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.

     The camera, at times blurred, tipples around the edges of these zombie-like beings. The young man at the doorway evidently likes what he sees and joins in the festivities, two young men, soon after, chasing a third out of the house and reappearing in the doorway and a tiered layer of three heads, with the camera in chase. 
     If Jack Smith’s 1963 Flaming Creatures at least approximates a drunken sexual orgy, Brakhage’s drunken party-goers are not so much isolated figures as maniacal ones; they are, after all, performing for one another and, obviously, for the man behind the machine that captures their activities. Desistfilm (the title presumably warning its celebrants to “cease and desist”—as if the local police have previously written these individuals to stop their wild behavior) presents its drunken brawl as a kind of joke, as if the director was satirizing the effects of alcohol (and I might add, today, of heavy, heavy smoking). And, in that respect, it does seem to be a sort of precursor of Flaming Creatures, a comic reenactment of what outsiders perceive as the perverse anti-social pleasures of alcohol and sex.  

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.

     Certainly there are moments of domestic tranquility. The couple drinks coffee, even smiling, on occasion, at one another. At several points they return to their love-making. But the “intercourse” of this film, both sexual and conversational, seems always to be interrupted as they, gloweringly, move through the same space. At moments, in fact, the house of “wedlock” seems more like a house of horrors, a world into which opposing figures have been locked up and forced to fight it out.

      Neither strikes one another, and we witness no literal violence or abuse. And, again from time to time, we perceive this couple as merely going about their daily tasks. Yet Brakhage’s intense manipulation of light and space continue to suggest the genre of the horror tale rather than a story of domestic tranquility. If the seemingly isolated figures of Desistfilm actually seem quite socially aware, these two figures in “intercourse,” appear to be world apart.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2015

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