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Thursday, October 8, 2015
Stan Brakhage | Desistfilm and Wedlock House: An Intercourse
together and apart
by Douglas Messerli
Stan Brakhage (director) Desistfilm / 1954
Stan Brakhage (director) Wedlock House: An Intercourse / 1969
Perhaps I haven’t yet read enough commentary on the innovative filmmaker Stan Brakhage to evaluate my suspicions, but what I have read seems to generally take his every image far too seriously. I’m not suggesting that Brakhage was not a serious filmmaker—he devoted almost his entire life to exploring how to transform cinematic images in ways others had never imagined—but I am simply arguing that several of his works, particularly the earlier ones, display a great deal of humor, almost mocking the more intense experiments of his camera.
His Desistfilm of 1954 is a case in point. Fred Camper, writing in the liner notes for Criterion Films’ first volume of by Brakhage: an anthology, notes:
A key early work, the first time Brakhage’s camera
becomes subjective, Here the occasion isn’t inner visions
but the documenting of a drunken party. Aside from the
fact camera represents the point of view of a participant.
It’s important to note how isolated most of the figures are
from one another. Each is lost in a separate world,
which is consistent with the solipsism of some of the
activities, such as building a tower of books or picking
the lint from one’s belly button. Though much of
Brakhage’s later work avoids the dramatic/documentary
realms of this film, the sense of an individual alone
with himself remains key.
I know nothing about Fred Camper’s personal life, but I do suspect that he has not attended many drunken parties. I have attended far too many of them perhaps, although at a much later date than the one Brakhage documents; however I have never observed the drunken party-goers behaving quite in the manner he presents, where after a few moments (the entire film is only 6 minutes, 43 seconds long) of social behavior—a young man playing a small guitar, a man and woman flirting, and another guest, entering, but unsure whether or not he desires to stay—becoming so suddenly inebriated, most of them at the very same moment, that they rise and join in a brief circle dance, before pulling away from one another into slow-dancing couples and a series of self-infatuated singles: one gazing at his navel (he may or may not also be pulling lint from it); another, evidently a pyromaniac, lighting match after match; and a third building the “tower of books,” toppled, ironically, by a single sheet of paper.
How different is that comic work from what Brakhage even subtitles as “an intercourse.” Wedlock House: An Intercourse of 1969 actually concerns a couple, himself and his first wife Jane, beginning with the couple about to have sex, but soon after, distancing them as they seem to go about their daily lives. Yet the home they cohabit seems a bit like a house of horrors, with the figures rushing to doors and windows, pulling at the curtains in apparent despair Small halls suddenly become gauntlets of horror, lamplight glowing in the distance.