signs). Becky’s Eye may be the filmmaker’s own version of Brakhage’s The Text of Light (1974). In this film, described by Varela as “a study of sunlight refracted through drinking glasses,” a kaleidoscopic flurry of reds and yellows and oranges rapidly shifts and changes before the camera. At one point, macro imagery of a woman’s eye appears, organically mirroring the dance of light through translucent colored glass.

Varela embraced Brakhage’s philosophy of art as a function of daily living. Like his predecessor, Varela documented nearly every aspect of his personal life, and continually discovered new ways to depict on film what was both in front of the camera and within the filmmaker’s own consciousness. March 1979 (1979) and The Last Look (1981) reveal how the artist merges the quotidian with the more conceptual explorations of light, color and movement. Here we see home scenes (people moving about a house, children playing outside, the activities of a pet bird) intercut with complex portrayals of light, always on the border between the representational and the abstract. Making is Choosing: A Fragmented Life: A Broken Line: A Series of Observations (1989), Varela’s autobiographical masterpiece, extends this form even further. A fragmented, multi-episodic chronicle of the artist’s life over six years, the film shows us Varela’s home life: his pregnant wife speaking to the camera or putting on makeup, fragments of commercials and programs shot off a televisions screen, a neighborhood dog barking at the camera, even the birth of his daughter, just as Brakhage had shown us the birth of his five children in his own films.

Like Brakhage, Varela also deals with death. Juntos en la vide, unidos en la muerta (1985), shot at a cemetery near Varela’s El Paso home, is a poetic reflection on the afterlife. Varela doesn’t photograph the dead in the intensive manner Brakhage does in The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), but confronts it in his own way, his camera warily but repeatedly approaching an open casket to show us the rotting corpse of a man, the film ending on a slow zoom into the skull. Varela intercuts these visions of death with visions of life (people communing on the streets, light emerging through a church window, light reflected off water). Another cemetery film, Recuerdos de flores muertas (1982), also gives glimpses of life amidst the dead. Varela’s sweeping, gestural camera movements across tombstones and monuments are juxtaposed with static shots depicting flowers, ants moving in and out of an anthill and carefully composed images of a statue and of an airplane moving across the sky with refracted light the centerpiece of the frame.

Varela even turned the camera onto his mentor for two portraits. The super 8 Stan & Jane Brakhage (1981) depicts the Brakhages visiting Varela at a San Juarez market. Varela shows us not only what the visitors to his home saw (a sleeping man next to a ruined column in the middle of the road, old women along the sidewalk, fruit vendors and their stands), but also creates personal portraits of them walking through the streets, talking at a restaurant, sitting in a hotel room. Stan Brakhage looks pensive throughout the film and Varela carefully studies him, creating an elliptical portrait that pays close attention to his subject’s features (his mouth, his eyes, how sunlight through the window plays off his silver hair). The film ends with Varela pointing his camera toward the sky, violently gesturing and fragmenting what he sees in what feels like an expelling of energies, perhaps reasserting his own voice in the face of his mentor.

The Extraordinary Day (2003), made in tribute to his mentor after his death, shows us a much older Brakhage, long divorced from Jane and living a new, final chapter of his life. We see Brakhage in his office at the University of Colorado, making phone calls while his sons Anton and Vaughn talk with one another, we see him walking through the corridors of an old building with the kids and his second wife, Marilyn. We see very little of Brakhage throughout the span of the 15-minute video, however. Varela uses the space to create rhythmic melodies of movement and light, birds outside his window, light across water, abstract patterns of color. These moments are quiet, reflective, Varela’s own metaphorical funeral for an old friend.

Varela said he only spent a total of about ten days with Brakhage over the years, but that each day he was transformed. The impact Brakhage had upon Varela’s work is clear, but it is the way in which Varela shaped his own creative vision out of that influence that makes his films so powerful and so uniquely his. There is a strong sense of loneliness in Varela’s work, but there’s also a sense of sincerity and hope. Varela’s films are tender yet powerful, reminding us that amidst darkness, there’s always light.


A Neon Crescent (1976)

Becky’s Eye (1977)

Bent Light (1976)

Ghost Town (1974)

Juntos en la vide, unidos en la muerta (1985)

Making is Choosing: A Fragmented Life: A Broken Line: A Series of Observations (1989)

March 1979 (1979)

Recuerdos de flores muertas (1982)

Stan & Jane Brakhage (1981)

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971)

The Extraordinary Day (2003)

The Last Look (1981)

The Text of Light (1974)