By Brakhage: An Anthology [DVD]
MPAA Rating : NR
Over more than half a century, filmmaker Stan Brakhage made some 320 films, which ranged in length from 9 seconds to more than 4 hours. A unique and personal innovator and visionary, he ranks alongside such experimental masters as Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clark, Maya Deren, and Michael Snow as one of the truly pivotal figures in avant-garde cinema, someone who saw possibilities in the medium that others didn’t—or couldn’t.
The breadth and depth of his body of work is nothing less than astounding, and although each of his films is unique and he explored multiple avenues of filmic representation, the one thing all his films had in common was an intense focus on the visual. Brakhage was a filmmaker who, more than anything else, wanted to make the viewer see the ordinary in extraordinary terms. It is not surprising, then, that the subject matter of most of his films hails from the everyday world of living—life, death, birth, sex, nature. But, through his keen eye and unbridled creativity, these subjects are made surreal, larger than life, expansive; he is an artist who can make the entire universe appear in a single image of a leaf.
For most, Dog Star Man, his five-part mythopoetic epic shot over four years from 1961 to 1964, is his masterpiece, the film that more than any defines his artistic relevance (it was included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1992, the fourth year of the Registry’s existence). A stunning, mind-bending collage of superimpositions that tells a seemingly simple story about family and survival, Dog Star Man is truly a revelatory film worth viewing multiple times.
Those who appreciate the artistry of experimentation often cite the films in which he directly manipulated the film stock itself, sometimes scratching away the emulsion, other times painting directly onto the celluloid as a way of connecting multiple media into one form of representation. The 9-second Eye Myth (1972) is a startling use of paint to suggest both entrapment and freedom, while The Wold Shadow (1972) turns an ordinary image of a forest into a startling evocation of the mysteries of nature. In several of his films, Brakhage broke down one of the fundamental aspects of cinema by refusing to use a camera. Rather, he taped physical objects directly onto strips of celluloid and printed them, creating a literal collage of nature in films like Mothlight (1963) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981). Both of these films dance across the screen, turning leaves and moth wings into rapid-fire abstractions that delight as much as they intrigue.
Another of his most important films is Window Water Baby Moving (1959), which is a document of the home birth of his first child. Like many artists, Brakhage drew a great deal from his own life, particularly his family and their living conditions in Colorado. In this important film, he bears witness to the act of childbirth, breaking up the temporality by juxtaposing close-up shots of the birth itself with shots of his pregnant wife in a bathtub, thus suggesting the circularity of life and how the moment of birth is just that—but one moment among millions. This was a groundbreaking film because, at the time, fathers were not encouraged to be present during the birthing process, and by committing the event to film, Brakhage helped break down gender barriers and involve both parents in the miracle of life.
However, for me, the crucial film in Brakhage’s career is also his least experimental: The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). Shot in a Pittsburgh morgue, it consists entirely of footage of autopsies being performed. Unlike most of Brakhage’s other films, there are no metaphorical superimpositions, manipulation of the film stock, or montage editing. Rather, Brakhage allows the power of the subject matter—the investigation of the human body devoid of life—to literally speak for itself through the images. As Brakhage has noted, the word autopsy derives from a Latin word meaning “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes,” which underlines the connection between the exploration of the body and cinema itself.
The film begins with footage of the pre-autopsy routine, which involves no cutting. Even at this point, though, Brakhage’s camera lurks behind the men in white coats performing the work, as if it is afraid to get too close. As the film progresses, the camera moves in closer and closer, registering the fine details of the gory work of the morticians as they cut into the bodies and search for the clues of death. Brakhage constructs the film almost entirely of close-ups, so the raw meat of the exposed innards becomes an alien landscape, often cut off from the context of its surrounding environment. In a strange way, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is disturbingly beautiful; once the discomfort of seeing this usually veiled act unfold before your eyes wears off, the wonder and mystery of what lies beneath our skin takes hold and forces us to continue watching. Thus, it creates a crucial metaphorical connection to Brakhage’s body of work, which always seeks intently to expose what has been hidden, to put it before us so we can see it “with our own eyes.”
|By Brakhage: An Anthology Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||June 10, 2003|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
Until now, Stan Brakhage’s films have been almost impossible to see outside of museum and university screenings, so it is a real treasure that 26 of his most important works have been released by Criterion on DVD. A real labor of love, this DVD features transfers that were made from newly struck interpositives and fine-grain masters made specifically for that purpose. In addition, the transfers were supervised by film scholar Fred Camper at Stan Brakhage’s request, so you can be sure that the images on this disc are the closest possible representation of what the films should look like. Because most of his films were shot on 16mm, they have a slightly rough look and fine film grain is often apparent. The prints used for the transfers were all in extremely good condition, with only minor wear and tear, and the fact that they look as good as they do is surprising since the liner notes inform us that no digital restoration tools were used.
| English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
Most of Stan Brakhage’s films are silent; in fact, he notes in his commentary that he feels that sound distracts from the power of the image. There are five sound films in this collection, all of which are presented in fairly clean original monaural transferred from 16mm optical soundtracks.
| “Brakhage on Brakhage” video interviews |
There are four separate video interview segments on this two-disc collection, each of which runs in the neighborhood of 10 minutes. The footage was all shot by British filmmaker Colin Still in 1996, and in them Brakhage discusses various aspects of his work. There is also interspersed footage of Brakhage at work making his films, sometimes shooting and sometimes painting on the celluloid. Presented in 1.33:1.
Audio commentary by Stan Brakhage
20-page insert booklet
© 2003 James Kendrick