The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

'By Brakhage' reveals a filmmaker who saw into our souls

In the many interviews that accompany the films, Brakhage never explicitly addresses politics in his work--except to remark that the subject of one early '50s short was "beatnik nerves." (Brakhage claims that Cassavetes had praised the amateurish "Desistfilm," which suggests the demonically gay badinage of the friends in Cassavetes' Shadows and Faces.) But, as with much modernist art that appeared poised at the edge of an Olympian timelessness, there's a powerful political backbeat to the Brakhage canon.

The artist began his career with a conscious refutation of what we know as "film production": the teams of craftspeople, day laborers, and thespians who draw a check on a movie set. By the end, as we see in By Brakhage, he's sitting in what looks like a Starbucks in Denver, hand-painting spaghetti-like threads of 8mm film. Brakhage may have been the first, or at least the most famous, artist to achieve André Bazin's goal of a cinéma-stylo--a filmmaking that bore the fingerprint and the fluent immediacy of a poet writing with a pen. In that personalizing, that physicalizing of the filmmaking process, he made a radical statement about the relationship of the possible to the actual. There was no mentor, no Harold Bloomian shadow father to clear the way for Brakhage's work; his role in the history of cinema is sui generis. Similarly, the work itself is a challenge to radically reorient the act of...well, of seeing with one's own eyes.

Brakhage's work is intentionally, painstakingly resistant to criticism, simply because its subject is that which cannot be grasped in words. That's why the filmmaker stopped photographing people, even animals and vegetables, and moved to "pure" paint: He wanted to reset our inner clocks to a point before language had locked down the prison doors. And though he would have been pained to hear it, his films have much greater pungency--more richness in their ideas--on DVD than they do projected in the dank likes of New York's Anthology Film Archives. (I once asked Brakhage why he didn't distribute his films more promiscuously; he gestured around the Archives and said, "I want people to seek them out here--in the salon des refusés!") In a theater, the sonic minimalism of Brakhage's work, particularly of his abstract films, can carry a pious solemnity: These movies are meant to be ground through, not enjoyed. But on a laptop or TV set, a whole other Cagean vibe is proffered: room buzz, head noise, the ah-oooga of the fruit vendor downstairs. Your life and your body become the accompaniment: Brakhage is the player and you're the piano.

Inside out: Brakhage's 'Dog Star Man (Prelude)'
The Criterion Collection
Inside out: Brakhage's 'Dog Star Man (Prelude)'

And so you rush in to fill up the film's open spaces. And a kind of magic operation takes place, sort of like photosynthesis. The deeper Brakhage delves into himself--into realms that are beyond depiction--the further we see ourselves reflected in his recesses. For all their amateurish bits and hippie longueurs, the films in By Brakhage finally achieve what was once called, without flinching, Great Poetry: The artist's inner life and ours are laid bare at exactly the same rate of speed.

« Previous Page

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!