Lost in the Movies: Desistfilm


Expect several posts on Stan Brakhage in the coming days. As you may have noticed, my recent movie write-ups have been progressing through the early sixties. That's because I assembled a Netflix queue, chronologically ordered, of movies I felt I had to see before assembling a personal "top 150" list which will then lead into my long-announced, upcoming series of great movies. Anyway, I've reached 1964 and with it Dog Star Man. I knew I'd seen the prelude but wasn't sure I'd ever watched the whole film, so I rented Criterion's gorgeous "by Brakhage" 2-disc set to catch up with everything I'd missed when perusing the discs in the past.

I love experimental cinema, but have been uncertain about Brakhage, possibly the most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker. Some of his work intrigues me, some leaves me cold. Upon just re-viewing Dog Star Man, I found much of it rather unsuccessful, but some of it fascinating and effective. I'll do a separate piece on that tomorrow, as I don't have the time to write much on it now.

Instead I'd like to embed one of his earliest films, Desistfilm, which has been described as his "breakthrough." I enjoyed it in part, I think, because it's as much a home movie as an experiment - there's something stirring about all these fifties kids with their distinctively period hairdos and costumes, living on the edge of reality, or at least appearing to do so as captured by Brakhage's stuttering camera and uncanny soundtrack. It's both playful and oddly mournful - at once a portrait of Blakean "experience" and nostalgic innocence (those edgy Beats are such little kids!).

I love the Brakhage quote which precedes the Criterion presentation: "A seven-minute film made with four rolls of gun camera film from the Second World War, spooled in the dark and spliced. Just an explosion of Denver beatnik nerves." Like seeing the quivering soul behind your parents'/grandparents' attic snapshots. Brakhage's other films rise or fall on the power of their visual purity: they are what they are, with most representative functions stripped from the image. This one, for me at least, is pure association.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Ed Howard said...

I've always thought Brakhage's early work was very interesting, since it begins toying with abstraction even as it represents the last gasp of straightforward representation in his work (his first few films are disarmingly conventional and even semi-narrative). Another film from the same year, The Way to Shadow Garden, is even better, and is similarly a "breakthrough" work, transitioning from a suggestion of narrative into a pure exploration of textures and images.

I love most of what I've seen from Brakhage, and these early films are surprisingly rich, as well as of course being interesting as glimpses into Brakhage's development over time.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, that's exactly what appeals to me too. I love abstract work, but there's something exciting about films which manage to have one foot in reality and one in another realm.

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