Sunday, October 28, 2007

10/28: Arabic Series #11-19; The Ox-Bow Incident

Stan Brakhage's Arabic Series is a suite of 20 short 16mm films, ranging from 5 minutes to half an hour in length, that rank among the director's most abstract and challenging works. I missed out on #s 0-10 yesterday at the Anthology Film Archives, but I was here for today's screening of #s 11-19 in the series (though #12 seemed to be absent). These films confound even the limited potential for figurative or thematic interpretation that I discussed in my last Brakhage post, existing entirely in a framework of visceral sensory experience that represents Brakhage at his most primal and elemental. The films all deal with light and color in their most basic forms, crystalline shards of prismatic light dancing across a grainy black surface.

Over the course of the eight films in the series I saw, Brakhage explores a variety of forms of light, everything from star-like pinpricks, to diamond-shaped bursts, to diffuse shifting glows that spread across the frame or collide with other areas of color. There are frequently points when the frame goes entirely black, a dense grainy black that seems to hint at the return of the light at any moment. At times, it seems like Brakhage or someone else is standing between the camera and the light source, or placing some object between them, so that the light peeks around the edges of the obstruction like a sunrise coming over a hill. At other times, superimposed (probably optically printed?) bits of light play off each other, scattered across the black of the frame. The individual films have their own identities, too: #13 features mostly diffuse color fields while #14 is a bit spikier and pointillist, and the final three films are especially colorful and lively, with bursts of bright blue and red, super-saturated golden yellows, and pale purple washes. But on the whole the films work best as a cluster, because the careful, meditative quality of the works — a stark contrast to, for example, the frantic pacing of Brakhage's hand-painted work — lends itself to extended contemplation.

Brakhage himself compares these films to music, specifically modern composition, and the comparison makes a certain amount of sense. These are carefully calibrated explorations of rhythm, and the relationships that Brakhage develops between different areas of color and light might easily be thought of as akin to the relationship between sounds in music. With their measured rhythmic pacing and self-contained, entirely non-figurative imagery, these films seem to invite a wholly different experience of viewing. This is, of course, true of all Brakhage's films to some extent or another, but most of his other films at least provide a handhold for those inclined to look for one. The hand-painted films at least offer the possibility of figurative identification amidst the constantly shifting forms, and the photographic montage films like Cat's Cradle or A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea, no matter how rapidly edited, usually provide at least a hint of figures and mini-narratives and events. There is nothing of this kind to hold onto in these films. This is pure light, and not even light that can be traced back to a source, since Brakhage has entirely divorced these images from even a trace of concrete reality. This makes these films perhaps the purest expression of Brakhage's art that I've yet come across. If cinema is an artform of light, the Arabic Series is cinema in its most primal and instinctive form, splashing light across the screen in mesmerizing patterns and leaving the spectator overwhelmed when it's all over.

William Wellman made his name with The Ox-Bow Incident, a potent use of the Western genre to tell an allegorical story of miscarried justice and mob rule. Two drifters (Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan) wander into a small town just as a local rancher is murdered by cattle rustlers, and they find themselves swept up with an angry lynch mob to go track down the perpetrators. The mob quickly stumbles across three men camped out in the mountains, driving cattle assumed to have been stolen from the rancher, and they set out to give the men a hasty show trial and then lynch them. There is a battle of wills between the forces of justice and those of mob revenge, as it becomes increasingly clear that the men are probably innocent. The obvious point, the value of true justice as opposed to revenge and punishment, is delivered with a slightly heavy hand, though the blow is softened somewhat by the skill of the powerhouse cast.

Although this situation provides plenty of suspense and drama, the film doesn't have much to recommend it cinematically. Wellman could be a very theatrical director, and at times he seems too comfortable simply getting across his story and message as a filmed play. The whole film is lighted beautifully, though, and the nighttime scenes around the campfire, before the three captured men are set to be hanged, are haunting and gorgeous. Wellman also provides at least one striking scene here, at the beginning of this campfire segment. He opens the scene tightly focused on the men clustered directly around the fire, laughing, eating and drinking, enacting the roles of a riotous but fun-loving lynch mob. The camera pulls back slowly, filling the frame with more and more men, and then at the top of the frame the three dangling nooses come into view, hanging over the whole scene. The camera keeps pulling back until it's revealed the whole tree and the dark sky behind it, but those nooses remain the center of attention, a powerful but peripheral presence in the far background. It's a wonderfully executed scene, and one wishes only that Wellman had trusted his camerawork and mise-en-scène to present these kinds of things more often.

Nevertheless, the film remains a taut, economical drama, with the tension steadily escalating as the moment of truth comes closer, then deflates into the melancholy coda. Wellman seems to have only a passing interest in fulfilling genre requirements in this film. All the basic trappings of the Western are here, but the film feels more like a morality play dressed up in Western garb. In point of fact, its events could happen anywhere, they are not unique to the American frontier, which is of course Wellman's point. The film's power rests primarily on its script, which is mostly strong and only falters when it adds a few moments — they're hardly substantial enough to even be called a subplot — with Fonda's old girlfriend (Mary Beth Hughes), which seem intended solely to get a female lead into a plot where there's not much space for it. A few script-related missteps like that aside, Wellman's landmark film surprisingly retains much of its impact today, perhaps because the spectacle of ordinary people turned bloodthirsty and vengeful is frighteningly plausible in any era.

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