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.