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 100: “Beastie Boys Video Anthology” (1981-99)

There’s a certain type of film that gets characterised as your typical Criterion release, though in truth they do keep their slate of releases relatively varied from long-established ‘classics’, to slow arthouse films to more recent releases and documentaries. However, even amongst these, an anthology of music videos by a single band is rather unusual, so I’m not really sure how to review it per se. It should be fairly clear that if you don’t like the music of the Beastie Boys, you probably won’t get much from Criterion spine number 100, though some of the productions (which are mostly directed by the sadly departed Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathanial Hörnblowér, the latter of which is his directing credit) have a sort of lo-fi amateur energy.

Chief amongst these, and perhaps typical of much of their output, is the one which opens the set “Intergalactic”. It’s a genre pastiche which utilises cheap props and cardboard sets intercut with our three rapping heroes in close-up. The genre here is the monster movie (it’s your usual giant robot vs giant octopus scenario), but when they do genre pastiches it’s usually the low-budget end which gets satirised, meaning the amateurish effects are part of the formal charm of the films. My favourite is probably “Body Movin'”, a 60s-style heist spoof that has the style that Austin Powers was going for, but funnier and frankly more interesting than that franchise, and some great sets and laugh-out-loud moments. Most people, though, will at least recall “Sabotage”, the Spike Jonze-directed cop film pastiche that still ranks amongst their (and his) finest works.

The rest of the videos vary from cut-ups of archival footage (for example, “Ricky’s Theme” or “Something’s Got to Give”) to straight-to-camera fisheye-lens setups of rapping, though “Three MCs and One DJ” mixes it up a little by having the three Beastie Boys frozen in their studio for an amusing minute-long prologue until their DJ arrives. One thing that becomes clear (and is probably the reason for the omission of some of the more famous late-80s cuts) is the maturation of the group from goofing-around frat-boy types with crude sexual humour to being rather more reflective about social issues (the last video on the set, “Alive” from 1999, even includes lyrics addressing the economic situation).

And if, like us, you’re watching them all from start to finish, you’ll probably move on to watching their other videos on YouTube, in which case check out the 30-minute long “Fight for Your Right Revisited”, which packs in a huge variety of celebrity cameos, and plenty of the sense of humour you’ll have picked up on from the 18 videos on the Criterion set.

Criterion Extras: Almost all the videos have multiple remixes which can be played over the videos, and some include alternate takes and angles. There’s an extended short film of “Intergalactic” which presents the monster movie plot without the music track (which doesn’t really help). Finally, and perhaps most usefully, there are lyrics subtitles for all the videos so you can keep up with what the boys are rapping about.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Evan Barnard (“Root Down”, 1995), Adam Bernstein (“Hey Ladies”, 1989), Spike Jonze (“Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”, 1994), Tamra Davis (“Netty’s Girl”, 1992), David Perez Shadi (“Gratitude”, 1993) and Adam Yauch [as “Nathanial Hörnblowér”] (“Holy Snappers”, 1981; “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”, 1989; “Pass the Mic”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “So What’cha Want”, 1992; “Ricky’s Theme”, 1994; “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic”, 1998; “Alive” and “Three MCs and One DJ”, 1999) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 4 June 2016

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Jurassic Park (1993)

One of the more successful of summer blockbuster tentpole films is now 20 years old, and with some small caveats it has aged very well, all things considered. A lot of this is down to Steven Spielberg’s very sure directorial hand: he has been one of the industry’s most successful directors, and for the good reason that he exhibits well-honed craft and even a bit of flair, but not the kind that constantly draws attention to itself, with swift editing, big setpieces, noise and action (sorry, Michael Bay).

The most remarked-upon aspect of the film at the time was of course the CGI dinosaurs, but technology has changed a lot in 20 years, and viewing the film in retrospect is to indulge in some of that wistfulness you get while watching, say, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion figures from the 1950s. The CGI is still grappling with conveying a sense of the weight and physicality of these creatures in a way that recent films have only just started to master (with Pacific Rim the current high-water point, though who knows how that will look in a few decades). Nevertheless by the time things kick off, you barely notice the dinosaurs aren’t real anymore.

What’s impressive then — what remains impressive — is the firm hold Spielberg has over the narrative tension, as the characters are first introduced and then gradually put into perilous situations. Just to backtrack a little for those that don’t know the film, an eccentric billionaire, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), has been able to clone dinosaurs, bringing them back to life to repopulate an island he owns as a prospective theme park. After the death of one of his workers, he recruits a number of experts — including palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie (Laura Dern), as well as mathematician and chaos theorist Ian (Jeff Goldblum) and his own grandchildren — to come and certify the park is safe. Naturally of course it’s not, though this is only exacerbated by the corrupt machinations of one of the key staff members (it does not appear to be a particularly well-staffed park, and the scientists and gamekeepers we do glimpse earlier on seem to quickly disappear as storm clouds approach).

Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were ever A-list film stars, but that’s always been one blockbuster strategy: use seasoned character actors in the lead roles (often where the initial draw is something else, such as, well, dinosaurs). It also pays dividends in the long run, as successive generations of viewers don’t have to cringe so much at the one-dimensional action heroics of whoever was the biggest star at the time. Richard Attenborough too gets to be dependably avuncular, so it’s Jeff Goldblum that stands out as the nervy, black-clad mathematician, a sort of Cassandra figure whose prophecies are disregarded until it’s too late. It’s interesting too to see an early Samuel L. Jackson performance as a slightly nerdy, anxiety-prone and put-upon engineer, a year before the Pulp Fiction role that made his name and largely fixed his screen persona.

In any case, Spielberg gets to pursue a few of his favourite themes. There are the fatherless children seeking and finding a surrogate father figure, with Sam Neill’s reluctant Dr Grant by the end stepping up to this role. There’s also a familiar sense of wonder at the natural world (those swooping shots of the island and its lush jungle ecosystem, or the vast hordes of dinosaurs causing our heroes to take shelter under a log), but it’s allied here with some concerns about the limits of scientific endeavour.

Ultimately, though, by bringing into conflict two quite different eras of the planet’s history (not a million miles from the premise of Pacific Rim mentioned above, with its weirdly primordial monsters), it addresses some of the ethics of cloning — a debate that would only increase with Dolly the sheep a few years after the film — while remaining a taut and effective thriller for adults and kids alike. This ability to balance different levels of a debate within a populist mode of filmmaking, more than anything, is Spielberg’s real talent.


© Universal Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp (based on the novel by Crichton) | Cinematographer Dean Cundey | Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough | Length 121 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 13 August 2013 (and in the cinema when it was released)

My Rating 3.5 stars very good