Criterion // 2010 // 689 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 25th, 2010
"Fifty-six works, from across his career, in high-definition digital transfers"
I can think of no better introduction to the work of Stan Brakhage than his own words, from Metaphors of Vision:
Imagine an eye unruled by manmade laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which codes not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green"? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word."
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two (Blu-ray) collects fifty-six of the director's works, with Volume Two adding thirty-six films to the twenty of Volume One. The first volume (which takes up a single disc) is split into two "series" that each run about 90 minutes. These series include a number of Brakhage's more famous works, including the 74-minute Dog Star Man and the 3-minute "Mothlight." Volume Two is split into six "programs" spread across two discs that also run feature length. Like the first volume, these are comprised of films from across Brakhage's career, including highlights like his work on the Vietnam War, 23rd Psalm Branch.
The commercial, narrative cinema most of us are familiar with has its roots in the turn-of-the-century stage, which can trace its origins back at least to the Greek theater. In that respect, little has changed over the thousands of years. Put a modern cinemagoer in front of an ancient staging of Oedipus Rex, and they could easily follow it, or put an ancient Athenian in front of any contemporary romantic comedy and they would probably have little confusion. It didn't (and doesn't) have to be this way. That's the lesson of Stan Brakhage's career (embodied in the piece I quoted above): modern narrative cinema, by placing so much emphasis on the elements it borrows from other media, denies the effects that are unique to cinema. Every one of the film's collected here attempts, in some way or another, to interrogate the boundaries of moviemaking by boiling film down to its essence.
Unlike other auteurs interested in cinematic form (like say Jean-Luc Godard), Brakhage is less a provocateur than an interrogator. His films question, from first frame to last, what it means to see, what it means to film, and what constitutes a movie. What makes his career so fascinating is how many different ways he found to do that. In "Mothlight" he questions the nature of film by affixing moth wings, leaves, and stems to the film itself, so we watch light play through these different textures. In "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," he dispassionately, without comment, films autopsies, questioning what it means to watch. In "Scenes from Under Childhood, Part One," Brakhage interrogates a child's perspective, playing with memory. That's not to mention the films where Brakhage hand-painted each frame, or used spit and fingernails to scratch out his vision. These are all films wrestling with what it means to be a film, and the techniques that comprise what we call cinematic language are laid bare.
Despite the fact that there's nothing on these discs that could be considered remotely commercially viable, Criterion have lavished more than their usual care in bringing Brakhage's vision to light. This is very much an anthology, a kind of greatest hits, that presents work from across Brakhage's career, from his earliest films to his final deathbed shorts. Although this approach misses out on some depth (for instance only one of his series is presented in its entirety), it makes up for that in sheer breadth. By including so many of his more well-known films alongside more obscure work, the viewer is taken through the mind of a great cinematic artist and allowed to see an alternate history of American cinema.
Because Brakhage challenged the very notion of what film could be, bringing his work to home video is especially challenging. So challenging, in fact, that Criterion's booklet (one could almost say book, given its ninety pages) includes some remarks from the man responsible for preserving Brakhage's work on the difficulties the director's works present. Criterion makes it a point to mention that these transfers have not been in any way cleaned up as a normal film would because generally the "errors" are part of the presentation. It's hard to fix scratches on a print when the entire print was made by Brakhage scratching onto the film, for instance. With that said, short of renting your own 16mm (or 8mm, depending on the film) print, this is the best these pieces are going to look. Detail is as strong as the source will allow, grain is appropriate, black levels are solid, and there are no significant compression problems that I could see. In short, these films have benefited significantly from the hi-def upgrade, and even those who bought the first volume on DVD when it came out should consider upgrading. For aesthetic reasons, most of Brakhage's films are silent, but the ones that aren't are given mono or stereo mixes as Brakhage intended. The back of this release claims they're uncompressed, but they show up as standard Dolby Digital mono and stereo mixes on my machine. They're warts-and-all soundtracks that capture Brakhage's use of sound quite well, even if they're somewhat compressed.
A common complaint lodged against many experimental modern artists is the old "my kid could do that" argument. In some cases that may be true, but few directors, let alone kids, could be as articulate about their work as Stan Brakhage. Luckily, Criterion has chosen to make his words the centerpiece of the extras for this release. Ported over from the first DVD release are the four "Brakhage on Brakhage" interview segments, totally a little over 30 minutes of material. These include Brakhage reading excerpts from some of his writings, discussing the origin of his techniques, equipment, and thematic concerns. This first volume also ports over the "audio remarks" that Brakhage recorded for nineteen of the films featured here. They're similar to audio commentaries, but a little less "scene specific." Brakhage delves deeper into his motivations and process for these remarks. The second disc includes footage from "salons" that Brakhage hosted weekly at his home in Colorado. Here we see the director interact with his friends and peers as they gather to discuss the work of Brakhage and others. There's also a 37-minute interview with Brakhage, and an audio lecture from 1996 that runs a little less than an hour. The third disc includes more salon footage and another lecture, as well as more "Brakhage on Brakhage" interviews. Brakhage's films are challenging pieces or work that many people will find off-putting, so the sheer breadth and candor of Brakhage's remarks on his own work make these extras the centerpiece of this release. The included booklet features remarks on the films by Brakhage's wife Marilyn and scholar Fred Camper, summaries of each of the films, and individual frame strips from some of the films.
Brakhage's work is experimental, intentionally challenging work. There's often no narrative to cling to, and only abstract imagery to process. For the prepared these can be fascinating explorations of vision, but to the uninitiated they can seem like boring collages of color or shape. Brakhage (and this set) is not for everyone, and those who've never seen a Brakhage film should think twice before plunking down the cash for this set.
By Brakhage: Volume One was a blessing, and Volume Two is a miracle. Here's hoping that Criterion can continue this trend until all 350 or so of Brakhage's films have been brought to hi-def. Even if this is all the Brakhage we get, fans of the director are sure to be satisfied: fifty-six of the maestro's films presented in solid hi-def transfer with hours and hours of informative extras featuring Brakhage himself. Considering this is a three-disc set, the price tag is fairly low, and worth an upgrade for those who only have the first volume on DVD. Brakhage is challenging stuff, and it's hard to recommend to the uninitiated straight off, but for the perspective on cinema they offer, the extras alone are worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 689 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Remarks
* Audio Lectures
* IMDb: Stan Brakhage