Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Stan Brakhage
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Video encounters, selected reflections
Length:  243 Minutes
Release Date:  June 10, 2003

“Imagine an eye unruled by manmade 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.”Stan Brakhage

Films ***1/2

Films are popular entertainment, big business, technological landmarks, social occurrences and more, but first and foremost, they are art.  And the best art does more than just sit passively on a canvas and wait to be admired.  It often encourages, if not forces, its audiences to see things in new and different ways.  Modern art has tried to expand the consciousness and alter the perceptions of people since the end of the 19th century when Claude Monet first began turning realistic paintings into impressions of light and color.

Not everyone appreciated Monet at the time…another common quality of good art is that it sometimes has to endure while waiting for society to catch up to it and learn to appreciate it.  I don’t know if we’re at a point now where all of mankind is ready to give filmmaker Stan Brakhage his due, but I expect that with Criterion’s new carefully cultivated collection By Brakhage: An Anthology, the litmus paper has been put out.

Brakhage began making films in the 1950s and continued on up into the new millennium.  His body of work encompassed nearly 400 movies ranging from 9 seconds to 4 hours in length.  His works deliberately defied conventional narrative, opting for experiments that pulled other forms of art into his pictures while challenging his viewers by constantly making them aware of the film itself rather than letting them slip into some kind of altered reality, and by using unconventional techniques to toy with optical perception.

His influences seem to be Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism…Dada in particular.  Think of the works of Marcel Duchamp who would paint a canvas and then glue objects and pieces to it, or jam something right through it.  Likewise, Brakhage sometimes dabbed paint onto his actual strips of film.  Or scratched them purposely so that the scratches on screen created bizarre and intriguing patterns of nothingness.  In cases like “Mothlight” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, Brakhage forwent cameras and simply pasted bits of debris and other items directly onto the film!

Think also of how the Dada artists simply juxtaposed unusually arranged objects just to give viewers a different look.  A “sculpture” I always remembered fondly was an empty upside down Coke bottle on a small piece of wood entitled “Love”.  With film, Brakhage found an art form that allowed almost constant pressure on our perceptions.  He might film simple objects in such close shots that you’re not sure what you’re looking at…it may be the surface of the moon, it might be the human skin.  Sometimes, as in Dog Star Man, he would combine several photographic layers in a single stretch…up to four at a time…creating a collage of images that become no longer definable until what you see simply is what it is, with no descriptions needed or possible.

But his works weren’t always of the playful tongue-in-cheek spirit of Dada.  Some of his imagery was powerful and disturbing.  In “Desistfilm”, a simple drunken revelry turns into something nightmarish as we get far too close to people who are no longer in control.  Their smiling faces don’t reassure.  Or in other cases, as with my favorite Brakhage film “Wedlock House: An Intercourse”, we can’t help but read more into what we see than what you’re actually shown.  As a couple begins and ends by making love in photo negative images, they bookend a strange series of one-shots between them as the light and shadow plays senselessly across their faces.  Is it confrontational?  Argumentative?  Maybe, maybe not.  In some ways, Brakhage may have cultivated the most perfect form of Impressionism conceivable.  This is one every film student should take a look at, because it demonstrates how you can make a film creative and visually interesting with minimal resources.

Many of the works in this 26 film collection showcase Brakhage’s infatuation with painting on film.  Two of my favorites were “Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse”, which was colorful and geometric, and “Black Ice”, which integrated paintings on glass with the camera moving toward them to give the viewer the sensation of falling through abstractions of color.

Other grand experiments included Eisenstein-like montage in “Cat’s Cradle”, bizarre lens distortions in “Kindering”, an expression of damnation in “The Dante Quartet”, and an absolutely beautiful look at water in “Commingled Containers”.  The final film in the collection, “Love Song”, was made in 2001 and is one of the most textured and complex of Brakhage’s painted works…it’s hard to watch it without feeling it is the work of a man considering his own mortality.

But like most artists, Brakhage was interested in more than aesthetics.  Themes that were intensely personal to him resonated throughout his works; most notably, birth and death.  “Window Water Baby Moving” actually showcases the birth of his first child at home via natural childbirth…it’s both unusually beautiful and decidedly unsettling; this is no ordinary home movie made by a proud father.  But the most disturbing of Brakhage’s work was a grisly exploration of death with a detached clinicism in “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”, which consisted of 30 minutes of actual autopsies on film.  The occasional camera shaking is, I’m convinced, not an artistic choice, but rather the result of Brakhage’s own reaction to the horrifying work.  This is no episode of Quincy…in fact, you have to choose to start the program yourself from what I believe to be Criterion’s only warning screen.

It was a sad twist of fate that filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose career spanned five decades and nearly 400 films, passed away while Criterion’s By Brakhage double disc anthology was completing production.  But this set owes a lot to his enthusiasm and participation, and may turn out to be one of the most important offerings from The Criterion Collection as a well timed and loving tribute to the artist and his work.

Video ***

This may be the hardest disc I’ve ever had to judge the technical merits of.  It’s enough of a challenge that the films in this collection date back to the early 1950s, but when you consider Brakhage is an artist who sometimes deliberately scratched and pockmarked his own movies for effect, or used out-of-focus shots, or paints and tints to grossly distort the coloring, what’s the call?  I can say that by using my remote to do some frame by frame examinations for my own curiosity that Criterion has presented as clean a series of images as can be found.  I noticed no compression, no undue grain, and nothing for the most part that would indicate how old some of these pictures are.  The colors in his painted works are rich and beautifully represented.  Apart from celluloid itself, DVD would have to be the best way to view these works, so high marks.

Audio **

The audio is even more problematic for judging, because many of Brakhage’s films were actually silent…in fact, only five films out of the 26 included contain sound.  The mono audio tracks are serviceable enough with sometimes strange music and occasional voiceover.  There is a bit of scratchiness and noise detectable from time to time, but nothing distracting…in fact, they sometimes seem rather symbiotic with the images on screen.

Features ***

Four on-camera interview segments are included, with two on the first disc and two on the second, which show Brakhage to be thoughtful, well-spoken, enthusiastic, and even a little self-depreciating.  Frankly, I was expecting some kind of introverted goofball artist, and was pleasantly surprised!  He discusses everything from some of his films and influences to his then-current battle with the cancer that eventually took his life. 

In addition, many of the films in the collection feature audio introductions by Brakhage in interview format, as he discusses his ideas and inspirations for each one.  The DVD booklet is also a handy piece, with an essay and notes for each of the films by Fred Camper, a list of the movies and their running times, and even a front cover depicting the famous “by Brakhage” film scratching frame by frame.


No other DVD producing studio except Criterion should have touched this project, and I’m very grateful indeed that they did.  With a careful selection of 26 films out of a prolific career, By Brakhage: An Anthology should serve not only as an overview and retrospective, but an appetizer as well…I can imagine adventurous filmgoers and students using this double disc set as a starting point and going off in search of more from the avant-garde master.  Stan Brakhage may not have lived to see this DVD hit shelves, but he couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute.