By Brakhage

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By Brakhage

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The avant-garde's efforts to jar spectators out of their complacency explains, as much as any innate resistance to pretension, why experimental cinema frightens many people. Some of the 26 films on Criterion's double-disc Stan Brakhage DVD compilation By Brakhage feature graphic, diced-up footage of sex, live birth, and autopsies, but often the dicing itself is the disturbing thing. Like many of his contemporaries, Brakhage worked with the rhythmic flicker of the medium to distort his audience's sense of vision. Because the late icon's work can be such a shocking experience, the best way to approach this set may be to start with its shortest piece–the nine-second "Eye Myth"–and work upward in length, becoming gradually acclimated to the explosions of color and shape that were Brakhage's stock in trade. In his helpful liner notes, critic Fred Camper suggests further cues to appreciating Brakhage, such as watching only a few films at a sitting, each at least twice in succession, and watching in a quiet, dark room. Camper also expounds on Brakhage's beliefs in the power of light to alter perception, in concert with the images being lit. Brakhage was a devout admirer of Jackson Pollack, and in the set's hand-painted films, the effect of the rapidly shifting, multihued blobs feels like trying to comprehend 24 abstract canvasses per second. At times, the rush of barely perceptible glimpses is breathtakingly inspired in the way it leads the eye in uncommon directions: See especially Brakhage's 1963 breakthrough "Mothlight," for which he taped insect parts and pieces of foliage onto a strip of film, ignoring framing and thereby creating disorientingly rapid shifts of vertical and horizontal motion. Even when his more overt attempts to fuse poetry and pictures prove ungainly, or when the fine distinctions between one frenzied, hand-painted work and the next begin to blur, the urgency of Brakhage's scribbling and scratching still imparts something about a psyche overrun with worries about broken relationships, wonder over the mysteries of nature, and fascination with the way the world can be visually interpreted. When the bubbling of Brakhage's subconscious intersects with his mastery of blended color and his ability to modify tempo without editing tricks, the results justify the claims made for the artist's brilliance. In pieces as disparate as 1993's painted, fireworks-like "Stellar" and 1959's photographed, shadow-soaked "Wedlock House: An Intercourse," Brakhage alternates brightness and darkness to leave impressions burned on the retina for seconds after the image has disappeared. Some of the impressions last much longer.

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