To a point, I feel as if I've failed. My familiarity with Stan Brakhage was limited largely to his reputation: the name more closely associated with experimental film than any other and a man responsible for producing several hundred of them over the course of nearly a half-century. Like most anyone who'd taken a film class at one time or another, I'd seen Brakhage's Mothlight, but those few minutes represented the entirety of my direct knowledge of his work. My true introduction to Brakhage came through this Blu-ray release of fifty-six of his many films, and I'll admit that a review of such a sprawling, challenging collection with a deadline bearing down is far from an ideal way to first experience his work.
Brakhage had an appreciation for traditional dramatic narrative but didn't feel that it represented art...didn't believe there had been any new ground broken on that front since the time of the Greeks, let alone since the dawn of cinema. Brakhage tested the outermost boundaries of what film is capable of producing. Using the medium to advance his concept of "moving visual thinking", the imagery in Brakhage's work is often shapeless...nameless. You aren't meant to recognize or immediately, consciously comprehend what's being splashed across the screen...it's there to evoke a certain emotion. Inspired by the pioneering work of Sergei Eisenstein, Brakhage also explored the concept of montage -- cutting between multiple images that combine into a single truth -- and further built upon this foundation by superimposing layers of images on top of one another. Frequently throughout this collection, Brakhage doesn't give the viewer the opportunity to fully process an image at first glance; propelled by the rhythm of his visual poetry, the filmmaker is ready to move onto the next image at times within a fraction of a second, well before the
There is no longer a comfortable point of reference. There is no clearly structured narrative. There is no dialogue and rarely any people to speak of in the frame. There are frequently no recognizable shapes, and the overwhelming majority of Brakhage's films are entirely silent. Everything you know is wrong. Brakhage's work demands an entirely new way of seeing...of processing information... and this is why I feel as if I've failed. Brakhage assaults with one barrage of strange and wonderful imagery after another. The visuals are all there is because to Brakhage, all that is, is visual...we're all light. With reviewing comes a deadline, and the uninitiated can't expect to come close to comprehending and appreciating Brakhage in a tightly compressed period of time. Work this challenging and unique demands more than I unfortunately had to offer.
Brakhage's films can be grueling for those without the proper perspective, and I'll confess to being among them. I could marvel at the interplay of light and shadow throughout 1959's Wedlock House: An Intercourse, for instance: a film in which negative footage of Brakhage making love to his wife is intercut with the two of them quarreling...blanketed in darkness. My first time through, though, I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing; nearly the entirety of the frame remained black to best isolate its lovers, and the imagery changed so frantically that my untrained eyes were unable to properly adjust. It's difficult viewing, and this is one of the more accessible films in the entire collection. The Act of Seeing with one's own eyes is a half-hour of graphic autopsy footage, reflecting Brakhage's obsession with death as men in white smocks carve apart the remains of the dead as a butcher would a side of beef. The deeply influential Window Water Baby Moving does not flinch at any point, documenting in perhaps uncomfortably graphic detail the birth of Brakhage's first child, alternating between tender
I've been writing reviews and criticism for eleven years now, and never have I felt as ill-prepared as I do here. I could marvel at the striking use of light throughout Duplicity III, the gorgeous photography and fascination with the sun in Star Garden, and the most breathtaking of Brakhage's painted films, "..." Reel Five and the three-part Persian Series. Still, I struggled desperately to make sense of what I was seeing, but it was somewhat of a futile effort. The sensory...the emotional response outweighs critical thought when it comes to Brakhage. I failed to realize this until it was too late. My true fascination with Brakhage didn't begin until I started to explore the many hours of extras throughout this boxed set. A remarkably engaging speaker, Brakhage's passion proved to be infectious. Rewatching some of his films with my mind better aligned, I found that I had a far greater appreciation for them, and I only wish I had the time to experience more of them again before writing this review.
I couldn't be more impressed with the spectacular work that Criterion has invested into this collection of Brakhage's work. There's nothing the least bit accessible or commercial about it, and yet it's immediately apparent that no effort has been spared in the assembly of this set. I'd venture that a very large percentage of those reading this review will find Brakhage's films incredibly difficult to watch. As much as I admire and respect what Brakhage accomplished throughout his long and prolific career, I'm still uncertain about how I feel about it as well; my mind is too deeply rooted in the conventional. That's rather not the point, though. These are significant and deeply influential works of art, and the care and consideration lavished upon Brakhage's films is nothing short of exceptional, even by the already dizzyingly high standards of the Criterion Collection. Though I wouldn't blindly recommend By Brakhage to the uninitiated due to the extraordinarily challenging nature of the material, this colossal effort is nonetheless well-deserving of DVD Talk's highest recommendation. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.
The expected goal with a Blu-ray release is perfection. Stan Brakhage, on the other hand, enjoyed the sense that his films were crafted by a man...that the imagery splashed across the screen is celluloid once touched by human hands...that it wasn't an invisible process achieved by whirring gears, distant chemicals, or digital sorcery. This high definition release of more than fifty of Brakhage's films reflects this. Clumsy splices are left intact. Negative dust that had been burned into every print of one film or another has not been removed. Speckling and assorted wear are
Not having had the opportunity to watch the films featured throughout By Brakhage on DVD, I can't comment on how this Blu-ray release compares. The nature of the material certainly doesn't lend itself to a traditional high definition experience, of course. Nearly all of these films were captured on whatever 16mm stock Brakhage could get his hands on, and a handful of 8mm films are featured throughout the second half of the collection. The photography can be rather soft and grainy, and with as frantically as the imagery changes, whatever fine detail it offers can be difficult to resolve. The difference is certainly there, though. The grain structure is at times strikingly tight and well-defined, such as in the first two black-and-white films and Visions in Meditation. There are undoubtedly moments when I feel as if the level of detail before me is more than DVD as a format is capable of reproducing. The most vivid explosions of colors throughout Brakhage's painted films too suggest something more robust than I'd expect to see in standard definition. Without the ability to a direct comparison, I wouldn't think that this would be an altogether startling improvement over Criterion's DVD release...that the difference would be perhaps slighter than most but still noticeable.
Criterion sets out to strike a flawless balance between authenticity and perfection, and this is reflected in their release of By Brakhage. I'm sure it goes without saying that a 56-year-old film shot on gun camera stock from WWII isn't going to rival the high definition experience of Watchmen, or that a 16mm experiment originated by applying moth wings and grass to strips of tape doesn't take advantage of a $4,000 television in quite the same way as Avatar. These are still visually striking films, however, mirroring Brakhage's original intent and no doubt his preferences for their presentation.
With one exception, all of Brakhage's films are presented on Blu-ray at their original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 or so. Chinese Series, the last film in the set and the lone widescreen entry, is windowboxed to 1.85:1. Each film has been encoded with AVC, and these three discs take full advantage of the capacity a BD-50 has to offer. Brakhage's films are no doubt nightmarish to compress, with each frame of much of his work being entirely different than the last, but the expansive capacity of these dual-layer Blu-ray discs coupled with Criterion's skilled craftsmanship ensures that this is never a concern. I did notice some blocking in particularly dark moments throughout The Dead when I was assembling the screen captures for this review, but I could not see them from a traditional viewing distance on my home theater.
Stan Brakhage believed the rhythm of his visual poetry would only be disrupted by the addition of sound. It follows then that of the fifty-six films in this collection, only nine have an accompanying soundtrack. The overwhelming majority are entirely silent. (It may be worth noting that Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One is presented both ways, reflecting Brakhage's mixed feelings in this particular case.)
The flipside of the package states that uncompressed audio is offered for those few films with a soundtrack. As best I can tell, this is incorrect. Criterion hasn't provided PCM audio but a set of Dolby Digital soundtracks encoded at a bitrate of 192kbps. I'd expect that the difference would be negligible, though. The fidelity of the original audio tends to be rather limited, and there's no shortage of hiss or crackling throughout a number of them. The music featured in Desistfilm is deliberately harsh and distorted, and the few minimalist scores of the films that follow don't cry out for the expansive sound of a lossless soundtrack. Despite the limited bitrate, however, the jagged, stabbing piano keys throughout "..." Reel Five -- the lone stereo audio in this otherwise silent or monaural collection -- sound terrific. Overall, this collection of Brakhage's films makes very sparing use of sound, but when it does, it's effective, despite the lack of lossless or uncompressed audio that likely wouldn't have amounted to much of a difference regardless.
No alternate soundtracks or subtitles have been provided, but due to the nature of the material, neither are necessary.
The first disc in the set offers four 'Brakhage on Brakhage' conversations, each running approximately nine minutes. In the first, Brakhage reads from decades-old writings of his before refuting the concept of "chance operations" as it applies to himself and such artists as Jackson Pollack and John Cage. He goes onto explain the origin of his trademark scratched titles and the importance of the rhythm of the project...of conveying a sense of the surface of the film itself. We are also given the opportunity to see all of the strips of film that comprise his shortest work, the nine second Eye Myth.Disc Two
Brakhage held weekly salons in which he'd screen -- and at times debut -- films by himself and other artists he admired, and this would be followed by a group discussion. Three excerpts from these salons, recorded between 1993 and 2002, have been included as part of this collection. With 23rd Psalm Branch, Brakhage notes the profound impact that Freud had on his life, particularly the concept that the most ordinary, mundane moments we experience day in and day out can be so charged in the proper context that they resound with meaning. He explores the often unrecognized darker side of being a child in Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One, while still trying to be fair and include the sense of awe and adventure that's also an integral part of childhood. Finally, Brakhage notes the three day fit of rage and horror following a matricidal nightmare that inspired Murder Psalm.Disc Three
An additional pair of
Packaged inside By Brakhage is a nearly hundred page booklet penned by those closet to Brakhage and his work. Illustrated with strips of films and series of superimpositions, we learn more about the process in selecting the fifty-six works featured here from a body of some 350, a spectacular introduction to Brakhage's mindset and creative process, and detailed notes about the hurdles associated with the preservation of such challenging films.
The Final Word
It's impossible not
Brakhage's films exist in a realm beyond convention. There is no narrative nor any traditionally rendered characters to latch onto here. The imagery is elliptical as it is, and it changes so frantically that there's often only the tiniest fraction of a second to process what's being splashed across the screen. Quite a number of these films were produced without the aid of a camera, and the overwhelming majority of this nearly eleven hour collection has no accompanying sound. I say this only as fair warning. For the uninitiated, which I'll confess to being myself, exploring this collection can be a grueling experience. Brakhage challenges traditional conventions, and for those of us whose only point of reference is, more or less, the conventional, many of these films can be very difficult to watch. It's an experience that's ultimately rewarding, however. I feel as if I have a much greater appreciation for the language of cinema now than I did a week ago, and especially after devouring the some five hours of extras in this collection, I'm eager to watch these films of Brakhage's again with more informed eyes.
By Brakhage is not the sort of collection I'd blindly recommend. I'll admit that I'm still processing much of what I'd watched, and given the deeply challenging nature of the material, those unfamiliar with Brakhage's work may wish to seek out this collection as a rental or explore some of his films online before deciding on a purchase. By any measure, however, By Brakhage is an extraordinary and startlingly thorough cross-section of many dozens of Stan Brakhage's most seminal works, and it's bolstered further by an exceptional selection of extras to put these films in a more readily appreciated context. Despite its inaccessibility, the significance...the passion and consideration...the sheer enormity of the time and effort that clearly went into realizing this collection cannot possibly be met with anything less than DVD Talk's highest recommendation. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.