Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The Wonder Ring/Reflections On Black/Sirius Remembered
Stan Brakhage made The Wonder Ring at the request of fellow avant-garde filmmaker Joseph Cornell, who wanted to document the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan before it was torn down. The resulting film is a silent testimony to the strange beauty to be found in even the most blighted urban relics and the dignity of the people who inhabit them. There's even something spiritual about Brakhage's images of trains and the people riding them. Seen through Brakhage's eyes, the girders of the train platforms become stained glass windows with bright light streaming through the geometric spaces between the steel beams. A simple train journey through the city becomes a ghostly ride through an amorphous realm where people and places seem to be perpetually in the process of fading away. Brakhage achieves evocative superimpositions through the reflections of figures and buildings in the train's windows, strange hybrid compositions where reflections and refractions bring together disparate spaces into a single composite image. Brakhage points his camera out at the city through the warped glass of a window as the train slowly rumbles along, and the resulting images of the buildings outside seem to waver and morph as though the city was underwater, the train a submarine passing through the rippling waves.
The effect is dazzling and hypnotic, an unforgettable experience that creates a work of great beauty, overflowing with nostalgia for something that's not even gone yet. There's great sadness in this film, a sense of loss that's communicated by all those ghostly figures, traveling around the city in an eerie haze, their forms blurry, superimposed over one another and over the landscape around them. Brakhage's images are cloudy but also somehow precise, a tension that manifests itself beautifully when, late in the film, his camera focuses on a train window where the dirt and scratches on the glass create striations in the glass, little furrows of yellowish grime or scratched markings. The view through this glass is obscured, and everything outside is blurred and warped by the marks, but Brakhage renders the marks themselves with crystalline clarity, as though these obstacles are the point rather than the view they are ostensibly blocking. Brakhage focuses on the minutiae in order to examine the world and all its objects with an eye towards the beauty, pathos and resonance of even the simplest and most utilitarian of structures. This train line had outlived its usefulness to the city's planners and leaders, and as a result it was being erased, but Brakhage, in looking at this soon-to-be-ghost, locates the aesthetic beauty that goes beyond mere utility.
Reflections On Black is a thoroughly uncharacteristic film from Stan Brakhage, though it is characteristic of his early psychodramas, made in the early 1950s before he moved away from even the suggestion of narrative to explore more abstract and purely visual realms. This film is especially unusual in that it is overtly informed by genre in a way that Brakhage's work almost never was. The title of Reflections On Black reflects Brakhage's interest in studying the absence of color and all its implications, but in retrospect it almost seems as though the film is reflecting on black as in noir, presenting a distilled essence of the film noir in these portraits of emotionally troubled couples in shadowy spaces. Brakhage's film, made during the era in which the film noir (though not yet named as such) dominated Hollywood B pictures, provides an avant-garde corollary to the shadowy tragedies proliferating in the mainstream. The film opens in abstraction, alternating pure black frames with images of shadowy figures moving through shadowy exterior spaces, evoking B movie cinematography and the iconography of the trenchcoat-wearing mystery man.
From there, Brakhage moves into a more concrete scenario, a wordless story of a man cheating on a woman with another woman, only to be discovered in the act by the other woman's other man. It's an archetypal scenario, barely developed, a template for Brakhage's shadowy study of this familiar plot. As in his other psychodramas, the narrative is melodramatic and emotionally basic; his real concern is finding a visual language to convey the intensity of the emotions at the core of the story. It's no wonder, in retrospect, that he quickly abandoned narrative more and more in subsequent works, since the vestigial plot is so clearly not what interests him. Instead it's all about the gestures, the quiver of lips, the flailing of hands, the slow, almost mechanical motion of two lovers descending into bed together as though falling in slow motion.
The film's soundtrack, provided by Brakhage, is a musique concrete sound collage of piano, industrial clatter and hum, children's voices, and other noises and musical fragments arranged into an abrasive accompaniment to the shadowy images. Sound was another element Brakhage would soon largely abandon in stripping the cinema down to what really interested him, and it's telling that here the soundtrack, like the plot material, seems extraneous and unnecessary, added on because it was expected rather than because it really changed anything. What really matters here is the primal way in which Brakhage riffs on this stereotypical B movie situation, climaxing with a mysterious and haunting shot in which the man's eyes are scratched out with a rapidly fluctuating blur of white lines drawn directly on the frame, as though Brakhage was suggesting the way in which his later, more fully developed cinema might explode unexpectedly out of this early ancestor.
Stan Brakhage's Sirius Remembered is a film about death, about the material facts of it and, perhaps, about the possibility of spiritual transcendence hidden within it. The film's images consist solely of footage of a dead dog lying in the woods, first surrounded by brown-hued fall decay and then in winter snow. The images are rapidly edited together into a repetitive, looping framework so that the film conveys the impression of death from many angles rather than ever lingering on a single view or a single perspective. The image of the dog's black, unseeing eye does recur repeatedly, however, alternately centered within the image so it disconcertingly seems to be staring out of the film, or placed in a corner so it slyly glances up or down at the rest of the image. Sometimes, the eye seems to be staring out of the frame from within the clutter of superimposed imagery that surrounds it and frames it. The fast pace of the editing places the emphasis on the passage of time, the blending of one season into another, the slow process by which the dog's earthly remains begin to return to the soil.
As is often the case with Brakhage, this film is all about texture, as the camera whips across the surface of the dog's hair, visually rhyming it with the tangle of twigs and leaves surrounding the body. At one point, the camera repeatedly pans upward, from the dog lying amidst the browning foliage to the pale blue sky with a few bare treetops reaching up. The movement suggests the passage of the spirit out of the earthly plane, away from the rot of the earth towards, well, something: heaven, transcendence, the spiritual plane. The effect is not as visceral (in any sense) or as provocative as Brakhage's aesthetic, inquisitive approach to death in films like The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, but Sirius Remembered is still an interesting and formally compelling short that attempts to encapsulate death, to document the materiality of death while acknowledging the limits of such an earthbound perspective.