Stan Brakhage: Visions in Meditation (1989-1990) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
20Jan/150

Stan Brakhage: Visions in Meditation (1989-1990)

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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.

Visions in Meditation - 1989-1990
Objects and places don't have souls, at least not by any metric we can observe, but I'm still fascinated by filmmakers who try to capture the spiritual essence of a location.  This is a different and trickier path than making a location a character within a larger narrative.  I think of the beautiful photography of In Bruges, the oppressive buildings of Sin City, or the reactive violent forces of the island in LOST.  Those are locations as characters, which is easier to dress up in photography or incorporating plot elements which make the location part of the narrative.  But what Stan Brakhage does in today's four-part film, Visions in Meditation, is trickier.  He manages to capture the essence of his filmed locales without ever orienting us in a specific time and space.  It's all spiritual growth, little physical interaction, and a lot of suggestion.

Visions in Meditation reminds me a lot of The Dead, another Brakhage high-point in this second volume.  But instead of demystifying the afterlife, or lack thereof, Brakhage makes mysterious the landscape we wander through every day.  While each part of this four film cycle was not filmed in exactly the same location, Brakhage used similar semi-populated desert and mountainous communities in New Mexico and Colorado.  Brakhage uses the first film as a sort of prologue, beginning with civilization and tracking backward to the moment when the ocean began to interact with the earth.  The images are unsteady, highlighting a violent interaction between what we construct and the nature which constantly tries to tear it down.  Brakhage returns to this image in later installments, but for now the artificial progress of man is a foreign body nature is meant to crush.

This would be a bit too fatalistic if the film stopped there, but the first vision continues showing the sky and earth interact before moving to the ocean.  In the calmest, clearest shots of the first vision, Brakhage simply observes the subtle interaction between two different masses as the ocean takes bits of the earth away.  As the second vision begins the vision is darker and Brakhage highlights the impotence of creatures who fight against nature and those who work with it.  Mountains and buildings pierce the sky, mountains overlaid with a deer in the forest, and the buildings with a man who is eventually naked and on the ground.  Some reading shows this was one of the pieces of footage of an epileptic.  That loss of control is important, as the man who tried to conquer nature loses his ability to control himself, while the deer calmly continues existing.

The opening chapters feed directly into the images of the next two visions, which work in harmony to show construction and destruction as part of a natural cycle.  I admit the soundtrack of the third vision caught me off guard, and usually the presence of sound in a Brakhage short means the quality will be dubious, but it worked well here.  Taking the first two visions as lessons, the third is the payoff from an attentive student.  Nature and human constructs work together, and we see various stands and building incorporated into the mountainous landscape.  By the time the storms come to take away the civilization in the fourth vision, the cycle is ready to start again.  A horse stands in a field, happily chewing its food while the sun blazes overhead.

The Visions series is like a landscape coming to terms with what its limitations and challenges are, then finding some measure of acceptance.  There's the chaos of birth, the struggle to find its place in the world, the thrill of new discoveries and successes with unexpected partners, then the gradual decay of existing life to start over again.  There's a peaceful balance toward the way Brakhage overlaps the visuals of the land and the blazing sun toward the end of the cycle that's absent from the shaky unfamiliarity of the beginning.  Visions is the spiritual acceptance the land has for its limitations and unusual partners.  Life will continue, just not in the way it started or move in the direction we might accept.  "Maturity as mental process of the landscape" is not what I was expecting from this cycle, and shows Brakhage still had delights in store up through the last phase of his life.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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