Friday, May 25, 2012

Three Stan Brakhage shorts, 1995-1997

I Take These Truths is one of Stan Brakhage's painted shorts, and indeed it offers up a near-exhaustive catalog of the many styles and techniques associated with his hand-painted work. The film is characterized by its staggering diversity, its evolution from one style to another, seldom settling into any one mode for very long over its 18 minutes. Sometimes there's a kind of stained glass effect, with bursts of bright primary colors hemmed in by thick black lines. Sometimes faded colors and specks hover in a plain off-white field, leaving the frame only minimally populated for a few moments. At other times, the frame is full of bright red, blue and orange bulbs, like balloons drifting into the sky or a field of flowers. At one point, white specks flutter against a black background, like snow falling at night, and then later in the film, the black-and-white palette returns with graffiti-like almost-letters twisting and twirling against the black. The pacing is mostly extremely fast and constant throughout, but even so there's some sensory variety, from jumpy rhythms to a sensuous flow between blobs of paint to a jittery, strobing quality that makes each frame seem momentarily frozen, a paradox within the unceasing forward momentum of Brakhage's flood of imagery.

So it's a study in color, starting with a few pale washes against a white backdrop, then quickly growing more complex and stretching out in multiple different directions. Like so many of Brakhage's painted films, it confounds analysis or interpretation. The title might suggest some kind of political perspective here, but not only does the film itself contain no hint of any tangible, non-abstract content, but Brakhage himself provided an alternate explanation that completely negates any attempt to extrapolate to external factors or ideas. For Brakhage, the only "truth" is the truth of the image, the undeniable truth of what's seen and experienced by the individual. It's an experience that's exceedingly difficult to translate into words, but that's precisely what Brakhage wanted with films like this. What's "self-evident" is what is seen; what the film "means" is only its particular combination of colors, shapes and visual rhythms. It's purely about its own physical appearance, about the textures of the paint slathered directly onto the film, as well as the even more direct black-and-white segments where Brakhage scratches images right into the filmstrip without even using paint.

It's a physical effect he's going for as much as anything, rooted in the physiological truths of how the human eye works, the way we transmit images from our vision to the brain for processing, at a rapid speed that still struggles to keep up with the pace of Brakhage's constantly changing imagery. Perhaps this neurological basis for vision explains the sections of the film in which dense bundles of dark lines wiggle across a white space, images that suggest either neuron networks or clusters of chromosomes. Brakhage was always interested in what's inside us, in the way the human body and mind work. Such images hint at those fascinations without concretely embodying anything at all.

The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm explores the natural world as seen from perspectives outside of humanity. Stan Brakhage's camera digs down into the undergrowth, into the hidden miniature worlds that ordinarily escape human notice. The film is receptive to the endless beauty and variety of the natural world, to its subliminal structures, to the life and vitality encoded in even the smallest segments of the larger whole, even down to the molecular level. To that end, Brakhage probes textured closeups of veiny leaves, buds on the end of green stalks, and sedimental layers of bark, placing his view right up against the surface of things, examining the lines and gradations that are revealed at such an intimate distance, or using blurred, abstracted images to restore the tiny detail to the vaguer outlines of the totality.

Often, the frame is composed entirely of subtle gradations of green, clusters of bushes and trees blending together into a rich color field that reveals all the different possible meanings of "green." In one of the film's most memorable moments, a shot of trees and bushes slowly pulses into focus, starting as a field of blurry greenery and then gently wracking the focus back and forth, like breathing, until the leaves on the trees pop into focus, at which point Brakhage immediately cuts away, so that only that split-second of clarity remains in memory. It's startling because of how organic that process of focusing is here; it really does feel like the camera's mechanisms are synced to the gentle rise and fall of the operator's chest, his breathing contributing to the gradual slide of the image from blurry to clear in minute ticks.

The film's color palette tends towards lush natural greens and fleshy pinks, both suggesting fecundity and sensuality. Brakhage runs his camera lovingly along the surface of curving pink color-forms that might be flowers but suggest sensuality and femininity — as does the slithering, fleshy body of a worm, captured in a clinical closeup, tiny clumps of dirt clinging to its curves as it writhes around within an abstract light field. A black cat stalks around the edges of the film, often barely glimpsed, blending into the shadows, flickering through the underbrush. The cat, which occasionally stops to lick itself long enough for a closeup, is one of Brakhage's surrogates in exploring the natural world, and as the title implies, the worm is the other. Both are creatures that glide through the world much more effortlessly and smoothly than humans, much more seamlessly integrated with the dense greenery.

Brakhage seems awed by this subterranean beauty, by the impressiveness of the world's structures whether one examines them at the highest level or the lowliest. There's a sense of near-religious sentiment here, as in a shot of the sun filtering through a canopy of undulating tree branches, the effect something like stained glass, the light tinting the leaves yellowish on the sides facing up towards the sun, while underneath are darker shadows. It's a jaw-droppingly pretty image that Brakhage slowly fades to black so that shadows seem to be infiltrating this tranquil garden, blotting out the sun, spreading across the leaves like rot.

Yggdrasil is the World Tree of Norse mythology, the spine holding together the Norse cosmology of nine separate worlds, the tree from which Odin hung for nine days in order to gain knowledge. What this has to do with Stan Brakhage's film Yggdrasil: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind is not immediately clear, but Brakhage himself describes it as a response to his own Dog Star Man, a revision of his earlier cosmology. The film is dominated by muted, washed-out colors, with lots of browns, evoking the trunk of the World Tree, particularly in a repeated, painted image of brown patterns running vertically along the frame.

Brakhage here alternates between several types of footage: hand-painted stretches, photographic documents of nature and industry, and sequences in which Brakhage explores the properties of lit-up cities at night. The film is a fast-paced montage in which these different images collide against one another, spaced out between inserted pauses of black leader that introduce brief rests or create a flickering effect. The most effective images in the film are the brief shots of lights: showers of sparks from fireworks, curlicues of colored lights speed-blurred and dancing across a black frame, little twists and twirls of light from speeding cars or city buildings, hovering in the nighttime blackness. Those images often recall Marie Menken's extraordinary 1966 film Lights, though here Brakhage quickly moves on from those bursts of light each time they appear.

Also compelling is what seems to be an uncharacteristically literal shot referring to the "stars" of the film's title, in which the stars appear as bursts of sunlight dancing on the lightly rolling surface of a cloudy body of water, a star field conjured up from a stagnant pond. Despite these moments of interest, this film is something of a lesser work from Brakhage, somewhat lacking in the mystical, mythological import implied by its title.

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