(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)
I’ve been writing in this space for over six years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever said a word about short films. I’ve written only a few times about documentaries, and never at all about experimental non-narrative cinema. And there’s hardly a critic in the country that could criticize me for this. Even for those of us who feel the limitations of watching one narrative film after the next, it’s difficult to cast off the paradigm. It’s too enveloping, too stridently present in our culture. We’re so aware of the money involved, the infrastructure, the dominant conception of the director as artist, that any other way of dealing with film seems like dabbling.
And yet, some of my most memorable film-watching experiences from the past few years fell outside that mould. They’re often happy accidents. In a small town in the northern Netherlands last year, we wandered into the local museum out of curiosity and were transfixed by a particular exhibition. Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the artist’s name, but she killed herself in New York several years ago. In one of the several film loops on display, she covered a female model in feathers, then had her roll around in the ocean, like some weird sea creature washed onto the shore. It was inexplicable, odd, captivating. Two years ago, the Gillian Wearing exhibit in Chicago was as fascinating. The Tate galleries in London and Liverpool have never failed to offer something unique and unprecedented (it’s sadly clear from all this that for me, visiting art galleries is an activity mainly confined to vacations). And I recall other encounters, all overtly less “complex” than the logistics entailed in a Hollywood film, yet so precise and brave as to occupy an indelible space in the memory.
A few years ago in the Cinematheque Ontario brochure, James Quandt described a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’ Nouvelle vague where a maid moves through a darkened house lighting a series of rooms. “The lighting sequence,” he said, “is worth more than the rest of the decade’s commercial cinema put together.” At the time, this struck me as a hilarious overstatement. Just drop him down on a desert island with nothing but movies for company, I thought, and we’ll see whether he chooses the two minutes of lamp lighting over the thousands of hours of commercial cinema. But hyperbole aside, I find the contention rather beguiling. Could a single sequence somehow capture something about cinema that would render everything else obsolete? And if so, what would it be? Is there some undiscovered equation of camera placement and lighting and editing (or lack thereof) and subject that amounts to an E=mc2 of cinema? If so, where did it come from – does God have a conception of cinema? And even if it exists, why wouldn’t we just memorize the lamp-lighting sequence and replay it in our heads? What is it that cinema demands of us?
Seeing with one’s own eyes
I was thinking along these lines primarily because I recently bought the Criterion Collection’s DVD By Brakhage, which contains 26 films by independent filmmaker Stan Brakhage. At this point your mind may rush to imagine a multi-disc extravaganza, like the complete Alien collection, requiring a week of viewing. Well, the total viewing time for these 26 films is just a bit over four hours. Brakhage’s audio commentaries – and this is the only DVD I own where I consider those an indispensable element of the package – might add another couple of hours on to that. The longest film on the set is 74 minutes long; the shortest lasts 9 seconds.
At the time of writing I’m not halfway through the set, because I’ve been deliberately rationing myself – watching one a week at the most, maybe watching it again, listening to the commentary, making notes. It’s an enthralling experience, which threatens to make my mainstream film viewing seem passive and lumbering by comparison. Brakhage generally worked alone, with tiny budgets. The films have no conventional narratives and no sound, but they have subject matter. His early Wedlock House: an Intercourse has brief shots of himself and his first wife making love, smoking, arguing. It’s an unsettling composition of shadow and eerie angles that almost anticipates David Lynch. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes films human autopsies, certainly recognizable as such, and yet becoming utterly strange and abstract – the film is a considerable challenge to one’s sense of one’s own substance.
But these are actually among Brakhage’s more conventional works. He uses jittery handheld cameras, applies scratches and paint directly onto film, imposes images over others. This is from Fred Camper’s liner notes. “Many of the techniques Brakhage developed or refined…can be seen as part of a larger exploration of human subjectivity in all its varieties. He answers the idea that photography is the impersonal recorder of ‘reality’ with the notion that reality itself is inseparable from human consciousness…Lovers of Brakhage’s work have found, in fact, that it can constitute a kind of eye-training, a way of helping one see the world more imaginatively in a variety of situations, ranging from moments of intense emotional crisis…to sitting, bored, in an airport.”
The Wold Shadow
In commentary to The Wold Shadow, he describes how a clearing in the woods struck him a certain way, and he set out a camera to try and capture it. He set up a transparent surface in front of the lens on which he started painting, and the film, which started as a relatively straightforward image, ends up examining pieces of paint in extreme close-up. It’s as if any image, pursued to the end, might reveal the secrets of its own creation; although at the same time we know the secret is Brakhage’s imposition. Brakhage describes the film as something of a wrong turn: he set out to find “the god of the forest” and ended up making a “documentary on the history of painting.” Camper says: “Brakhage was a master of filming human subjectivity, but every moment that appears to valorize the affections, the moods, is balanced by a sense that the work itself is in danger of coming apart, that its beauty and unity is fragile, that its making acknowledges its own destruction…Brakhage offers this alternative (to our normal limited way of thinking): that each of us can become an inner explorer, continually pushing toward some new frontier of consciousness.
For all my current excitement with Brakhage’s films, I doubt that this marks a seismic shift in the shape of my film watching. The conventional pleasures of mainstream cinema are just too firmly established. But I almost wish I were at a point where I’d be happy to give up the whole of Hollywood cinema for my Stan Brakhage DVD. Plus, of course, Vertigo, Rio Bravo, The King of Comedy and a few dozen others…