The word “experimental” gets thrown around a lot about film. Usually, what is meant, really, is “unconventional”; Eraserhead is an example of a film described often enough as being experimental that, while certainly unusual, follows the usual dictates about narrative and character, and that achieves a picture in the usual way: by filming it. When Stan Brakhage died earlier this year, at the age of 70, America lost her most lasting and eloquent proponent of alternative methods of filmmaking. Brakhage was a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of the use of film for other than narrative purposes, and the body of work he left behind is the real thing: true-blue experiment. A collection of 26 of his most enduring works, entitled By Brakhage: An Anthology, has just been released in a meticulously mastered and researched Criterion Collection DVD.
Experimentalism in film is as old as the medium itself. Perhaps the earliest of what we now identify as “experimentalism” was the work of the French surrealists, such as René Clair and Man Ray. (It was Ray who first directly treated film cells by hand, as opposed to using a camera to arrive at an image.) These experiments, dating from the 20s, are sometimes silly looking today because the filmmakers were experimenting not just with the content of their work but also the process. Brakhage’s works sometimes seem silly for the same reason: the process is exposed. It’s fair to say that experimentalism never found an audience then, and when it did, as in Buñuel’s and Dali’s notorious collaboration Un Chien Andalou (1929), the reaction was so intense that theaters screening it were in danger of being destroyed by angry patrons.
Inevitably, narrative cinema won out over other film approaches. Experimentalism didn’t die, but it would be wrong to say that it thrived. It is only in the work of Brakhage (and perhaps to a lesser extent in the work of Maya Deren and a handful of others) that we find something like a tradition, a talent that produced a large, thoughtful, and consistent oeuvre.
Brakhage’s career follows a recognizable arc, but it’s the arc of a “visual” artist rather than that of a filmmaker, and his work is best understood within the tradition of American Modernism in painting, not filmmaking. In Brakhage on Brakhage, a four-part documentary included in the DVD set, the filmmaker identifies Jackson Pollock as one of his early “heroes,” and the reference is illuminating. Like Pollock, Brakhage began his career in a representational mode and gradually abandoned it for a more fully realized, distinctively abstract style. Brakhage bridled at the idea that direct representation was what one aspired toward in one’s work, and the intensely personal films he produced achieved a mode of expression comparable to Pollock’s. Both artists struggled with the physical process of creating art, too; where Pollock famously adopted the “drip” method, Brakhage was constantly innovating with film processes, under- and over-exposing film, painting and scratching directly onto film cells, distorting focus, attaching objects to lengths of film, even baking it.
But these innovations developed gradually. In the beginning, Brakhage depicted recognizable forms that had been directly filmed. The earliest work in the Criterion set is Desistfilm (1954), in which the drunken goings-on at a party are recorded. Brakhage has said that the response to this seven minutes of film amazed him; charges were set forth, for instance, that the guests were smoking pot (they weren’t) and critics of the piece—never clearly identified by the director—apparently found an amorality in this group of beatniks that they found scandalizing.
In fact, nothing very racy takes place, and no clear narrative emerges from it. The temptation is to believe that the film’s tendency toward something bigger than representation was what was shocking about it in 1954: Brakhage here swings the camera and experiments with composition and placement, and his editing defies narrative form. More than that, he conveys the impression in this short piece that he takes this work seriously and he asks that the viewer do, too.
This insistence found its full voice in Dog Star Man (1961-64), a 74-minute epic on what Brakhage calls “the big daddy” theme, or man in his natural state as father, husband, lover, and provider, pitted against nature, and seen from the atomic to the astral levels. Dog Star Man is the centerpiece of the Criterion DVD collection, a big work (it’s told in four parts, plus a lengthy prelude) that is redolent of Brakhage’s many literary and artistic influences. Its very conception—a portrait of a man in all of life’s roles—recalls in part James Joyce’s depiction of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Dog Star Man is a work of realism into which abstraction intrudes. It was in this film that he first scratched and painted designs directly onto film, and his use of such devices as under- or over-exposing film or experimenting with focus, not only render much of Dog Star Man truly abstract, but signal the full acceptance by the filmmaker of those methods which bloom so magnificently in his later work.
The “plot” of Dog Star Man is the ascent of a man (the filmmaker) up a mountainside, where he encounters Yggradsil, the Nordic tree of life. It’s an awesomely ambitious work, but is it entirely successful? It has to be said that you may have to be Stan Brakhage to spot the influence of Ezra Pound or Olivier Messiaen in his work. (Gertrude Stein’s influence is somewhat more evident in Brakhage’s repetition and in the way elements in his films refuse to function in the way they are traditionally intended.) What is obvious watching Dog Star Man is its creator’s familiarity with literature, mythology and lore. The risks taken in the film are substantial. Sometimes they pay off enormously, as in the talismanic, foreboding prelude. But sometimes, as in Part II, the theme of which is birth, the collage effect fails aesthetically, in this instance because the central image of the baby—who is pictured in a crib in a traditional home—is at odds with the wilderness in which the rest of the segment plays out.
Brakhage continued to produce such quasi-representational work, as well as his fully abstract pieces, until his death, and he found his strength in this mode. Two earlier films featured in the collection—Wedlock House: An Intercourse and Cat’s Cradle (both 1959)—are enormously evocative. The first concerns the insecurities of a man within the context of his recent marriage, and the second (which Brakhage has called “sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a ‘medium’ cat”) the potentially frightening aspects of lust and sexuality.
Brakhage’s unhappy youth and battles with depression are a matter of record. Anticipation of the Night (1957, and not included in the collection) takes as its subject the artist’s plans to hang himself. But later in life, he found peace with his family, and he records this in the sweetly atonal films Kindering (1987) and I…Dreaming (1988), both of which, unlike the majority of Brakhage’s output, feature a soundtrack. These films are charming, but like a Charles Ives symphonic work such as The Fourth of July, the immediate response they draw from you is one of dissonance. It is only after accepting Brakhage’s vision that they yield their essential hopefulness, just as Ives’s celebratory mood is lost for many listeners in his maelstrom. However, not all of Brakhage’s representational work was so affirming in tone. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, made in 1971 when the artist was approaching 40, is an examination of physical death, shot in a morgue, and it directly presents the artist’s fear of mortality in its presentation of corpses, shot in horrifying detail.
At the same time, Brakhage more fully developed his visual abstractions. In addition to the painted film with which he is most readily associated, Brakhage experimented with attaching organic matter directly onto strips of film. The remarkable gambit bears fruit, in this collection, in the films Mothlight (1963) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981). The filmmaker describes Mothlight as “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.” The film is an assemblage of moth wings and vegetable matter, which move through the frame vertically, lending the film a sense of upward flight. Both films bear a thematic relationship to the sinister and beautiful The Wold Shadow (1972), in which a forest landscape is manipulated in a series of fade-outs. While Mothlight is a celebration of and grieving for nature (Brakhage says that he didn’t want the wings of dead moths to go wasted, and so, in his way, he made them fly again), The Wold Shadow calls out man’s traditional fears of nature in a hybrid of representational and abstract film.
1997’s Commingled Containers represents the apex of Brakhage’s “realist” approach. In it, Brakhage experiments with a new camera (he was, his comments reveal, literally on his way home from purchasing it when the film was made), and the resulting work is a marvel of contemplation. The title refers to life itself, in all its forms, interacting in our world, and this delicately representational film lingers on images of water and sunlight, wavering between the recognizable and the mysterious. It’s a lovely, ephemeral work.
The shortest film in the collection is 1972’s nine-second Eye Myth, key work in which Brakhage’s abstract, painted film technique comes to the fore. In this film we see a seated man who has been isolated within the film cell by paint; the painted cell replaces him, and a second image of a man appears. The film took Brakhage a year to complete because, he says in his remarks on the disk, he didn’t believe that he could “make a myth that was just vision.” “[Our] eyes are constantly flaring with little stories, little forms and shapes,” he continues. Eye Myth is “a little myth that is made up of little bits and pieces of painted things.”
By “myth,” Brakhage seems to mean a creation built by the human eye out of elements presented on the screen. In the interview included in the collection, he mentions that, as a result of being diagnosed with a condition that produced very rapid eye movement, he hoped to achieve a nervous system feedback “through the physiology of the proximity of the eye and the brain”; he aspired, it would seem, to short-cut our responses directly through the eye. Whether or not Eye Myth attains this goal is hard to say, but the strategy was used in later abstract films.
The payoff was substantial. Included in the collection is a wealth of hand-painted film whose pictorial depth and ability to convey mood and ideas is remarkable. The images in these films, which fly past at a speed that confounds the traditionally meditative impulse with which we regard painted works, are never figurative. Rather, they are brightly colored abstractions, densely composed, and recalling the emotive force and gestural immediacy of the Abstract Expressionists, with whose work they are roughly contemporaneous. Although one is not given time to absorb the individual images in their entirety within these films, a meditative mood is achieved in their rhythms, so that they invite introspection just as a Pollock canvas does. They are essentially paintings, but ones that fill out a temporal canvas instead of a spatial canvas. In one sense, they represent a fulfillment of the cubist goal, achieved in a different way: painting into which the element of time and movement has successfully been introduced as an additional dimension.
The films convey a range of feelings. Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1991) takes as its subject the assault of modern media on the senses, and its palette, as the title suggests, is dark, its frames volcanic, its composition ungainly. Contrasting it are films such as 1986’s Nightmusic, in which colored forms move across a light background, suggesting song as surely as any Kenneth Noland canvas ever could. These films reveal an artist in peak form, one whose choices amid a relative visual chaos are far from arbitrary.
The most recent of the films included here is 2001’s Love Song, which Brakhage describes as “a hand-painted visualization of sex in the mind’s eye.” The film is purely abstract, a work in which individual cells have been painstakingly painted and lit from above, so that they have the texture, on-screen, of two-dimensional work viewed as we would view a painting. These images pulse across the frame, bright explosions of color with a thick, black line suggesting form. Viewing the rapidly changing images, the eye naturally seeks the reassurance of the human face or form, and these shapes do appear, vaguely suggested, and the film moves on.
Is it possible for a work of abstraction to be moving, as opposed to merely evocative or suggestive? Howard Hodgkins’ works, to use the example of a painter, have such an effect on me; they exude nostalgia for a specific time and place that I react to emotionally, and they do so without physically rendering a place. And so it is with Love Song. The film, with or without the hint of Brakhage’s description, conveys the memory of—or meditation on—pleasure, and its extraordinary craftsmanship belying a sense of ease and mastery with which the film unfolds.
Initially I described Brakhage as an experimental filmmaker, and, indeed, that’s how you’ll popularly find him described. And in the beginning of his career, he was. But by the time that Love Song was made, Brakhage had long since stopped “experimenting,” per se. He had found a mature style and developed the tools with which to express it, and his mastery of his chosen medium was evident. If we call his films “experimental,” it’s because no other filmic term fits his style. Perhaps the best way to name Brakhage’s unique, immediately recognizable style is just as Criterion has done, with the artistic signature: By Brakhage.