Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-garde Filmmakers

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McPherson & Company, 1989 - Performing Arts - 183 pages

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Marie Menken
Sidney Peterson

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About the author (1989)

A major figure in American avant-garde films, Stan Brakhage made his first film, Interim, at the age of 18, after having a nervous breakdown and dropping out of college. Most of his experimental films since then have been shorts that explore the film medium, offering a modernist critique of Renaissance realist space. He frequently alters the strip of film itself by making scratches in the emulsion after recording images on it, disrupting the effect of the real by recalling the two-dimensionality of what appears to be three-dimensional. Mothlight (1963) was made as a collage of bits of leaves, seeds, ferns, flowers, and moth wings, attached not onto film celluloid but onto splicing tape, which was then run through an optical printer. Mothlight is therefore a film made without a camera and even without film. Because the objects in the film were not photographed, they appear more as abstract shapes than as natural things. Other aspects of Brakhage's short films include accelerated and slow motion shots, optical distortions such as tinting, alternation between monochrome and color stock or negatives and positives; and the presence of film leader and the dots that end a roll of film, as well as frames marked by the flare that results when film is exposed as the camera is being loaded or unloaded. These techniques, too, may have a symbolic or visionary dimension. For example, The Wonder Ring (1955) includes some surrealist effects of superimposition achieved very simply while filming in a subway car: Sometimes the viewer can see both the reflections on the window glass and what is behind the glass in the landscape through which the train passes. Many of Brakhage's films do have characters and stories; however, they are not realistic. Dog Star Man (1965) has no coherent narrative, with continuity achieved instead through recurring patterns and motifs. The dog star man of the title climbs a snow-covered hill with a dog, occasionally falling. At the end he chops wood. In between, there are repeated shots of the sun, trees, different seasons, an infant, and sexual organs, all linked metaphorically through juxtaposition and repetition. Such a film constitutes what Brakhage called an adventure of perception, one in which the eye sees reality outside the convention of realism, with its laws of composition and perspective. Such adventures are always his guiding principle in filmmaking.

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