Stan Brakhage: Chinese Series (2003) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: Chinese Series (2003)

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

Chinese Series - 2003Chinese Series is a struggle. The closest analogue I have for it in the other Stan Brakhage films I’ve watched is Rage Net, that magnificent film which kept tearing itself apart in frustration before finally cutting to black. But while Rage Net had Brakhage dealing with his divorce from his first wife and the subsequent self-loathing which followed, Chinese Series was made when Brakhage was facing his mortal demise.

Whether Chinese Series exists in a “finished” state or not is up for debate because he was still working on the film when he passed away in 2003. I question that because the cold hand of finality is not something which touches Brakhage’s work often. The most notable example was The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, but in other films dealing with death he abstracts the concept in such a way that his films make death seem like one drop in an infinite plane instead of a cold end.

The scratches of Chinese Series are merely continuing in this legacy, and even if we may not know if the film was ready for viewing or not the fact remains that it’s here for us to watch. It’s hard to get through the short and not think of Brakhage’s imminent demise and read the images accordingly. Each scratch looks like someone trying to sculpt an image whose end point is yet to be determined. The speed at which the images come is important to this, with the initial images doled out slowly before the white of the scratches begins to take over the frame and, just as the energy rises, it begins to fade before finally cutting to black and then the credits.

It’s tempting to read this as an easy parallel to Brakhage’s physical state. Here is the old artist, desperately scratching away using the tools he built his life around, to make one last mark on the world. But doing so would be disrespectful to the spirit of Brakhage’s art and distort what it means to make images on film to begin with. Brakhage’s scratches reveal light amidst the darkness, and with each stroke on the film stock he shows different arrangements and patterns which weren’t possible before. Brakhage, up through to his last film, was still grasping at some truth through his art and speaking through the transcendental aspects of the medium. These aren’t the scratches of a desperate old man, but someone with an understanding of how his art revealed the world instead of concealing it.

Placed in context with the rest of Brakhage’s films I admit I’m not as fond of it as I am Black Ice or the previously mentioned Rage Net, but I love the spirit. Brakhage left this world still shaping the unknown with his films, and the debate about whether Chinese Series is finished or not just adds to the fun. There’s more to this life, so scratch away at the darkness until it makes sense, even if your truth doesn’t make sense to anyone else.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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