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 133: Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988)

Watching this film for a second time (albeit decades after my first viewing), I find it a curious experience. Obviously I knew the outcome but in a sense the film never really tries to hide it — you may not know the specifics, but it’s clear from the outset who the bad guy is, and once he’s selected his target, it’s broadly clear what happens to that person. The drama is in the details of the crime, and the single-mindedness of purpose of each of the three men wrapped up in this drama: our bad guy (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), our victim’s boyfriend (Gene Bervoets), and our director (George Sluizer). It prefigures some of what Michael Haneke would go on to do in the 1990s onwards, cynically manipulating audience expectation in quite a nasty way. I don’t like Haneke’s films but I have at least a respect for the craft, and so it is here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director George Sluizer | Writers George Sluizer and Tim Krabbé (based on Krabbé’s novel Het Gouden Ei, “The Golden Egg”) | Cinematographer Toni Kuhn | Starring Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 20 November 2016)

Criterion Sunday 70: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

It caused quite a commotion on its original release, but this adaptation of a 1955 novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is relatively restrained, all things considered. It asks us to imagine if Jesus Christ had lived a regular life instead of being crucified (had, in other words, given in to the temptation to avoid his fate), and uses that as a way to get inside the duality of Christ as man and as divine figure of grace and redemption. Then again, obviously there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge on the subject, and a lot of opinions either way, so I can’t really say much beyond that it’s a compellingly made film with some excellent performances (not least Willem Dafoe in the title role), and beautiful cinematography from veteran lenser Michael Ballhaus. Harvey Keitel’s shock-headed Judas is a surprise, and not always a welcome one, and in general Jesus’s band of disciples seem more Brooklyn than Judaea, which can be troublesome when they’re set alongside the cast of local extras (it was filmed in Morocco), but the racial issues are left unexamined here. Instead, it’s a morality play with a very human leading performance, which is at least a change from most depictions of Jesus on film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Paul Schrader (based on the novel O Teleutaios Peirasmos by Nikos Kazantzakis) | Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus | Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton | Length 162 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

© The Criterion Collection

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman | Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin | Length 171 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 21: Dead Ringers (1988)

© The Criterion Collection

David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Cronenberg | Writers David Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland) | Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky | Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.


Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).png

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


Somersault (2004).jpg

Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½