Tonight we are going to devote some time to a discussion of filmmaking of the type that I have been ignoring for this entire semester -- what is commonly called "experimental film" though that is a designation with which Stan Brakhage would strongly disagree.
We've seen, over the course of the semester, how a logline/story analysis can help frame the meaning of individual scenes and help you to figure out how to edit them. We've also seen that scenes analyses will change slightly depending on what type and style of film you are working on. Action scenes still require you to ask questions that will lead you to create a shape for the scene, though those questions may be different than those you ask for a dramatic character-based film and scene. Now, we are moving into territory in which filmmakers deliberately try and avoid the traditional forms of storytelling.
Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) was, arguably, one of the strongest forces in avant garde cinema of the 1960s. Brian Frye, in his biography of Brakhage from Senses of Cinema web site quotes Brakhage from his article "Metaphors of Vision":
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, and eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the 'beginning was the word.'
With this opening paragraph [Frye continues] to his seminal manifesto Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage called into being an entirely new kind of cinema, where none had existed previously. Suddenly, an epistemological question loomed where none had before: What is the nature of the relationship between the moving image and the world, and how might it be represented? Brakhage intended to film not the world itself, but the act of seeing the world. The vast majority of Brakhage's films are entirely silent. When you watch his films, you are asked to look, and look closely. Where his predecessors used metaphor as a means of relating images to one another, Brakhage's films were themselves expressions of a single, great metaphor: visual perception.
Tonight we are going to look at one of Brakhage's most "mainstream" films, I... DREAMING (1988). In it he uses music, something very rare in his films (he almost never used sound of any kind, virtually all of his films are completely silent). He also uses frames with some depth, rather than flat 2-D painted frames. An example of this depth is exterior scene on the left. Brakhage structures the film using contrasts (hmmm, the Rule of Threes, anyone??) -- in this case the "stability of domestic architecture" (to quote the commentary on the Criterion DVD "by Brakhage") against "the kids' free play (made more rapid and ephermeral through fast motion), and his own ponderous form, in which his body movemtns suggests weight and age."
In other words, there is a story here, though it may not look like one. Brakhage would, of course, react negatively to calling this analysis a story, but there does remain a reason for the film to exist and it is that is the logline of these films more than anything. In his commentaries on the Criterion DVD, Brakhage himself always talks about what his films mean. It is in those meanings that the films' loglines take shape. For, what is a logline except a floor plan for the movies that we, as filmmakers, want to make. Inherent in a good logline is not only the plot or story of the film, but also a sense of what makes the movie special to us.
Brakhage scholar Fred Camper wrote in 1966 about Brakhage and said this about Brakhage's filmmaking reality, in the program notes for the film The Art of Vision (the entire article may be viewed here):
For Brakhage, there is no distinction between perception and vision. When he photographs his wife, or child, or the mountain, this is merely a more fully developed way of seeing these objects than the way Brakhage perceives them in his everyday life. It is a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference. The film is so close to perception that the placement and organization of its objects (the editing itself) resembles an ordered, organized way of discovering through seeing. In Prelude (about the first 1-1/4 hours) the major objects in the universe are placed in a structured framework. But the framework does not constitute a dogmatic argument for certain set places and meanings to be ascribed to plant and animal life, or to the sun; the framework places these in a form similar to everyday perception. Brakhage cuts from one to another with the logic of a dream, violating spatial continuity or dramatic flow. The entire film, and most particularly Prelude, might be seen as Brakhage's organized perception of his dreams of the universe. His forms so closely resemble his feelings that the perception becomes vision.
Brakhage, himself, talks about I...DREAMING in his interview with Bruce Kawin that appears on the Criterion DVD collection of his work. In it, he talks about the choice to use the Stephen Foster music and its relationship to himself.
I…Dreaming is so wonderful because it takes a beautiful collage piece by Joel Hartling—the composer Joel Hartling—which is based on some of Stephen Foster’s most extraordinary and saddest pieces of music. And I take that piece of music, and I set that music to film. And it’s extremely autobiographical and shows me at one of the very worst times of my living, where I was barely surviving. It’s a true narrative dramatic psychodrama. But it has the wonder, the counterbalancing wonder of the great and beautiful sadness of Stephen Foster.
Brakhage, himself, acknowledges that his films are often difficult to watch. In an essay entitled "Before the Beginning Was The Word: Stan Brakhage's 'Untutored' Images", Paul Arthur gives some clues on the ways to watch these films.
We will also be looking at the title sequence from the movie SEVEN (1995), designed by Kyle Cooper. Though there is a very distinctive plot behind these titles (as is to be expected in a narrative film) the tone and style of the film clearly owe a huge debt to the work of Stan Brakhage. (You can click here to see a description of the sequence's effect on one viewer and here to see the sequence itself).
The sequence comes about four minutes into the film, after we have learned about our two main characters (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt), and seen some of their interaction with others. Then we cut to Freeman's character going to sleep. As he sleeps we cut to black and this title sequence begins. So... we have learned a number of things about the story and the people in it.
One interesting thing about seeing these two films back to back is the way in which mainstream movies continually borrow and absorb the new and expanded language of more experimental filmmaking, a filmic gentrification, if you will. It is important for us, as filmmakers, to continually keep ourselves immersed in new and different types of art. If we don't, we are forever doomed to repeat the messages, style and tone of thousands of films that came before us.
If there is time we will take a look at MK12's short film about Brazilian machismo MACHO BOX or the opening to RUN LOLA RUN.
At various times, while teaching the lesson on Experimental films, I've used different films as examples than the films I used tonight. I've also used the Eames' POWERS OF TEN, Stan Brakhage's seminal DOG STAR MAN and Mark Gustafson's MR. RESISTOR. Click here to see a discussion on those films.
The United States nuclear strategic missile submarine USS Alabama is assigned a patrol mission, to be available to launch its missiles in a preemptive strike if Radchenko attempts to fuel the missiles his men have captured. Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is the commanding officer of the sub, and one of the few commanders left in the Navy with any combat experience. He chooses as his new executive officer (XO) Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington), who has an extensive education in military history and tactics, but no combat experience.
During their initial days at sea, tensions between Ramsey and Hunter become apparent due to a clash of personalities: Hunter's more analytical, cautious approach towards his mission and the men, as opposed to Ramsey's more impulsive and intuitive approach. The Alabama eventually receives an Ermergency Action Message from the National Command Authority to launch its missiles on the Russian nuclear installation, based on satellite information that the Russians' missiles are being fueled. Before the Alabama can launch, a second message arrives but is cut off by the attack of a Russian attack submarine friendly to Radchenko. Too deep for communications, under attack and with a launch order, Captain Ramsey decides to proceed with the launch. Hunter refuses to concur as is procedurally required to launch, and instead tries to convince Ramsey to confirm the second message, which he believes is possibly a retraction of the launch order.
A shorter logline might go something like this: Under attack from a potentially dangerous Russian submarine, old-fashioned hawkish Captain Frank Ramsey wants to follow his submarine's first message from command to attack the Russians. His more analytical and cautious XO, Ron Hunter, wants to wait for the incomplete second message, which he feels might have countermanded the first order. The two leaders end up battling for the control of their submarine, in a face-off that could lead to nuclear destuction but, instead, when the second message turns out to vindicate Hunter, leads to a mutinous battle and court proceedings against both.
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Last Modified - December 1, 2013