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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Stan Brakhage | Interim / Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection / The Extraordinary Child / The Way to Shadow Garden


four early films of stan brakage

by douglas messerli

Stan Brakhage (director) Interim / 1953; Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection / 1953; The Extraordinary Child / 1954; The Way to Shadow Garden / 1954

Brakhage’s first film from 1953, Interim might easily be sloughed off as a minor love story featuring a short series of on-screen smooches. But, in fact, this short work is a far deeper study in social and cultural strictures and class differences. 
      The obviously bored and confused boy (Walter Necomb) stands on a bridge in an industrial wasteland of a city. In the distance we can see a few skyscrapers, obviously suggesting the heart of the city, which he has, at least temporarily, left behind. Cars speed back and forth across the bridge as the youth looks over the barren landscape from far above, while one driver, perhaps distracted from the blond-haired youth, screeches to a momentary stop, waking the teenager up from the trance-like state of so many early experimental works, obviously influenced by Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (of 1950)—although expressed even earlier in Joseph Vogel’s 1947 short work, House of Cards. A bit confused by his possible endangerment, the young man determines to follow the many-leveled stairway attached to the bridge to the unknown world below.

     In this barren, but architecturally fascinating underworld, the young man wonders without having any apparent goal, simply following the kind of underground “hallway” the bridge’s support columns provide. Without him even knowing it, a young, plain girl (Janice Hubka) is waiting in this wasteland. Why she is there, and who she might be waiting for is inexplicable; but it is clear that in this lower world there are also nearby streets and homes, to which perhaps she belongs. Seeing the handsome young boy enter her world, she follows a parallel course to him, without his being able to note her presence. Yet when he comes to a barrier, holding any passersby from the railroad tracks, he suddenly notes her presence, and she quickly comes toward him. Within moments they have ducked under the barrier, but just as quickly return to the arched hallway, where they wander now together. Suddenly the industrial wasteland is slightly transformed into a kind of untamed natural world, as Brakhage shows us a small stream—by which the teenagers briefly stand—popular trees and other leaves and branches. As they enter this “natural” world, strangely existing simultaneous with the junk dropped there by the society above, a storm is brewing, and the rain begins its steady beat.
     At first the couple seem to have nowhere to go, and try to wait the storm beneath a tree. But they soon spot and barren shack into which they hurry as the rain grows more fearsome. Within the shack, they reach out to one another, briefly touching, and, finally, in a short and sudden frenzy intensely kissing. But soon after, as the storm passes, they break away from each other, the young man taking the lead in moving out of the darkened spot in which they momentarily took refuge, a kind of ramshackle home. The girl, a bit shaken, follows, but clearly realizes that the brief moment of passion between them—and anything it might offer her regarding a way out of the world in which she is entrapped—is over; and after she leads the young man, taking him once again to the barrier, under which, this time, she ducks, before being forced to waiting between tracks for the passing of a train. As she looks back with a wistful smile, the boy turns to leave, making his way gradually back to the stairway and returning to his obviously socially superior world.
     The relationship between them, quite obviously, has been doomed before it started. If the girl might have wished for something more, for the bored boy it was nothing but a moment, an “interim” in his life, which gives this early version of speed dating an almost tragic quality. The poor girl is doomed by the world in which we find her, a society apparently inferior to that in which the bridge leads to something or someone else.

     If Interim, in some respects presents itself a bit like a film of Italian neorealism, in his second film, also from 1953, Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection Brakhage gives us a preview of what Antonioni might have done if were an American. Just as in Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork, L'Avventura, a group of what appear to be fairly well-off teenagers are gathered together in a car on their way to an outing. Just outside a picturesque old mining town plant, however, their car breaks down, and one by one, the males pile out to inspect the engine, obviously none of them with the ability to fix it. One girl (Yvonne Fair) suggests to the others that they explore the plant, while one of their group heads off in the other direct to seek help.
     Almost the moment they begin to explore the several mining buildings, which have all lost their windows, one boy and girl (Eva Neuman and Walter Newcomb) break off from the others. The male, clearly disinterested in his companions, opens a book, and, sitting alone on a high beam above begins to read, the girl, clearly frightful of exploring, tentatively following him. Meanwhile the lead woman (Fair) goes off with two handsome boys, ready to investigate nearly every hallway and open door. 
     From the beginning, however, we sense a kind of tension between the two males: it may be that they both are interested in the girl, but we also suspect a possible homoerotic attraction between the two, a relationship the direct hints at my posing them in a single shot, one facing straight out at the camera, the other looking off into space. And at that very moment, the girl, having gone off to explore the space above them comes swinging into view between them, as if she has almost interrupted their intense stares. 
     Whether or not the tension between them is heterosexual competitiveness or a darker fear for their inner feelings, it is quite clear the tension between may, at any moment, turn to violence. When in her fearless exploring, the girl suddenly encounters a dizzying room wherein a huge waterwheel obvious sifted the ore from other ingredients, she screams out in terror, bringing all the others to her on the run. It has been a kind of false cry, but the possibility of danger clearly brings the male tension even closer to the surface, as the two begin to fight. The passive book reader, observing the male rivalry being performed, is clearly dismissive, and goes even further afield to seek out privacy, while the shyer girl meekly follows. The battling duo are within inches of killing one another, until the girl intrudes, and they back off, one walking away, the following behind almost as if he were attempting to apologize—or, just as possibly, to actually declare his love for the other. Indeed, we might suspect the latter, since the leader of the two, finally noting the other one following, fiercely turns upon him, this time with a ready-found weapon, and kills him. 
     The film ends there, in medias res, with no resolution. How and when the dead man is found, how the murderer is brought to justice, and how it effects the others of this holiday party doesn’t truly matter—although it does very much matter to Antonioni, and, indeed, is the essence of his study in tensions between his vacationing group. For Brakhage, however, the more interesting aspect of his work is how the sun, shining through the open windows of this former economically viable spot, reflect and play upon the inner conditions of its visitors. The tensions between them all are not only sexual, but, once again, social and economic.
     The Extraordinary Child of 1954 is a most unusual Brakhage work in that it is almost entirely comical and links the experimental director more to the works of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton—or even to the films of W. C. Fields—than to any forward-looking cinematic tradition.

     A young couple are married and nine months after are “blessed” with a baby. But even the M.D., who comes to join them is shocked by the result: the baby played by the adult Walter Newcomb is a shocking sight indeed. Yet the mother (Yvonne Fair) seems totally contended—that is until suddenly the crawling, walking, and, soon, cigar chomping baby goes missing right under the table from his poker-playing daddy and daddy’s card-cheating friend (Brakhage himself). Indeed throughout the entire short, the two males coexist in a macho paradise that isolates them from all the chaos—the loss of the child, the baby’s robbery of cigars, and the kid’s naughty shenanigans with the nearby wine bottle—going on about them. Mommy, in desperation, searches the house in melodramatic angst without being able to spot the babe  afoot. The only one who appears to truly perceive the absurdity of situation is the doctor, who, in horror, escapes the place only to have the camera reveal that the tyke as attached himself to the back of the doc’s automobile to make his own escape. One might almost compare this film’s crazy goings-on as a put down of the final scenes in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the baby standing in for Blanche DuBois.
     That same year, we observe, for the first time, Brakhage moving almost entirely away from narrative. In The Way to Shadow Garden, the situation is apparent as a young man (once again Walter Newcomb) is suffering, no need to explain why. Light, noise, inner fears, anything and everything is quite obviously torturing the young man, who after a cinematic representation of his sufferings (quite melodramatically portrayed with only a modicum of realism), suddenly gouges out his eyes in a scene that is quite reminiscent of the suffering figure of Cocteau’s Orpheus. In large this is another trance film, in which the character’s loss of sight gives Brakhage the opportunity to briefly experiment with images. Moments after the sufferer’s eyes begin to profusely bleed, the screen suddenly presents everything in negative image, which further removes us from narrative as the work ends in a imagistic series of patterns.

     What these works generally have in common is a recognition of enormous anxiety and angst among the young men and women of the 1950s, which compels them into often temporary and uncomfortable sexual and social relations. And these early films are important because they show the issues behind what would very soon become apparent in Brakhage’s work, that the resolution of these problems could only be found in art itself—an art free from storytelling and reportage, an art that might completely transform the everyday world with all its problems. If one truly wanted to see, he must perhaps blind himself to what he had been taught to see, discovering a whole new world in the process.

Los Angeles, July 4, 2015

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