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.