By Brakhage: An Anthology

By Gareth Evans

by-brakhage-stan-brakhage.jpg

A look at the Criterion double DVD of Stan Brakhage works


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. How many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’?

The visionary words, the manifesto calling, of Stan Brakhage, magus and maker of a moving image utterly removed from the storylined, characterised imperatives of feature form cinema, writing in 1963. Brakhage, who died aged 70 in 2003, from a cancer likely caused by the coal-tar dyes he used in his nearly 400 8mm and 16mm films, was first and foremost a poet in light, a painter in motion of the phenomenal world whose avowed intention was to give his viewers God. This would transpire via a filmmaking that prioritised the metaphorical, abstract and subjective voices in a ceaseless dialogue between consciousness and the world that has resulted in some of the most remarkable works in the medium.

Working with celluloid in every possible way, from handpainting frame by frame to scratching the emulsion with his fingernails, from nine-second ultra-fragments to four-hour epics of imaginative intensity, Brakhage created a body of work that both fuelled and shaped the American filmic avant-garde and remains its most complete achievement. Whether in Mothlight, where he pasted moth wings directly onto the film strip, or Window Water Baby Moving, where he filmed the birth of his child in a cubist, mystical union with the luminous day, Brakhage constantly pushed formal and thematic boundaries. His films, he said, were “essentially preoccupied by, and deal imagistically with – birth, sex, death, and the search for God.” So, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is an unflinching look at autopsy bodies and his seminal Dog Star Man deploys wildly distorting lenses, solar flares and paint to depict the creation of the universe.

Until recently, Brakhage was only properly represented on VHS in important releases by Paris-based tape label ReVoir. This exemplary double disc anthology could only have been – as many reviews attest – attempted and realised by Criterion. It is a model of curation and presentation, offering over two dozen of Brakhage’s most important works, in digital transfers and from new master prints, approved by the artist, and supervised by his lifelong collaborator John Newell. In addition, an interview with Brakhage provides crucial context to an oeuvre that has had a profound, if sometimes artesian influence, on all aspects of contemporary moving image culture. An essay by Fred Camper, one of the greatest authorities on the work, is equally welcome and the entire package comes in an RSDL dual-layer edition for optimal image quality (for an extremely detailed assessment of film / dvd comparisons when viewing Brakhage’s work, see http://www.fredcamper.com)

For an artist who often made only a second of work a day, and whose sense of texture, rhythm and detail was without match, any translation into another medium will raise questions. But it is hard to imagine a more empathetic and accomplished assembly than Criterion’s, which finally makes genuinely available the singular frames of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists, in any artform.