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This review of new films by Stan Brakhage is also available on the Chicago Reader Web site, in the form that it appeared in the print version of the newspaper, in the issue of May 18, 2001. I have made a few additions of links, and have found a few minor adjustments that needed to be made in the text after the review appeared in print, so I have taken advantage of the Internet to place the new version on my own Web site here. Fred Camper 

End Games

Stan Brakhage: New Films

By Fred Camper

A few months ago, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage went to New York from his Colorado home to present seven programs of new and recent films, six of them at the Museum of Modern Art, which has offered retrospectives of his work since 1970. Brakhage hasn't been invited to Chicago in 20 years, even though he taught at the School of the Art Institute in the 70s, and his films are shown here infrequently. Despite our pretensions, Chicago is still a cultural backwater: the problem is a paucity of the diverse organizations, large and small, that make New York's scene so comprehensive. On Friday Chicago Filmmakers is showing a program of new Brakhage films, but the majority of his recent work has never been seen here.

In the last decade Brakhage has usually painted by hand on the film surface one frame at a time. He's also been using an optical printer to repeat many of the painted frames two or three times or more: patterns almost invisible at one-24th of a second can be seen, if only as a flash, in a 12th or an 8th. The four short hand-painted films on this program (In Jesus Name, The Baby Jesus, Jesus Wept, and Christ on Cross), grouped together as the 17-minute Jesus Trilogy and Coda (2001, made with the assistance of Mary Beth Reed), are almost entirely abstract, but bursts of red suggest blood, brown a desert landscape, and curved lines human flesh.

The Jesus Trilogy and Coda is driven by tensions between movement and stillness, depth and flatness. Many images are visible just long enough to seem stills but also contribute to the film's rhythmic flow, as patterns transform or collide with others. Skeins of lines and splashes of color create depth effects that suddenly yield to flatness. These oppositions, perceived as irresolvable paradoxes, prevent the imagery from becoming decorative or static, locating it as much in the viewer's mind as on the screen.

Colors glow with an inner light as if alive and at times seem translucent, with others shining through them; then, suddenly, they become more solid, like a relief map. These transitions, experienced as a vibration between solidity and transparence, lie within a long tradition of depicting Christ as both deity and human, spirit and flesh; Brakhage's is one of the most lucid articulations of the idea ever.

In the last of the four, Christ on Cross, Brakhage's multiple lines unexpectedly converge into a vertical pattern, then a horizontal one, several times. Soon there are fleeting glimpses of a cross, standing as a kind of essence behind all the patterns we've seen a moment that will doubtless disturb those who admire Brakhage's efforts to free cinema's imaginative potential yet refuse to accept his films' spiritual, even devotional aspects. The Jesus Trilogy and Coda recalled for me the huge, spectacular Tintoretto Crucifixion in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice: a glowing Christ in the top center is a surprisingly tentative presence, powerful only by contrast to the chaos around and below him.

The remaining 50 minutes of the Chicago Filmmakers program consists of one of Brakhage's few photographed films of the last decade, The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him (2000). This is the third in a group informally called the "Vancouver Island films," all photographed; Brakhage is considering a hand-painted fourth, Panels for the Walls of Heaven.

The Vancouver Island films were inspired by Brakhage's second wife, Marilyn. During his 29-year first marriage, in which he and his wife Jane raised five children, Brakhage filmed every aspect of their lives together: lovemaking, their children's births, Jane's plants and animals, their children through adolescence, and a skein of sometimes troubled family relationships. But he told me he understood early on in his courtship of Marilyn that "she hated being photographed. When she first stated it, I had to really think hard and maybe 30 seconds after, I had an immense sense of relief. I wasn't obligated to photograph autobiographically anymore."

The Vancouver Island films represent Brakhage's imaginary biography of Marilyn: "I wished that Marilyn and I could have grown up next door to each other and began a family. I missed her whole childhood and adolescence, so I'm trying to give my sense of such a thing." Filmed in and around Victoria, British Columbia, where Marilyn grew up, they include snippets of her childhood home and garden and lots of footage of the sea which Brakhage, who was raised in Kansas, didn't see until his early 20s. The first two films (never shown here) envision Marilyn's early childhood (A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea) and teen years (The Mammals of Victoria). The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him is "her mid-aged crisis" as Brakhage imagines it.

The title comes from a phrase in David Copperfield: "the God of day had now gone down upon him" is Mr. Micawber's characterization of his arrest for debts. Brakhage cites as a visual influence the late Mark Rothko paintings in the Rothko Chapel in Houston; Brakhage says of both the paintings and his film, "There is a weight of darkness." And indeed The God of Day is a real contrast to the bright, glistening A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea: here darkness which has rarely seemed more dynamic or alive in a film is the fundamental ground, appearing between shots and sequences as if brighter things were all momentary apparitions.

The sea appears in almost infinite variety in The God of Day: light and dark, in and out of focus, from just above and from afar, even in underwater shots that suggest the mind's eye journeying beneath the surface. But it's always seen from the shore, from the perspective of a less than omnipotent observer of time's passing. Many images show the waves crashing and receding at once while others concentrate on the gentle back-and-forth motion of small waves, often made more visible by bobbing plants on the water's surface. As in John Keats's ode To Autumn," the acceptance of natural processes can be seen as an acceptance of death; here the repeated movements of the sea convey a feeling of inevitability, even of resignation.

Artists have often connected the sea with death, and water with life's journey; in four allegorical paintings by Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life, childhood is represented by a baby playing in an Edenic pool while old age is an elderly man in a small boat on the sea. In much of Brakhage's earlier work, and to some extent in the earlier portions of The God of Day, images and sequences break off at high-energy midpoints, suggesting an offscreen continuation. But what he does in most of The God of Day is sustain individual images or short sequences until they reach a natural conclusion, producing a series of endings. A wonderful pan along patterned ridges in the sand moves in several directions before ending when the camera tilts up and the view grows more distant. A fountain of water erupts, but its phallic power is diluted when we see only the foam, shot out of focus.

Brakhage's photographed work consistently conflates external objects and the inner life. And the ocean here is a metaphor not merely for life's course but for the filmmaker's consciousness. (Marilyn thinks the films are wonderful, Brakhage says, but "not what she actually went through.") Careful framing and subtle motions of his camera reflect the movement of his body and eyes, making the camera and water almost indistinguishable. Indeed, Brakhage seems to dance with the undulating surface, breaking waves, and tiny patches of foam, the camera's small jiggles sometimes seeming in perfect sync with these natural phenomena.

Brakhage's cinema of individual consciousness is often taken as egocentrism but as often as not his films are about the artist's failure to achieve mastery over the world. Here the very fact of remaining onshore (in the 1979 Creation, Brakhage filmed from a kayak) represents human limitation. A very shallow focus in one image of the ocean makes only a few waves in midground truly sharp. And at one point in a long pan along distant ridges, their gray forms completely fill the frame still another variety of "dark" in a film that's filled with darkness. Brakhage's theme here is not only seeing but the limits of seeing, not only the glories of light but also its loss.

For Brakhage, midlife entails the growing realization of one's mortality. In one late, key image, a patch of brilliantly colored flowers (in a note on the film, Brakhage connected them with a funeral) is covered by the filmmaker's advancing shadow. Self-consciousness, the film seems to say, involves a recognition of the way self-consciousness obscures vision, forecasting its own impending end.

Copyright  Fred Camper 2001
Chicago Reader Links:
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Stan Brakhage's films are available for rental from the Film-Makers' Cooperative, Canyon Cinema, and other distributors.

Links on this page:
Brakhage's notes on The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him.
Stan Brakhage Links Page
Capsule Review of this program
Chicago Filmmakers
Chicago Reader version of this review
Thomas Cole
The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole
John Keats's To Autumn
Crucifixion, by Tintoretto
David Copperfield
Museum of Modern Art retrospective of recent Brakhage films
Mark Rothko
Rothk Chapel paintings
Rothko Chapel
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Scuola Grance di San Rocco
Scuola Grance di San Rocco, Venice

Other Links: Chronology of the Scuola Grance di San Rocco
Tintoretto's paintings in the Scuola Grance di San Rocco

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