Zeitgeist Films // 1998 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // October 1st, 2004
"I finally have no idea why I make films...I'm compelled to do it...I can either do it or die; I do it 'cause I'm scared of dying."
A friend of mine and I have a running gag about the actor, Dan Hedaya. Many have referred to him as "The incomparable Dan Hedaya." Since this has turned into a nickname, merely "The Incomparable,"(at least around these parts) the joke involves doing a William Shatner impression while delivering the line, "Want...to tell you...what he's...like...but...can't!"
Stan Brakhage is like unto Dan Hedaya in this way. I want to tell you what he's like...but I can't. There's nothing to which I can compare him. (Okay, I'm going to anyway, but they'll all be way off.) If you are a person who has some strict notion of what a film should be, and enjoy slinging the word "pretentious" or "bad" at something that fails to satisfy that prescriptive definition, or if you are the type who likes to relegate all non-representational art to "wonder what they was smoking" dismissal, you need to stop reading this review and forget the name Brakhage right now. Stan Brakhage breaks every single rule you ever had about movies, and then some. Why, he even nominally breaks one of mine. For the record, here's this reviewer's hard rules of cinema:
1.) The picture should, at some or all times, simulate motion.
One rule and that man manages to confound even it. But you know what? I'm thinking of revising the sucker on his account. Anyway, this is all about a biopic directed by Jim Shedden, the back of which reads "the perfect complement to the Criterion Collection's By Brakhage DVD." This is the best back cover copy I've ever seen on a DVD. More on that later. Meanwhile, who is this guy anyway? Well, I'll try not to steal the movie's thunder here, so here's the soundbite version:
Stanley Brakhage, born in 1933, spent the bulk of his life creating, exhibiting, and distributing films on his own. The films were usually short, and always of the avant-garde experimental variety. Brakhage began his cycle with black-and-white psychodrama in the manner of Maya Deren and the other experimental wavers who'd preceded him in the 1940s and early '50s. He moved from this student-oriented material to the then-burgeoning world of home movies in the conventional sense while still experimenting madly with form, creating a long series of rhythmic film poems featuring himself, his wife Jane Collom, and their increasingly large series of children. In these films, Brakhage used every film effect he could possibly think of: rhythmic cutting (formulated on paper or in his head using math), lots and lots of in-camera superimposition, solarization, negative image, pretty much the whole bag of photographic tricks that we now take for granted in the digital world but which used to be a big fat pain in the patookus to create. This sequence was well-received among the academic film community, but what really caused the stir was Dog Star Man, a chapterized feature constructed over a period of years. Dog Star Man (perhaps to be read as "Dog, Star, Man" -- its literal subjects) is a completely off-the-rails abstract expressionist piece that I could describe in terms of its components, but to do so would be meaningless. The film is an extended assault on one sense -- like most of Brakhage's work, it is silent -- which spends the better part of itself trying to confound the viewer's ability to apprehend it in the least. Brakhage, like Jackson Pollock and other non-representationalists (and philosophers concerned with perception), was concerned with breaking through the wall of image into a direct interaction with the sense itself -- famously he has said, "How many colors are in a field of grass to a child unaware of 'green'?"
Brakhage continued to make documentary poetry until, after a divorce from Collom, he remarried -- to one Marilyn Jull, who promptly informed him that she had no interest in being photographed. Brakhage abruptly put down the camera and took his non-representational film art to a new level. Using a clipboard and small brushes and instruments, he began painting directly on the surface of the film -- an extension of the work in Dog Star Man and other films in which Brakhage had mutilated, baked, or otherwise distorted the film's image by messing with its physical characteristics. Finally, he contracted bladder cancer and emotionally self-diagnosed its cause as the paints and markers he'd been using to create the painted films. But he kept going even through and past the illness, at last eschewing even the paint in favor of simply scratching on black leader to create images with crystalline qualities. Brakhage died in March 2003.
This is where we get back to the breaking of Rule 1 up there. Because the trick of it is, while Brakhage's light-through-pigment paintings may rush by at an astonishing rate -- twenty-four fully realized nonrepresentational abstract expressionist paintings per second, even -- they do not, in the strict sense, move. Rather, they jumble and dance and flicker, occasionally pausing for just a slight moment (of course, regular films don't move either, but they try). The man was breaking down the idea of film, the persistence of vision and phi-phenomenon that are at its very root. In the process of his lifelong deconstructive and constructive art of the film, Brakhage also led the way in special effects photography and presentation in a way that only has real, singular competition from Georges Meliés, and perhaps the most senior of the feature film effects artists. "If you want to know what cinema is," says senior academic critic P. Adam Sitney, "It's Brakhage." Perhaps an overarching claim, but his point is clear: Among the hundreds of thousands who have worked with film in the aim of producing narrative, and even including experimentalists such as Deren who worked to produce psychological effect, Brakhage is the principal figure in the mid-to-late 20th century at using film to produce material that could exist in no other medium. He was concentrated, even fixated, on the physical strip of film itself, which produces genuinely unique phenomena in human history. Many such phenomena are now duplicable in the digital realm, of course, but these simulations differ from effects which exist only digitally in that they're apes of the effects that had their origin in the physical and chemical properties of photographic film. And they look different too; the phenomena of light through celluloid is only duplicable to a certain degree with matrixed digital display -- and further still when digital is the source.
It goes without saying that Brakhage's work is therefore most accessible to those who share this obsession. There happen to be a few such around and about lately, particularly in reaction to the encroaching digital domination of exhibitors -- people who love the crisp picture that digital cinema will (soon; sorry, Mr. Lucas, but not yet) offer but who also miss watching the library leader spool through a 16mm print before the countdown graphic comes up. I happen to be among them -- to the point that I must note here that there's an absent element of the transfers both in this biography picture (which includes Window Water Baby Moving, two of the Dante Quartet, and clips from several others including Dog Star Man and the autopsy film, The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes) and in the Criterion anthology. While Brakhage maintained that his films were to be shown without sound, or run the danger of redundancy and/or interfering with the film's own rhythm, there is one sound that was always present when a Brakhage film was screened: the rhythmic purr of the projector itself. To eliminate that from the experience seems omissive to me. But this is neither here nor there. The real question is, how's this biography?
I said earlier that the cover copy noting the biopic as the perfect companion to Criterion's Brakhage collection is the best I've ever seen. This is due not only to simple packaging accuracy and humility (honestly admitting that the release is best appreciated as auxiliary to a release from another company), but also because it addresses the appropriate audience specifically; the right level of familiarity with Brakhage to enjoy this movie is conferred by the Criterion anthology. If you have not spent any time with Brakhage, the movie will very likely have little value or relevance to you -- you'd be in a position of trying to understand the big deal only from the clips shown, and my bet is, it wouldn't work. In contrast, those who have studied Brakhage will likely find themselves bored with reiteration of things they already know, combined with short clips of films they would probably rather watch in full length. (I'm basing some of this claim on the reviews by Fred Camper and Bill Wees on Camper's extensive Brakhage website. Check it out for some great frame enlargements that will give you a better idea of the films than I ever could here.) On top of that, much of the film is dominated by heavy use of original music by James Tenney (done much in the manner of John Cage) and video effects. Meant to be reminiscent of Brakhage's technique, these effects instead stand out as reminders that so many of the effects with which he worked have been integrated into technology on a level that requires no real thought. To say nothing of the fact that the heavy use of music works in contrast to not only Brakhage's own methods, but also criticism posed in the movie itself! These sequences, while they do convey a certain superficial similarity to Brakhage's early home movie work, mostly drag. The true exception is the end credits, which are fascinating to watch and really catch the rhythm.
One great thing about this movie, though, is that it gives you not only clips of Brakhage's films, but some films made of Brakhage and family by contemporaries and students in the same community. I found myself enjoying a particular one by Jonas Meka involving a lot of speed changes, and it occurred to me, "Hey, this is every dream sequence from every movie in the 1990s except for the ones that look like Maya Deren by way of David Lynch." The experience was not unlike the first time I heard Brian Eno's "Third Uncle" and someone told me when it was made. And speaking of ungainly comparisons, I promised some. Well, here they are. Five things that I find similar in some way to Stan Brakhage.
1. Computerized digital music visualizations. Though they "mickey
mouse" by their very nature, they are a familiar form of moving
2. David Bowman's journey at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (that sound you just heard was 90% of Verdict readers closing this window) bears a clear resemblance to the sensorily alienating qualities of Dog Star Man on the larger scale of 70mm.
3. Gene Krupa (a comparison actually made in this movie, which I find wholly appropriate).
4. Going by a bunch of signs really fast on a subway.
5. That old Saturday Night Live sketch with Robin Williams frantically videotaping his wife while she gives birth.
Now integrate those five elements, and you have something which vaguely resembles a horrible misshapen parody of Stan Brakhage. That's as close as I can get it. So if you're attracted by that, check him out. If not, no sweat...you get to see lots of his tricks anyway in regular movies from about 1968 onward if you watch a bunch of them, all without ever knowing the man's name. These ripples of influence travel wide indeed.
To sum up, Stan Brakhage is a damned interesting figure in 20th century art. Like a lot of great American artists, he combines the avant-garde fine artist's jauntings with the folk traditions of home and family as dominant factors in art. Those who have an interest in the fine arts side of film will definitely want to explore his catalog and this disc, combined with the Criterion anthology, offer pretty much the only video-based methods of doing so. Those who have a familiarity with Brakhage have likely been insulted by this review, which as you have no doubt surmised by now, is addressed to those who have only peripheral awareness of Brakhage or none at all -- the situation I was in before this disc came up in the rotation. If I've overstepped, or understepped, with regard to the finer points, then I must apologize and plead inexperience.
Brakhage is presented in 1.33:1 in keeping with its video source. Brakhage clips are mostly also in 1.33:1 with some other aspect ratios appearing throughout. The clips are not as well-transferred as those on the Criterion disc (big surprise, eh?) but are pretty nice-looking. The source camera video looks great. Other documentary clips are taken from very old television series and look highly questionable as one might expect. The worst-looking of the lot is a black-and-white video clip of Jane, as she relates how lost Stan could become in his films -- a sad humor that relates simultaneously a need for Stan to be closer and an affection for the crazed artist off on his voyage. Certain among the source materials are included at full length as extras: Brakhage on Film and Legendary Epics, Yarns and Fables: Stan Brakhage. The excerpts from Brakhage films used to create the feature are also included separately and include The Way to Shadow Garden, Anticipation of the Night, and several others.
Brakhage is a reasonably worthy attempt to create both a biographical and career portrait of Stan Brakhage. Though it is imperfect, and its own flourishes annoy more than enlighten, although they do illustrate the debt which is owed to Brakhage by all purveyors of image effects. Any chance to celebrate his career with actual presentation is appreciated, particularly as the available Brakhage on home video is scanty. This will make a fine selection for any academic film library, public or private. Brakhage is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Brakhage on Film
* Legendary Epics, Yarns and Fables: Stan Brakhage
* "Brakhage Excerpt Guide" Navigational Aid
* Stan Brakhage on the Web, an informative site by Fred Camper.