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Ron Reed

Stan Brakhage

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M. Leary   

Stef, I am letting my silence speak for itself. I am quite unhappy at having missed what would have certainly been one of the crowning moments of my life. Please stay in touch with these people for a year or two. You say: "These are extraordinary works on a large screen in 16mm." It must have sounded spectacular. I hope you are considering writing up your experience for someone to post somewhere.

I'm also pretty confident that Brakhage's anger wasn't just a phase. It seems like the dominant impulse of his art. The arc of his artistic trajectory is from 1) The OUTSIDE WORLD -- semi-conventional photographed "social" filmmaking, mixed with humiliating commercial work, to THE FAMILY CIRCLE and NATURE (autobiographical and personal poems) to METAPHYSICAL SOLIPSISM AND HERMITAGE (the painted films) I think we don't have to look far to sense a reinforcing pattern of mutual rejection and withdrawal.

There is certainly a pattern of withdrawal in his work, but this isn't always associated with anger. I am thinking here even of some of his more personal films, early films that include images of his first wife, that are actually idyllic in tone. In these films there is a distinct tone of withdrawal as either a couple or a family unit together from the world, not just Brakhage. Much like the time his family spent in the wilderness together. And as in Dog Star Man, this withdrawal is often coupled with a rather profound set of mythical symbols or narratives rather than purely a romanticist angst. Making "trajectories" of Brakhage's work is fine, but his corpus is just obtuse enough that multiple trajectories proving multiple theories of inspiration can be made. In short, we do have to look far to see "mutual rejection" and "withdrawal," just as far as we have to look to find things like "diegesis," "myth," "ontology," or even "divinity." All of which are present in Brakhage at any given moment.

I'm mostly speculating, of course. We'll have to wait for the definitive biography....

Yes, and it is dangerous to ascribe "anger" as a fundamental motivation for someone's work when you are basing it on conjecture. Even if you are right, there is a certain jurisprudence about making such statements, especially when dealing with a filmmaker that has talked about his films as much as Brakhage. Looking forward to that biography. What a great job that would be.

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Much like the time his family spent in the wilderness together. And as in Dog Star Man, this withdrawal is often coupled with a rather profound set of mythical symbols or narratives rather than purely a romanticist angst.

Here you're minimizing Brakhage's romanticism, which I would say is another dominant impulse, along with religious feeling, which is the third. And as for the whole natureboy thing...here's another interview excerpt where he seems bitter and resentful of Jane for dragging him up a mountain and making that his whole world.

SB: "There are just those resonances of fear and desire in Wedlock House...I need to say I had a whole relationship of twenty-nine years, with Jane. We raised a family—if you can be said to raise your children, helped feed them anyway and care for them deeply—for twenty-nine years. Long time. And across all that period, there were many, many dedications that had to do with the family. But two-thirds of what I was doing didn’t really have to do with the family at all. And people have kind of been confused about that.

A good third of what I was doing had to do with the life that I was having separate from the family, traveling around the world trying to make enough money to support everyone, to live up at 9,000 feet in the mountains. Everyone thinks...acts as if that was cheap. No, no. Very expensive to live at 9,000 feet in the mountains. I mean, my whole rent bill when I moved down from the mountains was...all the expenses that I had were just practically nothing in comparison to just the wood, the payment for the wood and the gas and the coal to keep that house, that cabin, that mad cabin at 9,000 feet in the mountains going.

BK: You lived there for about twenty years.

SB: Yeah, about twenty... Let’s see. It’s a little hard to tell because there was here and there and moving back and forth, and there was living in Custer, South Dakota at one point and in San Francisco at another, and New York City at a third, and so on. I mean, there was a lot of moving around and doing different things, but basically I’d say for the final run, oh, I’d say about fifteen years straight through to when Jane and I divorced. That whole period was...

BK: Then ironically she moved even farther up the mountain.

SB: Another thousand feet. I was sort of grateful in a way, because I was dying where we were just from mountain sickness, I mean just from high altitude sickness… And she moved up another thousand feet. It kind of proved the point. We really couldn’t...whatever we were trying to do, we could not go on…

…Jane...when everything fell to pieces for Jane and I—it really was pretty much on grounds of, oh, I don’t know, the end of the idealizations for me of nature.

BK: Do people think that you are a left-over romantic?

SB: Oh, yes. People assumed I was the Nature Boy. I used to even think of that when I was a kid. I mean, I would try to tell people, I’d try to explain and everything. This is killing me, and I was really quite sick during a great deal of it with idiotoxic disorders of various kinds. But the truth of the matter was, this was never for me. This, for me, was a giving over to what I felt Jane needed, for her to be enabled to raise the five children in a way...and have her full strength. And I was the sacrificial lamb, from my viewpoint. I know that sounds silly to people, because they all had me pictured as such a Mountain Man."

I just can't see how you can credibly minimize the simmering rage and resentment in this language. He really fixated on the lock part of wedlock, and his idea of marriage seemed to be antagonistic.

Making "trajectories" of Brakhage's work is fine, but his corpus is just obtuse enough that multiple trajectories proving multiple theories of inspiration can be made. In short, we do have to look far to see "mutual rejection" and "withdrawal," just as far as we have to look to find things like "diegesis," "myth," "ontology," or even "divinity." All of which are present in Brakhage at any given moment.

Without a doubt. He is an artist. And multidimensional.

Yes, and it is dangerous to ascribe "anger" as a fundamental motivation for someone's work when you are basing it on conjecture.

"Dangerous", why...?

Edited by goneganesh

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M. Leary   

Here you're minimizing Brakhage's romanticism, which I would say is another dominant impulse, along with religious feeling, which is the third.

I am not trying to minimize his "romanticism" (which he claims for himself in your transcribed comments), just trying to minimize your focus on his anger. Sorry if that came out wrong.

I just can't see how you can credibly minimize the simmering rage and resentment in this language. He really fixated on the lock part of wedlock, and his idea of marriage seemed to be antagonistic.

Because it isn't an accurate description of the sitz im leben of all of his films. Is there "rage" or "resentment" in Window Water Baby Moving or Wedlock House? Not at all, Brakhage actually uses Wedlock House as an index of the "fear" and "desire" (which is a great vocabulary for marriage) characterizing their early relationship that turned into anger during the last 15 years. So there is anger there, no denying it. Just not all the time, and it doesn't affect all of his films. (Especially his later ones.) That's all I am saying.

"Dangerous", why...?

Because at base it isn't a just a critical judgement, it is a character judgement. I have had some rather difficult periods in my own life that have lead to flashes of anger, I would hate to have someone manipulate those flashes into a totalizing description of my life's output. And granted, I can think of worse motivations to ascribe to art. But there is a sheer joy in a lot of his work that contradict his more anger-laden moments.

Man, "idiotoxic" is a fabulous word.

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Because it isn't an accurate description of the sitz im leben of all of his films. Is there "rage" or "resentment" in Window Water Baby Moving or Wedlock House? Not at all, Brakhage actually uses Wedlock House as an index of the "fear" and "desire" (which is a great vocabulary for marriage) characterizing their early relationship that turned into anger during the last 15 years. So there is anger there, no denying it. Just not all the time, and it doesn't affect all of his films. (Especially his later ones.) That's all I am saying.

Sorry for quoting this whole interview, but....

BK: I think Wedlock House: An Intercourse does that. I think it gets people in their guts. Can you explain in a way what was...?

SB: Here is a young man who knows nothing about...who’s been led astray, who knows nothing about women, about love making. His first mother abandoned him. His second mother abandoned him. The adopting mother abandoned him. Most of the people that raised him were variously cruel to him in ways that were hardly any kind of [example] as to how you’d feel a loving relationship with women, who suddenly finds himself married to this woman who’s a really strong, real woman.

BK: Jane.

SB: Jane, yes. And she’s having her life, and she’s filled with her griefs and her...and she’s also being put upon in ways. And he is expected to put upon her or be put upon. And they’re thrown together into some kind of an argument which…it doesn’t really matter what the argument is, as you said. They don’t even know what they’re doing hardly. They’re just...they’re flotsam and jetsam in a world of shiny tears of eyes. And we have this little glistening of the eyes and the dark feelings. Then there’s each of them taking turns holding lights that are moving, making moving shadows of like projections of whatever the great lumbering beasts that they might be hoping to be being in this marriage that they’re trying to be having.

Wedlock House—I meant wed lock. They’re trapped. They are as inexorably trapped as you can possibly imagine any people being. And "intercourse," that’s really contradictory. That’s oxymoronic almost. How can you be wed-locked and intercoursing?

Watch the progression of Brakhage's life according to himself: Abandoned by a series of maternal figures, replacement of the mother with Jane i.e. a "real woman", obsession with her sexual nature and maternity, abandoned again by the maternal figure, despair, and reunion and idealization of a final maternal figure, i.e. Marilyn. This is not a person who is going through "flashes" of anger. This is someone whose entire life has been conditioned by this maternal rejection and resulting rage. His art seems to me about working through this stuff, and THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. He's surviving and transforming this pain into Art.

However, when the people around him are forced to play roles in his psychodrama, then we have some ancillary problems. I can easily see how his wife and children would become resentful and angry at "the great artist" who makes them into kathartic instruments. I'm just empathizing with these other actors.

Because at base it isn't a just a critical judgement, it is a character judgement. I have had some rather difficult periods in my own life that have lead to flashes of anger, I would hate to have someone manipulate those flashes into a totalizing description of my life's output. And granted, I can think of worse motivations to ascribe to art. But there is a sheer joy in a lot of his work that contradict his more anger-laden moments.

I am not making a character judgement. I'm not saying that Brakhage is a bad, or worthless person. I'm saying that I don't know a lot of "happy" artists. Here is where we are on different planets -- when I look at Brakhage and his films I see a guy who is angry, death obsessed, depressed, suicidal, passive agressive. I don't see joy in there at all. I'm not at all saying that YOU can't see and respond to joy in the films, but the man does not personally have a joyful worldview.

Edited by goneganesh

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Persona   
However, when the people around him are forced to play roles in his psychodrama, then we have some ancillary problems. I can easily see how his wife and children would become resentful and angry at "the great artist" who makes them into kathartic instruments. I'm just empathizing with these other actors.

You do realize, Goneganesh, that you are assuming that it was Brakhage who desired to film his family, right?

If he left the city and the place he loved and went to live where Jane wanted him to live, is it not possible that he -- at least in the beginning -- filmed what Jane wanted him to film? They are an artsy, happily-in-love couple, you can see it in Wedlock House or Window Water Baby Moving. I think it is fair to suggest that from the start of the autobiographical section of Stan Brakhage's films, the newlyweds had a lot of fun filming their lives together, and that she was a lot more of a driving force behind the films than one might initially think.

This would overwhelmingly add to Brakhage's later disappointment when (he felt) the family alienated not only him, but also the films he made of them together.

-s.

Edited by stef

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M. Leary   

Sorry for quoting this whole interview, but....

Oh no, that's fine. I just wish you would have quoted the whole thing. After this he goes on to talk about how working with the film previous to this he was brought to a point of suicidal despair. Wedlock was just an attempt to "salvage something" from "this mess." And at the very end of his remarks on Wedlock he speaks of the lovemaking at the end of the film as a sort of "yielding." It is pointing towards some sort of hope. He and Jane worked together every day putting these images together, actually rehearsing marital activities as a way of outlining their contours.

I'm just empathizing with these other actors.

I am with you this far. And it is true that Marylin actually forebade him to film her or their children as a caveat to his marriage proposal for this very reason. But there still are a few films for which this is not true, most notably: Window Water Baby Moving. So how universalizing is this principle for Brakhage films?(Though in the back of my head somewhere is someone anecdotally passing on a comment from Jane about how uncomfortable she was through it.)

I'm saying that I don't know a lot of "happy" artists.

And I don't know a lot of happy mathmeticians or stockbrockers either. Such is life. He seems pretty happy to me though in extant interviews, comes across as a right nice bloke.

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You do realize, Goneganesh, that you are assuming that it was Brakhage who desired to film his family, right?

If he left the city and the place he loved and went to live where Jane wanted him to live, is it not possible that he -- at least in the beginning -- filmed what Jane wanted him to film? They are an artsy, happily-in-love couple, you can see it in Wedlock House or Window Water Baby Moving. I think it is fair to suggest that from the start of the autobiographical section of Stan Brakhage's films, the newlyweds had a lot of fun filming their lives together, and that she was a lot more of a driving force behind the films than one might initially think.

maybe.. or maybe I'm just going off Brakhage's explicit denial of this..here:

SB: Oh, no. Absolutely all alone. All alone with everything including...every one of my films, really, the most help that it had would be the help of Jane to do something or other. And that’s been a little bit overplayed. I mean, she did do some photography now and again, but basically that would be simply my saying would you please hold this or do this, or take this picture when I say so, or whatever. And she was a helpmate in that sense to the work. I make that statement not to take anything away from her, but because there’s some confusion that could be harmful to people if they would begin to think she stood in the place of a muse or something.

Now, if you have some anecdotal information that Jane was in reality some major participant and co-creator in the early films, and Brakhage is distorting his history to suit himself, then that tends to prove my "angry man stan" point. And if that was a partnership, she certainly became aware at some point that this was all Stan's trip and that she was just along for the ride.

And the other thing that I find odd about your (stef and mleary's) take on these particular films is that I don't really get a sense of Jane B. as a person, just as a pregnant woman and mysterious sex partner. As per my maternal obsession theory, he tends to objectify her in rather crudely obvious ways. Cutting her into eisenstenian pieces, as it were.

Are these films really joyful or hopeful..?

Edited by goneganesh

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M. Leary   

I thought long about Window Water Baby Moving last night, watching it a few times to pick up traces of the aptly named "angry man stan." And in that particular film I am not seeing it. His editing in the film is rash, but not "eisensteinian" at all. For a few reasons. Firstly, there is no "third image" produced by his edits. She isn't juxtaposed with anything else, all cuts hyperlink right back to her. So the associative sense of eisensteinian montage is absent from WWBM and the entire film, cuts and all, refer back to its own imagery. So in that sense perhaps Jane becomes objectified as an object of maternal obsession, but it doesn't become a mercenary objectification. She isn't used as a canvas by which Brakhage can tell us how he feels about her, she completely expands to fill every millimeter of the film's thought world.

And secondly, I tend to appreciate Tarkovsky's criticism of the eisensteinian mode: "I am radically opposed to the way Eisenstein used the frame to codify intellectual formulae. My own method of conveying experience to the audience is quite different... Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no "air," nothing of that unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art..." Okay, now Brakhage does certainly use film to "codify intellectual formulae." For that reason I am glad he has talked about his films as much as he has. But he doesn't do so in the same way that Eisenstein does, and thus Tarkovsky's critique of Eis. doesn't apply to Brakhage. Eisenstein's intellectual formulae were by and large political, this is most probably the sense of "intellectual" that Tarkovsky is reacting to here. Brakhage's formulae are ontological, filmic, and relational. They are obscenely theoretical and abstract, crafted to lead to the sort of elusiveness Tarkovsky tries to achieve. Perhaps this is where my main objection to filing his early films in one main emotive category such as "angry" is coming from. Anecdotally, I have lived in Wedlock House, and experienced precisely the same emotions that Brakhage lists as his motivations behind the film. The image of Stan and Jane alternately holding flashing lights in the same dark space is a beautiful picture of the baby steps of marriage. There is fear there, but there is also "light," there is also "intercourse." And as Brakhage says, he is attempting to abstract a few salvageable things from the gloom of that experience.

All that is just to respond to your use of "eisensteinian." To answer your question, yes I think they are joyful and hopeful. If we are going to approach Brakhage through the lens of his biography, an approach which I obviously applaud, then we should be able to appreciate them through the lens of our own biography. The two films in question are universal experiences, intercourse in the context of an early marriage, and the birth of a baby. The opacity with which Brakhage chronicles these two contexts forces us to bring our own experiences of the same events to the table. From that perspective I can say: sure he was happy to be having a baby.

(Thoroughly enjoying this discussion by the way, after all these years we finally get a Brakhage discussion going.)

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I thought long about Window Water Baby Moving last night, watching it a few times to pick up traces of the aptly named "angry man stan." And in that particular film I am not seeing it. His editing in the film is rash, but not "eisensteinian" at all. For a few reasons. Firstly, there is no "third image" produced by his edits. She isn't juxtaposed with anything else, all cuts hyperlink right back to her. So the associative sense of eisensteinian montage is absent from WWBM and the entire film, cuts and all, refer back to its own imagery. So in that sense perhaps Jane becomes objectified as an object of maternal obsession, but it doesn't become a mercenary objectification. She isn't used as a canvas by which Brakhage can tell us how he feels about her, she completely expands to fill every millimeter of the film's thought world.

We're probably getting into a realm of near total subjectivity -- but here's how I see that film: I feel his profound anxiety and ambivalence about becoming a father, Jane becoming a mother (who may in turn reject what comes from inside of her, and Brakhage's even deeper fear of being supplanted by the child. Now you say it's not "mercenary", but I just don't get any sense of these people (Jane and the yet born child) conveying anything but what Brakhage wants them to mean in his psychodrama. They aren't given autonomy. And this is a very hard thing to do in any film, granted. But it's not impossible.

And secondly, I tend to appreciate Tarkovsky's criticism of the eisensteinian mode: "I am radically opposed to the way Eisenstein used the frame to codify intellectual formulae. My own method of conveying experience to the audience is quite different... Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no "air," nothing of that unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art..." Okay, now Brakhage does certainly use film to "codify intellectual formulae." For that reason I am glad he has talked about his films as much as he has. But he doesn't do so in the same way that Eisenstein does, and thus Tarkovsky's critique of Eis. doesn't apply to Brakhage. Eisenstein's intellectual formulae were by and large political, this is most probably the sense of "intellectual" that Tarkovsky is reacting to here.

In defense of Eisenstein - Tarkovsky is addressing the "cartoon" Eisenstein, but the real Eisenstein's ideas on montage were far more complex and nuanced than people ever give him credit for. They also evolved considerably. And his official writings were of course conditioned by the need to follow the party line. I'd say that at least in certain films, Brakhage is plus royaliste que le roi. These are the most purely Eisensteinian films outside of music video. I say this because Eisenstein was ultimately about a fusion of idea, emotion and image into a balanced formal whole. And these films are filled with experiments in classical collision montage. I don't think that Brakhage would deny Eisenstein's profound influence on his film art. I don't see why we should either. To me, Eisenstein isn't a bad word.

Brakhage's formulae are ontological, filmic, and relational. They are obscenely theoretical and abstract, crafted to lead to the sort of elusiveness Tarkovsky tries to achieve. Perhaps this is where my main objection to filing his early films in one main emotive category such as "angry" is coming from.

Just to be clear, I'm not characterizing the films as "angry" -- I'm saying something else. That his anger is the fountainhead of all the art. I'd characterize the films as partial sublimation of the anger, as passive aggression. Brakhage almost never allows his anger onscreen. He doesn't really give himself permission for that. Because male anger in anglo-saxon culture is this frightening thing that has to be repressed.

As a tangential note -- I think that these films in particular are fairly narrative - it's not really a "choose your own adventure" kind of thing. They are psychodramas, and Brakhage's emotions are the protagonist. And they defintely invite psychoanalysis.

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John   

Yeah, so I just finished Disc 1 of the Brakhage set. I'm not quite sure what to make of it all. I hear a fair amount of praise for his work around these parts, yet I find myself troubled by certain images that seem to stretch into an area of mystery or privacy. Regardless, due to their style, I connected with each film more emotionally than in any kind of intellectual or cognitive way. The films repeatedly confounded me (especially Dog Star Man) in terms of narrative, which clearly is not the primary or most significant way to think about Brakhage's films. There's narrative present of course, but it seems to play second fiddle most of the time. So, here's a brief thought for each film:

Desistfilm: The most straightforward film on the disc (which is not to suggest it is simplistic). But I got the central story of the couple eying each other and eventually dancing together. More interesting to me though is how Brakhage used the music, camera, and edting to create an increasingly frenzied atmosphere, no doubt evoking the rising excitement between the couple first, but also for all those at the party as the wine and cigarettes get passed around. I was out of breath by the time it was over.

Wedlock House: An Intercourse: This film is difficult for me to talk about, because it is the first case on the disc of seeing things going on in his home that I don't feel I should be privy to. But as he juxtaposes the sex scene with the ongoing argument or misunderstanding, maybe part of the broader point here is that I should be feeling uncomfortable about all of it. It is all a form of voyeurism. I also loved the lighting in this, with the couple going in and out of the light, so we see only glimpses of them, just as newlyweds see only brief glimpses of their spouse, someone they think they know well.

Dog Star Man: Wow, this was by far the most difficult to deal with. The scattered prelude really knocked me off kilter, and only near the 2nd or 3rd part did I begin to sense a progression in this man's life. The mountain imagery is pretty clear, but all the distorted images really threw me. Brakhage mentions in his remarks that by the last part, several reels of film are superimposed onto one another. I wonder if that serves to illustrate a notion of the way memory functions, building up and getting "thicker" as we go along in life.

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes: This really got me. I was tense and nervous from the outset. That only increased as we got into the cutting scenes. I am surprised I made it through, to be honest. I'm also not sure at this point if I am glad I did. I actually felt ill after watching this. It struck me again as one of those mysterys I'd rather not be privy to. Of course, seeing as autopsies happen everyday all over the world, it feels as if people's bodies are being transgressed all over the place.

Would love to hear anyone's thoughts on these. I am planning to wait a bit on the 2nd disc.

Edited by John

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Got the Criterion By Brakhage and was completely and utterly lost and bewildered.

Ken

It is now in more loving and appreciative hands (Russ's), though Olivier's Hamlet is not yet in mine. (Nudge, nudge.) But seeing as how I'm gonna see Russ in just over a month to hitch a ride for Toronto, I can pester him about that then. (And perhaps bug him to explain Brakhage to me while I'm there.)

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M. Leary   

Why am I missing out on everything Brakhage related this year? There is a lot about Brakhage that I find underwhelming, so I apologize if we raised your expectations too high. He is just such a good entry point to experimental filmmaking, and the Criterion discs virtually lead one through the process of watching his films.

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From the new Criterion rundown of what's coming up:

... our long-requested second volume of By Brakhage: An Anthology comes to DVD, while the Blu-ray edition collects both volumes in one set—fifty-six films, more than eleven hours of the artist’s astonishing work. Happy viewing!

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Persona   

Oh, awesome. Thanks for pointing that out!

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Darren H   

Here's the "blurb" I submitted for the Top 100. Writing an overview of 56 films by the single most important avant-garde filmmaker for an audience that might not have even been aware of the existence of a-g cinema was really hard and really fun. I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out.

- - -

"When film subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world. It is alive as a devotional form."

-- Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema

"If I had a friend who wanted me to teach him how to look at films, I'd begin with a couple of months worth of Brakhage."

-- Fred Camper

If asked to describe Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers," most of us would say something like, "It's a fairly simple painting of flowers arranged in a pot. It's not especially realistic looking. It's very two-dimensional. There are no shadows, no depth. Nearly the entire canvas is yellow, and you can clearly see Van Gogh's brush strokes." If asked to describe Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, most of us would probably begin with, "It's a movie about a man who inherited great wealth as a child and went on to become a publishing giant and a failed politician. The movie begins with his dying word, 'Rosebud,' and then we spend the next two hours watching his entire life play out before us, all in hopes of discovering why that word was so significant to him."

The differences between the two answers are revealing. Even those of us with little to no training in art feel relatively comfortable attempting to describe a painting's form: the size of the canvas, its use of color, the composition of elements within the frame, the artist's technique. Moving images (film, television, video), however, are especially well-equipped to tell stories, which is why when we talk about them we tend to describe what they're about rather than what they are. The narrative drive is strong in us humans. When engrossed by a story, we have a knack for tuning out everything else, including film form -- composition, editing, focal length, shot duration, color palette, lighting, etc. This is part of what the avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is referring to in the quote above when he talks about our "absorption in the temporal." When we "escape" into a movie or TV show, we become inert and inattentive, which has troubling moral consequences. One goal of avant-garde cinema (also referred to as experimental or critical cinema) is to subvert that tendency, to provoke (in the best sense of the word) audiences to become conscious of the act of watching. Doing so, as Dorsky argues, has the potential to make film a devotional art on par with those already long established in parts of the church: music, architecture, glasswork, painting, sculpture, iconography, dance, and drama.

Including By Brakhage on a list of Top 100 films is a bit like naming an anthology of Shakespeare's tragedies one of the Great Books: doing so requires some bending of the rules for qualification, and, still, neither collection fully represents the astounding achievements of its author. By Brakhage is neither a film nor a unified series of films like some others on our list: Krystof Kieslowski's The Decalogue (#2) and Three Colors Trilogy (#15) or Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy (#17). Rather, it's an anthology of 56 films (out of the 350-400 that Stan Brakhage completed) curated by the Criterion Collection that spans a half century, from one of Brakhage's earliest short works, Desistfilm (1954), to his last, Chinese Series (2003). They range from nine seconds long (Eve Myth, 1967) to 74 minutes (Dog Star Man, 1961-'64). There are silent films and sound films, black-and-white and color, documentary-like photographed films, collages constructed from multiple superimpositions, hand-painted films, and films made without the use of a camera whatsoever. In the words of Fred Camper, "More often, a single film will seem to be most or all of the above." Stan Brakhage is unquestionably the most important filmmaker in the long and fascinating history of avant-garde cinema, and his inclusion in the Top 100 (along with Meshes of the Afternoon [1943] by one of his mentors, Maya Deren) is an important critical statement by the Arts and Faith voters. The avant-garde is not only a legitimate type of spiritual cinema; it's essential, and it's been too often overlooked.

Brakhage first picked up a camera in the early 1950s while a student, and many of his earliest movies reflect the small, "independent" film movement of the day. Like his contemporaries Deren and Kenneth Anger, Brakhage borrowed occasionally from the formal techniques of an earlier generation of European Surrealists, including Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. Desistfilm, for example, uses quick, handheld, side-to-side camera movements (pans) that leave faces in tight, blurry, and off-axis closeups. The editing of the film is non-linear (there's no particular story being told here) and is designed to create a disorienting rhythm in its cuts. What distinguished Brakhage in the '50s and continued to be a hallmark of his work is that it is deeply intimate and personal. Window Water Baby Moving (1959), which is a kind of ode to the birth of his first child, is an especially beautiful instance of this quality.

By the end of the 1950s, Brakhage was already moving toward greater abstraction. Mothlight (1963) is a good starting point when exploring these films. Rather than loading film into a camera and exposing it one frame at a time, Brakhage collected moth wings and bits of grass and leaves and assembled them by hand using tape, which he then ran through a film printer. When projected at 24 frames per second, the light passing through the wings creates a kind of dancing kaleidoscope. Viewers of Mothlight are made suddenly aware of the mechanics of film, as we can finally see and understand how a long strip of film moves rhythmically through the gears of a projector. But it's also a jaw-dropping defamiliarization ("Make it new!" the poet Ezra Pound was fond of saying) of natural beauty. In 2010, Criterion released an expanded edition of By Brakhage on Blu-Ray, which now allows us to see with crystal, hi-definition clarity the attention Brakhage paid to each individual frame of his hand-made films.

Brakhage's interest in hand-made films continued throughout his life, and, indeed, one portion of the last stage of his career was devoted almost entirely to painting directly onto film, a technique he'd first experimented with in the early 1960s (see his early masterpiece, Dog Star Man). It's these films (The Dante Quartet [1987] is a standout example), perhaps more than any others in the anthology, that go the furthest in expanding the borders of what we typically conceive of as a "movie." In one of the features on the DVD, Brakhage quotes that famous line from Walter Pater, "All art aspires to the condition of music." In other words, all art would like to bypass the intellect and reach, as Brakhage himself writes, that “non-verbal, non-symbolic, non-numerical” thinking that enables us to experience "the un-nameable or the ineffable.” This isn't pseudo-hippy rambling. The only limits on film as an art form are those we put on it as consumers. If we expect nothing more from the film-going experience than "escape" and "mindless entertainment," then there are plenty of studios eager to sell us their products. But, as By Brakhage demonstrates -- and demonstrates better than any other DVD on the market -- film's potential as a devotional art is boundless.

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Persona   

Beautifully and educationally written. I'm glad you took this from me, thank you.

It is a statement by this community, isn't it? It's one that's needed to be made for years. I am proud of the people that have made this possible. Now we gotta figure out how to get this list into Time Magazine. Or whatever.

One nitpick typo: Middle of third paragraph says Eve Myth instead of Eye Myth.

And you're still the first person who has made me desire Blu-Ray.

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M. Leary   

I would also toss in that these discs are essential on such a list because with the later Brakhage (which these discs depict well), you have an exploration of how the eye actually works. There is a very abstract, high concept idea of the eye as a source of cosmogenesis at play in Brakhage's hand tooled cinema. Something along the lines of: The eye fabricates stories out of the patterns it encounters on an instant by instant basis, and his cinema often attempted to mimic this process - to catch that optical mythmaking instant. This can lead to a profound analogies between the eye and the way we perceive our relationship to other people. There are few examples of this kind of fundamental charity in the avant-garde.

Also, I can't think of many contemporary artists that has explored theological and biblical language as expressively as Brakhage has. The stained glass feel of the Blu-Ray makes some of these specific films even more spiritually gratifying.

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Persona   

The stained glass feel of the Blu-Ray makes some of these specific films even more spiritually gratifying.

Rub it in , why don't you! :)

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Thom   

Blu-Ray, nice guys.

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Darren H   

On Blu-ray, the hand-made films at 1/16th speed are unbelievable. M, I still haven't been able to make it all the way through 23rd Psalm Branch, which is the film I was most excited to finally see. But it's overwhelming. The footage is emotionally exhausting enough, but Brakhage's use of flicker makes it literally the most difficult film I've ever tried to watch.

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Help me out, guys. I've checked out this DVD several times, and always have backburnered it in favor of other titles. I know I shouldn't have, but that's what I've done. On the most recent go-round, I did watch the first film, which was longer than I had expected. I think I watched the second one, too, before returning the disc.

Can you recommend the stronger entries for when I grab this title again? Maybe those first couple ARE the stronger entries, but it occurs to me that there's no need to watch the short films in the order Criterion has sequenced them (is there?). So ... a little advice, please. How should I approach this collection? Apologies if this has been addressed earlier.

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Tyler   

Joe Kickasola has a section in his book on Kieslowski about abstraction in cinema. The half of it I understood is helping me appreciate people like Brakhage quite a bit more than I ever thought I would.

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Thom   

For what its worth, I agree, Mike. Brakhage is one of a few filmmakers, especially on our list here, that actually creates an experience that might even be considered worshipful or at least closest to creating a contemplative space allowing for something much more spiritually gratifying.

Before anything happens in the mind we must first perceive empricially, through our senses, independent from our mind. Anything that the mind creates without an empirical experience could be said to have been created by previous sensory experiences. On a physiological level, the eye sees before the mind registers and I believe that later Brakhage often taps into this nanosecond flash before an observed perception. It is in this moment that “optical mythmaking” can occur and then begin to form the rest of the experience.

Images enter our mind consciously and depending on our frame of reference, they can be accurate or inaccurate. Brakhage sort of eliminates this binary opposition and allows the viewer to begin to create something of their own; first by visual consumption in the flicker of light and color, then by registering what they have consumed.

In conventional film we see a literal universe and develop meaning by interpreting it. We process by seeing, then understanding in a literal way, and lastly defining what we see. Brakhage puts some stops in along the way through this process. With Brakhage we experience before we register seeing and then we only understand in a literal way after we have defined what we have seen and experienced.

The analogies between the eye and the way we perceive our relationship to other people is something I would love to flesh out more. Seeing is a complex process and how we see, I believe, establishes a direct relationship to how we perceive social relationships.

Edited by Thom

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