By Brakhage: an an­thol­ogy


A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #184: Stanley Brakhage’s By Brakhage: an an­thol­ogy.


I’d for­got­ten how good Stan Brakhage is at the avant-garde film­mak­ing gig. It has been 5 years since my brief ob­ses­sion with avant-garde film; I should re­ally get back into it. There is a lot of talk [linked be­low] about re­la­tional spec­ta­tor­ship, sub­jec­tiv­ity, de­con­struc­tion and any num­ber of other the­o­ries that at­tempt to parse out what Brakhage was try­ing to do with his nu­mer­ous films. This col­lec­tion of 26 works by Brakhage, and know­ing a bit about the man from the sup­ple­men­tary com­men­tary on the discs, leads me to be­lieve that the fun­da­men­tal goal of a Brakhage film is to be de­void of all sub­jec­tiv­ity and ob­jec­tiv­ity; some­thing merely ex­ists to be shown. His paint-films seem to ap­prox­i­mate synaes­the­sia, and while I can see some merit in the as­ser­tions that Brakhage wants his view­ers to see light, I think there is a more gen­eral goal here; Brakhage wants us to see things that we take for granted, or never see in the first place. I like the man more than his films, which is say­ing a lot. He seemed like a man with a good heart and an earnest­ness about him that com­pletely threw away any pre­ten­tion. He wasn’t do­ing avant-garde stuff to be edgy, but be­cause it suited him.


So watch­ing a film like The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, that shows graphic vi­sions of au­top­sies, is a chance to see a dead body be­fore it is all maked-up for view­ing. Sure we hear about death and dead bod­ies all the time and see them on TV, but how of­ten do we ac­tu­ally get to see a dead body with­out all the fuss we put around it. The only thing that could be closer than this film is to ac­tu­ally go to a morgue. Dog Star Man is his ear­li­est mas­ter­piece, and is the vi­sual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of man’s place in the uni­verse with a bit of our ul­ti­mate fu­til­ity thrown in for good mea­sure. This is the least happy of his films, in my opin­ion. Tons of footage of Brakhage run­ning up a snowy moun­tain car­ry­ing an axe. Tough work, two for­ward one back, his de­ter­mi­na­tion be­comes ad­mirable, but his fi­nal fail­ure hurts just as badly. Window Water Baby Moving is an amaz­ing doc­u­ment of the birth of his first child, and I was root­ing on Jane Brakhage and then baby Myrrena through the whole thing. It is quite graphic too, but like his au­topsy film, how of­ten does the av­er­age per­son get the chance to wit­ness a birth?


The older he got, the more re­fined and ex­per­i­men­tal he be­came. The col­laged de­tri­tus of Mothlight is beau­ti­ful, and it looks as if it were made of the stuff that you pull out of the ceil­ing lamp shade. The Wold Shadow is a hor­ror film, or at least ridicu­lously creepy, and con­sists of shot of a wood­land over var­i­ous times and has Brakhage paint­ing or tweak­ing the plate or the film in such a way that it looks as if there is some­thing mov­ing in the wood. He says it is his homage to the God in the Wood, and it cer­tainly should be. Much of the rest con­sists of paint on film, each in­di­vid­ual frame painted by Brakhage and many of them could be con­sid­ered great ab­stract art; when they’re an­i­mated and mod­i­fied, the ef­fect is wholly en­gross­ing. This is what synapse fir­ing would look like. The Dante Quartet is prob­a­bly the most eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble of the paint-films, and Black Ice the most evoca­tive. There is a later film with his grand­chil­dren that is state­lier and more med­i­ta­tive, it seems more about an­a­lyz­ing time than light. All in all, this an­thol­ogy was ex­tremely en­joy­able, and al­though I wouldn’t rec­om­mend watch­ing the au­topsy film over break­fast [as I did], of all the films that he made, that one af­fected me the most. We miss you, Stan.


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