The Films of Stan Brakhage: Volume I

VOLUME I: Series 1:

Stan Brakhage is often considered the best director to come out of the post-war American avant-garde movement. He’s certainly the most prolific, the most varied, and perhaps the most technically accomplished. While directors like Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau (the latter an admitted huge influence on Brakhage) preceded him, their output is relatively small. Much the same can be said for early contemporaries like Kenneth Anger. In a brief introduction to Brakhage, Fred Camper went as far as to say “At some point in the future, when authoritative histories of twentieth century art begin to be written with the wise judgment that only distance from the present time can confer, I believe that Stan Brakhage will loom not only as one of the very greatest of filmmakers but as one of the major figures in all the arts.” It’s always tricky evaluating recent contemporary art in a forecasted hindsight, but judging by my own introduction to Brakhage in a scant three films, I must say that I’m immensely impressed and looking forward to see if such a prediction may hold some water.


Watching this film I wondered if the Farrelly brothers were referencing it in Dumb & Dumber when they came up with their concept of “the most annoying sound in the world”. Brakhage accompanies an ordinary afternoon get-together of a group of teenage friends with a droning sound that may be some kind of amplified radio distortion. Whatever it is, it makes the film difficult to watch with the sound even turned up to a moderate volume. That said, visually the film isn’t a great deal more interesting, but it does have its share of moments as Brakhage is already taking delight in the cognitive disruption of visual space relative to the viewer. All of the short film’s most exciting moments comes when the camera is on the move, tracking left, right, or pushing in with a jolt. But I’m at a bit of a loss to interpret Brakhage’s thematic intent (if, indeed, he had any).

Wedlock House: An Intercourse

Five years later and Brakhage is already turning in a much more mature and focused effort. Wedlock House feels like an attempt to chronicle the beginning of a marriage by abstractly carving images out of light. Given Brakhage’s appreciation for the arts, I’m guessing he knew that photography literally means “drawing with light”, and here he uses light to explore the darkness and characters. The film opens with a solarized (a technique in black-and-white photography for turning black images white and vice-versa) shot of a couple beginning to make love. But Brakhage doesn’t stay with this long before he begins exploring the psychological impact of marriage itself, using an ever-moving spotlight to explore his characters.

The film makes ironic use of its title, playing off the paradox of being “locked in”, but also having intercourse, which implies movement. The film seems to suggest that this conflict is at the heart of marriage itself. Brakhage says in an interview that the film was an attempt to put on film his own feelings and thoughts of a young, naïve man just entering into marriage, and the film is certainly wrought with a palpable visual tension, especially with its oblique angles and jagged editing patterns that use darkness like a pallet on which to selectively illuminate whatever image seems to intuitively fit the moment.

Dog Star Man

Dog Star Man is likely Brakhage’s most well known film, and at near-feature length (after combining its Prelude and Parts I-IV into a single film) it’s one of his longest. It’s startling then to think that Dog Star Man is the short version of Brakhage’s full work, The Art of Vision, which runs an astonishing 270 minutes. For those who are adverse to abstract filmmaking and art to begin with, it may be advisable to skip both. For those who enjoy such films but have a short attention span, I’d recommend just sticking with Dog Star Man. I admit that even as someone who enjoys abstract art-films, even I found my patience at times tested during the 76 minutes of the film, but for those willing to brave it, it’s quite the extraordinary visual odyssey.

What is Dog Star Man about? Well, it’s more appropriate to ask what it is, but even that is a near impossible question to answer. In the same way that Joyce had to abandon traditional English semantic and syntactical rules in order to express the unfiltered semi-consciousness and unconsciousness of his characters in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, it seems that Brakhage has taken the same method of abandoning the rules of conscious film-making in order to express a deeper state of cognitive chaos in Dog Star Man. Brakhage himself called Dog Star Man his attempt at a visual poetry epic, one that would act as a complimentary analog to those of Homer and others outside the Western literary canon.

But this still does very little to describe the film itself. And I may have to lamentedly admit the limits of language, and my own comprehensive limitations with regard to the film in itself in describing it in any way meaningful. What is Dog Star Man? It’s an explosion of creative abstraction that challenges the way we see film as a collection of related moving images. The film is comprised of colors, distorted shapes, nonsensical superimpositions and editing that almost puts up a barrier between the viewer’s consciousness and the film. It’s a film to be experienced, but likely not one to be understood. Or is it? It’s impossible to say the film doesn’t offer (occasionally, if not frequently) glimpses of a legitimate narrative involving a man trudging up a snowy hill with his dog.

But what does this limited glimpse of a narrative do to allow us to associate it with the rest of the visual chaos? Perhaps very little, perhaps a great deal. If all of my review seems quite equivocal and uncertain then it accurately reflects my experience of the film. At best, I could say that Dog Star Man is a film that’s hopelessly impossible to watch only once and observe. During a first viewing you’ll likely be doing all you can just to snatch concrete images out of the seemingly incoherent chaos that’s erupting in front of you. In doing so, it may be possible to pick out certain motifs. Certainly sex, birth, struggle, and mortality seem to play a key role, as does more mythical elements like a transcendental nature that seems to always be looming around the frames.

Brakhage’s use of superimpositions are especially fascinating and my instincts tell me that Dog Star Man is like an attempt to render a musical fugue in images, using multiple roles of film as the equivalent of melodic lines in which their layering creates a unique harmony through that fusion. As the film progresses, the layering certainly seems to become more complex and interwoven as we’re forced to confront the reiteration of all of the film’s visual themes. Certainly one gets the impression that if the film isn’t an “epic” in the most traditional sense of the word, it does seem like a kind of visual aesthetic equivalent. Ultimately, Dog Star Man is an impressive feet of experimental film-making, but it’s certainly left me with a wariness about tackling The Art of Vision.

VOLUME II: Series 2

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes

Cat’s Cradle

Window Water Baby Moving


Eye Myth

The Wold-Shadow

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Stars Are Beautiful


I … Dreaming

The Dante Quartet

Night Music

Rage Net

Glaze of Cathexis

Delicacies of the Molten Horror Synapse

For Marilyn

Black Ice

Study in Color and Black and White


Crack Glass Eulogy

The Dark Tower

Commingled Containers


Ben Johnson once said of John Donne that he was “the first poet in the world in some things”, and watching Brakhage’s films I’m inclined to think that he was the first filmmaker in the world in some things. Both artists are certainly known for their radical approaches to their medium and form, and both seem to be as much admired as ignored and ridiculed for their peculiar difficulties. It could be said that Brakhage is more ostensibly contrary to conventional notions of filmmaking (than Donne was contrary to conventional notions of poetry), but Brakhage has the advantage of coming during a time of American cinema in which an underground, experimental, avant-garde movement was occurring. But even with more history to support him, Brakhage remains, in a sense, impenetrable and inscrutable, if only because so many of his films disallow any kind of comparative analysis or evaluation. Or, to put it more banally; the films speak for themselves.

Although, it’s bizarre to think that the films of a filmmaker so concerned with vision do any speaking it all. It may better be said that they show for themselves. Yet, at the same time, they cry out for some tangible, representational anchor to tame their abstraction, at least to the point that we can have some concrete vantage point in which to view them. The films on Criterion’s first disc—Desistfilm, Wedlock House, and Dog Star Man—are difficult in their own right (especially the epic Dog Star Man), but they hardly lapse completely into realm of pure image like many of the films on this set do. Most of the films from The Dante Quartet on are examples of Brakhage’s infamous penchant for painting directly onto film, which, in essence, turns filmmaking into an almost pure form of visual abstract art.

Yet it’s fascinating to watch Brakhage’s gradual slipping into such abstraction and, indeed, it’s not so sharp of an immediate descent. Perhaps the two centerpieces of this set is the 30-minute The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes and the 12-minute Window Water Baby Moving. In these two films, in true artist fashion, Brakhage isn’t only tackling the universal themes of death and birth, but he’s doing it as a way to conquer his own fears. The Act of Seeing… is especially disturbing as it’s set entirely in a morgue with Brakhage documenting live autopsies. Brakhage wittily alludes to this in the title itself, as autopsy literally means “an eye-witnessing”. In this film, Brakhage confronts death and the clinical blood and guts of humanity with a poetic directness—a directness that may, frequently, be hard to look at, but, then again, Brakhage seems to be all about challenging our perceptions, and forcing us to look at the ugliness of our own mortality is merely another way of doing that.

Window Water Baby Moving is a lighter take on the opposite end of life’s spectrum. Like with The Act of Seeing… Brakhage captures birth with a camera that’s both direct and poetic. Though here he uses more editorializing, certainly more so in leading up to the actual birth. Especially lovely is the oblique angles of the light streaming into the window onto the mother, and Brakhage’s experimenting with running the film back, which has the effect of showing the water (from the bathtub) washing on and off of the mother’s protruding belly. But once the birth happens, Brakhage is remarkably steady in his documenting of it. What he achieves is no small miracle in the fact that he captures both the beauty and grotesqueness of birth. When this film is juxtaposed next to The Act of Seeing… the two create a powerful book end on the nature of birth and death.

Of all the films on the disc, Cat’s Cradle may be the most conventional. It’s a small gem of wicked mysticism, using a couple and (as Brakhage stated) a cat as their medium. Brakhage’s rapid-fire montage and blood red lighting add to the bewitching effect. Mothlight is one of Brakhage’s best-known films, and it consists, quite simply, of strips of film that Brakhage had pasted death moth wings to. Brakhage himself said the film was his way of overcoming the sadness he felt at the idea of moths flying towards a flame and dying—a modest recognition that he (at least) noticed them. Of all Brakhage’s films, this is certainly one of the most poetic in concept, and a prime example of how poignant modern art can be even in its abstraction.

Eye Myth was Brakhage’s attempt at creating a myth (typically spoken) solely through images. It’s hard to say if he’s successful or not in the short span of 9 seconds. The Wold Shadow finds Brakhage training his camera on a mysterious shadow in a wold (or wood, though, ironically, it can also mean plane). By adjusting the exposure, Brakhage is able to create a camera that seems to be blinking its eyes to various degrees in order to understand the spirit embedded in the woods themselves. The Garden of Earthly Delights is a precursor to the paintings on films, as it features bizarrely captured images of greenery, yet it’s fascinating in its seemingly electrified abstraction of such a “garden”.

The Stars Are Beautiful is one of the lengthier pieces on the set, but not one of the most successful. Brakhage mysteriously juxtaposes shots of a night sky and him reading a list of various creation myths with images of children clipping the wings of chickens. Kindering is a brief but touching look at Brakhage’s grandchildren as they play in his yard. Typically, Brakhage distorts the images in a variety o ways, yet the tenderness of the portrayal comes through the chaos. I… Dreaming is one of the most successful short on the film as it pairs images of his family preparing for sleep with the music of Joel Heartling set to heartbreaking lyrics by Stephen Foster about waiting and loneliness. The music is sung by a female soprano and Brakhage mixes the audio in patches (like a skipping record), which perfectly accentuates the impressionistic images of the film.

Most of the other films on the disc feature some form of Brakhage’s technique of painting on film. Of them, The Dante Quartet was one of his first and most impressive. He said it took him several years to complete and was based on his life-long of Dante, and was his attempt to transfer the images in his head that he had associated with the books’ places (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven) onto film. The remarkable thing about all of these films is, in spite of the same technique used on all of them, how much diversity Brakhage conjures. All of these have extremely different tonal qualities based purely on the colors used, the rhythm of the editing, the placement of the colors, etc. Pieces like Night Music and Black Ice present darker blacks and blues (evoking the mystery of night and the pain of falling on black ice) while a piece like Rage Net is alight with piercing yellows and oranges (evoking the hotness of rage).

Of these pieces, Brakhage said he felt most attached to For Marilyn, a tribute to his second wife. Here, the painting is set against images of a majestic church, and the film does have a feeling of optimistic hope and reverence. In contrast, Delicacies of the Molten Horror Synapse is an intense piece of swirling dark oranges that seem frequently painted over images of an erupting volcano (Brakhage said it was his reaction against television). Stellar is meant to evoke the majesty of the cosmos, while Dark Tower places the paintings alongside a tall, rectangular black image set in the middle of the screen. Crack Glass Eulogy is a return to a more “normal” (if such a term can exist in this context) state of experimentation, using a musical piece running alongside images of (mostly) broken glass.

During a health scare, Brakhage said he almost wished he had died since the film he’d made prior to his surgery, Commingled Containers, would’ve been a perfect film to end his career on. The film does evoke a certain metaphysical peace and mystery. Brakhage said it was his attempt to present both the external and internal aspect of things simultaneously. The disc ends with the more recent Lovesong, and its title is meant to describe the brash collisions, ecstasies, and cognitive reactions of a sexual encounter, and the film is imbued with a definite frictional energy that’s impossible. Really, that leaves The Glaze of Cathexis and A Study in Black and White as the only two films on the disc that really didn’t leave an impression on me.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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