Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was one of the premier experimental filmmakers in the United States of the past 50 years. He worked in an abstract style, with no literal storylines, no dialogue, and generally no music. His films are often surreal, as if you are watching a rapid succession of individual paintings — held together with various unifying themes.
Brakhage’s work was previously only shown in art houses and museums. Criterion is now making it available to the home viewing audience with their By Brakhage Anthology series. The first Anthology came out in 2003. Volume Two has just been released, and is an excellent three-DVD overview of material spanning the years 1955-2003.
The structure of the set makes it very user-friendly. The 30 Brakhage films included range in length from two to 63 minutes. Criterion have organized the films into six roughly chronological programs. Each program runs between an hour and an hour and a half. By breaking up the material, the editors have made his vast pool of work a little less daunting than it could have been. Still, seven hours of Stan Brakhage’s best is a somewhat demanding, if highly rewarding proposition.
Even with the logical construction of the Anthology, and the extremely informative booklet, this can still be a bit of an overwhelming viewing experience. The images are often rapid-fire explosions, followed by a lull — exemplified by Brakhage with frames of pure color. Later in his career, Brakhage began hand-painting his frames, which represents an entirely new visual medium.
The most arresting piece on By Brakhage Volume Two for me is “23rd Psalm Branch.” At 63 minutes, this is the longest film of the set. It was made in 1967, and was very obviously influenced by the Vietnam War. Rather than taking a direct stance about the conflict in Southeast Asia though, Brakhage allows the viewer to make their own connections through the images he presents. Footage of atomic tests, underwater explosions, Nazi rallies, tanks, concentration camps, and other World War II and Cold War iconography are shown. Towards the end, children play with sparklers, suggesting the fleeting nature of victory.
In 1980, Brakhage revisited the subject of violence with “Murder Psalm.” As in "23rd Psalm Branch," he uses quite a bit of found footage including a pretty graphic old cartoon, and educational films. These are interspersed with the spinning spokes of a wagon wheel, which suggest the brutality of the Manifest Destiny credo of 19th century America. All of this is neatly put into context toward the end with heartbreaking scenes of how cruel children can act towards each other. A group of kindergartners silently humiliate an innocent little girl, laughing as they reduce her to tears.
Besides these weighty statements, there is another side to Brakhage. He adored nature, and shot of number of “travelogue” films. Program Four of the Anthology is devoted to his “Visions In Meditation” series, (1989-90). The four parts were filmed on driving trips through the US and Canada. Each one tells a visual story, and are broken up with hand-painted framework, which Brakhage was using more and more.
The films in the last section of the set cover the years 1995-2003, and reflect an even deeper immersion into the world of abstract colors and shapes. His final short was released posthumously and titled “Chinese Series.” With this one, Brakhage was exploring yet another avenue of filmic expression, this time by literally scratching the emulsion off of the frame to form his version of Chinese characters.
Each of the three DVDs includes a bonus section titled “Encounter.” These include a generous selection of interviews, excerpts from salons he held at the University Of Colorado, and audio-only lectures.
Stan Brakhage’s contribution to the world of experimental film cannot be overstated. Every one of the 30 pieces included here represent an aesthetic vision that will never be duplicated. Those interested in the development of alternative cinematic expressions would be well advised to look into the By Brakhage Anthologies.