Stan Brakhage: 23rd Psalm Branch parts I (1966) and II (1967) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: 23rd Psalm Branch parts I (1966) and II (1967)

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Unlike previous entries, today's Stan Brakhage film is not readily available online but can be watched as part of The Criterion Collection's second "by Brakhage" volume.

23rd Psalm Branch - 1966 to 1967Stan Brakhage’s films question so many notions of what cinema is that I’ve started to wonder just what it means for something to be feature-length. I ask because today’s film, 23rd Psalm Branch parts I and II, is just a shade over an hour in length. This puts it on the short side for a typical feature-length film, but long enough where I could reasonably define it that way. But Brakhage’s films sometimes convey an entire cinematic world within seconds and his films of this length are rare. So we settle on terms defined by award-giving bodies, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will not nominate a film for their feature-film awards if it is less than 40 minutes long.

Yes, 23rd Psalm Branch meets the length criteria, but so many of Brakhage’s films that could have penetrated a wider audience failed to do so just because of their length. The subject, as is the case with 23rd Psalm Branch, does not help either as Brakhage is defining his feelings on the Vietnam War as the ‘70s approached in America. Unlike fellow artists such as Ingmar Bergman, whose Persona is as definitive an expression on the violence and confusion of that period as I can think of, Brakhage is not conflicted about his feelings. In perhaps the first time since I started watching the film I was keenly aware of Brakhage’s eyes on the audience, at one point literally manifesting onscreen to glare at us, to make sure there is no ambiguity about his rage.

The first half of 23rd Psalm Branch is merciless. Half an hour into the film I was wondering how I was going to have the energy to keep up with Brakhage’s assault. It’s so angry that it seems Brakhage does not know how to keep the film in-line with his anger. The assault begins with a mad dash over some landscape from left to right, then images of feet pile up, dead bodies, a man missing half his face lays dead. Left to right in traditional cinematic language communicates a path forward and there is nothing but violence and death, which Brakhage eventually needs to take a break from by wrenching his film from the images in epileptic fits of red, green, purple, back to red.

My invocation of Bergman serves a double-purpose as 23rd Psalm decomposes into a bloody mess, making more literal the red scene transitions that marked Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch came well before Bergman’s masterpiece, but both share blood as a means of connection through time, and the blood in this film transitions to gathering crowds of people. One on the left. One on the right. The masses grow as black dots fill bright film stock and Hitler, Roosevelt, and other leaders give their speeches. The leaders disappear as the dots grow restless, dark tendrils reach from their core, and 23rd Psalm Branch breaks apart into four separate frames of action. Brakhage looks at the people, the leaders who are inciting them to violence, and finding nothing but discord and destruction as a result of their meddling. Even blood, that one connection we all share, cannot keep the film together as the crowds erupt into total chaos. Brakhage’s point is clear – we allow this violence through blind obedience to these leaders, and the unidentified masses suffer.

The first part is so brilliant and relentless that the second half of 23rd Psalm Branch was practically destined to disappoint. Brakhage’s approach is much calmer and more focused on the veil of security that plasters over the violence of their leaders. He accomplishes this through vaguely threatening and oddly colored family interludes and a haunting image of a man slowly going mad as he feasts on invisible food. There is a slight return to the chaos of the first half when the images begin to break down, as a stick figure is crudely animated beating another man and figures wrapped in barbed wire with their arms spread are quickly cut with images of Jesus on the cross.

Nothing but darkness waits at the end. Brakhage’s rage coalesces into an uncontrollable sadness as the film as the screen goes black once again after a view of his children. The verses of the Bible’s 23rd Psalm run hollow against the war Brakhage rails against. There is no shepherd, no restoration or rest, evil hides everywhere, and even the most innocent lives will not know goodness or mercy. 23rd Psalm Branch is one of Brakhage’s most accomplished works and shows the man at his most harrowing.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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