The cinema of Stan Brakhage has been interpreted as abstract, mythopoeic, philological, and lyrical, but it’s his hyper-auteurist approach that might be most instructive. It’s surely an ironic stroke to associate the filmmaker with auteurism, a critical theory developed to celebratorily grant Hollywood directors ownership of the art they subtly baked into their cookie-cutter money-makers and crowd-pleasers; so draconian were Brakhage’s ideals that he once denounced all studio-produced movies as futilely inartistic. But engaging with Brakhage’s meditative, kaleidoscopic canon often requires doubting, scrutinizing, and—finally—redefining the tools with which one observes and processes art. And when the issue of authorship arises elsewhere, it’s hard to resist envisioning Mothlight or The Dead springing directly and pugnaciously from their creator’s forehead in ebullient shafts of light, gawkily twirling about the nearest film projector to stun a small, unsuspecting audience, and eventually coming to rest with a defiant clang in a cylindrical encasing more akin to Aladdin’s lamp than a 16mm canister.
This is pure romance, of course, which speaks to the profound spell that Brakhage casts. Many of his films were made without the burdensome instrument of a camera, fashioned instead as a rapidly metamorphosing collection of celluloid paintings or collages, but this doesn’t necessarily make his vision any less diluted than that of his actor-encumbered avant-garde contemporaries. In fact, the painstaking methods by which he produced his best work share more of the limitations of animation than of photography, even when assembling exposed images. And considering, also, the humbling scenarios that inspired Brakhage’s groundbreaking shorts (a decaying marriage, incapacitating depression, a troubled career) and their multi-season-spanning production schedules, most would be best described as flitting, time-lapsed explorations, rather than airtight illustrations, of ideas. Where Brakhage succeeded most indelibly, however, was in proving the self-sufficient limitlessness that can be achieved by mistrusting and challenging, rather than simply manipulating and tantalizing, the senses.
Appropriately, the Criterion Collection’s By Brakhage Blu-ray box set is both an affectionate tribute and an invaluable archive, given its subject’s incalculable influence. Spreading 56 representative selections from Brakhage’s oeuvre liberally across three discs, the anthology compiles new high-definition transfers of the films included in the original By Brakhage collection released in 2003, plus several more that comprise a perspective-enhancing Volume II. A handful of the director’s seminal works are still truant (such as the DIY ashtray-prism experiment Text of Light, and two of the Pittsburg Trilogy’s eerily mechanical socio-custodial observations), and the set’s buoyant chronology seems to discourage the discernment of sub-career phases or trends. But structured into thematically peripatetic “programs” by Brakhage’s widow, Marilyn, the anthology entertainingly facilitates curiosity-tethered, piecemeal digestion—arguing, perhaps, each short film as its own singular statement and microcosm rather than as an enumerated opus in a diversified body of accomplishments.
And certainly each of Brakhage’s movies speaks lucidly for itself, on its own terms. Few directors have fretted so persistently on a single corral of motifs—let alone ones as unnuanced as life, death, innocence, and man’s connection to nature—with such an endlessly permutating, perpetually startling system of signature techniques. (One is tempted to reach as far as the poet William Blake, who similarly jerry-rigged a seldom-reproduced printing procedure, in his search for kindred spirits.) At a purely technical level, even Brakhage’s frame-by-frame, painterly tours de force smugly eschew monotony; the eight-second blurb of film Eye Myth shockingly reminds us through incandescent scratches that man may be the most abstracted structure of all, while the 20-minute, reputedly sex-obsessed Lovesong barrages us with textural, stop-and-start mushroom clouds of thick, wet color. Likewise, his use of negative images can either flood mysteriously darkened intervals with nocuous, humiliating light (as in the would-be pornographic self-portraiture of Wedlock House) or tendentiously flatten the aura of assumptions that surround ecclesiastical architecture (The Dead) and deciduous vegetation (The Machine of Eden).
Brakhage’s silent, non-narrative shorts are often appreciated at the same distance as a Pollack painting; we feel we have no choice but to react with modest intellectual hesitation after witnessing something even as rudimentary as geometry ignored, or even defaced (geometry is, like rhetoric, a discipline ensconced snugly within the iron bunker of logic). But leaning on visceral anthropomorphization, while useful (the “angry” reds, the “panicked” pixels, the “esurient” blacks), is like examining only the bottom half of Brakhage’s frame. The Virginia Woolf-esque, insectual dirge Mothlight is on the one hand a curvy, beige poem about mortality and on the other an intrepid excursion into the purely tactile—a region where rigorously determining meaning is less crucial than suspiciously questioning sensation. Avant-garde cinema has often dutifully toyed with and distorted the theoretical source of film patterns; Maya Deren, with whom Brakhage not insignificantly shared an apartment, most quintessentially deconstructed the sultry germ of noir tone with Meshes of the Afternoon. But for Brakhage the task of meta-thinking seems less historical or psychological than human and cosmic. This means that a feature-length light-and-color exhibition like Dog Star Man can appear turgid, inert, or obstinately opaque, but it also confidently demands decoding on a sensory-oriented dimension where adjectives of that ilk are rendered vapid and vacant.
And while Brakhage’s “direct” films (as appellated by earlier camera-dismissing filmmakers such as Man Ray and Len Lye) imply this epistemological tenet most forcefully, we might find ourselves approaching even his more conventional work with an archetype-demolishing eye after breaking through to the anti-thought, or proto-thought, of his élan. 23 Psalm Branch is “about” war, but its frantic editing, scrawled intertitles, and cataclysmically juxtaposed landscapes heavy its laments with the dangers of humanitarian-charged stimuli. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes depicts autopsy, but its steadiness toward the corporeally existential urges us to resist imposing structure on the frightfully unthinkable. Even Brakhage’s best and most emotional film, Window Water Baby Moving, refracts the straightforwardness of the photographed birth with chronological glitches and repeated images that usher muliebrity from fetishism to utilitarianism and back again. Has there ever been such a sensual collapse between form and content, such a poetic correlation between the act of filmmaking and the act of perceiving?
It's a valid question: Why bother with Brakhage in hi-def, given that he photographed so consistently in 16mm? As Walter Benjamin once propounded, technical distinctions can often have poetic, ineffable effects, and in the case of both film vs. digital (and, though in a slightly disjunctive sense, standard definition and hi-def), there are disparities of warmth, of depth, and of—to crib directly from Benjamin—aura. A film like The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose racy, verdant-on-black trajectory seems violent on Blu-ray, seems to benefit more existentially from the extra pixels than even a fully composed studio movie; the narrowed, laser-like concentration on textural image in Brakhage's work forces us to be thankful for every clarifying line of detail we're bestowed. And it's impossible to bitch about grain or aspect ratio here. In some instances, such as when Brakhage scratches or pastes objects to or splatters paint directly on the celluloid itself, the initial print or master may not even be justifiably called "film" in the objective sense: It's an arts-and-crafts composite that interpolates and appropriates film. It might even be something more organically potent than film. What was missing from the original, 480p set was the range of depth and the excruciating texture to recognize this numinous materialism, an attribute apparent even when Brakhage is photographing reflections or cadavers—all of which look intimidatingly three-dimensional on Blu-ray. Whether reconstructing moth wings or jump-editing from scene to scene to scene, Brakhage's tactile rhythms in hi-def are like tiny incisions in one's brain—they challenge their audience to feel, challenge them to determine why they feel. On standard DVD, the prodding is still present, but at a distance the films are less invasive, more content to remain on the screen. 1080p isn't simply a gesture of home theater fetishism here—it's a matter of morality.
Brakhage's granulated omnibus is such that everything has the feel of a supplement; as such, what extras are here often feel as much like overload as the orgasmic hues that close Lovesong. Still, scholars and the Brakhage-curious alike are likely to applaud Criterion's glut of content, which includes the admittedly essential bonus material from the original By Brakhage set, as well as some new morsels. The vocal annotations on select films and Brakhage on Brakhage, a series of seemingly perfunctory but incisive interviews, are still the highlights; both reveal the filmmaker as a sensitive, humble artist whose intentions were often far more down to earth than the elusiveness of the eventual product would suggest. Volume II also includes a few lectures of interest (one, on Gertrude Stein, is riveting) and a brief tribute by Brakhage's wife, Marilyn, that fascinatingly demystifies at least a portion of his production methods. The booklet reprints Marilyn's highly informative program notes and Fred Camper's erudite if occasionally gushy study and adds a preservation explanation from Mark Toscano.
To appropriate Samuel Beckett's observation of James Joyce, Brakhage's films are not about something, they are that something itself—be it fake desert, shrub leaf, or fresh placenta.