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By Brakhage: An Anthology: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Directed by Stan Brakhage

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Experimental films, for all the flowery talk that often accompanies them, are generally short on ideas. Typically each attempt at avant garde cinema more or less consists of a single concept — be it a stylistic conceit or special effect — which is then applied to a mundane subject (or, often, no subject at all) and explored for as long as it entertains the filmmaker himself with little regard for the audience.

It's only fitting then that Stan Brakhage is considered the most influential director of the genre, as his work prodigiously overflows with sometimes intriguing but always elliptical aesthetics and masturbatory attempts to attach intellectual meaning to his physical experiments. Describing himself as a "frustrated poet," Brakhage displays in the 26 (mostly) short films included in this two-disc retrospective of his work a skill for inventing effective new visual approaches to filmmaking and a knack for dragging them out to boring extremes. The great value that Brakhage has offered the art form is not so much his own work, but rather the inspiration he has provided the more mainstream filmmakers who have taken his ideas and successfully incorporated them into accessible narratives (for example, it is unlikely that David Fincher's Seven would've been quite so gripping from its chilling opening credit sequence, were it not for Brakhage's Mothlight).

Even in the few genuine gems within this collection, Brakhage struggles to expand his ideas where worthy or edit himself when rambling, making his career in hindsight more worthy as an educational study than a satisfying end in itself.

All of the films herein are featured with new, high definition 1.33:1 OAR full frame transfers (from 16mm source) and, when not silent, original monaural audio. Each of the two discs includes a 2002 video interview with Brakhage, and all but a few of his films also include audio interviews by Brakhage discussing the individual works. The liner notes include an essay by Brakhage expert Fred Camper.

Disc One

Desistfilm (6:43) — This crude 1954 black and white short is one of the few in this collection to attempt either a linear narrative or a soundtrack. For this fairly dull study of teenage ennui and hormonal sociopathy, Brakhage's visual style suggests a cameraman struck by epilepsy (perhaps induced by listening to the screeching, aggravating score). While the film itself has very little to offer, it's easy to see that Brakhage, from an early age, was either uninterested in or incapable of a traditional approach to filmmaking, and it also sets the standard for his tendency to belabor specific visuals or effects long after the viewer may have grown tired of it.

Wedlock House: An Intercourse (10:48) — A disjointed contemplation of marriage, Wedlock House is full of typically elusive imagery and cryptic suggestions, but offers little to hold onto. Some fairly graphic, if distorted, sexual content surely raised eyebrows in 1959, no doubt adding to Brakhage's cred as an artist.

Dog Star Man (74:48) — Brakhage's masterwork and most likely his only truly penetrating source of cachet as an influential filmmaker, this avant garde epic is also the most watchable of his films, despite being the longest (this assessment probably does not apply to his four-hour version of the same, not included in this collection). Told in five parts, Dog Star Man might have something to say about work, man, nature, sex, birth and life in general, but is more successful as an intoxicatingly psychedelic freak-out, the kind which would best be utilized as the backdrop for 75-minute-long improvised art rock jam session performed in front of a peyote convention. Nowhere else in this collection is Brakhage's skill at layering and juxtaposing images as apparent or as effective, and yet the auteur is so enamored of his uniquely arresting collection of images (including some stunning solar photography) that the project runs perhaps five times longer than necessary. Although it may be rejected as rank apocrypha by Brakhage purists (Brakhage insists that his films are best watched sans audio), we recommend that this silent epic is too obscure to watch without aural stimulation. Select 75 minutes of your trippiest faves, cue up, turn on, and drop out, man.

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (31:50) — Perhaps the most straightforward of Brakhage's work here, a half-hour of real, color autopsy footage may be difficult to stomach for most. This is gruesome stuff and doesn't hold back on detail. A must for necrophiliacs.

Disc Two

Cat's Cradle (6:26) — One of the least interesting pieces in the collection, Brakhage describes the short as "Sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a 'medium' cat," which oversells this sexless and impenetrable montage.

Window Water Baby Moving (12:13) — The most emotionally felt of Brakhage's short films, this affectionate and awe-filled mediation on pregnancy contains some moments of pure beauty despite its fascination with the more clinical details of childbirth. Interestingly, while Brakhage usually obscures the naked body with visual effects or superimpositions, he offers no such mask for the pregnant body, approaching it with a sense of delicacy rare to his work.

Mothlight (3:14) — A neat visual experiment. Brakhage made this film by pasting the wings (and sometimes bodies) of moths to his film, creating a high-speed, flickering entomology show. One of the benefits of this DVD set is the ability to step through this brief film frame-by-frame for a closer look at its unique craft.

Eye Myth (0:09) — Stan Brakhage gets it right (even if his description of this film sounds like prefab intellectual bullshit): take an intriguing visual concept, make it happen, and then let it end, naturally. At only nine seconds, this is the shortest film in the collection and, therefore, one of the best, as Brakhage never allows himself a chance to ruin it.

The Wold Shadow (2:28) — While this mixture of nature footage and painting foreshadows the reliance on painting for most of Brakhage's later work, the director's audio comments preceding this film offer more insight into his particular craft than any of his films. Inadvertently exposing the aura of pretentiousness attached to his career, he explains his process thus: "You think you're doing this, it turns out you're doing that and, really, but on the other hand, you were doing what you originally thought you were doing, except it's not at all what you thought you were doing." If this is true, and Brakhage's work is really (as it seems) unplanned execution of a creative aesthetic impulse, then all of the painstakingly unconvincing textual analyses by the artist himself and his admirers is betrayed as the mental masturbation it sounds like. Further, when asked if the obscurity of his symbolism is lost on audiences, Brakhage, a student of Freud, makes a telling admission already obvious to the cynic: "I don't need an audience at all."

Garden of Earthly Delights (1:27) — Similar to Mothlight, Garden uses vegetation glued to the film for its admirable effect, as is as well worthy of frame-by-frame enjoyment.

The Stars are Beautiful (18:32) — Brakhage breaks his silence by narrating this uninspired juxtaposition of footage of a chicken having its wings clipped and a series of creation myths invented by the director. If the tired and awkward narration is anything like Brakhage's poetry, it's no wonder he describes himself as "a frustrated poet;" it's dire, juvenile and his voice is sleep-inducing and this one seems to go on forever.

Kindering (2:52) — Although Brakhage's tendency toward silent movies may wear on viewers with antsy senses craving some aural interaction, 1987's Kindering is a prime example of why his work is often better off mute. This distorted footage of his grandchildren at play is accompanied by the obvious and sophomoric juxtaposition of discordant music and the sounds of childhood recreation. Odd that an "experimental" film would mimic a gimmick already employed by The Amityville Horror.

I… Dreaming (6:36) — Mainstream depictions of dream life often stumble upon the same pratfalls of pretentious symbolism that experimental films already deal with on a scene-by-scene basis. It's difficult, then, to imagine what about dream life could be particularly inspiring to an avant garde director like Brakhage. Nevertheless, this uninteresting montage does feature some of his better photography (though most of it is still, like the rest of his straightforward camera work, largely flat and undistinguished). Includes a soundtrack of disjointed Stephen Foster music.

The Dante Quartet (6:05) — The first of Brakhage's hand-painted films in this collection, Dante, like the others, features some standout frames, but plays like a superfast montage of abstract paintings, which gets a bit dull after 30 seconds. To be fair, however, the better moments in this four-part series come toward the end. Still.

Nightmusic (:32) — Another hand-painted film; this one is only two seconds too long.

Rage Net (:52) — More hand-painting.

Glaze of Cathexis (2:59) — More hand-painting; this time with an obscure Freudian pretext that fails to distinguish it from the others in this genre of Brakhage's oeuvre.

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (8:19) — Despite sporting the best title of all the films in this collection, it is saddled with this cumbersome description by Brakhage: "Four superimposed rolls of hand-painted and bi-packed television negative imagery are edited so as to approximate the hypnagogic process whereby the optic nerves resist grotesque infusions of luminescent light." Well, duh.

Untitled (For Marilyn) (10:34) — Brakhage describes this hand-painted film as "thanks and praise to God." Unless, that is, if God fell asleep during The Stars are Beautiful.

Black Ice (2:05) — Yet another hand-painted film with an explanation that fails to make it look any different from the others.

Study in Color and Black and White (1:37) — Nothing of the sort. Again, hand-painted.

Stellar (2:20) — One of the better hand-painted films, mostly due to its different visual approach.

Crack Glass Eulogy (6:06) — A break from the string of hand-painted films that precede it, but not as interesting visually with its dull manipulations of city photography.

The Dark Tower (2:21) — Grandiosely listed as "An homage to all the dark towers in literary history," there must be one or two dark towers unfairly left out of this severe hand-painted montage, amongst his more bracing work in this arena.

Commingled Containers (2:42) — A few photographic tricks with light and water played over and over and over again. It's Brakhage's lack of building rhythm in his editing that kills some of these shorter films.

Love Song (10:49) — "A hand painted visualization of sex in the mind's eye." Unlikely to give your mind's eye a boner, but some of the colors are nice; although not nice enough for 10 fricking minutes of yet another montage of abstract paintings. Brakhage is coasting.

— Gregory P. Dorr

(For fans of experimental cinema, Dog Star Man alone is worth three stars. However, for folks who felt the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey were too indulgent, a one-star rating might be more appropriate.)

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