"Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective. An eye unprejudiced by compositional logic. An eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception." —Stan Brakhage
Over the course of nearly 50 years and over 350 films, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage strived to make his camera one with his "eye-brain...the mind's eye." His intensely subjective films comprise what may be the most soulful expression cinema has ever seen. Brakhage's output testfies to his commitment to his art, his technique and his muses: the visual evidence around him of "birth, sex, death and the search for God." Nearly all of Brakhage's films convey an astonishing blend of abstraction and representation, a hypnotic flow of pure cinema, an orgasmic discovery of the possibilities of the camera and editing technique, a hungry sensuality. Brakhage used the medium of film to chase the primitive and elemental and, more rarely, the constructions of urban and suburban living: the full spectrum of the macroscopic, scopic, and microscopic. To delve into a Brakhage film is to allow him to blow open your doors of perception, keeping them ajar long after the film (whether it be seconds or hours long) has fully unspooled.
There's a strong sense of film as play in these films, with a handmade quality that in some ways evokes the art projects of a grade-school classroom writ large by Brakhage. While all of his films qualify, in some way, as avant-garde, Brakhage became increasingly committed to the textured abstract, with much of his signature work being painted directly onto film or scratched into it (as are most of the film's titles). Though the films can challenge short attention spans, there's also often an assaultive, fluttering rapidity to Brakhage's bursts of color and scratches. Brakhage described his core aesthetic as "moving visual thinking," both his own and his hopeful sync-up with that of the audience as they process the input-output of his mind's eye. The films' typical silence—both inviting to thought and feeling, and disconcertingly distancing—reminds the viewer that, ultimately, one's experience of the film is solitary. Unquestionably, the films ask a lot of the viewer: they are not for those who see film as strictly a passive experience or a strictly escapist one, a notion Brakhage derided as a waste of precious life-time.
The Criterion Collection's sprawling collection of fifty-six of Brakhage's films offers an opportunity to witness the evolution of the artist over the span of his career (1954-2003). His best known works are here: film-class staple "Mothlight" (a 1963 piece created without the use of a camera, but with direct application to film of grass and moth wings), the graphic 1959 childbirth film "Window Water Baby Moving," and the 1961-1964 epic Dog Star Man, an Eisenstein-inspired, masterful display of montage —through editing and superimposition—that evokes the timeless struggle of man in and against nature. There are rare, but still unconventional excursions into narrative (1954's "Desistfilm" makes the camera a partcipant in a drunken party), documentary ("The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes" bravely and sickeningly takes us into an autopsy room), and home-movie forms, all filtered through the artist's unique perspective.
But most of the works are bursts of abstract art on film (like "The Dante Quartet," "Rage Net," and "Black Ice," which employs optical zooms to heighten the film's trance-like effect) or a combination of the abstract and college to the end of social critique, as in the case of Brakhage's celebrated 1967 anti-war film "23rd Psalm Branch." In his later years, Brakhage suffered from bladder cancer but undespairingly channeled the experience into his still-prolific work. Criterion's two-volume Brakhage anthology brings the artist out of the museum and into the place he envision himself: the living room. Now a wider audience has joined his tireless, distressing, ugly and beautiful search for meaning.
Criterion's By Brakhage: An Anthlogy—Volumes One and Two is a collection some viewers will find literally exhaustive, but indeed it needn't (and probably shouldn't) be experienced in one sitting, unless you have some anti-psychotics handy. Over three Blu-ray discs, you'll find fifty-six films totalling nearly twelve hours of viewing, plus hours of bonus features. Image quality must be considered in context of the source material. Volume One was prepared with Stan Brakage's direct involvement and Volume Two under the auspices of Brakhage's widow Marilyn. Most of the films are in an aspect ratio of roughly 1.37:1 (Brakhage's final film, "Chinese Series," is 1.85:1) and they vary in film source from 8mm to 35mm. Suffice it to say the transfers perfectly capture the filmmaker's intent, which included imagery painted or taped directly to film or even scratched into it. Most impressive is the vibrancy of the color, which at times comes in hues you're likely never to have seen before. Audio is largely irrelevant, as the majority of the films are silent, but the ones that aren't maximize their monaural source material. There's no question that Criterion has produced the definitive home-video collection of these films.
The bonus features constitute a film seminar in a box, providing context (mostly in Brakhage's own voluminous words) for the life, career, and films of the artist. Disc One repeats Volume One, previously (and still) available on Criterion DVD. The disc includes a "Play All" option for the twenty-six films. One can also individually access the films and find in the menu both brief text intros and access to audio "Remarks" from Brakhage on each of the films. The extremely talkative Brakhage also appears in three interview montages recorded in 1996 and 1997. In "Brakhage on Brakhage I" (9:07, HD), the artist discusses influences like John Cage and Jackson Pollack, telling a remarkable story of observing the alcoholic Pollack at work. "Brakhage on Brakhage II" (8:42, HD) deals with the influence of poetry (especially Ezra Pound) and his thoughts on Hollywood movies and the narrative form. "Brakhage on Brakhage III" (8:54, HD) covers tangling with nature, being in a trance state, practice with the camera and discovering on 8mm the trick of in-camera superimposition, while "Brakage on Brakhage IV" (9:35, HD) finds the artist discussing the current stage of his career and his uncertain future due to bladder cancer, as well as his appreciation for Whistler.
Discs Two and Three comprise the newly compiled Volume Two. The first of these discs includes excerpts from Salons conducted by Brakhage at the University of Colorado at Boulder: "On '23rd Psalm Branch'" (3:52, HD), "On 'Scenes from Under Chldhood,' Section One" (5:15, HD) and "On 'Murder Psalm'" (2:05, HD). There's also a text screen with information "About Brakhage's Salons." Also included are a 1990 "Interview" (36:58, HD) focusing on his role and choices as an artist and audio of a 1996 "Lecture" (50:23, HD) in which Brakhage delves into his artistic philosophy.
The final disc in the set includes two more Salon excerpts: "On 'Boulder Blues and Pearls And...'" (2:30, HD) and "On 'The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm'" (1:56, HD). Here too is Marilyn Brakhage's film "For Stan" (15:43, HD), which depicts her husband at work. There's another set of interviews: "Brakhage on Brakhage I" (6:13, HD) touches on Brakhage's relationships with Joseph Cornell and Maya Deren; "Brakhage on Brakhage II" (7:18, HD) finds the artist defining "experimental film," the "avant-garde" and the "underground," as well as his own imperative of "moving visual thinking"; and "Brakhage on Brakhage III" (7:02, HD) covers painted film versus narrative drama. Lastly, there's another Brakhage audio "Lecture" (1:06:35, HD), this one on the importance of Gertrude Stein's poem "Stanzas in Meditation."
The boxed set also comes with a 95-page booklet with "a foreword and program notes by Marilyn Brakhage, film capsules and an essay by Brakhage expert Fred Camper, and an essay on the film's preservation by Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive."
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