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…

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