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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LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

Criterion Sunday 42: Fishing with John (1991)

© The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection certainly throws up some oddities from time to time (who will ever forget — or forgive — Armageddon?) but Fishing with John is one of the odder entries, being the six episodes of a TV series made by John Lurie (hence the ‘creator’ rather than ‘director’ credit) and screened originally in 1991. It’s nominally a fishing show, in the sense that he takes a bunch of (male) celebrities out on the water in various places attempting to catch fish, but tonally it feels more of a piece with Twin Peaks or the offbeat deadpan stylings of early Jim Jarmusch (in whose films Lurie occasionally popped up, and who is his guest in the first episode). Things proceed in a laidback manner, as the two men travel to their fishing boat, or eat in cafes and drink in bars, and fall to chatting. Indeed, they tend to have very little success at the actual fishing. The conversations have a roundabout, somewhat surreal quality, but the most overt humour comes from the (extremely unreliable) narration, taking an omniscient viewpoint in the style of such shows, but undercutting it with deadpan drollery. In a sense, nothing much happens, but the journey is pleasantly diverting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Creator John Lurie | Cinematographers Michael Alan Spiller, Tom Krueger, James Nares and Steven Torton | Starring John Lurie, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch | Length 147 minutes (in six episodes of c24 minutes each) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015

Criterion Sunday 13: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As a winner of all five major Academy Awards (film, director, actor, actress and screenplay), this film has a fairly solid reputation, although I’d argue that this kind of lionisation by the Oscars doesn’t amount to all that much, given how wide of the mark they so often are. But certainly, The Silence of the Lambs is a very tautly made psychological thriller with fairly straightforward horror elements in the way its antagonist, a mysterious figure known for most of the film only as Buffalo Bill, carries out his murderous work. His crimes are being investigated by rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who on the suggestion of her boss (Scott Glenn, always reliably on hand to play bureaucratic heavyweights) interviews the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). I imagine most of this is fairly well known now already, and certainly the tête-àtête scenes between Starling and Lecter remain fairly intense, as director Jonathan Demme keeps the camera in close on their faces throughout. The performances too are well-awarded, as Hopkins manages somehow to stay just the right side of camp in the leering delight he takes in all the nasty sordid little details of the crimes, while Foster is upright and believable as a fresh-faced recruit. In fact, much of her role is to be a lone woman in the very male-dominated world of law enforcement, scrutinised far more closely than her colleagues as she goes about her work, and the procedural details the film allows her character are partly so that she can be framed and followed by the eyes of the men around her. That said, there’s an uncomfortable element to both the crimes (all against women of a certain size) and to the depiction of their killer, with the story showing a fascination in his cross-dressing which could easily be construed as transphobic, although details are taken from cases of real serial killers. Whatever its weaknesses, the resulting film is still a fine display of filmmaking craft which manages after 20 years to hold up rather well (hairstyles and fashions amongst law enforcement characters remaining fairly restrained, after all) and which will no doubt continue to exert an eery fascination for future generations.

Criterion Extras: The extras on the disc include storyboard comparisons, text from the FBI manual detailing some grisly case studies of serial killers, some lengthy deleted and extended scenes (all nicely contextualised within the film by introductions), and a commentary. This last features the lead actors and creative personnel as well as an FBI agent and is carefully edited and marshalled. It’s largely interesting, though the FBI agent doesn’t have much time for liberal handwringing about capital punishment. Another side effect of listening to a commentary is that the images come into greater focus shorn of the soundtrack, and you really notice the way Demme so frequently frames the faces frontally in dialogue scenes. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is also really excellent, with good use of light and dark and almost a softness to the palette. (NB There’s been a new blu-ray release of this film since the review above was written, so the extras may differ.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme | Writer Ted Tally (based on the novel by Thomas Harris) | Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto | Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn | Length 118 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 December 2014

Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991)

Following his great experimental Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard did this shorter, rather more atypical piece set in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it, he reunites with the star of Alphaville (1965), Eddie Constantine, again assuming his Lemmy Caution persona as he moves around Berlin, not unlike a time traveller, crossing past, present and future, and offering observations on the changes that have taken place.

I say it’s atypical, but that’s only because it goes on location, which the Godard of the 1980s onwards seemed less willing to do than the one who made, say, Le Mépris. However, it has most of the defining qualities of late-period Godard in its opacity and referentiality. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but takes in a lot more material, including interpolations of film clips and extensive quotes from literary and artistic sources, not to mention allusions and cryptic jokes. Therefore, it’s difficult for a viewer such as myself who is unfamiliar with a lot of the sources to make sense of this dense mélange, except in the broadest sensory terms.

Most notable perhaps is the presence of Constantine, who moves through the film’s largely depopulated spaces with a leathery old visage and basilisk stare. Echoing Germany’s own liminal state, it’s a film of uneasy spaces — border zones and shipyards and quarries — and Constantine seems appropriately out of place. He throws some flowers to the ground to join a battered street sign for Karl-Marx-Strasse that his car promptly drives over. The quarry in particular is accompanied by the most fantastic mining machine, a vast assemblage that could scarcely be contained in the mind of Terry Gilliam (it’s pictured in the poster included at the top of this review), and which threateningly towers over our narrator and guide.

It’s not just the weight of history and the bulk of machinery that seems to overwhelm the increasingly aged Constantine, for the film itself forcefully pursues its own formal strategies. Most striking is the soundtrack, which has its own dense sonic texture quite apart from (but at times working together with) the image track. Images and sounds weave into one another so densely that even the passing of a few days since I saw the film has made it difficult to recall any specifics. However, it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t really interested in just presenting a history of modern Germany in orthodox terms, but more as a assemblage of influences that reveal a state of mind, complete with some tendentious statements about the German national psyche as well as clips that pull in German poetry, painting, music, films and — of course — the politics that have defined its mid-20th century.

In the end it’s an experience that cannot easily be contained in a review. The Godard of this era — here and more so in the larger Histoire(s) du cinéma project — reasserts his role as a critic, marshalling evidence to support his sometimes rather too opaque claims. Just as the wall between East and West Berlin has fallen, and the borders between the two halves have opened, so the distinction between the two has become blurred — as our guide on this journey, Constantine is constantly seen asking those he meets “which way to the West?” to be met with at best confusion, but more usually totally blankness. At times, that’s the experience of the viewer too, but Godard’s richly layered filmmaking ensures that it’s never boring.


© GNCR

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 | DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Nos solitudes: enquêtes sur un sentiment by Michel Hannoun) | Cinematographers Stépan Benda, Andréas Erben and Christophe Pollock | Starring Eddie Constantine | Length 61 minutes || Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Wednesday 11 September 2013

My Rating 3 stars good


Next Up: Godard spent the rest of the decade focusing on his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma, but my next review will be of his 2001 return Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a densely poetic but ravishingly beautiful evocation of ageing that returns to some of the images and themes of his youth.

Nord (North, 1991)

This series, of which this is the second instalment, is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 2 || Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois | Cinematographer Fabio Conversi | Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier | Length 92 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 5 May 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Forum Distribution

There’s a lot of empty space in this debut feature from the director Xavier Beauvois, who is most well-known for the contemplative monastic drama Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010). The contemplation in this early work is altogether less divinely-inspired, unless it’s by the deities of ancient Greece, who seem to preside over this drama of a family falling apart under the strains of the father’s alcoholism. The empty space is the setting of the title, in the grey industrial North of France, around Calais where the director himself grew up. It seems to suffuse every scene, not least because so many unfold in extreme long shot, with the actors as small presences against the terrain.

Continue reading “Nord (North, 1991)”