Recently I put By Brakhage: An Anthology in my Netflix queue. I knew when I did it that it was a bad idea. I’m not a 20-year-old art student anymore; it’s not seemly for me to watch things just because they’re difficult. It’s as ridiculous as middle-aged dudes deciding to take up snowboarding. But I had a moment of art-school machismo, one I then felt unable to back down from. So it stayed in the queue.
And now the disc is here, and I’ve been watching it. And on the off chance you should ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are my tips for surviving pretentious, mind-breaking art films.
Watch for boobs. We’ll start with the obvious. Even Stan Brakhage knows his movies are unwatchable. He sprinkles nudity throughout. Nudity was a pretty big deal for art filmmakers back in the 1960s: it was still taboo in the mainstream American cinema and therefore became one of the ways that independent artists could distinguish themselves, stake out a special territory for their kind of work. You would think the fact that they eschewed color, sound, narrative and logic would have been enough distinction for them. If nudity is your only selling point, traditionally they call your work “porn.” But not if the nudity’s interspersed with shots of wildly swinging lights and people hiding in the dark or running down hallways or smoking. It’s a fine line, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. In the meantime, pour yourself a soda and watch for boobs.
Look up the Wikipedia entry on whatever you’re watching. Are you three minutes into a feature-length film about a guy and his dog climbing a hill? You might want to pop open the laptop and see what awards this thing’s won. Also check the running time. A hundred more minutes to go, eh? Well, now might be a good time to read about how this film fits into Brakhage’s first mature period. In fact, maybe you should have started with Wikipedia, because it might have helped you to:
Only watch the ones that interest you. Some of these movies are going to be more interesting than others. I still find “Window Water Baby Moving”, a highly imagistic 12-minute documentary of the birth of his first child, very moving. And “Mothlight” is silly — it’s just hundreds of images of moth wings spliced together in a rapid-fire montage — but it only lasts a minute, and then you can say you’ve seen one of his major works. Plus at that length abstract art is actually kind of enjoyable. Hence the occasional trend toward Brakhagean abstraction in Hollywood credit sequences.
Find the narrative. If you are a masochist or have an obssessive-compulsive need to watch every track on the disc, consider this: Stan Brakhage is just like every other 20-something guy with a camera, a hot wife, and a bunch of goofy friends willing to do bizarre stuff for him. If he were starting out today, he’d be a YouTube phenom. “Desistfilm,” one of his earliest works, makes this abundantly clear. It’s nothing more than the antics of Brakhage’s friends captured on camera in what looks like one very silly night. One guy dances around and makes faces. Another lights a whole fan of matches at once. Another wraps string around a woman’s head and then reels her in. People smoke. There’s some making out. The shenanigans are accompanied by a deliberately grating soundtrack of nonsense sounds and broken piano melodies. It’s gleeful, manic, and occasionally a little sinister, and it all seems like a rather odd home movie of a bunch of bored college students. Which is what it is. Brakhage’s movies are always most interesting when they’re about the immediacy of his experiences, and least interesting when he decides to get symbolic or to make abstract collages in motion. Ignore his misguided experimental urges and this guy is a lot like Ross McElwee — a captivating film diarist whose most interesting subjects are his own family and the little community of oddballs who orbit around him.