Stan Brakhage: The Dead (1960) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Nov/140

Stan Brakhage: The Dead (1960)

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

The Dead - 1960One big mistake the religious bodies of the world have made is the decision to personalize and make human their respective deities.  God, at least in terms understood by Abrahamic religions, was once a formless voice that commanded unlimited power and authority which made his will known in impossible ways.  Then he was made human, and with humanity comes frailty, weakness, and death.  What was once a powerful and mutable symbol with no specific backing in language and comprehensible only through associative imagery became just another human on a planet infested with them.

There's a certain power in taking this course of action intentionally as personifying or making plain the mysterious is one step toward removing its universal appeal.  Stan Brakhage understood this ability when it came time to film The Dead.  It's undeniably powerful, and another early example of his ability to layer distinct realities on top of one another to comment on them all.  Here Brakhage is mixing the uncontrollable reality of death with the hubris of controlling nature and the people who walk around having to be blissfully unaware that they can do nothing about either.

The Dead is aggressively disorienting to achieve this goal and does so by destroying the symbols that we have come to associate with a life after death.  Many of Brakhage's early pre-painted frame films open on extreme closeups of an unfamiliar site before pulling back to show more information.  The Dead is no different in this regard, but the reveal is done rather quickly, establishing four different locales: a cemetery with grand gravestones, a busy street, a rustling body of water, and an area dense with foliage and no human constructs.

Brakhage goes to work establishing an overwhelming tone as the bustling street is commonly overlaid with the cemetery or the foliage.  This gives The Dead a claustrophobic feeling as those walking, and sometimes smiling, people are frequently overtaken by the nature that surrounds them.  The inevitability of this decline is reinforced by the way the cemetery often overtakes the land, sea, and street.  No matter the place or speed of growth the result is always the same - the grave.

For those who still hold on to some idea of life after death it is what Brakhage does with the cemetery that removes its symbolic power.  He photographs the tombs and gravestones like a man possessed with deep anxiety, at times bursting into a full run trying to capture as many of them as possible.  While the camera is on the move between the artifacts of the dead, Brakhage switches between two extremely polarized views where the black and white are exchanged sharply in quick spans of time.  Brakhage would eventually settle on a hyper distilled and more colorful version of this style, but for The Dead this accomplishes the effect of burning the image of those markers into the retina.  If you close your eyes after watching these moments all you see is the stone and maybe some of the foliage.  It's only stone and dirt, no matter how lovingly assembled it all is for the living.  The cemetery becomes what it always has been, a monument to the death from the living with no sign of anyone else.

Brakhage would return to this examination of mortality more brutally in a later film, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes.  But The Act confronts us so directly with the reality of immortality that it becomes a blunt, if horrifyingly effective, instrument of using our familiarity with the human body against us.  The Dead is by a Brakhage who is starting to look at death in the abstract, ponders what all these symbols around him stand for, and whether they withstand the close scrutiny of his camera.  As Brakhage put it, photographing these symbols robbed them of their power, and his film proves that art is as much a necessary deconstructive tool as it is a means of elevation.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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