The Films of Stan Brakhage Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

After Ego Death: Final thoughts on the films of Stan Brakhage

Final thoughtsI began watching Stan Brakhage's films in June of 2013.  Barely two weeks after I started the project my body suffered a major catastrophe.  A 5mm x 8mm x 13mm kidney stone was growing in my left kidney, and over the next few months I was mishandled by my urologist.  I was left with drugs and a two month waiting period before I could have surgery for the stone.  During this time my body deteriorated, and to this day I am still combating the cumulative effect those months now stretched into years have had on my body.

This is to say, I was a much different person when I started watching Brakhage's films.  I've never been shy about my ego and in all honesty I started the project mostly so I could have some "film buff cred" and say I watched all of Brakhage's films.  After my health crisis, having "cred" with a group of hypothetical people who would have interest in Brakhage seemed more pathetic than anything else.  So why did I go back to watching his films?

I realized I was stuck in a rut with my writing and needed to shake up my perception of film.  So on June 11th, 2014, a year after I watched my second Brakhage, I began watching two films of his a week to see if he was the talent to expand my perception of film.  My ego needed to be set aside before I could watch his films with an honest and careful eye.  Fitting, then, that ego death is a concept I learned more about in the near two years since I started this project and became a recurring motif in Brakhage's films.


Stan Brakhage: Chinese Series (2003)

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.


Stan Brakhage: Persian Series 1-3 (1999)

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch 1-3 of The Persian Series here.

Persian Series - 1999Only one frame into the first film of the Persian series and I knew I was in for something special.  The look of Stan Brakhage's painted films always looks like a powdery watercolor to me.  Considering he hand-painted each frame which then had to be run through a projector the consistency of his painted films made sense.

But there was an oily, almost pastel-like cohesion to the colors as soon as the first Persian film started.  There are few dominant colors and they mingle together like organisms in a pond.  The threat comes from the darkness, coming in suddenly to cut through the color, and overwhelms the color to thrust the frame into darkness.  While the text accompanying the Criterion release says these films are about Brakhage's thoughts about Persian philosophy and art, it's difficult not to see this as an ongoing representation of his struggle with cancer.


Stan Brakhage: “…” Reel Five (1998)

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.

... Reel Five - 1998Over the last few weeks I've wondered how Stan Brakhage would be continuing his word as he entered the final years of his life.  The last few films have seen Brakhage in a contemplative mood.  I Take These Truths is a slow-burn look at the variety in his painted styles, The Cat and the Worm's Green Realm looks at the immensity of existence from the perspective of the tiny and how they can't see the whole from the pieces, and Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind is an attempt to cinematically portray all of existence rather than its bits and pieces.

But these films are all a Brakhage I'm most familiar with - paints, extreme close-ups of the natural and artificial, scratches interacting with each other.  The film I watched for today, "..." Reel Five may not be the most esoteric title of Brakhage's films but it's certainly one of the most unique.  The film following that title is just as interesting, and is another one of Brakhage's films to utilize sound.  Usually the presence of sound is a harbinger of a poor film, but this is definitely not the case with Reel Five.


Stan Brakhage: Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (1997)

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind here.

Tail - YggdrasillI've spoken about this before, but Stan Brakhage titles his films better than just about any other artist I can think of.  Just look at the title of today's film, Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind, and think about what images conjure up in your mind.  For me it's a genesis of thought, images that have their place in infinity but are still rooted in an experience which binds us all.  The mythical Yggdrasill's limbs extended into all parts of creation stretching to the Norse afterlife and into the ether from which new beings sprung forth.

I'm not sure any film could live up to a title like that with all the possibilities it entails.  But if there's one filmmaker who could bring that promise to life, it's Brakhage, and while he doesn't succeed the results of Yggdrasill are still a wonder to behold.