Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

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Criterion Sunday 182: Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).

Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.

From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah | Writers David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams) | Cinematographer John Coquillon | Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George | Length 117 minutes || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017

Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017
The Killers (1946) || Director Robert Siodmak | Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Woody Bredell | Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien | Length 103 minutes

The Killers (1964) || Director Don Siegel | Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings | Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan | Length 95 minutes

Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | Cinematographer Georges Perinal | Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook | Length 163 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017)

Criterion Sunday 172: Pépé le Moko (1937)

I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 171: Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963)

I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades (and have written about it here before) and I feel both compelled and distanced from it, though that may be by design. It’s about filmmaking at a certain level, it’s about the clash of cultures, it’s about a relationship being torn apart (mirroring Godard and Anna Karina, one presumes, at least to a point) and it’s about a lot in between, but mainly it’s about contempt. Not least, one might extrapolate, that includes the director’s difficulty with women, suggesting a certain unknowability. It’s beautiful and hard, and contains a lot, and for all that I don’t necessarily enjoy its characters, I think the filmmaking is about as good as Godard managed.

Criterion Extras: There are plenty of extras on a 2 DVD set, including Encounter with Fritz Lang (1964), a short film in which the director speaks a little on the set of Contempt, but is mostly clips illustrating his architectural style in his early German work. There’s also two Jacques Rozier short films. Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard (1964) is a slight little piece about Godard filming Bardot, which takes a sort of philosophical path. However, the better is Paparazzi (1964). Brigitte Bardot, it turns out, was very famous in the 60s, and this film deals with obsessive photographers using a fairly recently-coined term. Those guys are still with us because they’ve become embedded into a system that reinforces and commodifies fame, and that is hinted at with the context of magazine sales, but this short film is mostly about how they were annoying when she was filming Contempt. It’s quite strikingly put together, and has a zingy energy to it. Other extras include an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, an audio commentary, and an hour-long discussion between Fritz Lang and Godard called The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll | Length 101 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and later on DVD at home in London on Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently at a friend’s home on Sunday 20 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 170: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

Criterion Sunday 164: Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk | Length 166 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017)

Criterion Sunday 160: À nous la liberté (1931)

A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Starring Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017