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A director who painted on film

A new DVD set highlights some of Stan Brakhage's 400 abstract films, which offer rapidly shifting, 'dream-like' impressions of life.

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2003



Stan Brakhage, the subject of a superb new DVD set from the Criterion Collection, is hardly a household name. Comparatively few people have seen his movies, and no movie will ever show up at a multiplex near you.

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This is odd, considering that Mr. Brakhage made more than 400 films before his death last March, ranging from nine seconds to six hours long.

He also wrote several books, lectured around the world, and - most important - dreamed up radical new theories of what movies can, could, and ought to be doing with the tremendous technical and artistic power at their disposal.

With all this to his credit, why isn't Brakhage a household name? One large reason is the far-reaching gap between his movies and what Hollywood has trained viewers to expect from film. His pictures rarely have stories or characters in the usual way.

Instead they are "pictures" in the most radical sense - rapidly shifting, frequently abstract, usually silent images that have less in common with the world we commonly look at than with the "closed-eye vision" that comes upon us when we're drowsing in our darkened bedrooms.

Brakhage found deep-seated emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wisdom in these dream-like apparitions, which tap into parts of conscious and unconscious thought we (literally) overlook in the course of our everyday lives.

The other big reason Brakhage is known to relatively few is his longtime dislike of video. He was concerned that its inferior image quality - compared with film - would dilute his colors and reduce the eye-dazzling impact his pictures have on a larger-than-life movie screen.

DVD has changed this equation, still falling short of film but offering images far more vivid than cassettes can provide. Moviegoers looking for adventure should welcome "by Brakhage: an anthology" with open arms, open eyes, and open minds.

Selected by Brakhage himself, the collection offers a wide sampling of his interests and styles.

The earliest work, "Desistfilm," is an impressionistic visit to a wild party, made in 1954, when Brakhage was barely out of his teens. The most recent, "Love Song," is a 2001 work reflecting Brakhage's ability to make movies without a camera, painting directly onto a strip of film.

Masterpieces on the DVDs include "Dog Star Man," a meditation on the individual's place in the universe; "The Stars Are Beautiful," organized around Brakhage's fantasies while looking at the nighttime sky; "Untitled (for Marilyn)," a movie that's also a prayer; and "Mothlight," made by pasting bits of leaves, twigs, and moths' wings onto transparent tape to conjure up "what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white."

Not all of Brakhage's movies are abstract or intangible, and viewers should be forewarned that some contain explicit physical imagery. These include "Window Water Baby Moving," one of the films Brakhage made about the births of his children, and "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," shot in a morgue.

Criterion's selection covers most major facets of Brakhage's work, with extras including eloquent liner notes by critic Fred Camper and recorded comments by the filmmaker himself.

"Viewing [Brakhage's films] repeatedly," Mr. Camper said in a recent interview, "confirms the idea that film can ... open up different ways of looking at rhythm, light, color, dream imagery, and other elements his 'light-poems' contain.

"He wasn't interested in 'functional' seeing, which is what you need to get across the street. He encouraged a more imaginative way of seeing. And that can change your life."

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