Stan Brakhage: The Dark Tower (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: The Dark Tower (1999)

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

The Dark Tower - 1999Stan Brakhage’s mission statement for The Dark Tower is one of the clearest of his career. He made an homage to the dark towers that fill literary history. The funny thing is, and honestly this may speak more to my reading habits than anything else, that dark towers have a more imposing history in cinema than they do in literary fiction. I’m thinking about Saruman’s tall fortress in The Two Towers, the ominous retirement home of Charles Foster Kane, or the pillar that Leviathan rules from in Hellraiser II. The first is obviously pulled from literary materials but brought to life in cinema, with the latter two created entirely for the screen.

Brakhage’s films sometimes have this problem where the subject he makes the film about is so specific that it’s unlikely to appeal outside of those knowledgeable in it. I’m aware this is a distinction in an already niche category of experimental filmmaking, but it helps to explain the disconnect I sometimes feel from his material. I connected to Glaze of Cathexis because of my interest in psychoanalysis, yet am resistant to the appeals of The Dark Tower.

The issue is twofold. First, The Dark Tower ends up utilizing very little imagery that conjures up those tall structures. The opening third or so of the film accomplishes this impressively by showing a resistant column of darkness that does not allow any color in. Brakhage’s juxtaposition here works well as the literally dark tower in the center of the frame starts stands in bleak confidence against the chaotic colors of Brakhage’s brush. At times I would see figures within the colors as Brakhage liked to reuse footage from discarded films to introduce fleeting specters into his films. This reinforced the impenetrable core of the frame as even specters of the past cannot enter the darkness.

Yet, strong as these opening images are, eventually the film “resets” and from the darkness emerges another colorful full-frame assault. There’s an idea about escalation and repetition within the images, especially in the way another tower eventually emerges from Brakhage’s normal explosion of colors. But the lingering images, the retinal imprint that Brakhage likes to leave in his films, did not work well with the disappearance and resurgence of the tower. The tower doesn’t crumble or rebuild so much as it spontaneously disappears and reappears, leaving the impression that The Dark Tower is more two Brakhage films spliced together than a working whole.

There’s a strong idea at the center of The Dark Tower but it gets derailed just as the effects are felt, and Brakhage his normally experimental palette falls back on a flickering array I’ve seen many times before. The Dark Tower isn’t a failure, it’s just that there’s enough right with it to call for disappointment.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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