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BY BRAKHAGE: AN ANTHOLOGY, VOLS. 1 AND 2
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Stan Brakhage
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  689 Minutes
Release Date:  May 25, 2010

“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 ****

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 56 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.

Thankfully for fans, Criterion saw fit to offer a complete second volume of Brakhage's works, and while you can pick that up singularly on DVD, it's included here as part of the Blu-ray Anthology.  It offers two additional discs' worth of films, which has a few of his hand painted works, but a lot more of his photographic endeavors.  My personal favorite is "Murder Psalm", which seems to be a collage of 1950s suburban imagery growing ever darker, such as clips from a goofy cartoon that gets more and more disturbing, and perhaps a reflection on bullying that isn't really grasped until the final stretch. 

"23rd Psalm Branch" is perhaps the most abstract and intense reflection on war ever committed to celluloid...washed out stretches of film connect graphic newsreel images of atrocities of concentration camps and genocide in a collusion that even forces Stan to scratch on his film at one point "I can't go on"...but the film does go on as a two part endeavor.  But don't think everything on this volume is unsettling and down..."Star Garden" is a beautiful tribute to sunlight and warmth in a collection of brightly bathed images that exhibit another side to the filmmaker.  And the volume concludes with "Chinese Series", a film of contemplative scratchings that was Brakhage's final complete work.

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 DVD anthology was completing production.  And I'm certainly glad that Criterion opted to honor his life and work with a second complete volume, and making both available on Blu-ray.  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 ***1/2

I originally said of the DVD release that this was one of the hardest discs I'd ever had to judge as far as technical merits went.  But this new Blu-ray offering puts things in a whole new perspective.  I fell in love with Brakhage's works all over again from frame one.  The films range from just a few years old to around 50 years in age, but there is a startling clarity and vibrancy to the images in high definition that went beyond any expectations I had.

The colors really pop, and the detail of the rapidly moving imagery really brings Stan's unique and singular vision to life in a way that is absolutely breathtaking.  Yes, one could point out that in older films, you see occasional marks of aging, mostly in either the opening or ending credit screens, but the overall experience is so wonderful, it offers me the rare occasion to utter the phrase "it's like seeing the films for the first time".

Audio **

The audio remains hard to judge, for no other reason that it rarely exists.  Much of the content you see here is sans any kind of sound at all.  The few movies that have sound offer new uncompressed mono audio tracks that 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 ****

A total of seven on-camera interview segments are included, with four on the first volume and three 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.  Several of the films in the collection also feature audio introductions by Brakhage in interview format, as he discusses his ideas and inspirations for each one. 

There is a 2009 tribute film "For Stan" by his wife Marilyn, which is exceptionally cool because you actually get to see her husband at work.  There are two segments from a 1990 interview with Stan, footage from his "Sunday Salons" at the University of Colorado, and maybe most cool, audio recordings of two of his lectures. 

The DVD booklet is one of Criterion's most hefty, with an essay and notes for each of the films by Fred Camper, a list of the movies and their running times, a foreward and program notes by Marilyn Brakhage, and a discussion of the preservation of the films by Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive.

Summary:

I said it before, and I say it again now with more conviction than ever...no other DVD producing studio except Criterion should have touched this project, and I’m very grateful indeed that they did.  By Brakhage: An Anthology adds a welcome second volume of works from the avant-garde filmmaker's illustrious career, and Blu-ray brings out the strange and startling beauty in images both artistic and disturbing.  Believe it or not, this disc now stands as my favorite Blu-ray release of the year, and even ranks as one of my all-time favorite offerings in the blossoming high definition medium.

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