Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Domain of the Moment/Duplicity III/Murder Psalm

Stan Brakhage was always acutely aware of time in his work, even if only to disrupt it through layering and superimposition, the tools by which Brakhage frequently undercut the passage of time. Time works strangely in Brakhage's work: his editing is often fast, even frantic, and an image can last barely a second or two before being replaced with another, so the films seem to move very quickly, propelled forward by the perception of great speed. And yet time is also stretched and warped in his work, elongated through repetition so that a single moment can recur as Brakhage loops back to it again and again, returning obsessively to the same images and thus to the same moments in time. His layering, too, extends the sensation of time by erasing the distinctions of linear progress; all things happen simultaneously in his films, so that a Brakhage film becomes a timeless domain where one image follows another in space (the physical space of the film strip, on which in his later work Brakhage often painted or scratched directly) but not necessarily in time since the relationships between images are so blurred and destabilized. Time for Brakhage is malleable, no mean feat in a medium where time is precisely counted in twenty-fourths of a second.

Perhaps this accounts for the title of The Domain of the Moment, which is divided into four segments, each of them focusing on a different animal or animals from among Brakhage's pets. Animals, Brakhage seems to suggest, live in the moment, unaware of the passage of time, their lives built around repetition and instinct. Could there be any more perfect subject for one of his films? Brakhage opens the film with evocative, warm and beautiful images of a baby bird hesitantly staggering through some stalks of grass, pecking at food, crawling over a man's hand, running back and forth in a tank. The images are sensual and suggest the timeless, pattern-based routine of an instinct-driven animal, eating and playing and moving around, repeating the same actions over and over again. To reinforce the impression of experiencing the world as an animal, Brakhage maintains a low-to-the-ground camera that crawls among the stalks of grass with the bird, rarely showing the animal directly but instead capturing its feet, the fluffy textures of its feathers, the spikes of grass surrounding it. The intimate camera gives the impression that this scale is all there is, that a whole world is found in the modest artificial environment where the bird lives; the foliage around it is a jungle, the thin layer of dirt the earth, everything on the scale of a tiny creature.

Brakhage adopts a similar perspective for his examination of a hamster, then films an encounter between a shaggy white dog and an apparently domesticated raccoon, capturing the hesitance and lingering sensuality of the moment by endlessly drawing out the first moment of contact, with the raccoon lurking in the dark and the dog facing it expectantly. The bristly, spindly fur of the raccoon and the shaggy pile of the dog provide a study in textural contrasts, a theme carried over into the final section in which Brakhage films a snake. Its coiled, scaly body forms neatly geometric spirals that Brakhage then abstracts by blurring and overlaying them, turning those cleanly defined forms into a field of hazy rounded surfaces, sleek but finely textured at once, glistening slightly with light. Brakhage occasionally breaks away from his images of animals for painted segments that provide a very different example of sensuality and in-the-moment experience. It is as though Brakhage is acknowledging his metaphor here, making explicit the connection between his approach to art as a visceral, out-of-time experience, and what he imagines must be the similar experiences of animals with their instinctual consciousnesses.

Stan Brakhage often included images of children in his films as icons of innocence and play. His movies about children — his own and those of friends and family — reflect the spirit of domesticity and familial closeness that often runs through his work. Many of his films, as avant-garde as they are in terms of technique, have some resemblance in terms of themes and concerns to home movies, documenting private family moments, things happening around the house and in the community. Duplicity III is the culmination of a series of films titled Duplicity and Sincerity, made from 1973-1980. Duplicity III opens with images of children putting on costumes, getting ready to go trick-or-treating, which immediately suggests one meaning of the title: games, play, masking one's identity as an expression of childlike imagination. Later, he shows children dressing up for a school play, another outlet for imagination and games of "let's pretend." Often, the children are dressed as animals, and Brakhage overlays images of real animals, blurring the boundaries between signifier and signified, blending the coarse hair of a dog with a child's hair so that the two are difficult to separate. This juxtaposition suggests that a part of childlike play involves getting in touch with animalistic nature, playing at wildness and non-humanity.

There's also an element of theatricality in these games, which is especially obvious at the end of the film, when Brakhage superimposes ghostly silhouettes of kids playing parts on top of a plush red curtain on a stage. (But first, he superimposes a deer onto the stage, as though it too had a role to play as one of the original images from which all this dress-up is derived.) In his images of school plays, Brakhage is akin to a home movie documentarian, capturing childhood moments that would only be of interest to a parent. But Brakhage is not documenting a particular child's Halloween preparations or school play, he's using these images in a more abstracted way as general signifiers of childhood, and especially of the child's tendency to play with identity through disguise and role-playing. The specificity and personal significance of the home movie is expanded, in Brakhage's work, into ruminations on universal experiences and states of being.

This is a film about youth, or more precisely, it's about youth as idealized by adults. That's why the images of kids at play are so bright and joyous: at one point Brakhage shoots a little girl's hair with light shining through it so that she seems to have a frizzy halo floating above her head, making her look angelic in the sunlight filtering through her blonde hair. The pacing of the film is slow and sensuous, with a lot of leisurely cross-fades between images, layered atop one another. This layering and multiplication of images is another way in which Brakhage makes his personal documents universal, resonating far beyond a portrait of particular childhood memories. By blending together fragmentary scenes of children at play, mashing together different times, places and people, Brakhage takes the emphasis off of the individual image and puts it on the relationships and commonalities between images, the sensual qualities of light and color, the thematic continuities that drive each work.

In Murder Psalm, Stan Brakhage focuses on a largely abstract and elliptical depiction of the mysterious impulses that lead to violence. Much of the film is composed of sequences seemingly recorded off of a TV set, from news broadcasts or movies, the colors of the images dull and muted, caked in static and fuzz, so that only the vaguest outlines and impressions of the underlying image still show through. Brakhage seems more interested in the textures of the static and the flickering lines that pulse across the TV screen, so that the image beneath becomes subliminal, a projection from the unconscious. These hazy, unclear images are interwoven with outbursts of cheerful cartoon violence, clips from science lectures regarding the brain, autopsies that reveal the bloody reality beneath the skin, and a wordless psychodrama in which children wander through the woods, stare into a mirror, play and fight, nursing darker feelings beneath their childish innocence.

This is powerful stuff, slowly building a sense of dread and violence without overtly depicting the titular act of violence. The murder of the title seems continually on the verge of happening, burbling up from an unconscious mind full of images of wartime devastation, criminals and soldiers, and a child's casual, laughing cruelty towards other children. The images of brains, both models and real ones removed from dissected corpses, suggest that the origins of violent impulses arise in the mind, but the corporeal reality of the brain, bloody and covered in deep furrows, does little to probe the enigma of those violent thoughts. Thus the autopsy might diagnose the physical cause of death, but the tumultuous churning of the mind, overloaded with visual stimuli and a rush of conflicting ideas, is more elusive; the solidity of the brain barely hints at the mad processes that can go on within its neural pathways.

It's left to Brakhage's flood of imagery to suggest this violent, emotionally complex inner life, capturing the dark and murky thought process of an individual overtaken by thoughts of violence and murder. Brakhage, as usual, uses the title of his film to shade and inform the images that follow it, but this would be an undeniably dark film no matter what. Its darkness arises from the degradation of its images, the muddy, ugly quality of most of these images. Occasionally, scenes from everyday life shine out with crystalline clarity, but more often everything is vague and abstracted, the colors dull, the figures and settings obscured by the fog of TV static. Even the painted sections are wan and pale, restricted to lifeless grays and browns and dark blues, the paint thickly caked and shivering in abstract patterns that mimic the TV static. Many of the photographed segments are similarly dulled, bathed in a flat red filter that recalls not fresh blood but the caked, rusty scrapings of very old blood, evidence of an ancient murder only discovered many years after its occurrence. For Brakhage, this deliberate denial of the beauty and freshness of images is itself a form of violence, a visual equivalent of the sapping of life; the deadened colors and erasure of images in static is a filmmaker's act of murder.

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