[Deep Focus]

"Night Music"

by Brakhage: an anthology

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 films included in by Brakhage are spread across two DVDs, and are thoughtfully distributed. The first disc is rather harrowing, beginning with the early "Desistfilm" and "Wedlock House: An Intercourse." The former, the earliest film in this package by a good five years, showcases his groundbreaking handheld camera style but is a perhaps slightly baffling introduction to his work. In his liner notes, Camper describes it as "the first time Brakhage's camera becomes purely subjective," but divorced from its context, it's not clear exactly what he means. "Wedlock House: An Intercourse" is a little more straightforward, recognizably chronicling moments from married life, including lovemaking and arguments, and setting the stage for the type of home movie that Brakhage would elevate to a new level. The camera style and setting of both of these works remind me of the films of Maya Deren, who was a clear influence. But there's little in either one to prepare a viewer for what comes next.

At just under 75 minutes, Dog Star Man dominates the first DVD. Brakhage has made a career out of epics on the micro level, but the scale of Dog Star Man is utterly cosmic. Incorporating footage of solar flares, shockingly intimate close-ups of interiors and exteriors of the human body, images of childbirth and a loose narrative about a man (Brakhage) and his dog struggling to climb a mountain and cut some wood, Dog Star Man is a jaw-dropping declaration of principles. A clear student of Eisensteinian montage, Brakhage here pushes the concept into a whole new dimension, evoking meaning not only by juxtaposing images in the editing process, but also through layer upon layer of superimposition. The breathtaking 25-minute "Prelude" sets the stage, and the four-part body of the film really gets cranking as Brakhage prints three and four layers of imagery on top of one another, creating feverish alchemical visions of an awesome cumulative power. In a purely technical sense, the work here is mind-boggling. Emotionally, it's exhausting. Brakhage says in an interview included here that it's the story of an ordinary man, a provider for wife and children -- but it feels like a creation myth.

Dog Star Man is followed by "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," which closes the disc just as it closes any screening of Brakhage films in which it's included. The third of what have become known as his Pittsburgh films, "The Act of Seeing" -- which takes as its title the literal translation of the Greek word autopsy -- was shot in an autopsy room. Brakhage takes as his subject this time the literal dismantling of the human body. I had never seen this, one of Brakhage's most notorious films, though I had read quite a bit about it and seen a number of stills, all of them distressing enough in black and white. I was a little dismayed to learn that the 32-minute film was actually shot in color.

One of the things that Brakhage showed his film students was medical footage shot, in the early part of the 20th century, of patients in the throes of epileptic seizures. The films were hard to watch, but that wasn't the point. What Brakhage really wanted us to see was the heartbeat of the anonymous cameraman, evident in the way he frames the shots, the way he moves the camera, and in the way you could tell, as the reel went on, that although his function was purely documentary, he began making what could be described as aesthetic decisions. A photographer of such things came to terms with the suffering he faced, Brakhage said, by making art of it. Similarly, "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" is a grueling, fascinating experience only made bearable by our sense of the real human being gripping the camera for dear life. There's a moment when Brakhage brings the camera around to take in the newly emptied cranium of one of the autopsied corpses, peering down into the gaping skull, where I felt that he and I were experiencing exactly the same great and horrible feeling of dumbstruck awe at what had become of a human life. It's enervating but surprisingly humanist in its aspirations -- if it's ultimately despairing, it remains clearly the work of a master exploring the human condition in every facet.

There was debate among the parties responsible for releasing the DVD set over whether it was possible to include this film in the collection, although everyone involved agreed it was essential Brakhage. Criterion knew that to elide the film from the set would be to render a judgment that it was unpublishable. To the company's enormous credit, that made the decision clear: "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" closes the first disc like a clap of thunder.

It's fortunate, then, that so much rhapsodic and life-affirming viewing still awaits. Disc two is so packed that it feels like Christmas. Some of the most astonishing visual-effects films ever made are programmed back-to-back here: "Mothlight," "Eye Myth," "Black Ice," and "Untitled (For Marilyn)," for starters. I rhapsodized over the rich colors that characterized Steven Soderbergh's languid outer-space photography in Solaris last year; watching by Brakhage, I realized how very much that intensely pleasurable filmmaking aesthetic owed to Brakhage's work. Also collected here is the rightly famous "Window Water Baby Moving," which chronicles the first pregnancy of Brakhage's first wife, Jane, and the at-home birth of their first child. (A subsequent birth is seen in Part 3 of Dog Star Man.) Rarely are films so full of love.

Taken together, the two discs proceed in roughly but not rigidly chronological order. So while the films have been programmed to make sense next to each other, they also give you a sense of the evolution of Brakhage's style and subject matter over the years. The groundbreaking, emblematic "Mothlight" is thus followed by "Eye Myth," his shortest work and an early fruition of his painting-on-film aesthetic. Two more short films reveal new angles on Brakhage's work, then are followed by "The Stars Are Beautiful," a 19-minute home movie featuring Brakhage narrating a variety of creation myths, including such tossed-off jewels as "The stars are the optic-nerve endings of the eye which the universe is." It's at moments like this that Brakhage goes so new-age looney that you start to wonder whether he's just plain crazy -- and of course that's part of his genius, too.

That's followed by "Kindering," a scary film about grandchildren, shot through distorting anamorphic lenses and accompanied by a horror-movie soundtrack, and "I . Dreaming," which poignantly sets images of Brakhage's own aging body against a soundtrack made up of fragments of Stephen Foster songs. From that point, we're mostly in hand-painted territory -- the disc includes some footage of Brakhage sitting in a Boulder restaurant creating his latter-day works, scratched onto film with tiny brushstrokes that grow to monumental proportions when projected. The gorgeous "Night Music" is here, as is "Untitled (For Marilyn)," which praises his second wife as well as God Himself with a rapturous explosion of light. You could describe these films as "abstract," but that wouldn't do justice to Brakhage's conceptions of them. The imagery is absolutely meant to be representational, though not directly so -- in one of the documentary excerpts labeled as "Encounters," we see a few frames of one of the Imax-painted films that Brakhage says he cut because they verged on being literally interprable as images of a landscape. And so it is that the moody blues of "Night Music" are meant to evoke a kind of melancholy, that the scratches that make up "Rage Net" are a meditation on the visual sensation of anger, and that the oddly symmetrical imagery of "Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse" is meant to comment on the experience of watching TV.

Unavoidably, there are new intimations of mortality here. Brakhage's health had begun to flag, and he was diagnosed in 1996 with a type of bladder cancer that may have been caused by carcinogens in the special paints he used to make his films. Brakhage concentrated on hand-painted films in these later years for a number of reasons; one of them was that money for genius poetic filmmakers had always been scarce, and his methodical methods of hand-painting slowed him down enough that he could afford to buy materials as he needed them, rather than having to scratch around for film stock. That those materials may have wound up giving him the cancer that killed him is a tragic irony of the first order.

But another reason for painting on film was that he was always interested in exploring different modes of vision. His hand-painted films were related, he said, to "hypnagogic," or "closed-eye" vision. In other words, he was fascinated by the physiological characteristics of sight, the kinds of things that appear in your field of vision if your eyelids are closed, but you stimulate your optic nerve by rubbing your eyes anyway. It's his own experience of hypnagogic vision that Brakhage said he was trying to express in film.

Brakhage was well into his hand-painting phase when I left Boulder in 1993, so it was a surprise to see how dramatically his technique continued to evolve in the 1990s. In collaboration with Sam Bush at Western Cine, Brakhage began using new techniques that layered painted images on top of each other, so that a slow zoom on one layer would give viewers the quite unexpected and disqueting sensation that they were falling into the screen even as Brakhage's paintings danced across their field of vision. "Black Ice," included here, was made by Brakhage after he took a tumble on the slick winter ground, and is the first of his movies I saw that used this technique. It's chillingly effective. "The Dark Tower" is similarly intimative of death, with a spooky black monolith dominating the center of the frame, even as Brakhage's fire and shadows dance around it, raging against dying light. "Love Song," completed in 2001, adds a third dimension to the aesthetic. I'd swear that these images were painted on canvas -- there are little lighting flourishes that seem to highlight the shape of the brushstrokes -- but, again according to Camper's liner notes, this is merely a spatializing effect, adding depth to images that were "apparently painted directly on the film strip." Endlessly fascinating.

But it's the penultimate film on this disc that really completes the picture, and reminded me a little of how I felt in the classroom, watching The Text of Light for the first time and wondering at the chutzpah of someone who would expect audiences to set still for more than an hour of that business. "Comingled Containers," made as Brakhage prepared for a cancer surgery that could well have taken his life then and there, is a thing of quiet, ineffable beauty. Shot in close-up, in 16mm, it explores the visual qualities of light on water. Brakhage said the title refers to bubbles, water, and life itself as commingled containers. At nearly three minutes, it's too short. And now I'm dying to see The Text of Light again, from beginning to end.

What's miraculous is how well these films have translated to the video medium. I wouldn't have thought it possible for something like Dog Star Man to retain a great measure of its hypnotic power on the small screen, but there it is. The DVD masters were created from interpositives and fine-grain prints commissioned by Criterion from John Newall at Western Cine. These new elements were scanned to HD using a Spirit Datacine without applying any filtering or noise reduction to the images. That's the only way to properly show Brakhage's films -- as scrupulous recreations of high-quality prints, including the scratches, splice marks, and telltale dirt and dust specks that continually remind you that what you're watching originated as film. Sound elements, when they exist, were mastered at 24-bit, but not "sweetened," from 16mm optical soundtracks. MPEG-2 compression was applied, and GOPs -- the building blocks of DVD-Video -- were tweaked on a frame-by-frame basis to make sure the constantly transforming image was kept clean and crisp. Although a film like "Mothlight" was thought to be a torture test for DVD compression, Criterion found that segments of Dog Star Man, with its multilevel imagery, actually presented a much greater challenge. The result of all this work is that, viewed on a good display (or, ideally, projected), the DVD versions offer a pretty faithful representation of a careful screening of these films. Scrutinized up close, at full speed or frame by frame, these DVDs yield a clean, clear, filmlike image.

It's possible to put the discs in and just hit "Play All," which will display the films in order. I personally found it instructive to select the films one at a time from each disc's index, watch each film, and then listen to the recorded audio "remarks," where available. The miniature commentaries do not play underneath the films; the title card for the film remains on screen as the audio plays. The remarks are excerpted from a documentary by filmmaker Colin Still (as are the videotaped "Encounters" with Brakhage) as well as from interviews with film historian Bruce Kawin, who is a professor at CU, a good friend of Brakhage's, and an authority on his films. (In short, this guy knows which questions to ask, and when to ask them. I could have listened to hours of that shit. He also helped select the titles included here.) Then, I watched the film a second time -- thus preserving my original impression, but allowing me to re-experience it with those comments under my belt. Some films immediately demanded third and fourth viewings. The 24-page booklet is generous, with an essay and film-by-film notes by Camper, and a nice frontispiece depicts the 36 frames that go into a typical "by Brakhage" signature, which is scratched directly into the emulsion of film stock.

It's possible that this collection is actually too accessible to be truly representative, comprising as it does a great majority of his best-known and, for lack of a better word, "controversial" work. There's a whole type of challenging film that seems underrepresented here - material that I was also looking forward to revisiting - including, just for starters, many of the home movies, the four-part "Scenes From Under Childhood," and the 42-minute "Anticipation of the Night" (1958), made at a time when Brakhage was considering suicide. (At the time, I was convinced that you could see echoes of this film's photography of city streets at night in Godard's "Breathless." Asked about that in class, Brakhage said, "I took a lot of grief from the French," then described the pandemonium that erupted when the Cahiers du Cinema crowd saw his film, shouting "This is not cinema," etc. The legend endures.) We're also missing any trace of the 8mm films he made, many of which he made available for sale to the public and hoped would be watched in people's homes. But my real quibble is just that there's not a third and fourth disc of this stuff.

DVD of the year? Maybe. Criterion has done a smart job of orienting the curious viewer without painting an out-and-out road map, which would compromise the potential for both mystery and discovery in here, the sense that Brakhage's greatest work is simultaneously unfathomable and yet deeply personal. His films have found a lucky and loving home at the Criterion Collection, which has lavished them with the care they deserve -- even though it's not at all clear that the audience will be large enough to repay the sizable investment that was made. So if you love film for film's sake, you owe it to yourself to run out and get yourself a copy of this disc. If you don't dig it, you'll only be $40 poorer and maybe you can sell the thing on eBay. But if you get it, if it challenges your perception of moving images and gives you new appreciation for the beauty of the interior lives of your eyeballs, then buy a few more copies and give them to your friends. Sales matter. If they really take off, who knows how much more of this stuff -- from Brakhage as well as other visionary eccentrics -- we might get to see?

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer