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

Lotte in Italia (Struggle in Italy, 1971)

It feels like a difficult thing to come to this film, however much of Godard’s 1960s output you’ve seen (or even Tout va bien or his later work from the 1980s on), because it’s so much a part of a movement and a heavily-politicised time in both his life and that of cultural institutions in Western Europe. What we have here is Godard (with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin) working within the “Groupe Dziga-Vertov” collective (named for an important early Soviet filmmaker and theorist), making agit-prop pieces seeking to contextualise and free the worker from a bourgeois framework. Needless to say, too, it’s all very densely allusive and, as has long been Godard’s way, anchored very much by written and spoken texts (here, in Italian with another layer of French translation). The film is structured in three parts with Paola (Cristiana Tullio-Altan) seen first in various situations attempting to espouse a radical ideology, in the second part learning how her actions are framed by bourgeois ideology, and in the third reintegrating her actions with reference to the means of production. Or at least, this is what I think is going on, but it would probably require someone with a sustained understanding of the political struggles — and perhaps a few more viewings — to articulate it more meaningfully. In terms of this progress of thought, there’s a lot of to-do about the black leader which breaks up the various scenes of Paola at the start, later replaced by images of workers in factories, while the voiceover draws attention to the artifice of the film itself. Throughout, faces are largely eschewed in favour of showing actions, with the camera (this work presumably done by Godard and Gorin themselves) tending to frame body parts. It’s a provocation, of course, but it marks a stage on Godard’s filmic evolution.

Screening alongside this film are the Ciné-tracts made by Godard, from a series of 41 three-minute silent black-and-white short films intended to be distributed cheaply around the country and to prompt a dialogue about state power and control. Although unsigned, Godard’s shorts have been identified and take the form of slyly punning text written on a collage of still photographs showing dissent and activism. Standing apart from these is Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (credited to Godard and artist Gérard Fromanger), which simply but effectively films a painting of a French flag in which the band of red paint slowly leaks across the flag like blood, vividly coloured and graphically striking.


RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (1971)
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [as “Groupe Dziga-Vertov”] | Starring Cristiana Tullio-Altan | Length 62 minutes

Ciné-tracts (1968) [#7-10, 12-16, 23, 40]
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard [uncredited] | Length c33 minutes (3 minutes each)

Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (1968)
Directors Jean-Luc Godard and Gérard Fromanger | Length 3 minutes

A New Leaf (1971)

The actor and comedian Elaine May was only allowed to write and direct three films between 1971-1987 (she directed one other with no writing credit), but the narrative that built up around her was one of impecunious budgetary blow-outs, and that story was allowed to largely define her work for a long time after the commercial failure of Ishtar (1987). However, I think there’s generally a sense nowadays that this narrative is quite unfair to her directorial legacy, certainly on the basis of the two films of hers I’ve seen (1976’s Mikey and Nicky, and now this one). A New Leaf is a black comedy that revels in deadpan laughs, of which there are plenty if you’re attuned to its rhythms. Walter Matthau plays Henry, a bored playboy who’s run through his inheritance and is now desperate for a plan to keep the lifestyle to which he’s been born, and so latches onto Henrietta (Elaine May), rich but timid and socially awkward, someone he feels he can easily win over and then kill off. And so he sets about his task with a kind of macabre relish (though that seems too melodramatic a word given Matthau’s laconic and unsmiling performance) that reminds me of the blacker moments in the same year’s Harold and Maude, but where that film has already accrued a sizeable cult following, it’s May’s film that I think is the real star of its era and feels like some kind of summation of the American spirit. Whatever its troubled production history, this remains a towering achievement of a turbulent era.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie) | Cinematographer Gayne Rescher | Starring Walter Matthau, Elaine May | Length 102 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 14 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 10: Walkabout (1971)

At a surface level, this is a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback, but there’s a lot more mystery to it than such a summary would suggest. In fact, I’ve had great difficulty trying to describe it to friends. In part that’s because of director Nicolas Roeg’s coolly modernist structuring, with its associative editing practices which embeds both different timelines (flashbacks, memories, or, as in the final sequence, more an act of imagination) and places, as well as brief snippets of a dangerous and forbidding natural world that works in conjunction with its central characters’ journey. Jenny Agutter’s English schoolgirl and her younger brother (there are no names) are stranded in the outback when their father commits suicide; this setup is all presented very obliquely and with a minimum of explanation (aside from a lingering sense of suburban ennui). Eventually they stumble across a young aboriginal boy, who is also apparently undergoing the title’s rite of passage, and a connection slowly develops, though it’s never insisted upon. At times, there’s a certain National Geographic pseudo-ethnography to the depiction of aboriginal life as untouched by Western civilisation, but this ultimately lends a fabulist, mythical dimension to the story, which enacts the naïve, and ultimately destructive, meeting between the races and the tragic difficulties of communication.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg | Writer Edward Bond (based on the novel by James Vance Marshall) | Starring Jenny Agutter | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 21 April 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 23 November 2014)