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DVD Review: By Brakhage – An Anthology

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If you search Google on the terms “birth sex death god,” you get 363,000 hits (as of my latest attempt) and adding the unlikely term “Brakhage” to that list returns a still whopping 1,030. Stan Brakhage made 373 films during his life, most very short, all very experimental, and one can certainly describe his body of work as an attempt to understand these stages of life – we’re born, we have sex, we have children, we die – and the spiritual aspects they all share.

One of my most powerful formative experiences during a college film studies course came while viewing Brakhage’s Deus Ex. It is entirely without sound (as are all of the films I’ll be discussing here) and is almost purely abstract in its visual qualities. It documents a patient’s open heart surgery and deals head on with the theme of mortality that repeats in endless variations throughout Brakhage’s work. What blew me away so profoundly back in 1981, though, was how the film was made. The lens was detached from the body and Brakhage balanced and juggled the two halves of the camera in opposite hands. The result is a jittery, fluid sort of movie full of light flares dashing across the screen at all angles. The film is also never in focus and instead becomes a blurry light painting of reds (blood) and greens (surgical gowns). The sheer beauty of Deus Ex floored me and filled me with the sense that anything is possible with this thing called cinema.

Since that day, I’ve had chances to take in Brakhage’s work in bits and pieces scattered far and wide, but nothing very satisfying until the Criterion Collection released By Brakhage: An Anthology a few years ago. I was probably the first person on the planet to order a copy (or at least I would be proud to hold that honor) and finally I had a wealth of the man’s work at my fingertips. I’ve watched everything on both DVDs in the set more times than I can remember. I even converted my youngest daughter – starting at age seven – into a Brakhage fan. For several years, she’d come to me and say, “Daddy, can we watch those pretty movies that you just sit and stare at?” (Lately, she’s let Brakhage go in favor of Miyazaki, but still gave me a smile today when she saw me revisiting one of our old favorites.)

One of Brakhage’s most famous films is Window Water Baby Moving which documents the birth of one of his children. (To be in Brakhage’s family and to be in Brakhage’s films were one and the same.) During the 1960s, the film was included in the curriculum of some birthing classes since cameras were not yet allowed in hospitals and the filmed-at-home images were quite rare and startling. It isn’t the graphic depiction of childbirth that amazes today, though — we can see such images on the Learning Channel almost every night. It is the abstract beauty of the film’s play on Brakhage’s wife Jane’s round belly, Brakhage’s mystified and overwhelmed yet happy face, Jane’s expressions alternating between joy and agony, and baby Myrrena’s slow progression into this frightening new world that now engages. The way characters are flooded by light flowing in through the window fills the imagination with thoughts of birth being a life and death struggle mediated by God and nudged along by a couple’s love for each other.

Sex permeates Brakhage’s work with images of copulation recurring in abundance and two of my favorite Brakhage films take sex as their central theme. In Wedlock House: An Intercourse, Brakhage and wife Jane star as newlyweds seemingly experiencing their first days living together. The film is filled with shadows and with the pair catching little, gradually revealing glimpses of each other around corners and in transient pools of light. Each is still very much a mystery to the other. They are repeatedly bound together though by sex – the one thing that all mates have shared throughout time – with scenes of intercourse presented using negative images (blacks are whites, whites are blacks) that lend them an almost medical x-ray quality. In Brakhage’s vision, couples may not understand each other fully, but they are destined to perform their one essential task – in this case to conceive little Brakhages.

In my favorite of all Brakhage films, Love Song, sex is explored in a very different manner. Described by Brakhage as “a hand-painted visualization of sex in the mind’s eye,” it is a rush of thick, shiny swatches and drips and globs of paint seeming to either embrace or wage battle with each other – or both all mixed together at the same time. What truly comes to mind while watching Love Song is that this is what church stained glass windows must look like if viewed close-up by two lovers in the heat and height of passion and rapidly approaching orgasm.

My second favorite Brakhage film – The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes – couldn’t be more different from Love Song. It is the final installment in what is known as his Pittsburgh Trilogy which also included Deus Ex and it documents a number of human autopsies. This time though, Brakhage managed to get that lens fixed tightly back on the camera’s body. The Act of Seeing’s images are disturbingly, distressingly clear. The camera’s eye alternates between uneasy glimpses and unaffected, clinical stares while coroners poke and pull and probe and slice away at the skin, flesh, and inner organs of three of Pittsburgh’s freshly deceased. (The only thing Brakhage was forbidden to show was enough of their faces to give away their identities. He avoids showing nothing else.) Fluids are removed. Skin is rolled back to reveal skulls. The three bodies ultimately end up hollow shells, the examiners walk away scratching their heads, empty-handed.

Or at least that’s my interpretation. I’ve always read the film as a commentary on man’s vain attempt to locate the soul of a person by examining his physical remains only to find the person no longer at home. Science stops at heaven’s door. It’s essentially the same message as the ending to Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Doctors perform an autopsy on Hauser and discover abnormalities of his liver and brain followed by the film’s brilliant final scene with a doctor walking away muttering, “Finally we have got an explanation for this strange man…”

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