Stan Brakhage: The Dante Quartet (1987) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: The Dante Quartet (1987)

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Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch The Dante Quartet here.

The Dante Quartet - 1987As technology grew in recording capability and distribution many films that may have otherwise been forgotten received widespread distribution through new channels.  I mention this because today's Stan Brakhage film, The Dante Quartet, reminded me of two things.  The first is that despite the private way I usually watch his work they are still designed to be projected on a theater screen.  The second is the double-edged sword of home availability sometimes makes me disappointed that we don't have more experimental venues to watch these experiments.

Listening to Brakhage's pre-film commentary on the Criterion short for The Dante Quartet, he laughed at his hopes somewhat and says that it was not realistic for him to think that IMAX would pay to develop his film for viewing.  My Immediate thought was, why not?  More than any of his films so far, Brakhage is experimenting with different film stocks ranging from 35mm to IMAX, and by 1987 an artist of his caliber should have his work developed the same as any other.  But, again, times change, and the availability and development of IMAX was at a different point when he was alive.  When I was a lad of 11 some 19 years ago I was amazed at watching a pair of science documentaries projected on an IMAX theater - the kind where you have seats that lean back and you look up into what is normally the ceiling.  Now just about every mid-size town has its own mega-screen that provides a watered down version of the experience, but touts it as IMAX.

This is all part of the effect The Dante Quartet is capable of.  Its collage of shifting colors, blackened frames, boxed spaces, and fantastic imagery bursting out of nowhere made me nostalgic for something that I've barely experienced.  I admit only having read a simplified version of Dante's The Divine Comedy for school, but Brakhage's version touched restless parts of my subconscious that I did not realize were longing for more experiences with projection and light.

Instead of a transition between states, Brakhage uses four titles, "Hell Itself", "Hell Spit Flexion", "Purgation", and "Existence Is Song" and separates the experiences by darkness.  This creates a literary effect for the sequences as they are presented like chapters in an ongoing tale.  "Hell Itself" felt the most like his previous painted works, but instead of a consistent pattern or shifting of color Brakhage creates a swirling collage with no consistency, lending itself to a feeling of being unmoored through existence.  "Hell Spit Flexion" is the most interesting of the four, literally boxing the projected film into a smaller stock that is grainier and difficult to make out.  I felt voyeuristic in this space, because it felt like watching a projection of a projection instead of it unfolding in Brakhage's cinematic space.

I felt the least involved throughout "Purgation".  This is where the human figures become most noticeable as they peek out around the darkness.  The abstract nature of the first two lessened here, and the observation of purgatory as just people fumbling around in the dark is not a new or particularly noteworthy one.  But the last section when Brakhage arrives at what he can conceive as Heaven is "Existence Is Song."  This was a delight as his subjective camera goes through a whirling journey among the ground and air while amazing sights pop in just long enough to tantalize before being swirled away into the landscape.  The joy of discovery is never lessened by moving on from one site with the possibility of the next soon to come.

Considering the wide variety of styles I've seen from Brakhage so far, this could double as a philosophy the man's work represents.  He's discontent at rest and is constantly working with film in different ways to discover new means of presentation and exposure.  The Dante Quartet is a lovely reflection, embrace of, distortion, and polarized answer to the eternal journeys of cinema and life - and one that I may wish I could watch in a large theater, but am also pleased is still an experience which can be shared at home.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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