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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: By Brakhage: An Anthology Volumes One and Two

Discussion in 'Archived Reviews' started by Matt Hough, May 16, 2010.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
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    Matt Hough
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    By Brakhage: An Anthology Volumes One and Two (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Stan Brakhage

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1954-2003
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 689 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0, 2.0 English
    Subtitles: none

    Region:  A
    MSRP: $ 79.95

    Release Date: May 25, 2010

    Review Date:  May 16, 2010

    The Films


    Avant garde filmmaker (he didn’t like that term preferring the title “independent”) Stan Brakhage’s immediate concentration on a type of filmmaking he called “moving visual thinking” comes to the fore in By Brakhage: An Anthology Volumes One and Two. No narrative stories here, these fifty-four short films represent interests, experiments, and concerns from a cinematic innovator who’s going for something more esoteric than the usual movie. That he fails as often as he succeeds really isn’t the point: the films are unusual, one of a kind statements from a man whose visions of the mind are off the beaten track and unlike anything else one thinks of when he thinks of cinema.

    Many of Brakhage’s short films are compilations of images acquired through a variety of means and media. His painting on film is legendary, but he’s also known for placing the wings of moths and other insects on the film to get his effects, for example, and there lots of home movies taken at various stages of his life and his family’s which are then used for a variety of purposes along with stock footage gathered from a variety of sources. During the almost fifty years that span the production period of these films, Brakhage experimented with any number of cinematic effects for his movies: circular camera moves, jump cuts, lens distortions, superimposition, negative printing, tinting, scratching and etching on film, focus pulling, double exposures, experiments in lens aperture placement for light, varying film speeds, and the like. They all make for fascinating mélanges of color, shape, density, and speed, but they’re much more effective taken in small viewing increments rather than the overloaded intensity in a brief period necessary for the purposes of a review. In small doses, they’re marvels of artistic construction, but too many watched in one sitting leads to a repetitiousness about the form and wandering attention spans being a distinct possibility.

    Several of these works did stand out from the pack. The Dante Quartet displays an astonishing vivacity of images in a very brief period of time. Black Ice features the most dimensional blacks it’s ever been my pleasure to see,. Lovesong is a cinematic equivalent of a Technicolor Rorschach test, stunning in its shapes, colors, and impressionistic patterns. Portions of 23rdPsalm Branch contain very interesting juxtapositions of man-made calamities (the Holocaust, the bombing of Japan, the Axis powers on parade) in contrast with natural disasters like hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. I Take These Truths contains the patented color painting on film in less densely packed frames and is very appealing. “. . .” Reel Five has some alluring black and white with fringes of color paint design cued up to a rather dissonant but haunting score by composer James Tenney.

    Here are the fifty-four films contained on the three Blu-ray discs in this package:

    1 – Desistfilm

    2 – Wedlock House: An Intercourse

    3 – Dog Star Man (Parts 1-4)

    4 – The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes

    5 – Cat’s Cradle

    6 – Window Water Baby Moving

    7 – Mothlight

    8 – Eye Myth

    9 – The Wold-Shadow

    10 – The Garden of Earthly Delights

    11 – The Stars Are Beautiful

    12 – Kindering

    13 – I . . . Dreaming

    14 – The Dante Quartet

    15 – Night Music

    16 – Rage Net

    17 – Glaze of Cathexis

    18 – Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse

    19 – Untitled (for Marilyn)

    20 – Black Ice

    21 – Study in Color and Black and White

    22 – Stellar

    23 – Crack Glass Eulogy

    24 – The Dark Tower

    25 – Commingled Containers

    26 – Lovesong

    27 – The Wonder Ring

    28 – The Dead

    29 – Two: Creeley/McClure

    30 – 23rdPsalm Branch

    31 – Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One

    32 – The Machine of Eden

    33 – Star Garden

    34 – Desert

    35 – The Process

    36 – Burial Path

    37 – Duplicity III

    38 – The Domain of the Moment

    39 – Murder Psalm

    40 – Arabic 12

    41 – Visions in Meditation #1

    42 – Visions in Meditation #2

    43 – Visions in Meditation #3

    44 – Visions in Meditation #4

    45 – Unconscious London Strata

    46 – Boulder Blues and Pearls and . . .

    47 – The Mammals of Victoria

    48 – From: First Hymn to the Night – Novalis

    49 – I Take These Truths

    50 – The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm

    51 – Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind

    52 – “. . .”  Reel Five

    53 – Persian Series 1-3

    54 – Chinese Series

    Video Quality


    The films are all presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Coming from a combination of 8, 16, and 35mm sources, there is a wide variance in sharpness and color density levels. Blacks are sometimes deep but more often a milky gray that’s pretty unattractive. The most important point about these transfers, however, is that Criterion has done no clean up or remastering on them at all. Thus, many of the films are loaded with dirt, debris, scratches, hairs, or assorted damage. That doesn’t keep some of the films, particularly the ones on disc one, from looking impressive in high definition, but be prepared for a wide gap between the best and the worse in terms of video quality. Additionally, some of the films have been slightly windowboxed but most have not. Each film can be selected individually as its own chapter. Films have also been bunched together in various series which contain a “play all” function, too.

    Audio Quality


    Most of the films are silent, but the nine which do contain sound of some kind are encoded with lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 (192 kbps); one film does contain a 2.0 stereo track. Like the video, the audio remains untouched; thus there has been no removal of any aural artifacts, so pops, crackle, and pronounced hiss are part and parcel of the sound most of the time. Fidelity is very narrow and clipped, even in those films where Brakhage has obviously experimented with the sound design in very crude, simple ways.

    Special Features


    Disc One

    There are four video encounters with director Stan Brakhage recorded at various times in his later life by filmmaker Colin Still. In them, he discusses his ideas about human perceptions of color and shape, notes some famous painters and composers he admires, discusses his film signature of scratched titles, mentions his admiration for poetry, his lack of enthusiasm for narrative cinema, discusses the question of film versus video, his technique of painting on film, and his struggle against bladder cancer. The interviews are presented separately in segments which run 9 ¼, 8 ¾, 9, and 9 ½ minutes respectively. They’re presented in 1080i.

    Disc Two

    Three college salons where Brakhage either discusses his art or participates in questions and answers with his students at the University of Colorado are presented. They must be accessed separately and run for 3 ¾, 5 ¼, and 2 minutes respectively. They’re in 1080i.

    An interview with Brakhage is conducted by arts critic Marilynne Mason in 1990 as they discuss the nature of art and mention favorite artists as well as disparaging much of current popular culture. It runs for 37 minutes in 1080i.

    An audio lecture by Brakhage delivered in Boston in 1996 discusses much about his artistic process, the idea of the clashes between art and ego, and the art of collaboration. It lasts for 50 ½ minutes.

    Disc Three

    Two additional salons (see information on Disc Two) are presented in 1080i. They run 2 ½ and 2 minutes respectively.

    “For Stan” is wife Marilyn Brakhage’s homage to her husband and his working methods shot during the making of his Visions in Meditation series. She uses some methods similar to her husband’s technique in filming this 15 ¾-minute tribute film. It’s presented in 1080p.

    Three more video interviews filmed by Colin Still are presented on this disc. They must be chosen individually and run 6 ¼, 7 ¼, and 7 minutes respectively.

    Stan Brakhage’s lecture on the greatness and importance of writer Gertrude Stein delivered at the University of Colorado in 1996 is presented in audio form lasting 66 ½ minutes. It included questions from his seminar class occasionally interrupting his remarks.

    The enclosed 93-page booklet includes a variety of stills and examples of the filmmaker’s art, introductory remarks and notes on the selection of films for the collection by the filmmaker’s wife Marilyn, capsule commentary on each of the films written by Fred Camper, an additional essay on Brakhage by Fred Camper, and notes on the preservation and caretaking of Brakhage’s film legacy by film curator Mark Toscano.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    3/5 (not an average)

    The films in this anthology are unusual and very different from the typical art pieces one might expect to see, and fans of the avant garde may wish to sample By Brakhage: An Anthology Volumes One and Two to see if there is anything there that appeals to their own sensibilities.

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC


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