“What’s the experiment?” is a simple question I find myself asking constantly when I see experimental cinema. The moniker “experimental” has become tainted, misused, destroyed as of late. Most festivals around the world now feature a section for experimental films, usually shorts, but their definition is cloudy at best, and when it comes down to it, they are generally populated with films that simply won’t fit anywhere else. Which is why we have a responsibility to constantly, vigorously demand an answer to the simple question: “What’s the experiment?” With the films of Stan Brakhage, you never have to ask, but that doesn’t mean the answer is any clearer.
After a modicum of success with the comprehensive, albeit disjointed, two disc set of Brakhage’s works in 2003, Criterion is back with a second helping of the avant-garde pioneer’s films with By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 2. The set is not only a brilliantly curated look at the career of a prolific filmmaker, but it is also a major milestone for the Criterion Collection itself. It is almost inherent in the nature of experimental cinema that it not be released on home video. More often than not, the experiment is finite, contained within a movie house or screening room, a public space or gallery. That is why the first volume of the series was so jarring to viewers: it was a pile of films where the new set is carefully prepared, divided into 90 minute sessions. One of the major barriers to home viewing has been obliterated by the team behind this disc, which includes Brakhage’s wife, Marilyn, as well as film historian Fred Camper.
But what of the films? I have to admit that when I first received the three disc package, containing of 8 hours of material, mostly silent, I was quite worried about how I would make it through any of the films. Luckily, the curators predicted my apprehension, so the set starts off with The Wonder Ring, a beautiful little film that breaks down any such worries. A very early example of Brakhage’s powers, the film follows a simple premise: ride the Second Avenue El in New York City before it is to be demolished. The result is a wonderful collection of precious, cropped moments that would become the hallmark of his career. We all know what it is like to ride a train, but there are aspects of that experience that get lost on us. Those are specifically the areas where Brakhage trains his camera. There are no characters, just an exploration of the train’s space, the interplay of light and dark within its confines. Immediately, I forgot that there was no sound in this film, my brain was too busy processing the dense visual information.
Another standout (I can’t mention them all, though they all beg mentioning) is Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One. This film, the first in a four part series, is perhaps the clearest representation of Brakhage’s visual manifesto. As Scott MacDonald articulated in his A Critical Cinema 4:
“Brakhage theorized that acculturation generally involves the gradual constriction of the freedom of sight we witness in young children so that, as we mature, we come to understand what is socially acceptable to look at and how we should look at what we see. Conversely, this process of acculturation also involves learning what dimensions of the visible we must not look at.”
With Section One, Brakhage makes this theory as cinematically clear as possible. No narrative becomes immediately clear to the viewer as the film unfolds; in fact a narrative undermines the concept of “under childhood”, the time before a child’s visions are trained. As the screen pulses from red to yellow to black and back, the effect plays out as a child opening and closing his eyes, playing with newfound light. Interestingly, Brakhage prepared a soundtrack for the film, which was originally screened as a silent. Criterion has made this film available with or without the sound, though it is so visually dense, the soundtrack only seems to confuse things, perhaps why he decided to keep the film silent. That being said, the soundtrack itself is a wonderful relic.
Later in life, under financial strain, Brakhage started working with hand- painted films. Though his most famous film, Mothlight (in the Volume One set), features only celluloid manipulation by pressing moth wings, leaves and dirt into film, most of the films in his career featured footage shot with a camera, though even then they were so affected by hand that it was only a natural progression to move to painting. There are few things as satisfying as seeing an artist realize a second calling later in life. From: First Hymn to the Night — Novalis is extraordinary film that melds Brakhage’s long tradition of rhythmic silent filmmaking with his attuned painterly hand. For a film with no sound, the best way to describe this one is “musical”. Featuring English excerpts from the poem by Novalis scratched into the film, Brakhage fills the screen with his moving, literally, watercolors. As the piece expands (it is under 3 minutes), you start to “see” the notes that he is trying to hit. I’ll be damned but I was actually singing the words in my head as they appeared on screen.
Even with their growing library and the ever-expanding Eclipse collection, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 2 along with its predecessor may just be the most comprehensive retrospective ever released by Criterion. Besides the wide array of films featured here, there are also interviews, lectures and short documentaries by other filmmakers about Brakhage on all three discs. Not only a student of cinema but a teacher, for most of his life he was able to sustain himself and his family by touring as a lecturer. As evidenced in the supplemental materials, he could talk forever about art, poetry, light and their interplay in his work. In a 1990 interview, after admitting he nearly threw up while looking at a Botticelli painting, he proffered “I’m very suspicious of anything but music”. He even explains the lineage of the word “experimental” in one interview, which he claims was initially pejorative until he and his colleagues waved it as a flag.
Which brings me back to the issue of “What is the experiment?” For so many filmmakers, the experiment exists within the form, within the barriers of cinema itself. For Brakhage, his life’s work was ultimately an experiment in vision. Perception is everything, and we may never know what precisely he perceived in our world. But with some 300 films to his name and these wonderful collections as bread crumbs to go by, we are given a great little peek into his world.
Ed. Note: This article originally appeared on the Greencine Central Blog.