After a first volume some years earlier, Criterion has added this second one, covering much the same range of years as the first, from some of his earliest works to his very last. I’m not sure if it necessarily adds more depth to the casual viewer’s understand of Brakhage as an artist, but it’s fascinating to see more of these little snatched windows into his life and artistry.
A lot of those early films seem more overtly autobiographical than the more abstract later works. The earliest included here, The Wonder Ring (1955), is a film glimpsed through the windows of a passing train, life reflected on the surface of that image, evoking a world that’s disappearing (this train line soon to be demolished) in a world so far from now and yet so tangibly there. The Dead (1960) takes in Paris, superimposing images of cemeteries (a sort of spectral double vision), a river boat ride and other assorted flashes of the old world, though it didn’t really cohere for me. In Two: Creeley/McClure (1965), the first of two portraits passes in a typical way for early Brakhage, with languorous superimpositions and negative images inserted, but this short piece is all about the second portrait, an all too brief ecstatic experience, literal flashes of a man. Rounding out the first programme of films, 23rd Psalm Branch (1967) is almost an hour long, a frenzied rush of images — of corpses (initially), of bombing, of Nazis, but also tender images of families and home, of being at the beach. But that shock of war and the horrors of conflict (this film was made during and largely as a response to Vietnam) means that even the positive images are pulled down into the darkness of Brakhage’s vision. It feels almost agitprop but of course remains an avant-garde text, a scream of a silent experimental film.
The second programme of films opens with one of his more renowned works, Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967). It seems to me there’s a penetrating darkness to the vision of childhood here, the images snatched from black leader, flashes of red, a strange sense of dislocation and eeriness. Maybe that’s the soundtrack (apparently Brakhage preferred it without, but there’s an optional one and I do prefer it to silence — what even is “silent” as a film concept, really, for those of us who live in the world, where there are constantly noises in the background?). Anyway, this is a potent poetic opening to what is a three-part film (the other two are not included here), as strong as anything in this period of his work. The Machine of Eden (1970) follows it as a bit of a landscape piece with glorious glowering skies, albeit in an impressionistic collage. However, I like the way that Stan Brakhage really mined his domestic life in this period of his filmmaking, reflected in Star Garden (1974). He must have been quite an intense dad to grow up with but he was always there filming his kids, his home, the special reflection of light through blinds, through paper, the edge of a dress, a spectral presence always because isn’t all film ultimately about light? Rounding out the group, Desert (1976) is a short film that I gather is more about the idea of a desert, expertly evoked with the light and filters, except for those brief moments when it just seems grey and suburban.
For the third programme of films, there is a movement towards the abstract, starting with The Process (1972), as images of people both become colour fields and are intercut with flashing blocks of colour suggesting (as I gather it) one’s closed eyelids and the idea of recalling something. There’s death in Burial Path (1978) in the shape of a bird, placed carefully in a cardboard box, and then there’s the recollection of death, the camera moving on to other things before looping back around to the bird. The duplicity in Duplicity III (1980) is presumably the spectacle of theatre as put on by his children and their classmates, but there’s almost an epic quality here. That sense is aided by showing these scenes alongside animals, a sort of contrast between lies and unadorned truth that evokes something essential. Four animals are intercut with one another in The Domain of the Moment (1977), though I don’t think that snake is making friends with the mouse. There’s a mystery and a beauty to his editing here. Of course, maybe you just need to be in the right mood to appreciate any abstract experimental film but Murder Psalm (1980) was very much it when I watched it: a collage of images, textures and grains of film and video, the shock of life and of death, the play of children and of armies, juxtaposing these eternal themes under an evocative title that suggests a continuity of behaviour from the humiliated child onwards and outwards through history. Rounding out the programme, one does wonder how Criterion decided which of the 20 films in Arabic Numeral Series to present. Ostensibly 12 (1982) is an abstract series of lights piercing the darkness, shimmering and hazy as if reflected through many layers and then gone. It has its own hypnotic pulse and I wonder again at the deeper meaning.
The fourth programme of shorts presents the four-part Visions in Meditation (1989-90), wherein Brakhage goes on a road trip in a way only Brakhage can, with shakily shot images that nevertheless suggest something deeper and stranger than any travelogue. He evokes mystery of course, with these unexplained images, but perhaps like the title suggests it’s better to just give in to the rhythms. The second film is even stranger and more mysterious than the first , though that may be as much to do with its focus on the ancient Puebloan culture we see at Mesa Verde, these ancient buildings built into the rocks. The way Brakhage shoots makes everything seem even more stranger, immanent, loaded with unknowable threat. This is poetic filmmaking, though at a certain point with I find it difficult to express why I like them. The third involves more images from a road trip, and what I like is the lights and the quality of light and the intersection between the images and also — for a change, since most of his films are silent — a score. It’s all very evocative of something but it feels right to me. There are some lovely images to the fourth and last in the series, which takes us to New Mexico. Glowering skies and threat hovers, but the light plays on the camera and it has a suitably epic feel.
The penultimate programme of films starts with Unconscious London Strata (1982). I don’t see much of London in it; I guess I don’t see much of anything. It feels like a film by someone losing their sight, as though it trades in images of the world, they are so blurry and out of focus that it registers as abstract patterns of colour and light crossing the screen. That’ll be the “Unconscious” in the title, and there’s obviously a dreamlike hazy quality to this, though it had more of a soporific effect on me at the time. There are some lovely sequences of abstract colours creating elaborate patterns in Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992), along with images of the world, presumably from around where Brakhage lived. But there’s that constant sense of surprise in the film which I appreciated. The Mammals of Victoria (1994) is half an hour of gentle waves lapping at the Canadian shore, indistinct figures, horizons, some video distortion and painted images. It’s hard to take in properly, but it certainly does have a holiday sort of feel to it, a gentle tranquillity, that perhaps lulled me a little too much (into a bit of sleep). However, some of my favourite of Brakhage’s pieces are the short ones with hand-painted patterns, not least From: First Hymn to the Night – Novalis (1994). These ones are dense and colourful, but they are broken up with the (hard-to-read) words of the poet Novalis.
I do like the hand-painted works that Stan Brakhage did and there are plenty featured in this sixth and final programme of short films within the collection. Watching I Take These Truths (1995), I’m imagining the bright blocky colours of a 90s sitcom credits sequence but there’s something far more majestic about these splashes of colours as they threaten to dissolve into the darkness of the black background. There’s a playfulness that even its almost sitcom-length running time cannot dampen. The realm we see depicted in The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1997) does involve a cat memorably for a few seconds, and I welcome it, though the worm presumably may not. It’s a film of leaves — bright and shining with dappled sun coming through, autumnal, barely perceived in a mulchy green haze — and undergrowth, a worm’s perspective perhaps. As for Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (1997), which is named for the World Tree in Norse mythology, I guess I expected it to be more tree-based, but aside from some hand-painted bits that give a sense of leaves, this is dominated by water imagery, pulsing strangely like constellations. The textures of the hand-painted frames are different in “…” Reel Five (1998), with a white ground and largely monochrome splashes and swathes of black (with little flashes of other colours). It’s all accompanied by a James Tenney score that leaps about as nimbly as Brakhage’s images. The first three films of the ongoing Persian Series (1999) are also presented here. I’m not exactly clear what the link is with Persian art, but I had some Iranian music on the record player so that made it feel to me a bit more specific. This is a heady wash of colours, as per the other films in this series and Brakhage’s later work. #2 gets my vote for Brakhage’s trippiest film, with the same use of vivid colours as in #1, but here the camera seems to speed through them like a spaceship speeding up through a galaxy of colours, before circling around. #3 is of a piece with #2, but is more frenetic, a bold pulse of constant colours in a visual thrum of intensity. Finally, there’s something very poignant about how Chinese Series (2003) was made, his final work, scratched with his fingernails into the film stock as he died, that commitment to the physicality of film (albeit watched now on Blu-ray). It’s stark, with the black ground dominating the visuals of largely monochromatic scratches that play out until a sudden stop.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 March, Saturday 19 March, Monday 21 March, Sunday 3 April, Saturday 14 May, Saturday 27 August, Wednesday 2 November, Thursday 3 November and Friday 4 November 2022.
The Wonder Ring (1955) | Length 6 minutes.
The Dead (1960) | Length 11 minutes.
Two: Creeley/McClure (1965) | Length 4 minutes.
23rd Psalm Branch (1967) | Length 67 minutes.
Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967) | Length 24 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000].
The Machine of Eden (1970) | Length 11 minutes.
Star Garden (1974) | Length 21 minutes.
Desert (1976) | Length 11 minutes.
The Process (1972) | Length 9 minutes.
Burial Path (1978) | Length 9 minutes.
Duplicity III (1980) | Length 23 minutes.
The Domain of the Moment (1977) | Length 15 minutes.
Murder Psalm (1980) | Length 17 minutes.
Arabic Numeral Series 12 (1982) | Length 18 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #1 (1989) | Length 17 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #2 (Mesa Verde) (1989) | Length 17 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #3 (Plato’s Cave) (1990) | Length 17 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #4 (D.H. Lawrence) (1990) | Length 18 minutes.
Unconscious London Strata (1982) | Length 23 minutes.
Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992) | Length 23 minutes.
The Mammals of Victoria (1994) | Length 35 minutes.
From: First Hymn to the Night – Novalis (1994) | Length 3 minutes.
I Take These Truths (1995) | Length 18 minutes.
The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1997) | Length 15 minutes.
Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (1997) | Length 17 minutes.
“…” Reel Five (1998) | Length 15 minutes.
Persian #1 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.
Persian #2 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.
Persian #3 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.
Chinese Series (2003) | Length 3 minutes.