Sunday, July 31, 2016

Shapes and spellings

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

As Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things starts, a woman stands in front of a sculpture of a nude male that she intends to deface – the figleaf, clumsily imposed after the artist’s death to satisfy someone’s sense of decency, offends her artistic sensibility. The attendant approaches; they strike up a conversation. He doesn’t talk her out of defacing the statue, but he gets a date out of the encounter, and then a relationship. And then she motivates him to lose weight, and to get a better haircut, and even a nose job. He feels great, but his two best friends watch the changes in him with suspicion.

LaBute’s debut was the acerbic The Company of Men. He followed it up with Your Friends and Neighbours, at which point he already had a reputation as a savage, disillusioned observer of contemporary relationships. I found the first film witty and only a little overrated, but the second seemed to me a pointless ‘plague on all your houses’ routine. LaBute then made two films from other people’s screenplays – Nurse Betty and Possession – both of which extended his range but achieved no particular impact. However, by now he was maintaining a dual career in the theater, where his work, distilled and stripped-down, revealed no softening. The Shape of Things began as a play, and the new film has the original four-person cast from London and New York (Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd as the couple; Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller as the friends).

The Shape of Things

It’s hard to discuss the film without giving away the ending, which I don’t want to do, so suffice to say that it’s about the twisted motives that shape human interaction, and it’s also about the perverse demands of art and creation. The revelation, delivered in a formal setting, looks like it would have been an effective piece of theater, and the movie doesn’t really try to disguise its origins. It’s divided into clearly demarcated scenes, with much of the key action happening off screen, and it’s lit as clearly and crisply as a stage, or a laboratory.

That said though, this is a film, and the way we apprehend LaBute’s theme surely shifts accordingly. Although I found it interesting, it seemed to me there’s an in-built redundancy here. Cinema always manipulates character and spectator alike – it’s always artifice masquerading as truth. The same is true in theater of course, but the manipulation of the spectator isn’t as complete, and the illusion of reality isn’t as gripping – the audience member participates more consciously in the creation of an imaginary space. In cinema, a revelation of deception is just another day at the office.

Which is why, rather weirdly, The Shape of Things is a cousin to The Matrix and Identity and that whole genre of “meta” movies I wrote about a few weeks ago. Things are not what they seem – a discovery that may or may not pack a philosophical punch. If, as I do, you go through life with the basic assumption that you’re always missing something, then it’s hard to be impressed with a film that merely confirms your suspicions and self-doubt.

Not that LaBute’s film, taken scene by scene, isn’t intriguing. But it lacks much spontaneity (perhaps inevitable given his and the actors’ familiarity with the material); it always feels that we’re being pushed along. Weisz’ performance, which is key to the success of the premise, sums up the tone: it’s interesting, not without nuance, but fearlessly efficient – the effect is more like a schoolteacher than a creator. Unexpectedly, Gretchen Mol creates the most intriguing character, simply because she’s the most recognizably vulnerable and tentative.


Still, The Shape of Things is a film of ideas, and even if you doubt how many dimensions its shape of things really has, you feel provoked and engaged. But LaBute’s film hasn’t been as well received as Jeff Blitz’ Spellbound, which was nominated this year for a best documentary Oscar. The film’s first hour introduces us to eight diverse children who are all headed for the national Spelling Bee championship in Washington; the last half-hour gives us the drama of the contest itself.

It’s an inherently appealing premise, and Blitz delivers it effectively. Still, the movie annoyed me more and more as it went along, because it’s less a paean to the Spelling Bee than to the greatness of the United States. The contest, as presented here, serves primarily as a stirring symbol of American diversity – proof that the humble and the privileged alike can stand shoulder to shoulder on the road to greatness. One of the fathers, a prosperous Indian immigrant, shows off the showcase home he built for himself, and says that America’s the only country in the world where you can achieve anything you want through hard work; the film makes variations on this same point time and time again.

At the same time, Spellbound does expose something of America’s complacent underbelly. One of the girls is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who doesn’t speak English, and his employer tells the camera about how he’s one of the good Mexicans, proving they’re not all lazy and unreliable. One of the Indian kids has a teacher who speaks about how she’s always delighted to have Indian children in her class because they have such a good work ethic. I suppose these views have some kind of grounding in the speakers’ direct experience, but they show how the melting pot only melts so far. The most intriguing child to me, named Anna, is the most striking exception to both nurture- and nature-based theories. She’s a rather solemn kid with blue-collar parents that she compares to Archie and Edith Bunker, and seems to be growing up almost in her own self-contained space, demonstrating little of her parents’ direct influence.

Ideologically driven

The movie acknowledges lightly that the Spelling Bee may be creaky, nerdy, not the most relevant event in the whole world, but this seems simply like a ploy of anticipating criticism, the better to brush it aside. It’s an American Institution – who could carp? Well, actually, given the current shape of things, it’s tempting to see it as a manifestation of the country’s penchant for getting its priorities spectacularly wrong. This is obviously an ideologically driven criticism, but then the most striking thing about Spellbound is that it’s such an ideologically driven movie. The more I think about it, the more I think I’d like to deface it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

For the birds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

I didn’t register one shot in F. Gary Gray’s remake of The Italian Job that seemed computer-generated. I know they’re there – for all I know, as pervasive as in X2 or Matrix Reloaded, but it doesn’t feel like it. This doesn’t mean that the film strives for realism exactly; just that its conception of the unreal is drawn a little tighter than we often see nowadays. The film’s iconic image – of souped-up Minis whizzing around Los Angeles – seems to sum up this intent: the cars are too plain cute and quirky to serve as the vessel for a calculating Hollywood machine.

Matrix Reloaded

Talking of which, a few belated words about Matrix Reloaded, which is indeed a calculating machine. Not a brainless one – there’s hardly a moment in the film that doesn’t feel deeply considered. But lightning didn’t strike twice. Strictly in the context of the film’s own universe, the sequel may hold some minor revelations, but that’s about it.

I enjoyed the fight between Keanu Reeves and the dozens of Hugo Weaving clones – I thought that was quite a dazzling creation (albeit too stylized). But the much-heralded chase on the freeway turned out to be vastly overdone, and much of the film felt surprisingly dour, as though the success of the first film constituted a prison rather than a liberation. With all the years of build-up about the Wachowski Brothers and their secretive mega-opus, I guess it had never occurred to anyone that they would have invested all the good ideas they had into the first film. Oh well, you live and learn.

The Italian Job is a happier event. I don’t remember the British original at all, but it’s fondly remembered for its chase sequences and (especially in Britain) for the Michael Caine line: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” In the new version, Mark Wahlberg plays the leader of a motley gang that pulls off an intricate gold heist in Venice. The celebrations are cut abruptly short when gang member Edward Norton holds up the others, takes all the gold for himself and leaves them for dead. But they survive, except for Donald Sutherland, and a year later they track down Norton in LA where, with the help of Sutherland’s daughter Charlize Theron, they plan to take everything back.

The Italian Job

It’s the kind of action film that makes you appreciate the intricate choreography behind the illusion of seamlessness. The movie has just enough psychology not to seem soulless and utterly disposable, but not so much that a preoccupation with weightier affairs will seep into our enjoyment. At the end Norton meets what seems to be a rather horrible fate, but the movie presents it with a backdrop of jaunty music, as though he were off to a holiday camp. You register the reality of it, but lightly. And yet, The Italian Job avoids the smirky tone of something like Ocean’s Eleven, where the cast seemed to be having too good a time with each other to worry about the audience. And to prove just how radical a genre film it is, it avoids two major staples – the love scene between the hero and heroine, and the contrived twist ending where the villain returns from the dead or suchlike (I was especially surprised at the latter show of restraint).

I was in the middle of writing this article, and I’d drafted the following paragraph:

  • It seems to me that an increasing number of star actors, capable of challenging and interesting work, choose to lose themselves in roles that surely can’t stretch them. Edward Norton, one of the most talented actors of his generation, is completely wasted in the villain’s role. Wearing a droopy moustache and ratty haircut, he’s a mean-spirited character with no redeeming features, with few scenes that go beyond the strictly functional. It’s truly hard to see what the appeal of the role was for him. Other than the money of course. Norton’s increasing capitulation to this kind of work (see also The Score) seems like a potent symbol of how the notion of being a serious actor has deteriorated. Robert de Niro has been on the same trail for a few years now, but at least he was artistically pure for the first fifteen years or so.

But then I read an article that claimed Norton was forced to do the movie because of a contractual commitment dating back to his debut, Primal Fear, and he only took the job grudgingly. Which, assuming that’s true, struck me as a useful lesson in the pitfalls of presuming to discern anyone’s motives for doing what they do. But either way, The Italian Job would be a somewhat better sell-out vehicle than most of them.

Winged Migration

The documentary Winged Migration is an entirely different kind of technical achievement. Director Jacques Perrin and a vast team spent four years filming birds all over the world (the closing credits basically read like a world atlas) – concentrating on migratory birds and their routes. The footage is, in a word, astonishing, capturing so many birds from so many angles and perspectives that it’s as if the world had become a camera, casting aside normal technical constraints.

The film’s in-built irony is that by getting closer to the birds than perhaps any film ever made, it communicates eloquently the proper role of mankind: to leave them alone. Humans appear only sparsely in the film, most often destructively, as poachers or hunters (the scene of a soaring aerial shot suddenly interrupted by gunfire and a sharp fall to earth is surely more shocking than anything in this year’s action/suspense crop), otherwise as merely superfluous. The film doesn’t try to anthropomorphize the birds, but anyone who watches the film will be convinced that they possess an emotional landscape similar at least in its outlines to our own. At various moments they appear pensive, frightened, engaged, content – you name it.

Maybe the movie suffers a little bit from its very breadth. At numerous times, I would have been content to spend more time with a particular sequence, but it always moves on quickly to another place, as if itself constantly seized by the need to move on. Much as you marvel at the mystery, you yearn to understand better. At one point, for example, the narrator says that the young birds memorize landmarks during their maiden migratory voyage, to help them retrace the journey. But it wasn’t clear to me whether that was meant as a literal statement that’s been in some way scientifically demonstrated, or whether it’s poetic licence.

Whatever the answer, that voice-over narration (which is fortunately used sparsely) is the film’s major flaw, along with some very lame songs (ditto). However, even these flaws have a silver lining: they help underline how humans can sometimes be crasser than birds would ever be.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Not The Matrix

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

In most theatres it’s currently all The Matrix Reloaded all the time. But here are three worthy alternatives, by three new (or newish) directors.

People I Know

People I Know is more like a notebook of ideas and impressions than a finished, fully though out film, although I’m not necessarily saying that as a criticism. The film depicts a veteran New York publicist who’s on his last legs both professionally and personally, pulling together a benefit for an obscure cause. He hopes to unite the three pillars of media and cultural influence: an Al Sharpton-like minister and rabble-rouser, a powerful businessman from the Jewish establishment, and a tanned member of Hollywood royalty. By the time he pulls it off, it’s revealed as a hollow ambition, an empty flexing of muscles that don’t really exist (the people come not for him or his cause, but because of their own calculations). Intertwined with all this, and emphasizing the movie’s theme of paranoid impotence, is a murder that’s revealed as a conspiracy, perhaps involving some of these same pillars. A poster for Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, plainly visible behind Pacino in several scenes, signals part of the film’s intent at least.

It also signals the film’s weakness, for People I Know has none of the control and assurance of Pakula’s film. Director Dan Algrant (whose only previous film was Naked in New York) lets scenes run on too long; his visual style is pretty mundane; he doesn’t really pull it all together; and he doesn’t seem able to rein in the full-flight Pacino (as a hardcore Pacino fan, this doesn’t bother me too much, but objectively it’s probably not ideal). And yet, as I write this, it’s the first film this year that I’m seriously contemplating paying to see for a second time. It’s one of those movies where chaos proves more stimulating than coherence could ever be; where meaning seems to exist in the gaps. The theme of idealism reduced to mere hustle isn’t new, but Pacino (whose fatigue in some scenes is truly chilling) makes it poignant. The idea of mysterious cabals and circles (exemplified here by an opium den located in the bland surroundings of a Wall Street high rise) is even more familiar, but when will that ever be old hat?

People I Know was shot a couple of years ago, and sat on the shelf for a while (reportedly, it was the inflight movie last year on an Italian airline). It originally contained a shot of the World Trade Center, now removed. For a movie that aims to have its finger on some kind of contemporary pulse, I think the delay is noticeable. The movie already seems warmed over, desolate in a way that far exceeds any possible intention. But that’s a rather unusual quality for a movie now; enough so to amount to a recognizable political statement.

City of Ghosts

Conspiracy theories also lurk in the background of City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon’s directorial and writing debut. He stars in it as a scam artist who flees from the FBI after the collapse of the insurance fraud he’s been fronting, and turns up in Cambodia in search of his mentor (James Caan). In a way seemingly meant to evoke a Casablanca-like mélange of colourful characters, the film throws in a love interest (Natascha McElhone), an eccentric bar owner (Gerard Depardieu) and a shady operator (Stellan Skarsgard), among others. Actually, it all seems pretty random after a while.

The movie is apparently the first to have been shot in Cambodia for decades, but I can’t truly say it feels significantly more imposing than the usual combination of studio backlot and location footage. This is partly because Dillon doesn’t seem to have much of an eye, and partly because no matter how real it looks, it doesn’t feel real, what with all the Westerners, and the lack of much of a sense of local culture, politics etc. The underlying theory seem to be that if you set a movie in Cambodia, meaning and nuance will just flow from the screen – which struck me as a bit patronizing.

For all of that, the movie did grow on me. It’s very much like People I Know, and John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs too, in how a languid pacing (which may well be a sign of directorial timidity) ends up creating its own quirky reality (Dillon’s intention was probably pretty close to Robert Duvall’s in the recent Assassination Tango – to play at making a run-of-the-mill exotic thriller while simultaneously subverting it). City of Ghosts ends up being another intricate subterfuge – one with far less inherent resonance than People I Know – but it doesn’t seem imprisoned by genre momentum. And Dillon saves the best until last – after the movie’s essentially over, he allows himself a lengthy digression, following the local cyclo driver who’s helped his character along the way. For a while, the movie seems to have broken free of any commercial calculation, and to be merely existing and observing – and it’s so guileless that it’s actually exciting.

Blue Car

Karen Moncrieff’s directorial debut, Blue Car, stars the wonderful young actress Agnes Bruckner as a troubled teenager who finds escape in writing poetry, and in particular in her relationship with the poetry teacher, played by David Strathairn. One day he comforts her after the death of her sister and she tries to turn it into a romantic embrace; he recoils, and after that is wary around her, as he must be. But when they’re both in Florida for a poetry competition, he’s far less reticent.

The most unnerving aspect of Strathairn’s character is his complacent belief in his own virtue. When he makes his move on her he keeps asking over and over if she’s OK, and although she’s obviously lying when she says yes, his asking the question fulfils in his own mind any duty of care he might have. Even more than his physical violation of her, it’s the revelation of shallowness that’s so striking. Part of his mystique in her eyes has been the file he carries everywhere with him, supposedly containing his novel in progress, but this too turns out to be a sham. This is all obviously a bit of a contrivance – a contemporary story that relies this much on poetry would have to be a contrivance – but it works.

At times, Blue Car is a bit clichéd and predictable, and it’s resolutely a “small” movie, dealing with intimate concerns and changes. Moncrieff’s film isn’t as ambitious as either Algrant’s or Dillon’s, but it’s the most controlled, and probably the most successful overall in attaining its chosen mandate.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

I wish I’d liked the X-Men sequel, X2, more than I did, because people make it sound both cool and smart. Here’s A. O. Scott in The New York Times: “One of the best things about the great old Marvel comic books – aside from their graphic flair and their strenuously exaggerated ideas of human anatomy – was the way they dramatized adolescent disaffection on an apocalyptic scale, connecting the private alienation of their heroes (and readers) with the primal struggle between good and evil. More than most film adaptations of comics, Bryan Singer’s film X-Men and its new episode, X2, try to honor both the allegorical grandiosity of their source and the moods and anxieties of the superpower-endowed individuals who inhabit its universe. The mutants from whose ranks the X-Men emerge are both a persecuted minority and a tribe of lonely children, shunned and feared by the ordinary humans who surround them.

Too old?

I keep thinking I should give up on writing about this kind of movie altogether, because I worry I’m not in tune enough with their ambitions, their nuances, their audiences, with anything about them. But I keep coming back, maybe out of unshakeable faith that I can forge my own psychic connection with the genre, maybe out of stubbornness and a kind of vanity. I’m 37, and I guess  I think of myself as a youngish 37 (who doesn’t?), but there’s no question that I’m not a kid. At 37, you should be past the point of being impressed by sheer spectacle and concept – shouldn’t you? That seems true to me when I write it, but I guess I don’t know why. What does it matter – who’s keeping score?

My problem is exactly that – I live as though someone is keeping score. I’ve written before about how my propensity for cramming in movies blunts the ability to savour any particular one. And I guess I tend to think of myself (to adapt Orson Welles’ metaphor) as a big Christmas tree, where every day has to constitute an additional decoration of some kind. For the time I spend watching a movie, “entertainment value” doesn’t tend to justify the investment (the precious commodity here being the time more than the money). So I’m usually ambivalent about big mainstream movies, but I end up going anyway, because the reviews usually sway me and, hell, because I enjoy the damn things once I stop agonizing about them.


That’s me at 37. But it’s not as if I’ve never been grabbed by comic book culture. I remember, back in Wales, buying my first American comic books. They were usually crammed any which way into an inconspicuous corner of the store, afterthoughts to the homegrown product. I have no idea what the distribution setup was, but I could never find two issues in sequence. This hampered much engagement with their plotlines, but actually enhanced their status as sheer artifact. And I remember being especially fascinated by the reader mail – by its sheer depth of engagement. British comics, obviously, had nothing like this.

The novelty died off pretty quickly though. As a young adult I sometimes went into comic book stores, intrigued by the idea of them and perhaps a little jealous of the people who really got the subculture (Kevin Smith’s movies make them look like the best damn place anyone could be), but the reality merely bored me. I loved the idea of the Batman franchise – to reconnect with the darkness of the character, to reclaim his popular image from the camp TV show – but the movies were generally a bit of an ordeal, except maybe the Pfeiffer/DeVito second installment.

X2 might have seemed like one of the dumber franchises, just on the empirical basis that believing in ten or twelve superheroes, all with different superpowers, requires approximately ten times the suspension of disbelief required to believe in one of them. Maybe it doesn’t work that way. Anyway, the movie doesn’t feel too dumb. The director, Bryan Singer, made The Usual Suspects and Public Access, and he approaches the movie with a persuasive feel for character and overall coherence. The film never seems camped up, or preoccupied by special effects. The cast includes Shakespeareans Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Brian Cox – the three of whom seem to me to influence the overall tone more than the younger cast members – and Oscar-winners Halle Berry and Anna Paquin.

There’s that metaphor

And then there’s that allegorical grandiosity Scott talked about. Sometimes this is intriguing, even touching. Take the scene when Iceman comes out to his parents about his superpowers, and the family talk that follows sounds like a conversation about being gay, or taking drugs, or any other occasion when elders try, not too successfully, to say the right thing while covering up intuitive revulsion. Iceman has a tentative romance with Paquin’s Rouge, but her kiss and touch are deadly, entailing a sweet but embarrassed chastity. Actually, the movie barely has anything “heroic” for Paquin to do, and she thus best embodies the film’s potential for placing character over narrative.

But on the whole, I can’t see that the film’s deeper ambitions are realized. A metaphor isn’t inherently revealing – sometimes you just register the point and move on, none the wiser for it. X2 is full of points that you register as potentially, but not actually, illuminating. And by this point, the reader may be jumping up and down, declaring: fine, but is it entertaining? Well, there’s too much going on for the movie ever to be dull. But Singer’s seriousness of purpose comes at the expense of the zip and panache that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man (as for the other key contemporary reference point, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, X2 doesn’t aim for that kind of pictorial impact.

I must admit too that I found the number of characters rather overwhelming. There’s not an actor in the film who doesn’t feel like a guest star (I wasn’t doing a count of course, but it sure felt to me as if Cox, as one of the bad guys, had more dialogue than any of the heroes). And the final set piece in Cox’s underground headquarters seemed to go on and on. Maybe I registered such disappointments a little more keenly than I would have with a movie that aimed for less in the first place. But I guess that if I really “got” the X-Men, then I’d be writing a completely different review. Funny I should feel guilty about not succumbing more readily to a piece of popular culture – that’s the power of the mainstream machine for you. But I’ll get past it; I’ll cut out this kind of movie pretty soon now. But not yet, because The Matrix Reloaded is already out, and then comes Ang Lee’s The Hulk…

Monday, July 4, 2016

Stan Brakhage

(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.

Happy accidents

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…