Extensive is hardly a sufficient word to use when describing Criterion’s superb Blu-ray box set of 56 Stan Brakhage films from 1954-2003. The three-disc set represents significant scholarship on avant-garde cinema and how to best preserve and present it in a home video format, while simultaneously functioning as a breathtaking and varied collection of all kinds of Brakhage films — from his meditative ponderings to his visually overwhelming hand-painted films.
A towering figure in the world of experimental cinema, Brakhage made more than 350 films over the course of his career, and though the films available in this set represent only a fraction of his work, Criterion has enabled viewers to still receive a thorough understanding of his oeuvre — especially in the all-new Volume 2 of the set that frequently culls selected works from larger film cycles to increase the comprehensiveness of the collection.
Criterion first released Volume One of this set on DVD in 2003, but now audiences can see some of Brakhage’s signature works from that set, like Mothlight, Dog Star Man, and Window Water Baby Moving, in high definition, along with the other 23 films that make up Volume One.
The breadth of Brakhage’s interest and ability is apparent immediately upon delving into the set, which moves from the conflict-driven, high contrast Wedlock House: An Intercourse, which features footage of Brakhage and his first wife in the throes of lovemaking, to the layered montages of the masterpiece Dog Star Man to the unsettling, yet deeply fascinating color images of actual autopsies in The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.
Later, the disc explores a number of films created in the method that has perhaps become most associated with Brakhage’s name — films made without a camera at all, where Brakhage would paint, scratch and apply objects directly to the film stock or perforated tape the same width as film. These range from nine seconds to 10 minutes here, and all are singularly astonishing pieces of art that have the ability to evoke amazed trembling. The word “sublime” gets tossed around a lot in evaluating art — these films qualify. The collaged Mothlight, the cosmic The Dante Quartet, and the paean to his wife Untitled (For Marilyn) are some of my favorites.
Volume One also contains the lovely Window Water Baby Moving, a film that documents the birth of Brakhage’s first child in an intimate, yet playful and poetic manner.
Volume Two is spread across two discs, with the films selected by Brakhage’s widow Marilyn herself. Here, the films are organized into six programs that arrange the films chronologically, from early work in 1955 to some of his final work on his deathbed in 2003. The first program features the stunning 23rd Psalm Branch, a rumination on the Vietnam War that combines stock and self-shot footage. Later, in the third program, we get the similarly themed Murder Psalm that explores the violence within self, inspired by a dream Brakhage had about murdering his mother.
The volume also contains selections from the Scenes From Under Childhood series, the Sincerity and Duplicity cycle, the Arabics series and the hand-painted Persians series. By selecting a film or films representative of larger bodies of work, the set effectively expands its breadth. Volume Two also contains the complete series of the four-part fragmented travelogues of Visions in Meditation. The final film of the volume — Chinese Series — features some of Brakhage’s final work, with Chinese-style characters scratched into film with his fingernails and spit.
Volume Two expands impressively upon the Brakhage films already made available by Criterion, making for an indispensable and tremendous viewing experience.
The Blu-ray Discs
The films collected here are all presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 except for Chinese Series, which is presented in 1.85:1. The challenge of bringing avant-garde cinema to a home video format is well documented in one of the essays included in the set, and in many cases, the detail allowed by Blu-ray is absolutely essential to even coming close to the filmmaker’s intentions. Some films were left off this set simply because any home video format couldn’t do them justices — sometimes, actual film stock and the flicker of the projector is essential.
However, the 56 films on these three discs receive stunning visual treatment here, and for some — particularly the hand-painted films — it seems unimaginable to present them in any lower form of definition than this. No restoration tools were applied to any of the film elements, as perfection was clearly not Brakhage’s goal, and the “flaws” are often an essential part of the film. The level of detail is probably best seen in the painted films, which move by at an incredibly rapid pace with no loss of definition. Pausing on any frame reveals an astonishing piece of art, and I found myself advancing through these films a frame at a time often.
As for audio, most of the films on the set are silent, and though the packaging promises uncompressed audio for the sound films, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Still, that’s not a big loss for the eight films with monaural sound and one with stereo, as the accompanying scores to these films are rarely the focal point.
A solid array of supplements aid in the understanding of Brakhage’s work greatly. Volume One includes short audio remarks for nearly all of the films included on the disc, as well as four video encounters with Brakhage. Volume Two has three video encounters, along with segments of a 1990 interview with the Boulder Arts Commission, footage from Brakahge’s informal film salons at the University of Colorado, audio of two lectures by Brakahge and a 2009 film, For Stan, by Marilyn Brakhage.
The 90-page booklet that accompanies the set is an essential companion to the films, with a very informative program guide by Fred Camper providing short analysis for every film. Also included are essays by Camper and Brakhage, and a look at the preservation and transfer of the films with Mark Toscano.
The Bottom Line
It’s clear that an enormous amount of devotion went into By Brakhage, and the informed and uninitiated alike will find plenty to immerse themselves in. There’s no denying the set can be daunting — both in terms of the amount of films and the films themselves, but this is without a doubt one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.Powered by Sidelines