Stan Brakhage

In Memoriam

More than just a key figure in the experimental-film movement, Stan Brakhage was one of the most vital and radically creative artists in all film history. Freely dispensing with story, character, and often even representational imagery, Brakhage instead filled his screens with swirling paintings made of light and abstract poetry spun from time. In obsessive pursuit of a cinema that lived and breathed, Brakhage documented everything from sex to childbirth to autopsies, pushing the raw material of his films to its very physical limit -- by burning, scratching, and spitting directly onto his images -- as if to make his celluloid itself experience the transfiguring changes of birth, harm, and death. When this measurelessly important innovator finally died at the age of 70 on March 9 of this year, he left behind a body of work made up of roughly 400 films. The film most commonly called Brakhage's masterpiece, Dog Star Man, arguably represents the high-water mark of the "New American Cinema" movement that flourished in the 1960s. Starring Brakhage, his wife Jane, their dog Sirius, and a snowy Colorado mountain, Dog Star Man is a rapturous, orgiastically beautiful viewing experience; the whole screen quivers and dances with flashes of fur, luminous sheets of pure color, glowing bare skin, galloping mountain vistas, blood, leaves, sun, and snow. Presented without sound, the film's stunning imagery and hypnotically rhythmic editing have been known to magnetize hushed theatres. So far, though, home viewers seeking out the work of Brakhage have had very little from which to choose. VHS copies of Dog Star Man are available through better video stores, but their blurry approximation of the film's sharp-etched imagery really only serves to give renters an idea of what they're missing. And so, instead of recommending you rent Dog Star Man on VHS, I advise the opposite: Don't bother. Instead, wait: Brakhage began working -- near the very end of his life -- on a definitive DVD edition of 24 of his best films (including Dog Star Man), to be finally released later this year by Criterion. This collection, entitled by Brakhage, might as well be the reason DVD was invented, and its release gives fans of experimental film cause both to mourn anew and to rejoice: Brakhage is gone, but his films will be more widely available than ever before.

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Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man

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