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.