Filmmaker Stan Brakhage has been pushing against the boundaries of ordinary film, and ordinary thinking, for decades. True to form, his recent work marks another step forward, extending still further some of the radical premises that have run through his career.
It's tempting to label ``The Egyptian Series'' an abstract work. This is accurate as far as it goes, since the film manipulates visual elements -- form, color, movement -- for their own sakes. It has no interest in picturing objects or events of the ``real'' world.
Brakhage bridles at the term ``abstract,'' though. He insists that the sources he draws on -- such as imaginary and ``closed-eye'' vision -- are as real as the stories, actors, and props that conventional films deal with. Seen this way, ``The Egyptian Series'' is a record of perceptions that are no less true for being insubstantial, no less universal for being profoundly personal.
If this seems like heady reasoning, don't be fazed by it. Theories aside, the subtle beauty of Brakhage's achievement offers plenty of justification for his pursuit of a cinema that grows more subjective year by year -- to the point where even he can't say, in some cases, what he photographed to obtain the images we see.
Like other works that led up to it, such as the ``Roman Numeral'' and ``Arabic Numeral'' series, ``The Egyptian Series'' unfolds in sections. While each part has a distinctive look and rhythm, visual tensions (stronger than in those earlier movies) bind the segments tightly together. Photographed images are punctuated by designs scratched directly into the film; and images that reveal the existence of the camera (through specks of light reflected on the lens) share the screen with shots that seem independent of any material agency.
Taken together with the title of the work, these and other contrasts suggest a restless coexistence of two Egyptian microcosms. One is literal, contained by the hieroglyphics etched into the film emulsion. The other is intuitive, entirely rooted in Brakhage's deeply romantic sensibility.
The radical nature of ``The Egyptian Series'' may take viewers by surprise, especially since Brakhage's earlier work usually anchors even its most visionary flights in recognizable material. In fact, though, his films have been tending in this direction -- toward the movie equivalent of ``absolute'' music -- for years.
He now tells me, moreover, that his interests are leading him to paint on film more often than ever before -- going beyond photography with images made by hand on the celluloid surface.
The connections between this method and the ``abstract'' photography of ``The Egyptian Series'' were clearly seen during a recent show Brakhage presented at the New York Public Library, which traced his paint-films from the classic ``Thigh Line Lyre Triangular'' of 1961 through ``Hell Spit Flexion'' of 1983.
Considered in the context of these works, the latest ``series'' film seems a logical step in Brakhage's fruitful exploration of cinema as an infinitely flexible, wholly visual medium with no need for figurative underpinnings. While it's hard to say where the journey will turn next, Brakhage offers a clue by revealing that he now paints on huge 70-mm and ``cinemax'' film. ``I'm into murals,'' he explains with a smile.
``The Egyptian Series'' had its premi`ere recently at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York, and it can be rented at low cost (like many other works by the Colorado-based filmmaker) from the nonprofit Film-makers' Cooperative, also in New York.