TCC #517 By Brakhage: An Anthology Volume Two (Stan Brakhage, 1955-2003): US

Reviewed by Charles Doan. Viewed on DVD.

The brilliant conceptualization of lines and shapes orchestrated in the midst of the oppressive nature of time and space. Stan Brakhage, with ample amount of diversity within his prolific lifespan, this non-narrative filmmaker immerses his medium in poetic expressions manipulated through his conscientious lens and presents them on a diverse selection of film sizes. It is rather difficult to put a finger on the central theology or collective thesis of his films, but despite his repeated subversion Brakhage consistently prescribes emotions that are peculiarly innovative as much as it is anti-dramatic in his Criterion Collection anthology, By Brakhage: An Anthology Volume Two (1955-2003).

The Criterion Collection organizes this anthology starting with Brakhage’s exemplary exploration of light, line, and linearity. The Wonder Ring (1955), commissioned by contemporary Joseph Cornell, stands as one of the last visual memories of New York’s demolished elevated subway. Despite it’s historical significance, The Wonder Ring is a representative display of Brakhage’s complex visualization of literary poetry echoing the exploitation of lines and color similar to the work of Cornell. Like many of Cornell’s boxed assemblages displayed with glass, The Wonder Ring encapsulates the stimulant memories of the el within the proscenium arch, or the layer of division between the space and the audience. The soft lines of the city hypnotically scrawled on the windows, the haunting reflections sporadically surfacing with every passing slit of light as the el weaved through the looming skyscrapers. While his subject matter is diverse and have a tendency to be rather commonplace, the nature of his collective experimentation reduces the external visual clutter and simplifies it in accordance with his disturbing and esoteric language.

A majority of his short films such as The Dead (1960) and The Machine of Eden (1970), not to omit his many others, are films that express his aversion to mainstream regurgitation of emotions, some more reactive and apparent than others. The Dead is composed of superimposed images that travel in a complex manner, sometimes claustrophobically enlightening. The symbolism is intentionally flattened, and continuously exploited for its texture, movement, and contrast to convey death, life, and melancholy. Conventionally speaking, this is Brakhage’s horror film, of which can easily be utilized by likeminded innovative thinkers. A similar aesthetic can be seen somewhere else in contemporary cinema, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) conveys the isolation from the external reality of his protagonists through superimpositions, color inversion, and gestural camera motions, verisimilar to the work of Brakhage.

There is a certain feeling of aesthetic imperialism within Brakhage’s subjective visualizations, because his highly manipulated strips of film tend to conquer the mundane qualities of life with the infinite capabilities of editing and the articulate, peremptory compositions. Two: Creeley/McClure (1965) paints portraits of Brakhage’s poet friends, Robert Creeley and Michael McClure in a mundane room. This short begins with the expressionistic composition of images with an impressionistic-styled editing that echoes in his work, and ends with seemingly nothing gained but the emission of this unsettling nightmare. The interconnection of the two artists and the mutually exclusive, violent edits provide an audience with an obscure way of perceiving a given subject through the visual lyricism and rhythm of the film. Although negative judgments of his work occasionally surface, claiming them to be irrelevant, pretentious, or even existentially superfluous, they have immense influence upon numerous contemporary filmmakers and are of historical as well as social importance. David Fincher’s Seven (1995) incorporates Brakhage’s quick-paced editing style in his opening credit sequence. The grit of the film and the choppy, almost translucent jump cuts are reminiscent of Brakhage’s work. Stylized horror films such as James Wan’s Saw (2004) features complex edits of protagonists while in torment. By condensing the duration of jump cuts, Wan produces a disturbing perspective of his emotional nuances, conveying the revulsion of the protagonists. These edits are parallel to the subjective language Brakhage utilizes in Two: Creeley/McClure.

Brakhage’s work is not all grotesque and disturbing, some of his work provides exceptional beauty, elegance, and cerebral evocation. Unconscious London Strata (1982) provides fragmentations of the dimensions of his imagination, often reflected as ethereal and subtly soothing. The variations of color are pieces of his trip to London in 1979, sporadically placed, of which Brakhage himself interpreted as the implication of the impulsive distancing of the external stimulation to the corners of consciousness. The translucent weave of the many facets of light placed on a desirable rhythm of edit is mesmerizingly surreal as much as it is humyn.

Brakhage’s large body of work is no doubt subversive, his feelings of contempt toward Hollywood and the precision in external replication clearly surfaces throughout his oeuvre. Sometimes, his method invokes the public’s sensitivity to pretentiousness, nevertheless, Brakhage once said, “There are a lot of movies made for nobody.” The conglomeration of emotions and the exploitation of positive stimulation have objectified emotions and solidified the desire for the familiar ones. Brakhage, with his intention, has perversely introduced a serial of emotions that are unbeknownst, the emotions that are lost, but again found through his complete body of work. Films have the conservative obligation to feed entertainment to the public. But the innate desire to document the external world and individually internalize the results shouldn’t be revolted, but praised.

Stan Brakhage shows us what we cannot see, but often ponder. And this is something rare in surfaced ideas.

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