[Deep Focus]
by Brakhage: an anthology

"Comingled Containers"

Films by
Stan Brakhage

DVD Credits:

Produced by Peter Becker and Kate Elmore

Production consulting by Fred Camper, Robert A. Harris, and Bruce Kawin

Video interviews by Colin Still

Audio interviews by Kawin and Still

The Criterion Collection, 2003

Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Review posted 06/18/03

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The first Stan Brakhage film I saw was either the one shot through a crystal ash tray (The Text of Light) or the one projected on a wall in the fine arts gallery at CU -- Boulder, across the hall from the big classroom where he taught film for many years. The one shot through the ash tray was troublesome. I tried to be patient with it, but it was surely a weird fit in the context of an Introduction to Film Genres class, where the screenings included Hollywood chestnuts like Lonely Are the Brave, Destry Rides Again and Singin' in the Rain. (OK, and relatively gonzo picks like Raising Arizona, Family Plot, and the wonderful Dawn of the Dead.) The Text of Light had no narrative. No sound. No representational imagery. Rather, it was a study of the aesthetic properties of light refracted through glass. And long -- only one reel of the 75-minute film was shown, and yet it seemed to go on for hours. And once Brakhage, the day's guest lecturer, cleared out of the room, just a few minutes into the reel, half the class seemed to follow him under cover of darkness.

I may have been baffled by the film itself (and it wasn't until many years later that I would learn it was a direct influence on the scenes from Richard Donner's Superman that take place on the planet Krypton, which I'm sure would have impressed me greatly at the time), but Brakhage's lecture had been something to behold. A bearded, grandfatherly figure on the campus and especially around the film school, Brakhage arrived, as he always did in those days, with a small metal flask in his jacket. As he lectured, he would occasionally pull out the flask, open it, put its mouth to his lips and tip it backward, just a little. Then he'd close the flask and put it away for a few minutes. Before long, he'd pull it out again. The undergrads exchanged nervous glances. Brakhage didn't miss a beat. After a while, he would reveal that no, he was not drinking liquor, though of course that was the only logical conclusion any of us could draw from his actions. Actually, he told us, he was fond of chewing tobacco, and was using the flak as a spitoon. (This hardly made the squirming students up front any more comfortable.) The lesson had to do with the appearance of things, and how those appearances, while essential to our understanding of the world around us, can be interpreted and misinterpreted. It also helped bolster the myth that Brakhage carried with him, that of the visionary eccentric -- a passionate but avuncular ambassador for avant-garde film.

As I write this, I'm becoming more and more certain that the reel from The Text of Light was my first exposure to Brakhage. That made "Night Music" all the more revelatory. Originally hand-painted by Brakhage on Imax stock but ultimately rejected by the Imax programmers as unsuitable for exhibition on the giant Imax screens -- and wouldn't that have been something? -- the film had been printed down to 16mm for exhibition, and still it was astonishing. Every hour on the hour, a student would dutifully trundle out a film projector, the gallery lights would be dimmed, and "Night Music" would spool through the projector in just a little more than 30 seconds, and the room would seem to explode in color. (Talk about "action painting.") The film was all the more astonishing for its brevity. As soon as the film threaded out, you wanted to see it again. I spotted Brakhage standing near the door after one screening and sidled up to him to say, you know, these monkeys showed the film completely out of registration yesterday so that the colors were a riotous blur. His response was on the order of well, you know, showing films isn't what these gallery people do, and maybe seeing it completely out of focus would be interesting in its own way. For an artist with a reputation for a temper, Brakhage seemed remarkably sanguine about these things. When a student audience hissed and catcalled the premiere of a four-minute Brakhage film preceding a screening of The Double Life of Veronique as part of the campus foreign film series, he professed a similar live-and-let-live attitude. People aren't used to sitting still for that kind of film, he told me when I expressed regret at his poor treatment. He spoke without a trace of anger or frustration, just resignation. And that was that.

Then again, I suppose these attitudes well suited a professor who would show Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II thrown completely out of focus, just to see if his students were still getting the gist of the film's emotional arc by way of the indistinct, now-nonrepresentational shapes sliding across and colliding on the screen. The issues on which he was unwilling to budge were those of film aesthetics. I was taking his classes at a time when the notion of "video artists" was starting to gain some currency, and Brakhage was having none of it. It might be interesting, he'd say, but it wasn't art. Why not? Because with film, color and image are absolute. But with video, color can be altered as easily as a knob can be twiddled. That attitude made it all the more remarkable when Brakhage agreed to allow an anthology of his work to be compiled for release on video -- not the notoriously low-resolution VHS format, but the once-dazzling laserdisc platform championed and best represented by the Criterion Collection label. However, the costs of creating a laserdisc boxed set, which would consist of no fewer than three platters, and possibly even more, were prohibitive given the limited size of the audience.

Truth be told, it's unclear whether a collection of his films on DVD can turn a profit, either. But Brakhage's failing health last year made it clear that Criterion had to commit itself to the project immediately, or risk losing it forever. The deal was made, brand-new film elements were struck at Western Cine, Brakhage's longtime film lab of choice, HD video elements were created -- under the watchful eye of critic Fred Camper, one of the world's biggest skeptics where film-to-video transfers are concerned -- and DVD compression was performed at a high degree of precision. The result is by Brakhage: an anthology, a dazzling collection of 26 films, ranging in length from the nine-second "Eye Myth" (the single shortest film in Brakhage's massive near-400-title body of work) to the 98-minute Dog Star Man. For film aesthetes, the vibrance that the later, hand-painted works retain in their video incarnations is testimony to the ability of careful technicians to fairly represent a piece of filmed art on DVD. And for video junkies, this collection is a one-of-a-kind release, representing a moment in history when high-end technology was leveraged to preserve and present a great film artist's body of work to an ever-wider audience. Many of the people who buy this disc will already love at least some of the films represented. But it will bring the work for the first time to audiences who live in areas where Brakhage's films go un-exhibited or who simply aren't on the mailing list of their local equivalent of the Anthology Film Archives. Seeing these films on DVD is a compromise, but the advantages -- not least among them the ability to scrutinize Brakhage's work frame by frame, or to re-watch a favorite film immediately -- are enormous. (Sadly, Brakhage passed away early this year, before the disc could be released, but Criterion arranged an advance that surely helped with hospital bills.)

The very first thing I did when I got my copy of by Brakhage home was to cue up "Mothlight" in my DVD-ROM drive and watch it on my PC monitor. "Mothlight" is one of my very favorite films ever made by anyone. Brakhage made it after emptying out some of the light fixtures of his home in the Colorado mountains, where he had noticed dead moths collecting, and gathering other bits of organic debrus. All these materials -- twigs, wings, blades of grass -- were meticulously arranged on a long strip of sticky tape the same width as 16mm film. That strip was used to print a celluloid version of the collage, which is meant to be run through a projector. Thus "Mothlight" is a prototypical example of a film made without using a movie camera. The first thing I noticed was the beauty of Criterion's work. The image I was looking at was recognizably, unquestionably, "Mothlight." It didn't have exactly the right light-and-shadow texture of a film projection, but it was close. And the intimacy of watching it that way, in the dark, with the image close enough to touch and yet filling my vision, was startling. It was like being that much closer to the mind of the artist.

The next thing I became aware of was a notable absence -- there was no chattering of a projector, which can generally be heard in the background at any screening of Brakhage's mostly silent body of work. That's more troubling than may first be apparent, because the conceptual power of "Mothlight" lies mainly in its status as a physical artifact, a film built arduously in real physical space out of the mortal remains of hundreds of moths. So if the DVD version retains its considerable aesthetic beauty, it loses its ontological status as a piece of film, which is a crucial part of its artistry. It is forever reduced. Then again, even a 16mm print of "Mothlight" exists at a decided remove from the unprojectable original, which could be considered a collage work as much as a film. So maybe the extra step to a video version isn't that egregious a compromise after all.

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer