The Films of Stan Brakhage: Volume II

In my review for The Third Man I noted that one fascinating aspect about film, as a medium, is that there is no discrete separation between high and low art, between supreme masterpieces and B-films. More than any other medium, the masterpieces of film have been selected by mass audiences rather than elitists. Maybe there’s more of a split now between academics, critics, and the movie-going public, but it’s hard to deny that so many of the best films are (or, at least, were) extremely popular. This is a blessing and a curse, and the curse side of it seems to manifest in a certain limited approach to what film is, what it should and can do, and what it should and can be. This leaves artists like Stan Brakhage struggling to find an audience because, unlike his abstract expressionist “brothers in spirit,” there really is no significant audience for Brakhage within the community of his own medium.  This is a shame because it could be said that no director was ever more concerned with film’s ability to replicate true vision, a vision unsullied by symbolic, tangible representation, be it in the form of narrative or in the looser form of metaphor (like his avant-garde, experimentalist predecessors).

The four films on “Program 1: 1955-67” of Volume Two, Disc One of Criterion’s Brakhage anthology represent perhaps the best chronicle of Brakhage’s artistic maturation from his early years in the 50s to his most prolific and famous years in the 60s. I’ll review three of those four here, saving the short-feature length 23rd Psalm Branch for its own full-length review and analysis.

The Wonder Ring

The Wonder Ring was perhaps the seminal film of Brakhage’s early work. It was commissioned by Joseph Cornell to document New York’s Third Avenue el before its demolition. This was Brakhage’s first film without a narrative, and even in this relatively juvenile entry, the exuberance with which Brakhage takes to this newfound freedom is clear. While nothing here lapses into the pure abstraction of his later works, there is a clear shift towards an interest in unusual, original perspectives, rhythm, and the musical lyricism that images in time can create. Brakhage begins with a series of panning and tilting establishing shots that capture the station itself, before moving on to view the train itself rushing past the camera. Even though we know what we’re looking at, Brakhage is already challenging our perceptive ability to really see it, as shadowy shapes and figures rush past in a blur.

On the train, Brakhage documents the steadily increasing velocity of the train transitioning from still to start. On the train, Brakhage only needs to turn his camera out the window to conjure a feeling of kinetic energy. Here, the brilliance of his artistry begins showing, as images through a clear window mix with those out of a rippled window that distort images as it moves by. Brakhage equally plays with the reflective surfaces of those windows, allowing images of people to appear like ghosts in the frame, naturally superimposed over the outside world rushing past. More than anything, the film is a study in movement. In the opening, the camera moves to document static images while, on the train, the camera stills to allow to document moving external images, allowing the train to impose its own perspective on the world, if only we had the vision to look out the window and appreciate it.

The Dead

“The Dead became my first work in which things that might very easily be taken as symbols were so photographed to destroy all their symbolic potential. The action of making The Dead kept me alive.” So says Brakhage in a quote available on the Criterion DVD. Indeed, if The Wonder Ring was Brakhage’s initial movement away from representational cinema, then The Dead is the consummation of that shift in focus. It comes at a fascinating period for Brakhage, after a quartet of films made in ’59 that could be considered amongst his most personal (Cat’s Cradle, Sirius Remembered, Wedlock House, and Window Water Baby Moving, the last of which documented his wife giving birth). The Dead was Brakhage’s only film in 1960, and it potently prefigures the visionary epics that would come just a few years later, including his two most famous works, Dog Star Man and Mothlight.

The Dead, however, isn’t inferior to either of its better-known offspring. It’s a macabre, haunting trek through a graveyard through the floating, swinging, swerving camera of Brakhage, accompanied with a variety of superimpositions, flashes of solarization, over-exposures, and a gray-tone scale that seems carved out of a spectral, grainy granite. This is Brakhage at the start of his densely layered images, a method that disallows for any orientation by the spectator on what they’re looking at by flash cutting images over images. Unlike in his later, even denser efforts, tangible objects can be found in The Dead. Statues abound in it, and Brakhage’s oblique angles, solarization, and superimpositions with the stately mausoleums show them as malevolent spirits that haunt these places rather than watching over them in protection.

A few minutes in, there’s a bizarre interruption as Brakhage turns his camera on what looks like a pier and a girl in a blue shirt and red skirt running across it. This is a stunning contrast the to the stark gray-white color scheme that had been established up to this point, and her movement is almost reminiscent of Jan Saudek’s “Two Women” (a photograph that depicts a young girl in white rushing by in the foreground as a decrepit old woman fades into the gray background). Overall, the film’s second half begins incorporating more shots of life and people, but they still remain like intangible phantoms. Throughout, Brakhage’s ever hovering, swaying camera seems to be mimicking the movement of a ghost itself, and the fractured vision perfectly encapsulates a ghost-like perspective.

Overall, The Dead is an intense but typically poetic film from Brakhage, photographing the architecture of a graveyard like portentous symbols without any comprehensible meaning available. It’s always difficult to argue that film is actually able to remove meaning simply by not consciously using symbols, but if the meaning of symbols are defined by context and usage then Brakhage’s rapid-fire montage certainly seems to play like someone speed-reading Finnegans Wake. What emerges out of the chaos are images that simply are, a kind of pure ontology that either moves your or it doesn’t. Brakhage would take this to even greater lengths in subsequent films, But The Dead stands as a potent example from his early period.

Two: Creeley/Mcclure

Two: Creeley/Mcclure is, according to Brakhage, a portrait of two individuals. The first is the calmer, more meditative entry. Brakhage opens with a typically washed-out white, superimposed shot of two men walking in the same room. One man begins to sit in a chair and Brakhage superimposes the mere act of sitting down from two angles. Here, close-ups of hands and faces abound, perhaps symbols (if such a term is applicable) of worry and care. Brakhage cuts between discernable close-ups of his subject from a variety of angles and more abstract, soft-focus images that fade out to more tangible images. In one memorable moment, Brakhage cuts between the man rubbing his head, with a solarized image of the same action, flashing on the screen as if capturing the shooting pains of a migraine.

This more gentle portrait is separated from the next by a “—“ and Brakhage wastes no time transitioning from the placidity of the first portrait to the rapid fire lightning strikes as a second. Brakhage must have been cutting at the rate of 1-3 frames per image as it’s all one can do to keep up with anything. But Brakhage’s coloratura runs also reveals his talent for rhythmic variations as static images are juxtaposed with other in revolving patterns. Images of a man in chair, his head in different positions, is spliced with images of a lion’s head, a chair, and other glimpses of the room itself. This was an advaned technique that wouldn’t become common place until filmmakers would cut to the fast-tempo beats in music videos nearly 30 years later.

Taken as a whole, these three films represent a monumentally invaluable chronicling of Brakhage’s rapidly maturing style and skill that would reach a pinnacle a few years later with Dog Star Man and the other film featured on this disc titled 23rd Psalm Branch. Yet all three stand up as substantial works of art in their own right.


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.").

One Response to The Films of Stan Brakhage: Volume II

  1. Pingback: Brakhage, Stan – The Dead 1960 | with reference to death

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