Thursday, June 3, 2010

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.”

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