Stan Brakhage was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. He made 373 films, with durations ranging from nine seconds to four hours, and they are some of the most beautiful, deep, involving, creative and inspirational avant-garde works I have ever come across. The great man remains a huge inspiration on the way I approach avant-garde cinema and his films are some of my favourites of the genre. Here I’ve compiled a list of his eleven greatest films, impressive works that are exemplary of his effect and influence on cinema and art throughout the last 60-70 years.
11 Mothlight (1963)
One of Brakhage’s most well-known films, Mothlight is notable for Brakhage having stuck bits of dead insects to the film to create a collage of illusionary creatures and images, a breathtaking and vigorous exercise with superb results. View here.
10 For Marilyn (1992)
Stan’s films are so much lovelier when he shows genuine affection and love for the people and ideas that prove his inspiration. Here it is his wife, and God, whose influence drive the melodic, tempered pace of this majestic avant-garde explosion of colours and briefly glimpsed images. A very personal work. View here.
9 Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959)
Despite its theme of intimacy and lovemaking, this excellent short is actually quite unnerving. Images fading in and out of black, the faces of Brakhage and his wife Jane; their sexual intercourse, made to look unnatural and almost grotesque by the inverted colour. This is a strange and beautiful movie, straddling the line between dream and nightmare. View here. (NSFW)
8 Commingled Containers (1996)
Stunningly beautiful Brakhage short that proves with age the cinematic legend never lost his touch or originality. Commingled Containers shines and vibrantly screams in ecstasy through its visuals, with echoes of Slawomir Idziak’s stunning cinematography for the film Three Colours: Blue. Two minutes long and essential for those interested in experimental cinema. View here.
7 Cat’s Cradle (1958)
Beautifully shot and frenetically edited, it is difficult to say what this film is about, though I think it’s about a relationship disintegrating, a sexuality in tatters. Remarkable, well made movie with some very dark, moving themes. View here.
6 I… Dreaming (1988)
Beautiful live-action film from Stan Brakhage, with a soundtrack, and starring the man himself and members of his family. There are some interesting Brakhagian tricks on display here, the most startling of which is the speeding up of certain shots and also the etching of words into the film. A very lovely little short, and a definitive, personal statement about the man’s life and work. View here.
5 Anticipation of the Night (1958)
Bizarre, surreal and masterfully edited series of recurring images intended to replicate the feel and style of recalling distant, disconnected memories. I believe I read somewhere that Brakhage intended it to be a representation of what a human infant sees and remembers. Haunting and worth listening to with a backing soundtrack of your choice, or just complete silence. One of my favourite Brakhage works, and a lengthier one at forty minutes. But worth every second. Sadly no longer available online, I’ll add a link if I find one.
4 Window Water Baby Moving (1962)
This film, shot mostly by Brakhage in his own home, chronicles the long and stressful ordeal that was the birth of his first child, in graphic detail. We see powerful expressions of pain, joy, ecstasy and utter despair in the faces of both Brakhage and his wife as their baby girl is slowly brought into the world, and Brakhage’s purposefully unsteady, shaky cinematography adds a layer of menacing darkness to the film, as does the brilliant editing. The film apparently took Brakhage months to edit, and understandably so. The editing is so precise, so perfect. Each cut, and there are many of them, is perfectly timed so that we see the right image of the appropriate emotion for just the perfect amount of time. Just as The Act of Seeing… dealt with lifelessness and the coldness of death,Window Water Baby Moving brings to the screen vividly the pain and beauty of bringing a new life to this universe. View here.
3 The Machine of Eden (1970)
If Eden is Stan Brakhage’s garden of Earthly delights, then this film explores it with a love, a vigour, an intensity, a criticism, a wit, a will, an empathy, a beauty, and a genuine sense of magnificence that makes it a transcendent masterwork among the man’s many artistically auspicious experiments. A culmination of Stan’s most productive, prolific and profound period, the sixties (and a notable influence on Michael Snow’s avant-garde masterpiece La Region Centrale), The Machine of Eden displays in all its glory our tremendously fucked up world, mechanic in its operation yet magical in its serenity. View here.
2 Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
A 74-minute masterpiece in five parts (a lengthy, moody and unsettling prelude followed by four distinct, generally shorter chapters), Brakhage’s most famous and accomplished work is a glorious, insane fusion of all the many elements influencing him at the time, and that would continue to shape his career, from live action film to paint experiments to incredible fusions of colours with shapeless forms. One of the greatest avant-garde works of all time, and a very, very important film well worth watching. See it in its entirety here.
1 The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971)
I have no idea where to begin with The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, which is almost certainly the most visually disturbing film I have ever seen. At only 31 minutes, it consists wholly of footage of various autopsies, including incredibly graphic footage of real human corpses being disembowelled, gutted, embalmed, having organs removed, blood drained and various other sights which are incredibly difficult to stomach. The film’s soundtrack consists of complete silence. And so it ought to. It is a difficult film to judge. I do not hate it, nor do I love it, nor do I really feel any feelings about it except complete amazement and intrigue. I could not tear my eyes from the screen as the film was becoming more and more horrific and almost sadistically detailed. Brakhage’s camera is not shy. He uses a variety of strange close-ups, focusing on various body parts as they are toyed with, moved around, cut open and emptied. The editing becomes manic, almost crazed, the camera verging on becoming a rabid monster obsessed with the overwhelming colours and tones of death and mutilation. Brakhage never shies away for a moment, and yet some of the most poignant shots are not graphic ones. There’s one shot early on of the side of a woman’s face, from a distance, where we can see an eye open, staring lifelessly into space. Brakhage holds this shot for an uncomfortably long time. I shivered. Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to the film as “one of the most direct confrontations with death in cinema,” and I really could not agree more. With this experiment, Stan Brakhage has created the single most powerful film I never wish to see for the rest of my life. I will never view this movie again, because nothing has ever chilled me as deeply as it has in such a short time, its images frozen to the celluloid and burned into my memory. View here.
My Bloody Valentine have made modern alternative rock a much more exciting place, I think there’s no denying it. They aren’t one of my absolute favourite groups but I’ve listened to all three of their albums multiple times as well as many of the B-sides and tunes from their EPs, enough I think to compile this reasonably confident list of shoegaze showstoppers, namely the eleven finest the group have given us (I originally aimed for a top ten, but making the cut was too difficult, so there’s an extra choice thrown in for good luck).
11 In Another Way
Stabs of guitar break through a sinister atmosphere of soaring synths that would seem more at home in an eighties pop video. MBV have adapted for 2013, but they haven’t changed.
10 You Made Me Realize
Gloating that I’ve sat through a video of a 30-minute performance of this 3-minute song seems perfunctory compared to the experience of the people who sat and listened to the Holocaust live, many of whom are deaf as a result. Listening to the studio version of the song, one gets a sense of its raw noise and explosive furor but none of the soulcrushing noise-drone of the live performances at their most extreme.
9 I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)
Closing their first LP with a harsh “Wake me up” plea is almost humorous, considering how loud the follow-up to Isn’t Anything would be in comparison. Though all MBV albums maintain that key element of sleepiness, none dwell quite as easily in a state of constant hypnagogia as the ’88 record, and the edgy darkness which permeates its latter half culminates uneasily here.
8 New You
As easily as it could’ve been a hit, New You could’ve been MBV‘s weakest track, by delving all too dangerously into… what’s this? Accessibility? Well, I’ll be damned! New You is a sweet, upbeat transitional piece which brings to mind Smashing Pumpkins on LSD or Lush on… more LSD. It’s addictive. The song, that is.
7 Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)
The shortest song on this list, Soft As Snow opened Isn’t Anything with nervous promise and breathy, twisted backing vocals supporting Kevin Shields’ ode to a rosebud William Randolph Hearst would be envious of. As indulgent as the lyrics are, the track is an exciting opener and energetic in its carnal obsession.
6 Only Tomorrow
In its latter half, the best My Bloody Valentine track in 22 years descends into a slow-paced and controlled guitar frenzy of recurring riffs and hazy mists of melody that stop briefly for air at the end of each wondrous phrase and the result is a comedown from a buildup that is among the group’s finest. Insatiably listenable, it’s the m b v track I find myself returning to time and time again, if only for that latter half.
5 Only Shallow
I bet you were wondering where the Loveless tracks were. Well, lest I forget, I’ve included at wonderful five one of their most disorienting and translucent masterworks, an exercise in dragging, relentless riffs and airtight shoegaze production that, of course, isn’t sharp in this case, but as beautifully hazy as one could ask for from a genre-redefining album opener.
4 Lose My Breath
Returning momentarily to their somewhat underrated first album, Lose My Breath showcases Bilinda Butcher’s oooh-ooohs at their most audible and among their most emotive. It’s one of the easiest MBV songs to actually understand, and though its inarguably light on the heaviness, it’s still colourful and full of wondrous invitation.
When My Bloody Valentine were nothing but a name to me – and this wasn’t too long ago, I’ll admit – the first song of theirs I heard, discovered on an old mix-video my Dad made years ago, was Slow, a gritty, heavy, Shields-driven B-side about blowjobs that has no right to be one of their absolute best tracks. But it is, as infectious as it is inviting; and it makes me smile, smile, smile, smile.
2 To Here Knows When
The version I’ve included above this sentence is the only live video I’ve posted here; the rest are all the official studio versions. I’ve chosen the live-version of this Bilinda Butcher masterpiece over the more taut, constricted but equally masterful studio one, because to see it performed is to feel the emotion on a whole new level, expressed poignantly by Butcher through a series of ooohs and aaahs, some of the most powerful gibberish you’ll hear in any song, and one of the biggest highlights of an insanely great record.
I find it difficult to understand how calling out a number one selection on a list for being ‘the easy choice’ has any merit as a complaint. Sometimes is the easiest choice for the best MBV track because it, crucially, is the best MBV track by miles. Driven by a stunning distorted acoustic and Kevin Shields’ immensely powerful vocals, the music traverses its own realm of enlightening beauty to arrive on the other side shaken, bitter and worse for wear, a dying acoustic shrilly reprising once, then twice for a matter of seconds before disappearing completely. Sometimes is at the heart of Loveless, and remains the finest achievement of one of the most influential groups in modern music.
A great man talks about a great film.
“Filming the last hour of daylight that night and bouncing it to the computer next day, pairing it with “dlp 1.1,” it became an elegy, and over the next weeks and months, seeing everyone in New York falling into their own disintegration loops — fear, terror, very odd ways — it felt like it had to be an elegy of some kind.”