Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cat's Cradle

1959 • 6 minutes, 16 seconds • 16 mm • Silent

I am really enjoying watching these movies one or two at a time in chronological order and then pausing to put together my thoughts. These early films in particular took me the longest to appreciate and until I began this project they were probably my least favorites. Now, each is becoming something I hold dear.

“Cat’s Cradle” looks like such a natural continuation of “Wedlock House.” (And so then does “Window Water Baby Moving” which I’ll write about next.) Where “Wedlock” is a frightening, emotionally tentative, and sexually charged look at a honeymoon, “Cat’s Cradle” is a cat bewitching look at the first year of a young couple settling in to comfortable domestic living. There is a real sense here of relaxed hanging out. The couples fears have subsided, but they’re also still just playing at marriage, like children in a tree house.

Floating through this is a black cat. Cats actually float through a good number of Brakhage’s films (note the title of this blog) and he seems to have simply enjoyed them as pets, so I wouldn’t rush to place too much symbolic significance on the cat’s color. It’s not there to suggest the couple is dabbling in witchcraft. I do think it suggests though that Stan was bewitched by Jane. When considered as part of continuity between “Wedlock” and “Window,” something is definitely going on inside Jane that is another great mystery for the young Brakhage.

He would spend his career focusing on the great transitions or stages of life that we all share and that ultimately form the basis of all mythology. His life’s work could be summarized as a long meditation on sex, birth, aging, and death and how family and spirituality are what carry one from one to the next.

While “Desistfilm” and “The Wonder Ring” were edited in ways not far removed from classic continuity and “Wedlock” toys with something akin to peek-a-boo light montage, “Cat’s Cradle” is Brakhage’s first film to develop the editing style that he would toy with and perfect for the rest of his career. It feels like a practice film for his epic “Dog Star Man” for instance.

His editing here could best be described as fiercely non-continuous. He has three characters Stan, Jane, and a cat and their surroundings. He shows us each in a rapid succession of almost disconnected images. The cuts don’t have the cause and effect (telling a story) relationship that we are accustomed to after a lifetime of watching Hollywood movies and this makes the movie demanding and trying at first. The cascade of shots almost feel like watching footage as it spilled out of the camera, still waiting for an editor to show up and go to work.

I’ve watched “Cat’s Cradle” about a dozen times now and way they vibrate as they contact each other assures me that Brakhage actually put great care and thought into their precise arrangement. He is after two things with this style. First, he wants to thrill and engage your subconscious by feeding it new ways for shots to interact. Second, he gives your mind all of the makings of a story – a setting and characters – except for one crucial piece – a story. He recognized that the human brain will fill in the missing pieces – and most likely come up with a story far more interesting than if a screenwriter had crafted one.

One other comment, the colors in the film, especially on the Blu-ray disc are absolutely ravishing.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Wedlock House: An Intercourse

1959 • 10 minutes, 47 seconds • 16 mm • Silent

The more times I watch “Wedlock House,” the more I like it and feel at one with it. It tells the story, apparently, of one night in the young married lives of Stan and Jane Brakhage. It’s a night of fear and uncertainty and lovemaking. It’s a shadowy haunted house of a movie with two young people only finding comfort through sexual intercourse.

I wonder how many people get married before they really, truly know each other. That wedding night and the honeymoon and those first few months, even years, together would seem a frightening mystery. Do I even love this person? Is all we had in common just sex after all?

“Wedlock House” is set entirely in a house at night. It consists of moments of illumination revealing fleeting glimpses of one face and then the other. These are rhythmically alternated by even longer moments of darkness. There’s plenty of editing of the usual kind here, but Brakhage does something much more interesting, more innovative. As a filmmaker with a lifelong fascination with light, he has conjured up a way to create montage out of casting and covering his light source. Illuminate the room, then cover the light with a cloak, then uncloak the light to reveal a new image, and back and forth. It’s an intoxicating effect, a teasing effect.

The film reminds me of teenage sleepover truth or dares where a boy and a girl are ordered into a “haunted house” at night and not allowed out again until sunrise. And being maliciously playful, they, particularly the boy, take the game to a new dimension by telling each other ghost stories by the fireplace and, since all of their friends will spend the night imagining them making out and going all the way anyway, hell, why not?

For me, the most memorable sections of the film are two: a series of shots where they appear to be playing hide and seek, peering at each other from opposite ends of a hallway and through windows, and a series of shots where they share cups of tea like children having a tea party. It nicely captures what I think the film is ultimately about. Marriage is one of life’s most significant transitions. Before, a couple is merely playing at being a couple. Afterwards, the playing is over and adult reality sets in. “Wedlock House” shows us that, for one night, the play and the reality meet in the foyer, one coming, one going.

The quite graphic shots of Stan and Jane having intercourse are presented differently than the other material. They are shown as negative images. It is almost as if the sex and the fears exist on different planes. They fear each other – like teenagers in a haunted house – and they desire each other, intensely – like stray cats having a heated rendezvous. The glimpses we get of their faces are filled with these mixed emotions. At times, they appear to be panting, but from which emotion? It works either way.

I wonder if Jane really knew what she was getting herself into when she married Stan. Did she know that from the moment of “I do” onward, no moment would be too private for the camera?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Wonder Ring

1955 • 5 minutes, 34 seconds • 16 mm • Silent

“The Wonder Ring” is a sizeable step toward the rabbit hole that Brakhage would dive into and mostly, happily remain within for the next nearly 50 years. I’ve seen it about a dozen times now and it strikes me as one of his most beautifully photographed and most haunting works.

It, like “Desistfilm,” is a work of filmed reality where everything we see is recognizable. It’s essentially a documentary of a soon to be closed and torn down elevated train and train station. It begins with a climb up a case of stairs with each step illuminated by a shaft of light that almost appears as improbable as the painted shadows of a German Expressionist silent and yet it’s just as clear that this striking occurrence of lighting is one of those startling found things that most of us either never see or fail to notice throughout our lives. But something that Brakhage seems to have happened upon and had the awareness to discover on a daily basis.

We then enter the station, a hall of glass and reflections that feels like a land of ghosts. The film is silent and simply takes us on a visual tour of the train and station as well as taking us for a ride – a ride that feels like the train’s final journey. Most striking though are the people that Brakhage captured with his camera. They’re never seen clearly. They’re seldom seen completely. They remind me of ghosts incidentally caught by a camera accidently left running unattended.

We catch glimpses of faces reflected in glass doors and windows. Speeded up figures appear for an instant in the background. Faces flicker by through the windows of a passing train like quickly running the physical frames of a film through your fingers. The figures almost seem to be trying to avoid being seen and they dash out of view as quickly as they came.

There is one character that seems to reoccur throughout the film, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. It’s the figure of a man wearing a hat that looks to me like William S. Burroughs en route to his next junky fix.

“Desistfilm” with its beat subjects had already put me in the mood to make this connection and Brakhage certainly had an affinity with many beat era figures. And “The Wonder Ring” wouldn’t be his last brush with the cutup master in my mind either. I consider “23rd Psalm Branch” to be the greatest film ever made in the cutup tradition. But, of course, much more on that later…

Saturday, June 5, 2010


1954 • 6 minutes, 48 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural

Beats kick back on beat up sofas playing guitars, casually glimpsed by the camera. They smoke, one picks lint from his belly button, and another builds a house of books like a house of cards with one of the books appearing to be “Death of a Salesman.” Music kicks in and they start dancing, one gets thrown in the air on a blanket (he alternately looks like he’s experiencing pleasure and pain), the main character starts making out with a woman, and the other guys seem jealous in a ridiculously clownish way and run around in circles making faces before dashing out into the night and through the woods. The main character – barely defined as such – and a woman kiss behind some undefined semi-transparent barrier that blurs their appearance is if seeing them through a shower door. Then the barrier drains away as if made of liquid and the lovers are exposed to the other young men as they gaze smirking in through the window.

“Desistfilm” is an oddity. It’s not quite like any of Brakhage’s other films – out of the 57 I’ve seen.

It seems that Brakhage began his career wanting to be a “Hollywood” filmmaker. He thought of movies as something that you write and direct. You assemble a cast and carefully decorate a set and tell the actors what to do and edit the results into something that tells a satisfying story of sorts.

This often seems a necessary point of departure for artistic innovators like Brakhage. Start with the familiar and work gradually toward uncharted lands. I was kicking back at a relative’s house over Memorial Day and spied a book precariously perched on a high shelf. The spine read “Monet.” I pulled it down and started paging through it as it linearly worked its way through his various periods. And I was instantly reminded of the experience of watching Brakhage’s films in chronological order.

Monet began with relatively realistic looking portraits of boats drifting across lakes and windmills and women with parasols and ended with paintings of a bridge that are so abstract that one can only make out the essential shape and form by standing back a bit and squinting. From the beginning to the end of this creative time span is a steady progress of simplifying and purifying and abstracting. Near realism morphed into hyper-abstraction very gradually over time – occasionally interrupted by brief little side trips such as drawing portraits that almost look like newspaper caricatures (Brakhage had such side trips as well).

There is a similarly clear line of development from “Desistfilm” to “The Chinese Series” if you watch all of the films in between. The difference only seems startling if you watch the two films side by side.

“Desistfilm” reminds me of the first films of Kenneth Anger and John Cassavetes, so much so that they form a loose trilogy. I re-watched “Desistfilm,” “Fireworks,” and the opening of “Shadows” last night. They all have the feel of having been made by a young filmmaker who found himself almost by accident with a camera in his hands and decided to make a movie – not having any idea how to do so or even how to operate the damn thing. Because of this, all three movies have a primal feel about them as if they are the first films made, by anyone.

I don’t know if Anger was influenced by Brakhage and his film is as much different as it is similar to “Desistfilm.” His is more like a rough version of Fassbinder’s “Querelle.” But I kept watching the Anger disc last night and found “Puce Moment” to share a certain affinity with Brakhage through its love of texture as a parade of gowns fills the screen. But I digress…

“Shadows” on the other hand feels directly inspired by “Desistfilm.” In Brakhage’s spoken commentary on the disc, he mentions Cassavetes as someone who “got” what he was trying to do. Both “Desistfilm” and the opening scene of “Shadows” depict beatnik parties filled with hanging out and drinking and dancing, all set to throbbing, pulsating music. In the midst of this turmoil enters the protagonist, virtually unnoticed by the others, an outsider, pensive, unaccepted. He’s a guy who wants to be alone with a girl, but his damn friends get in the way.

“Desistfilm” has a number of features that Brakhage would quickly shed. It tells a fairly clear story, it lists the names of the actors in the main titles, it has music (most Brakhage films to follow would be silent, though not all), the shots are composed with a certain eye toward clarity and convention of composition, and there’s a clear sense of beginning, middle, and end. It also has a delightful slapstick sense of humor that is absent throughout the remainder of his work.

There are many features though that anticipate hallmarks of his later work. The film is in love with texture. The shots are often obliquely framed, sometime only glimpsing part of the actor, and the images often drift out of focus as if Brakhage preferred seeing the world that way. The shots of the lovers through that odd, liquid barrier look ahead to all of the myriad ways such as pointing the camera through stained glass the Brakhage would distort his images and the characters’ dash through the woods seems mostly an excuse for Brakhage to revel in a dazzling play of light.

I didn’t really care for “Desistfilm” the first time I saw it. But I’ve found the film more enjoyable with each viewing as I become more in tune with its unique rhythms. This will be a common theme throughout my comments in this blog. Brakhage is like the liver and onions of the cinema. If you know what’s good for you, keep on eating until you love it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why this blog?

I’ve watched that first “By Brakhage” DVD set countless times over the years and recently paid extra for the Blu-ray of Volumes 1 and 2 to be delivered promptly on its day of release. During the eight days that have now passed since its arrival, I’ve devoured all 56 films plus bonus materials almost twice as well as watching some favorites three or four times.

I can now say with total conviction that Stan Brakhage is my all-time favorite filmmaker and I feel like an over-inflated balloon filled to near bursting with 28 years of thoughts about Brakhage’s films straining for release. This blog will be that release.

I intend to re-watch and “review” every film in chronological order (well, maybe share my very personal reactions and random musings is more accurate). And I’m sure I’ll also go off on plenty of tangents along the way, posting links to Brakhage related things, and circling back to make fresh comments on already visited films as the urge arises.

Hopefully, this project will eventually include volume 3 and beyond until all of Brakhage’s films have enjoyed the same much deserved treatment from Criterion.

Btw, my favorite Brakhage film is “The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm” and thus the strange title of this blog. I think it’s the perfect mixture of the abstract beauty that captivated me so when I saw “Deus Ex” and Brakhage’s ideas of telling stories in a highly oblique manner. You have a cat, you have a worm, and you have a green realm. What more do you need for the Genesis of a story?

Ghosts in the night

Roll forward now to 2003 and the release of Criterion’s “By Brakhage: An Anthology.” I preordered the set and waited impatiently for months until it arrived in my mailbox. And I remember having very mixed feelings as I worked my way through its 26 films.

On the one hand, I found the editing rhythms jarring and awkward in films like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Window Water Baby Moving.” On the other hand, I found the hand-painted films, mostly gathered on the second disc, to be indescribably beautiful. My younger daughter of seven would watch them with me for a half hour at a time. She would whisper things to me that she imagined seeing in the images like a child lying in a grassy field contemplating shapes in the clouds. She fondly remembers them to this day as “those films you just sit and stare at.” She even wanted, for a while before she cared what the other kids thought, to take the DVD to school and share it with her classmates. (I wonder if it would’ve gone over better with 3rd graders than with college students.)

“Dog Star Man” looked a lot better on the DVD than it had on that old tape, but it still seemed a bit boring and still almost had me reaching for Pink Floyd. But, over the next few years it started to grow on me until it finally had its big breakthrough like some membrane that had been protecting my delicate sensibilities had finally been ruptured.

This breakthrough came after reading a comment by Fred Camper in the liner notes saying that to best appreciate the films one must make the room as dark as possible and sit very close and just below the level of the television set. I tried it out one night and it was like seeing the movie anew, like seeing it for the first time. (I’ve since learned that Brakhage’s masterpiece of montage “23rd Psalm Branch” looks jawdroppingly incredible in the dark, but looks terrible in a brightly lit room with the late afternoon sun streaming in through the window. More on this later.)

My daughter also vividly remembers that experiment as one of the most frightening experiences of her young life. She thought everyone had gone to bed and walked into the living room to see me sitting before the silent television as if in a trance. Last year, when she saw “Paranormal Activity,” she said, “Dad! When that woman got out of bed and just stood and stared … that was just like you when you were sitting in the dark staring at that weird movie years ago.”

Eye Myths

My sensibilities – cinematically speaking – seem to have been profoundly influenced by those 35 minutes of Brakhage when I was an 18-year-old. I’ve always loved films and the little moments within films that feel rough and filled with texture. I think I enjoy the blur in the middle of a flash pan more than the stasis at each end. I love the blurriness of the porn film that Travis watches in “Taxi Driver” – it’s somehow dirtier than if we’d been allowed to see clearly. I’m entranced by the interplay of film stocks, styles, and methods in “WR: Mysteries of the Organism.” And the final shot of “The Last Temptation of Christ” – with the film accidently running out in the camera and the shot being “ruined” by flickering light leaks – is the most extraordinary way of signifying Christ’s ascendency I can imagine.

“Deus Ex” has never been out of my mind even as its memory has faded to near nothingness. Nothing opened my mind to as many possibilities of what a movie could be. And I never forgot the name Brakhage even though it was nearly 15 years before I got another chance to see a Brakhage film. He became a figure in my mind akin to Zeus and Odysseus. He became a mythological figure to me of a lone artist seemingly living in a shack on the beach making little 8mm movies for an audience of one while living off of peanut butter and crackers and hitchhiking to town and panhandling for money whenever he needed to get his film developed. (Of course, I would eventually learn that most of this was a figment of my hippy loving imagination.)

And all of this mythologizing was the result of watching 35 minutes of blurry green and red splotches. Maybe that’s part of what Brakhage meant by “Eye Mythology.”

Finally, about 13 year ago I came across a mail order videotape rental company that offered something called “Dog Star Man” by Stan Brakhage. I jumped at the opportunity and paid something like $15.00 plus postage to have the tape in my possession for a full week. And, I wasn’t impressed. I don’t know if it was the crappy quality of the tape or that I just needed to first find a way to erase 15 years of building the guy’s work up into something in my mind that it wasn’t before I could appreciate it, but I found the movie incredibly boring. I did discover though that it goes very nicely – like so many other movies – as a visual accompaniment to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.”

First Encounter

In the fall of 1980, while entering college as a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was in a quandary. I was an engineering student and needed to fill a hole in my schedule designated “general elective.” I fanned through the class catalog for days and nothing caught my eye. “Why do I have to take a damn elective anyway?” I mumbled.

I wasn’t interested in much at the time. I liked math. I liked physics. I liked tormenting my mom by playing “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones as loud as possible. I was about to fill in the blank with a physical education class – volleyball, I seem to recall – when a friend suggested, “Take ‘Intro to Film.’ It’s an easy ‘A’ and all you have to do is watch movies.”

I was sold – easy sell as I was – and away I went. Up to that point in my life, I’d seen only a few dozen movies. I was a go stand in line with the crowds and catch “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” kind of guy. The strangest thing I’d seen was the boat ride in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

Soon, I found myself getting hooked on all of these movies that I’d never heard of like “The Searchers,” “Blow Up,” “Rashomon,” and “Citizen Kane” – often lured in by the infectious enthusiasm of the professor and his two young student aids. They’d point out little things like a blanket hanging on a rail as John Wayne approaches the ranch house and how it disappears when the movie cuts to the reverse angle showing Wayne enter the house.

When they’d theorize that it was intentional and was meant to symbolize that Wayne’s Ethan Edwards had been accepted back into the home, many of my classmates would shake their heads and utter back and forth, “No, ‘John Ford the Great’ just made a mistake.” I, on the other hand, was fascinated. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. But the very fact that it could be intended symbolism opened my eyes to a cinema filled with possibilities that I’d never before considered.

One day – as if to pose the ultimate litmus test, as if daring his students to either follow him to the ends of the Earth or to abandon film studies forever – the professor (I wish I could remember his name. I’d love to thank him) dimmed the lights and unspooled something I’ll never forget – even though I’ve never seen it since and don’t really remember it in any detail.

What flickered upon the lecture hall screen was a dance of blurry splotches of green and red. No sound, just abstract light and color creating an endless series of pulsating patterns. And then, as abruptly as it began, it just ended. No story, no particular meaning that I could tell, just pure pleasure that had seemingly been set free from the prison of the projector to frolic.

The professor described the movie as being a documentary of open heart surgery that had been filmed by detaching the lens from the camera body, one part in each of the filmmaker’s hands. This made such things we usually expect in a movie like stable compositions and images that are in focus impossible. This also meant that light would leak into the picture haphazardly from all directions. The effect was images that were photographic disasters – and images that I found to be breathtakingly beautiful.

I sat still for a long time as most of the other students made a mad dash for the exit – some probably headed to the registrars to see if they were too late to drop the class. I felt as if someone had taken my brain out of my head, reversed the wires, and plugged it back in.

I still remember the professor saying, “That film was by Stan Brakhage. I hope you liked it.” (I later deduced that it was probably “Deus Ex.” Hopefully it will be included on “By Brakhage: Volume 3.”)