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.