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Blu-ray Review: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two (The Criterion Collection)

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THE FILMS

By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two is more than a Blu-ray set. It’s a national treasure. It’s something to watch once a year for the rest of one’s life. It’s certainly the home video release of the decade.

I first encountered Stan Brakhage, a force in experimental filmmaking for nearly 50 years, while a freshman in college. I wasn’t a film buff, yet. I was just a teenager taking an “Intro to Film” class for an easy grade.

One day, the professor sat us down and unspooled a documentary of open heart surgery that was so out of focus and filled with light leaks – as if the filmmaker had repeatedly opened the film magazine while shooting – that the film consisted solely of splotches of red (blood) and green (surgical gowns).

The professor proudly declared, “That was by Brakhage. We’ll talk tomorrow. Class dismissed.” I remember students stomping out like they’d been insulted. I couldn’t move.

The next morning I realized why the professor had been so brief. He wanted us to sleep on it. I awoke feeling like my brain had been removed, rewired, and plugged back in again. Brakhage aimed to create a cinema that forced his viewers to re-learn not only the ways of watching movies, but the very act of seeing with one’s own eyes.

I consider all 56 films on the set to be brilliant. Hell, I’ll just come out and admit that he’s my favorite filmmaker of all time and I cherish everything he made. I’ll single out a few though.

One could say that to be married to Brakhage made one, by default, part of his art. He was a man who didn’t discern any difference between his work, his art, and his life.

Because of this, many of his films are like imaginatively filmed home movies. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) transformed a honeymoon into a shadowy nightmare of uncertainty and lovemaking. The birth of a child became Window Water Baby Moving (1959), a film of home birthing like no other. His first wife Jane was nothing if not a trooper.

His magnum opus is Dog Star Man (1961-64). It begins slowly, taking over a minute to emerge from darkness to gradually fill the screen with explosions of imagery, some recognizable like solar flares and a man climbing a mountain carrying an axe, some indistinguishable. The film is an epic poem seen through a kaleidoscope.

23rd Psalm Branch (1967) is one of the angriest screams in the face of war’s horrors ever committed to celluloid. Made on 8mm film, this complex living, breathing, and shuddering cry from hell is the most riveting thing I’ve ever seen in the dark. (And make sure you watch all of these films in a very dark room. I tried watching them with the evening sun streaming in through the window and it rendered virtually all of the subtle imagery invisible.)

If forced to pick a favorite, I’d probably cheat and say “all of his hand-painted films.” He was a tactile filmmaker. He loved to apply paint, sometimes in streaks, sometimes in globs directly to film strips. And the results are like Jackson Pollock paintings in motion. Okay, my favorite is Love Song (2001).

The paints that he used around the time of Dog Star Man proved fateful. The toxins were considered the source of the cancer that eventually killed him. You could say he literally painted his life into his masterpieces.

The set concludes with the final film he made, Chinese Series (2003), scratched directly into emulsion with his fingernails. Made from his hospital bed about a week before his death, it is one of his most simply beautiful works.

In this world of people who can’t wait to retire, he was a gem, somebody who passionately never stopped working.

THE TRANSFER

I’m not a technical connoisseur of video and audio quality, but I can say that the image on these Blu-ray discs is much richer, deeper, and more detailed and the colors are much more vibrant than on the DVD version I’ve owned since 2003. Re-watching films like Dog Star Man has been like seeing them anew. I’m definitely happy that I sprang for the Blu-ray set even though it meant a “double dip” of the material on Volume One.

One bit of warning though to the uninitiated. None of the usual digital cleanup has been done to any of these films. Scratches, hairs, dust, fingerprints, and splices are visible everywhere and this is both intentional and appropriate. I once saw a photo of a few feet of film from 23rd Psalm Branch and it was so rough looking that I’m surprised it could make it through a projector without flying apart in all directions.

As I mentioned earlier, Brakhage was very much a “hold the film in his hands and play with it” kind of filmmaker and these “flaws” are a side-effect of his working methods. Many, if not all, of them were embraced by Brakhage and became part of their film’s texture.

Much has been bemoaned already about the audio quality not getting the same loving attention on this release as the video. Apparently, the audio is still compressed on these discs and thus doesn’t take full advantage of the Blu-ray format. I say “apparently” because I’m taking other critics’ word for it.

To me, the soundtracks sound perfectly fine for what they are. None are anything approaching high fidelity to begin with and only eight out of the 56 films even have soundtracks. And one of those, Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967-76), is optional and not even Brakhage’s preferred way of viewing the film.

THE BONUS MATERIALS

The riches to be found in this treasure trove don’t stop with the films. There are many jewels here to help one better understand and appreciate the man’s work.

Most of the films from Volume One are preceded by spoken introductions by Brakhage. These act as great lead-ins lending the collection a quality similar to a fine literary anthology. They’re just brief tidbits that provide a bit of perspective, but not so much that they cloud your mind with preconceived ideas. Interpretation here is 90% of the fun.

Another fine bonus is a series of interview-like encounters with Brakhage that allow him more time to explain his ideas about filmmaking. These were recorded over a number of years and welcome new chapters are now included with Volume Two.

There are also a few segments of Brakhage speaking to unseen audiences at Sunday salons at the University of Colorado and an audio-only lecture with Brakhage discussing the profound influence of Gertrude Stein’s poem Stanzas in Meditation.

You might say, “Wow. That’s a lot of talk.” But Brakhage was an endlessly fascinating speaker. I could listen to him for many hours beyond the hour or so included here. He’s like the college professor you always wished you had.

The remaining major bonus is a short and barely edited documentary of Brakhage at work, filmed by his second wife Marilyn. I wish the set included more footage of him at work. He comes across as a man so at one with his camera that it appears to have sprouted from his forehead.

Most bonus materials are enjoyable once – if at all – and then set aside never to be visited again. I’ve already been through all of these twice and plan to revisit them almost as often as the films.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Definitely give this set a go. The films are acquired tastes though so rent them or borrow them from a library if you’re hesitant. And don’t try to take in all 697 minutes at once. My suggestion is to watch just a few films at a time at night when it’s dark – and then go straight to bed and sleep on them.

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