Benita Raphan made short, experimental films about eccentric and unusual minds — including mathematician John Nash; utopian architect Buckminster Fuller; and Edwin Land, who invented Polaroid film. Her “genius” films, as they were known, are dreamlike, lyrical and suggestive. Not quite biography, they hover between documentary and experimental filmmaking. Raphan described herself as a cinematic diarist and an experimental biographer.
“Up From Astonishment” (2020), her most recent film, is about poet Emily Dickinson. In it, ink blooms on a page; butterflies pinwheel; and there are empty bird nests, an abacus and various inscrutable shapes. Susan Howe, a poet, and Marta Werner, a Dickinson scholar, are the film’s narrators, but not really. Raphan has sampled clips from her interviews with them and used their words strategically and evocatively.
In one sound fragment, Howe says, “I can’t be called just a poet. I always have to be called an experimental poet, or difficult poet, or innovative poet. To me, all good poetry is experimental in some way.”
Raphan was a poet in her own right. She died at 58 on Jan. 10 in New York City. Her mother, Roslyn Raphan, confirmed her death but did not specify a cause.
Raphan’s films are in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and have been shown at the Sundance and Tribeca festivals as well as on the Sundance Channel, HBO, PBS and Channel 4 in Britain. She was a Guggenheim fellow in 2019.
“Benita had a wonderful way of flipping the way we think about a biographical film,” said Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was a curator at the Walker Art Center, Otto acquired four of Raphan’s films, and she donated an additional two.
“She conducted oral history interviews with people who knew the person or were moved by the work and then took that soundtrack and, using her background in graphic design, created these abstract images,” Otto said. “What she wanted to do was take you into the mind of these geniuses, imagine their thought processes and present that visually.”
Raphan told an interviewer in 2011, “I am interested in revisiting a life or a career from the very start, from the beginning; the basic concept as initial thought, as an impulse, as an ineffable compulsion, an intuition; to reframe and reinvent an action as simple as one pair of hands touching pencil to paper.”
Raphan was born Nov. 5, 1962, in Manhattan. Her mother, Roslyn (Padlowe) Raphan, was an educator; her father, Bernard Raphan, was a lawyer.
She grew up on the Upper West Side and graduated from City-as-School, an alternative public high school at which students design their own curricula based on experiential learning, mostly through internships. (Jean-Michel Basquiat was an alumnus, as is Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.) Raphan interned with fashion photographer Albert Watson.
Her mother often described Raphan as an “irregular verb.”
“She saw things through a different lens,” Raphan’s mother said. “Benita could take something ordinary and find beauty in it. She was the real deal. No artifice about her. The heart was right out there.”
Raphan earned an undergraduate degree in media arts from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan — where she also taught for the past 15 years — and a master of fine arts degree from the Royal College of Art in London. She spent 10 years in Paris, working as a graphic designer for fashion companies such as Marithé & François Girbaud, before returning to New York in the mid-1990s.