Monday, April 8, 2013

Unconscious London Strata/The Mammals of Victoria

Unconscious London Strata is one of Stan Brakhage's gloriously abstract studies of light and color, with virtually no grounding in concrete forms. The film consists of a rapidly edited montage of blurred, vague images in which any physical context has been smeared away, leaving behind only layered, overlapping colors and bursts of brilliant light. The effect is beautiful and sensual, and in this case Brakhage's layered forms specifically recall the canvasses of Mark Rothko, with sedimentary layers of colors stacked on top of one another in fuzzy strata. As the title suggests, these images are often striated, colors abutting one another in hazy proximity, those beautifully grainy color fields that convey a spiritual, moving quality remarkably similar to the effect produced by Rothko's paintings.

Only towards the end of the film do these abstract fields start to cohere, at least slightly and sporadically, into recognizable images of a building, possibly (and appropriately) a cathedral. Even here, the images are by no means concrete, and the building's form is still abstracted, split apart into momentary flashes of an angled corner or a spire turned upside down. Occasionally, the flickering, shaking images resolve into a second or two of a silhouetted skyline, blocky buildings lined up along a horizon of golden light, but that image too is illusory, gone in a moment.

For the most part, Brakhage refrains from even that much of a hint of physicality. Like his even more sensuous and beautiful light study The Text of Light, this film treats light and color as absolutes, pure visual phenomena without reference or connection to the tangible sources from which these lights emanate. As with Rothko, the effect is both utterly simple and utterly breathtaking.

In The Mammals of Victoria, Stan Brakhage focuses mainly on images of the sea. This is the second part of a four-part series based on the life of Brakhage's wife Marilyn, but there's very little human — or, indeed, mammalian — presence here. Instead, the film is full of images of water in its many forms: rippling blue waves, a black nighttime ocean with speckles of light shimmering across its surface, little wavelets lapping up against a muddy outcropping in the shallows by the shore. Brakhage returns several times to that image of mud piles sticking up out of the water, at one point showing the mud crumbling as the water licks at it, slowly eroding and erasing it. The film's contemplation of nature, with humanity at most a peripheral presence, emphasizes each individual's brief span of life when compared against the rolling, unceasing rhythms of the waves and the tides, the ancient perpetual motion machines of the natural world.

Towards the end of the film, Brakhage includes a pair of evocative, mysterious shots that appear to have been taken from a moving car. In the first, two other cars speed by, their headlights briefly flaring at the camera before whipping around the curve of the road and out of the corner of the frame. The car that the camera is in then continues along the road, turning into the sun, which cuts through the trees and washes out the image in a haze of white light. In the second, simpler shot, the camera simply gazes out of the car as it approaches a modestly sloping hill in the road, approaching this point on the horizon beyond which the road can no longer be seen. The hazy, sun-dazed shot suggests the slow progress into the unknown, a graceful glide up and over a slope into the unknown world beyond. These two images add a subtle narrative component to the film, a hint of action and agency, just as the shots of people playing in the waves, which also don't appear until late in the film, belatedly introduce characters. Before this, for much of the film there's little indication of human presence at all, only an occasional blurry, blink-and-it's-gone shot of somebody wading through the water.

Brakhage is also exploring different forms of distortion: the wavery quality of an image seen from beneath a film of water, the static and flickering of a TV set, the grainy haze of low-quality film stock. Brakhage seems to be using several different types of film, contrasting the clarity of an image of rocks jutting out of the water against blurry, nearly impenetrable landscape shots. The different film stocks contribute to the film's eclectic visual style, which explores textures both smooth and rough, as well as stitching in a few short painted segments. The painted sequences flicker by quickly, and are mostly pretty routine, not at all the best examples of Brakhage's hand-painting. (An exception is a flurry of cosmic star fields and swirling galaxy-like forms that appears towards the end of the film.) The painting in this film mostly seems like a placeholder, a brief visual palette cleanser connecting photographed images, often segueing seamlessly into an out-of-focus image of lights hovering in a dark field, drawing a connection between Brakhage's photographic abstractions of the world and his painted abstractions.

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