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The Criterion Collection presents
By Brakhage: An Anthology (1954-2001)

"The stars are entirely in the eyes that look at the sky. If no one is looking at the sky, it is utterly dark. But the stars and the eyes are very much the same in all eyes. And those looking at the sky at the same time are participating in the kind of communication that has to do with stars."
- Stan Brakhage

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: October 06, 2003

Stars: Stan Brakhage
Director: Stan Brakhage

Manufacturer: Criterion Post
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (graphic and extreme nudity, sexuality and gore, autopsy and childbirth footage)
Run Time: 03h:55m:27s
Release Date: June 10, 2003
UPC: 715515014021
Genre: experimental

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Nazi Germany used to have a way of dealing with decadent artists. Like any thinking human, I've reacted to this with revulsion for many years. But after having been forced to watch nearly four hours of experimental films by recently-deceased avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage (appropriately enough, sounds like "brackish"), I may have to rethink that position.

Brakhage, a professor and underground filmmaker, is much beloved by film students and theoreticians, so my reactions to this set of discs featuring 26 "masterworks" (according to the hype-laden keepcase) will probably be unpopular. But aside from a few fleeting glimpses of substance, the entire experience of these 16mm and a few 35mm films was simply deadening when it wasn't just plain annoying.

The early shorts start in a promising manner; often dreamlike, these black-and-white shorts prominently feature the same kind of flashing light that eventually became a David Lynch staple. As we see faces emerge from and vanish into darkness there is an undeniable visual frisson much like the experience of seeing multiple versions of Monet's Rouen Cathedral paintings. Window Water Baby Moving (1969) begins as a joyous celebration of pregnancy and childbirth, but then focuses on the gynecological details of birth, laying naked the meat substance beneath the poetry.

That same emphasis of humanity as mere meat comes in The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971), which is a particularly graphic 31m:50s selection composed entirely of footage of autopsies of a middle-aged man and woman. Particularly striking is a segment where slabs of their flesh are placed on a shelf, side by side, looking for all the world like a butcher's showcase. Brakhage appears to be utterly fascinated by the male corpse's penis, since he focuses in on it time and time again, apparently in a taunting connection of sex and death. Criterion thoughtfully separates this film, which even some of the biggest Brakhage supporters find too much to take, with a separate menu and warning of its own, even if the "Play All" feature is engaged. The beginning seconds of Stellar (1993) are undeniably beautiful, as his trademark painting-on-film technique is not only briefly slowed down but lit with a suffusing glow that simulates photos of distant galaxies from the Hubble telescope.

But for most of the running time, Brakhage seems to be purely self-indulgent. Hardly a narrative thread is to be found in any of the films, but some are abstract to the point of painfulness. The epic-length Dog Star Man (1961-1964) consists of shots of solar eclipses intercut with Brakhage stumbling aimlessly about in the snow with a dog. For over an hour. Tedium is far too kind a word to use. Particularly grating is one short set to a skipping record, prominently featuring footage of Brakhage picking his toes. The later films of the 1980s and 1990s continue this abuse of the audience, as Brakhage smears paint onto film and calls it art. These painted films are more than a little puzzling; unlike Mothlight (1963), a meticulous 3m:14s film entirely composed of moth parts glued to the film frame by frame, each individual painted frame can usually be counted upon to espouse pure ugliness. Run at 24 fps, they become an incomprehensible blur that I can only compare to trying to speed-read Finnegans Wake while riding a bus through the hideous landscapes of rural Texas.

Yes, I watched them all, and lived to tell the tale, but I cannot recommend the experience. Film students are the only group to whom this can safely be recommended. PETA members will be offended by the intercutting in the latter film of a rooster being prepared for a cockfight by some young children, though thankfully Brakhage spares us the indignity of the fight itself. I suppose that would be too much like substance.

Brakhage is said to have greatly influenced the development of the music video. I expect that's probably true, but that's not a recommendation. Certainly the high-concept, all-style and zero-substance character of most music videos has a comfortable family relationship with Brakhage's ouevre, if not a direct descent.

Rating for Style: D
Rating for Substance: F


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: It's hard to say what to make of the transfer, since many of the films are intentionally damaged by Brakhage. I'm going to have to assume that the transfer looks fine, for the main reason that it was prepared in close consultation with fervent Brakhage devotee Fred Camper. Camper wrote a fairly famous rant against video, so for him to approve of a video transfer of Brakhage's work, it must be a fair representation of the originals. I didn't notice any video artifacting, aliasing, or edge enhancement, so on a purely technical standpoint these seem to be accurate transfers. The grade is thus a provisional one based largely on hearsay.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The vast majority of the films are utterly silent: no music, no words, no nothing. Apparently the attitude is that the whir of the projector is the proper soundtrack, and that's not provided here. A few films do have sound, and the 16mm audio quality is suitably cheesy for that medium. They tend to be fairly clean, though thin and slightly distorted, which again appears to be an accurate representation.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 30 cues
Production Notes
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio interview
Extras Review: In addition to a fairly substantial booklet of production notes (painfully short on explication or analysis), the principal extra is a set of four featurettes of interviews with Brakhage. For the most part, these appear to have been shot in the same sitting, by the same crew. They date from 1996, after Brakhage had been diagnosed with cancer (ironically induced by the anilyne dye in his paints), and he's fairly forthright about his work, and undeniably passionate about the notion of 24 frames per second, a phrase that continually finds its way into his speech. We learn early on, and are somehow not surprised, that Jackson Pollack is one of his great heroes. He makes some contradictory remarks regarding the element of chance, but apparently doesn't believe in chance affecting art, though I remain very much unconvinced after having seen far too many of his late films that can be read as endless random homages to "Jack the Dripper". Revealingly, he notes that he often had to stop work on films once his grant money ran out, and then often decided that the film therefore was finished. One senses that, as was the case with Pollack and John Cage, there is more than a little of the scam artist in Brakhage's work. The package is wrapped up with some insubstantial audio comments on the autopsy footage and the filmmaker's desire to confront the reality of death.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

If you're looking for opaque and often hideous experimental film, or need some of the most graphic autopsy or childbirth footage extant, you've come to the right place. But anyone easily bored or annoyed should stay far, far away from this dismal release.


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