Monday, October 4, 2010

Burial Path/The Process/The Machine of Eden

Stan Brakhage's Burial Path, as its title implies, seems to be concerned with the burying of the dead, with mortality. If it can be said to have a narrative, it's a simple story: finding a dead bird in one's garden and burying it. But Brakhage takes this simple moment, this prosaic story, and expands upon it, free-associating around the ideas and images conjured up by this dead bird. The film opens with an image of a bird, a drawing like those found in science textbooks or bird-watching guides, and then an image of the dead bird itself, lying in the dirt. Then the associations start. The film's structure is like a moment interrupted by a diagrammatic layout of the thought process of the observer. Someone sees a dead bird in a garden, and towards the end of the film the bird is laid to rest, carefully buried beneath a thin layer of soil in the garden by gentle hands. In between, the observer thinks about birds, about death, the mind wandering at will, its musings and meanderings captured by the collage of Brakhage's images.

Frequently, these images seem to be just on the verge of focusing, wavering in this hazy state where it's almost possible to tell what's being depicted, but often the focusing stops there, or regresses into blurriness, not quite revealing the subject of the image. It's as though a memory has hovered on the edge of awareness only to slip away unheeded, the mind moving on to other things. For Brakhage, seeing and thinking are intimately linked. His cinema is all about sensation, about the process of seeing and the ways in which vision is linked to memory, intellect, decision-making, spirituality and mysticism. The film's rapid flood of images is entirely subjective and ephemeral, a loose stream of associations linking the dead bird to a flurry of birds in flight against a green-tinted sky, or a bird carefully pecking at the ground on a bright, summery day. The variety of the images suggests a span of memories, pulled from disparate situations, different emotional tones, different nostalgic moments.

Pale, faded greens, grays and blues are juxtaposed against bursts of bright, fiery red — stop light red, blood red. The film's dominant tone is muted and faded, as though worn away by the distance of the past. The sporadic moments, mostly inserts that last for barely seconds at a time, where brighter colors enter the film are thus shocking and bracing. Branches of trees are blurred into fractal shapes, hinting at clear lines and patterns in the indistinct haze, suggesting that there is a meaning, a way to make sense of the chaos, if only everything were clearer, if only the images would coalesce into some readily identifiable form. Instead, the rush of images continues, sometimes suggesting narrative moments and precise memories, sometimes evoking the concrete shape of the bird that triggered this journey, sometimes simply presenting a fog in which nothing is solid or tangible. At one point, fading out of the fog of distortion, kids in red jackets sit on a low wall, laughing — and, for just a fraction of a second, almost too quickly to be perceived consciously, Brakhage cuts in a very brief glimpse of the same shot unfiltered, unprocessed, the jackets as bright as a fire engine, the colors undiluted by Brakhage's careful process of wearing and muting. It's that longed-for moment of clarity, there and then gone again in the haze of memory, lost in the rapid pace of thought.

In the last minutes of the film, the real fire hinted at earlier makes its appearance, its flames dancing much as Brakhage had made the jittery red and gold blurs of light dance earlier in the film. It is a fire that represents, perhaps, the mortality hinted at by the dead bird, a cleansing flame that seems to be licking up towards the frame, threatening to engulf and erase everything in its fiery climax.

Stan Brakhage's The Process is a flicker film using blocks of solid color flashed up on the screen, sometimes with images lurking within the saturated color, suggesting that if only it were desaturated, a concrete image would reveal itself, the form would be visible. Brakhage is separating form and color into their pure states, abstracting color from tangible referents, treating pure red, pure blue, pure green, as things in themselves, each with its own space, its own frame. These bursts of color are alternated with prosaic images of people walking, talking, driving, their actions unclear, often shrouded in shadows or portrayed in negative, in that ghostly blue-and-black netherworld that further abstracts color from reality.

This flicker creates a feeling of impermanence. Like most flicker films, The Process is meant to be felt, to be experienced, more than actually watched. The solid colored frames create rhythms that are broken up by the actual images, like the appearance of two kids in cowboy outfits drinking sodas, or a pair of candles with their flames gently flickering in the gloom, matching the shimmery pace of the alternating colors. At one point, a figure seems to be emerging from a kind of tunnel, a hallway made to seem vast and deep by the gulf of purple light surrounding it. These images have no meaning, tell no story, present only glimpses of domesticity, play, perhaps ritual. The actual images and the colors are treated equally, as elements in Brakhage's patterns and rhythms, a pure primary color and an image of a child given the same mental and visual weight by the film's structure. Both flicker by, barely glimpsed, an afterimage on the viewer's eyelids.

This ephemeral feel translates to the film as a whole, which seems like a minor experiment from Brakhage, who is as always concerned with sensation and vision. He is playing with the formal contrast between solid colors and the messy, shadowy documenting of reality.

The Machine of Eden is about lighting and about scope, about distance. The film consists largely of landscape shots and skies, with comparatively judicious use of the interior domestic scenes that so often ground Stan Brakhage's films in his daily lived reality. The bulk of the film examines a few locations over and over again: snowy mountain peaks, a stretch of green farmland, a few scraggly-looking autumn trees by the side of a highway. Brakhage's camerawork is by turns graceful and jittery, sometimes resorting to whip zooms that emphasize a detail only to leap back out to the larger image, or incrementally increase the camera's distance from a particular landmark. He films mostly still skies, pregnant with heavy rainclouds or, less often, pale blue and cloudless, though at one point the image abruptly leaps into motion, the clouds spiraling and swirling together the way the paint would flow from frame to frame in Brakhage's later hand-painted works. There's a sense of distance here, of overlooking the beauty of the natural world from an abstracted viewpoint somewhere above, as though the creator implied by the title was observing his craftsmanship, eyeing the tiny details as well as the sweeping grandeur of these mostly unpopulated landscapes.

At times, Brakhage's abstraction transforms the sky into an empty color field, devoid of reference points until, during a pan across the stretch of dark blue, the tips of some even darker hills appear towards the bottom of the frame, finally introducing a hint of context to the image. The same aesthetic defines the domestic scenes, which are focused on the arm of a chair or the suggestion of a person breathing beneath the covers in bed, the only intimation of human presence the steady rise and fall of the fabric in response to the unseen person's respiration. When full human figures appear — a woman and children walking through trees — they're shot from behind, their faces unseen. It's as though Eden, that lost garden of natural beauty, is found wherever people are not, glimpsed when humanity's back is turned. Maybe that's why so many of the images in the film are dark and dim, shot with clouds running overhead, their shadows playing across the white snow of the mountains or bathing the entire landscape in a dark curtain.

Brakhage only sporadically allows the light in, in the form of a blinding orange sun that darts across the blackness of the frame, a sun that refuses to stand still. Elsewhere, a dim landscape is momentarily illuminated as the sun breaks through the clouds, casting its pure white glow over the land, melting through the gloomy and apocalyptic aura suggested by all those stormy vistas. Brakhage also mitigates against the film's deadening, harrowing visual aesthetic with a goofy insert of a goat trotting after its master, its ears flapping in slow motion like miniature wings, as though it's about to take off in pursuit of the flocks of birds that occasionally glide across the film's deep blue skies.


Jeremy Nyhuis said...

"For Brakhage, seeing and thinking are intimately linked."

Well put. I can't think of a better way to describe Brakhage's approach.

I've been enjoying your analyses, by the way. I haven't had much time to comment due to general busyness (I recently moved to China and am now teaching here), but I hope to get back to the blogging world soon, once I'm more adjusted. Take care!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I've always believed that, for a writer, writing and thinking are more or less the same thing; thoughts form in the process of creating. I often don't really understand very much about a film until I try to write about it. For filmmakers like Brakhage, and Godard, and probably many others, it seems to be the same with images, that thoughts are formed and re-evaluated in the process of filmmaking.

Good luck with your new home and job, sounds very exciting!