The Films and an Overview:
Before Stan Brakhage died in March of this year he was arguably the most important living filmmaker. Not only because he had helped revolutionize the art of cinema but because he had done it for 50 years and in the process explored with a vigor so many aspects of personal, metaphorical, avant-garde filmmaking.
The importance of Brakhage's work has been discussed for years and what it all means to the history of art and film will be evaluated for years to come. For us non-scholar types a good place to start would be with by Brakhage: an anthology a fabulous new two disc DVD set by The Criterion Collection.
Brakhage attempted – with much success – to free the cinema from predictable, conventional narrative structures and refined photography and bring it into a more natural mode of personal expression. He did this in a variety of ways through editing, camera movement, optical printing, superimposition, depth effect as well as physically altering the film by scratching, painting or warping the actual surface of the celluloid.
Film critic Fred Camper - who supervised some of the transfers and has written extensively on Brakhage - says that, "his great subject is the discovery of interiority in all its varieties; closed eye vision, mental images, metaphors for thinking as well as actual images seen through the color of the subjective experience and human emotion."
Many of Brakhage's films are silent, abstract expressionist works (in some cases what are called psychodramas) that sing to their own syncopated lyrical editing rhythms. But they also evolved over time in a very personal way too thus took on many forms like the birth film Window Water Baby Moving (1959), the death, autopsy film The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), the mythical epic film Dog Star Man (1964), as well as abstract painted films like The Dante Quartet (1987) and the non-film film Mothlight (1963), which used actual moth wings and flowers on perforated tape and what I would call 'a water movement film' Commingled Containers (1997).
Overall, Brakhage made close to 400 films in his long career and the DVD includes 26 of them. Although it's not much for such a distinguished career it does includes a nice cross section of his work over the years. There are 4 from the 1950's, 2 from the 1960's, 4 from the 1970's, 6 from the 1980's, 9 from the 1990's and 1 from the 2000's. The selection also leans toward his aesthetically satisfying hand painted films. Each of the films in this anthology are relatively short. They range from 9 seconds (Eye Myth) to 1hr 15 min (Dog Star Man). And all but four of the films are silent.
Disc one has four films all of which have 'actors' in them. The films on this disc are a bit more difficult for new viewers of Brakhage to appreciate. The first is Desistfilm (1954), which consists of a group of teens hanging out in a house smoking, drinking, playing around and involves a lot of quick shifting camera movements and edits. Next is Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959), which in succession shows Stan and his then wife Jane talking (or fighting) in a room with a single source light swaying back and forth alternated with negative shots of them making love.
Next up is Dog Star Man (1961 – 1964), which is Brakhage's epic film and consists of a prelude and four parts. This film is perhaps Brakhage's most widely known work and seen by itself can be a wonderful introduction to many aspects of his work including use of color, light, editing structure and super impositions to comment upon the nature of birth, sex, love, nature, thought, life and death: in short 'the whole shebang'.
The last film on this disc is The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), which is a very difficult film to watch because all 31 minutes of it deal with autopsies. The film has been known to make people feel faint due to its stark reality, morgue setting and the cutting into dead, human flesh. Watch it with care.
Disc Two has 22 films 12 of which are painted films. The non-painted ones include two of his best Cat's Cradle a super fast edited work bathed in a red hues that features four people and a cat and Window Water Baby Moving, which features his first wife Jane before, during and after a home birth of their first child. It's almost an ethnographic home movie except for the fact that the editing structure is so musical. There is also The Stars are Beautiful a curious film with voice-over of creation myths and images of children with a chicken. There are also two collage films that don't use film: Mothlight (1963) mentioned earlier and The Garden of Earthly Delights, which used vegetation from the montane zone in the place of scratches and paint.
I can't say enough about the hand painted films which include, among others:
Eye Myth (1972) an image of a man trapped in paint, The Dante Quartet Brakhage's translation of Dante (1987), Rage Net (1988) about the anger of divorce, Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1991), about the horrors and pleasures of television, Black Ice (1994) about falling and blindness, Dark Tower (1999) about all the dark towers of literature and Love Song (2001) about the experience of sex.
In each of these colorful films Brakhage attempts to approximate metaphors for seeing and what is called hypnagogic vision - that is closed eye vision, dream vision and/or memory feedback. This type of vision is associated with closed eye vision (close your eyes and see what your missing). In these films multiple swirling colors glide, rush, and leap by to an inspired, resonate visual beat. As a point of reference, I would say they are not unlike moving paintings in the vein of Kandinski and Pollack.
If you feel the need (and you're not a purist) you can slow down the DVD to a slower speed (an 1/8th speed is good) or pause and scroll through each amazing frame of his hand painted films. These are films you can watch again and again and always get a new perspective, perceive a new angle, or see a different variation whirl across your vision.
Criterion has honored the filmmaker as much as is possible for this DVD. Inside the booklet included with the DVD is a disclaimer that reads: 'no filtering, noise reduction, or other restoration tools have been applied to any of the picture or sound elements.'.
For the most part the transfers are terrific. Each of the films are presented full frame with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. In the hand painted films the colors are as vibrant and as earthy as Brakhage intended and in most of the hand painted films you can see the texture of the paint. Three of the films are quite dark and should be seen with the lights off. They include Wedlock House: An Intercourse, Story in Color and Black and White and Crack Glass Eulogy.
The most problematic transfer is for Wedlock House: An Intercourse because the film deals so much with the contrasts of light and dark that it doesn't work too well on digital video. In paticular there is a candle used in many shots and it creates odd streaks of light that would be much warmer in film. Other than that the lighting of the other films is not so stark and therefore transfer well. They certainly look sharper than they do on the various VHS copies that are kicking around.
According to Criterion President Peter Becker even though they struck new inter-positives and fine grain masters for each of the 16mm and 35mm films they wanted to keep the films looking like film without improving the look. And the way to insure that was to attempt and retain the grainy structure of each and every frame in the transfers.
Since the digital medium cannot truly duplicate the film experience many Brakhage enthusiasts have raised the question if it was even possible to put the films on DVD. One major reason - especially in the case of Brakhage's hand painted and scratched films - is that each and every frame is a work of art and that due to the process of digital compression it has always been believed that some of these frames would be lost.
Criterion Technical Director Lee Kline says that the transfers were indeed a challenge but that nothing was lost in the transfer. He maintains that basically they did the same transfer process that they do with other films. The difference is that they eliminated a step along the way in order to get the best transfers possible.
David Phillips, who does in-house authoring for Criterion, explained that normally there is a three step process to create DVD's, which includes transferring the films directly from film through a Spirit Datacine to an un-compressed D5 HD (High Definition) format in 24P (progressive scan) and then down convert that signal using 3:2 pull down (from 24 frames of film to 30 frames of video) into a DigiBeta format from which they create an Mpeg NTSC stream. But, for the Brakhage transfers, they eliminated the DigiBeta step and instead down converted straight from the D5 HD to the Mpeg stream.
Another procedure was the use of filtration which was used sparingly to soften some of the sharp contrasts and high frequency noise produced by the film's quick editing structures. The most essential procedure, though, was to pay very close attention to detail and to make sure (sometimes manually) that the patterns encoded correctly.
Phillips concedes that if you go through the DVD frame by frame there will some artifact but it won't be as visible as with most regular films because most of Brakhage's films have the same properties as animation. He explains that; "most of the time compression artifact [is noticeable] in areas of flat [static] color. But there is so much visual detail in [Brakhage's] frames that the inherent compression artifacts aren't as noticeable.'
The film transfers are tough to judge since the films have intentional scratches and out-of-focus sections. And while it is true that many of the films have an aged look and some have unintentional scratches it would seem petty to complain about them - since they add an element Brakhage would most likely accept. Suffice it to say I can't imagine any DVD company doing a better job than Criterion has done on these films.
Only four films have sound and each is presented in monoaural. The films with sound are Desistfilm, Kindering, The Stars are Beautiful and I…Dreaming. Each sound fine and even though they certainly don't offer any significant sound levels they work well from an aesthetic perspective by bringing a mood to the images. The best is perhaps Kindering a 2 min 52 second film that features a boy and a girl in a back yard with a warped soundtrack. The film shows that even though Brakhage didn't use sound much he could be quite innovative with it.
The two best extras are four interview selections titled Brakhage on Brakhage which feature a few different interviews with Brakhage in 1996 -97 when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In each interview he provides an insight into his philosophy on art and life. In each too he is reflective and somewhat dejected because he believed he was close to death.
Nineteen of the films have brief remarks by Brakhage, which were taken from two interviews; one conduced by Colin Still in 1996 and another with a Bruce Kawin in 2001. The remarks do not run concurrent with the films. Instead they are presented as a menu option on each film and can be listened to as a radio program would. There is an also excellent booklet with an essay by Fred Camper and a brief synopsis write-up on each film. In his essay, Camper – who has a great web site on Brakhage – also gives instructions on how to watch the films. For instance, he insists that the room should be dark, the viewer should sit close to the TV screen and all outside noise should be eliminated. In other words, try to recreate the film going experience (minus the popcorn chewing) as much as possible.
This is the one of the most significant and exciting DVD releases this year. But it is important to understand that the DVD is merely a representation of Stan Brakhage's work. It's a good starting place for those who have never experienced his work as well as a fine collection for those familiar with his films and who rarely get the chance to see them on the big screen or on VHS. Criterion should be saluted for taking on the project but also for maintaining as much authenticity as they can with regard to the transfers.
There are, of course, some skeptics (*1) out there about the DVD format. But from what I can tell (and I've seen Brakhage's films on both film and VHS) these look very good and transfer quite well.
I would not recommend watching all of the films in one sitting or even one day. I would instead recommend watching them over a three or four day period. They are very compelling and at times intense works and many of them should be considered as a poem by Ezra Pound or writing by James Joyce should be considered, which is with contemplation. The great thing about the DVD is that the viewer can enjoy the films at their leisure.
The films on this DVD are experimental films and may not be appreciated (or even liked) by some viewers not open to dynamic (sometimes abstact) visual poems. But that's okay because Brakhage wasn't interested in viewers being merely entertained by his work. Instead he liked to invoke the mystery of myth and the realm of aesthetic possibility with regards to man's understanding of himself and his surroundings.
I believe that these films can be appreciated by anyone who has watched MTV in the past 20 years. The difference is that these films are much more personal, lyrical, exhaustive and dreamlike than anything on TV or in movies today and if you approach them with an open mind they grab you and won't let go.
Footnote (*1) I've been told by one skeptic in particular that due to DVD compression 30% of the information is missing compared to that of the projected film. I maintain that the jury is still out on these statistics. But let me just say, by comparison, that there are also some out there who believe a musician should only be seen and listened to live rather than ever listened to on CD. Brakhage has been quoted as saying, 'video is getting good enough that it isn't fair for me to withhold [my work] from people who have no other way to see it.' To which I'll add DVD technology is getting good enough to approximate film and there is no reason his films should be denied from being seen in this format if that is the only choice viewers have.