Desist Film
By Brakhage- An Anthology

As I've mentioned before, Austin, Texas as a music town has done little to impress me, but what I have found it an unlimited resource for is film. Here in Austin a seemingly endless supply of opportunities abound to view many hard to find and/or rarely screened films. Screenings of important films, new and old, narrative and experimental, are held weekly by local organizations such as the Austin Film Society (AFS). It was at a mid 1990's retrospective by the AFS on the American Avant-Garde that I was first exposed to the work of Stan Brakhage. Brakhage, along with his contemporary and one time friend Kenneth Anger, is the most important and influential of the American experimental filmmakers. He passed away this March of 2003. The new Criterion 2 DVD Anthology of 26 of his films is a welcome and highly recommended compilation of his seminal work.

Brakhage's films cannot be easily described or categorized; there is much variety within his canon, as well as clear stylistic commonalities that persist throughout. To start one can say that all of Brakhage's films are extremely visceral, there's a heat and a tactile quality to them, accentuated by the way he would often etch and paint directly on the film itself. It strikes me as I watch the films collected by Criterion that the relation of experimental film to conventional narrative film is not unlike the relation of poetry to prose. That is, it requires a different means of absorption. And just as you wouldn't read a poem as if it were a novel, you don't watch experimental film as you would the narrative films that most of us are more accustomed to. One hangover from overexposure to mainstream film is the desire to want to seek out or impose narrative structure of a traditional nature on experimental films and subsequent frustration when one is not readily found. This is not to say that there isn't meaning and even in some sense a sort of narrative in many experimental films. There are of course multiple and complex meanings present in these films, but it is achieved in a style again more akin to modern poetry.

The best way to initially experience Brakhage's films is literally, in the manner that the old term for movies implies, as Moving Pictures. This will allow the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the images Brakhage fires, often in rapid succession, without getting too hung up on intellectual interpretation or walled off from the films' emotional resonance by grasping too quickly for meaning. The films are all quite emotionally affecting without any prior intellectualizing. One experiences an intoxicating rush of emotion as stirring images, some immediately recognizable others skewed and abstract, dance before your eyes. The audio remarks that are included of the very articulate Brakhage, as well as the excellent liner notes by Fred Camper, will do much to illuminate over time the intent and meaning of the films. But it is the repeated viewings that owning these films on DVD will allow that will lead to a full appreciation of the amazing breadth and subtlety of Brakhage's films. You can be sure that there is more than enough to repeatedly return to here to justify investment in this two-disc set.

Photo: Kai Sibley (
The earliest of his films collected in this anthology is Desist Film from 1954. Brakhage describes it as a combination of Italian Neo-Realist and Surrealist film, as well as outburst of Denver Beatnik energy. One can follow through this and other early films included, such as Cat's Cradle and Wedlock House: An Intercourse, as the tentative but riveting beat experimentation develops into the wilder and masterful abstraction of Dog Star Man and later films. Much of Brakhage's work from the 1980's up until 2002 is included in the anthology. These later films, for the most part, continue to delve further into abstraction through painting directly onto film: as in the beautiful Dante's Quartet from 1987 which is at times reminiscent in color of the paintings of William Blake.

Dog Star Man, filmed from 1961-1964, is considered by many to be Brakhage's masterpiece. It includes whirling, violent, explosions of colors and images of Brakhage chopping logs and climbing a mountain with superimpositions that become more intricate over its five parts detailing man's struggle to find his place in the universe. It is worth noting the huge influence of Eisenstein's editing and use of superimposition on Brakhage (Anger too for that matter). Brakhage's films seem to address and often struggle with the stages and cycles of life from birth to death and their ultimate meaning or even more their constant shift in meaning.

Many of these films are silent and, as suggested by Fred Camper, it is best to view them as intended without soundtrack: the visual rhythms become much more pronounced and the visceral impact is increased. I noticed an intense quickening of heartbeat, and breathing for instance during the rhythmic flashing images of the Prelude to Dog Star Man. This is not to say that one shouldn't feel free to experiment with different ways of viewing these films, including providing different soundtracks. After all, there's truly no such thing as silence and one interesting thing to observe is the way the environmental sounds around you interact and mesh with the film: cars passing like waves on the beach, the hum of appliances and the whirl of a ceiling fan.

Brakhage's films celebrate the subjective nature of reality as an interaction between our nervous system and whatever it perceives, and in keeping with this his films invite the viewer to recognize and revel in their role in the creative process (this would include our daily experience of reality in its most basic and on the surface mundane form). Brakhage has spoken of a desire for his films to encourage viewers to expand their own possibilities
for seeing, and part of what he wants us to see is the richness and remarkableness of what through routine exposure we find overly familiar and dull. Like a Buddhist exercise that encourages one to experience a chair without identifying it as such, with all the filters that arbitrary label implies, Brakhage's films help us view what is around us (and inside us) with new eyes.

© 2003 William Crain

Scan of frames from "existence is song" courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage, and Fred Camper, whose web site includes Brakhage links and more Brakhage stills.