23rd Psalm Branch

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February 6, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

There something paradoxical about the relationship between film criticism and the medium it criticizes. It all starts with the opposing nature of language and images; in short, language is the tool with which we try to capture the essence of things we see and feel. Yet even if language refers to these things, it’s another matter entirely to say that it “captures” those feelings, those things, or the feelings behind those things. If you wanted to get academic, you might call it the difference between ontology and semiotics or, perhaps less obscurely, the difference between extension and intension1. It’s telling that most film criticism (much like film itself, actually) draws so heavily on the semiotics and rhetoric of the critical methods that came before it, like those from literature and the visual arts. This phenomenon has certainly been noted by critics before, and I believe it was François Truffaut that vigorously called for a mode of film criticism that was modeled after the idiosyncrasies of film as a medium, rather than after mediums that were, essentially, antithetical to what made film unique.

But if ever there was a director that argued for such a revolution in film criticism through the nature of his work it was Stan Brakhage. Brakhage makes films that shatter all prior conceived models by which we can analyze and criticize films. People categorizing him as “experimental”, “avant-garde”, “poetic”, “challenging”, etc. is really just a handy way of avoiding classifying an artist who defies classification. Yet, the question remains: how DO we critically approach such an artist and his work? You might consider this review my attempt at tackling that question. I approached this as a challenge, provoked after a recent thread on a film forum called into question my “overly analytical” method of criticism and its (in)ability to deal with someone like Brakhage. My natural competitiveness couldn’t let this stand. I proceeded to focus my attention on one masterpiece Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch, available on Disc 1, Volume 2 of Criterion’s wonderful Brakhage Anthology. I’ve agonized over this review for several days, attempting to plot my plan of attack, carefully sculpting it paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word; maybe we’ll see just how viable this analytical criticism stuff is.

First, to provide some necessary background, this film is largely considered the centerpiece of Brakhage’s sprawling Song Cycle that began in 1964 and ended in 1969 comprising 30 “songs” that range from 3 minutes to 38½ minutes, concluding with Window Suite of Children’s Songs, and this 69 minute behemoth centerpiece, 23rd Psalm Branch, made in 1967 and 1968. Having not seen any of the other “songs” I really can’t comment on their relationship to this work. I can, however, comment on its relationship to Brakhage’s prodigious 60’s output. Brakhage began the ’60s with his film The Dead , which he oxymoronically said “saved his life”, and the film is an impressive summation of Brakhage’s experiments up to that point. A year later Brakhage would make Dog Star Man: Prelude, which was to become part of his most celebrated work. In ’63 Brakhage made Mothlight, which is perhaps his most notorious next to Dog Star Man. After finishing Parts Two through Three of Dog Star Man in ‘63 and ’64, Brakhage began his song cycle, and in 1965 he made his epic The Art of Vision, the 270 minute version of Dog Star Man.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that sets this film apart from its predecessors is its overt focus on the external world and the socio-cultural problems at the time. It’s often been said that this film was Brakhage’s reaction to the ongoing Vietnam War. If so, it’s a reaction only an artist as unique as Brakhage could conceive. The film opens with flashes of green rushing past the screen, intercut with grotesque newsreel images of human death and decay. These images strike like knives puncturing the screen, ironically more effective in their pulsating brevity than the original newsreels that trained on them like a train crash. Brakhage’s variations are extraordinary, ranging from contorted individual corpses to mass burials.

One major motif here is the interpolation of black screens between subsequent images. This gives the rapid-fire montage a blinking quality, like that fleeting moment between the sound of one Gatling gun round being fired and the next. Most filmmakers open their eyes to see the world, but Brakhage closed his eyes to see his, and the black screens are closer to his version of open-eyed visuals. This sequence crescendos with some of Brakhage’s trademark scratching on film, as well as one of the film’s many motifs, that of abstract, flat colors punctuating the images like monotone orchestral crashes in a thunderstorm.

The film’s second section turns a steadier eye directly on the horrors and machinations of war. Images of explosions, mammoth weaponry and destruction wash over the screen in relentless waves. Brakhage abates this by means of calming, floating, ethereal aerial footage, which begins being invaded by abstracted interruptions as if slipping into a dream. Brakhage’s famous painting on film briefly takes over before grounding him in a more human and earthly territory, with focuses on people and nature. Here, Brakhage is closer to the mystical, natural realm of Dog Star Man, but ends by returning to the sky on the wings of a plane.

The next section is introduced by more flat colored images, capped by one in blood red that signals its violent descent into ruin and chaos, symbolized by the crashing of a plane. This part is inundated with symbols; a glimpse of what looks like graffiti on city walls appear like cave paintings of violence. If so, it would seem that what we’ve been witness to is a regressive history of mankind’s violence to man. The oddest symbol comes with what looks like a glowing warrior medallion that flashes like lightning on screen, layered on top of what looks like a door trying to break open, as if the symbol is some kind of gatekeeper full of dread and warning.

The remarkable thing is that the previous four paragraphs only describe the first 10 minutes of the film; Brakhage is nothing if not dense, another roadblock that makes analyzing his films an extraordinary challenge. The consequence is that I’ll have to more lightly sketch out the rest of the film, touching on some of the important motifs, themes, styles and memorable moments along the way. By sheer necessity you can only remember Brakhage’s films by way of fleeting moments and images, more like memories of fading dreams than series of connected events. For a director so concerned with vision, it seems apropos that Brakhage would focus on lights so much, and lights indeed serve as another motif. They appear in a variety of ways; sometimes they are distant colored dots on the horizon, either originating from building windows, streetlamps, or other unknown sources. In one moment we get a close-up of an orange glowing light bulb that is superimposed with smaller lights that lead us into the next section, which includes cruising across a bridge with the sky bathed in red and buildings standing like hulking shadow monsters ahead.

One section is dominated by images of armies, massive crowds, transportation and notorious leaders like Hitler. A fascinating device from this part is how Brakhage composes his montage to opposing and concordant movement; in one series of frames, a carriage moving right which is juxtaposed with an army vehicle moving right, all this swift movement is contrasted with a car strained to move left. Later, German soldiers march right as British soldiers march left. The Nazi convoy moves right as an American president’s does as well. Soldiers march towards us as a plane flies towards us. One train leaves the station to the right while another pulls in to the left. Two abstract devices introduce the previous motif: one is that of regularly spaced dots that swell and shrink in size while moving across the frame in one direction as others move in the opposite, as if symbolically reducing the conflict down to a subatomic level of cells battling against others for supremacy. The other image is of a bubbling red mass against a black frame, which could easily be seen to symbolize the underlying hatred and evil in man that causes such suffering to begin with. It’s appropriate that Brakhage ends this section by rawly scratching “I can’t go on” on the emulsion of the film itself.

Brakhage’s technical proficiency has often been brought into question by people ill-equipped to comprehend the craftsmanship involved in his artistry, the same way some would’ve surely written off Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as “nothing but noise” at its premiere. Even a cursory analysis of 23rd Psalm Branch should put any notions of Brakhage’s inabilities to rest as it displays a virtuosic artisan whose craft is simply so complex and esoteric that it’s difficult to perceive. His rhythmic variations alone are enough a testament to his mastery. I’m convinced you could abstract what Brakhage does and set it to a time signature and metronome, using frames of film as the beats, and the patterns would emerge as pure music. Brakhage can mix one image and blank space in equal lengths, giving a 4/4 monophonic effect. If that’s the base line, then the real magic emerges when Brakhage intercuts multiple images, layering them on top of others like instruments in an orchestra, varying the rhythms from dance-like 3/4 times to jagged, polyphonic, polyrhythmic revolving meters set to hemidemisemiquavers in meters I could only guess at.

Brakhage often speaks of film more like music or poetry than classical filmmaking; if his editing is the musical element, then the compositions, images and textures are the poetry. Like the best poetry, Brakhage suggests infinitely more than what he directly states. Solid images occasionally surface, allowing us to grasp at something tangible, but these seem insignificant in the wake of the “bigger picture” of how they fit together with everything else. But Brakhage also realizes that sometimes the best moments can be taken in isolation as a kind of pure experience that evokes unnamed and unnamable feelings and emotions. One such “isolated” moment occurs when Brakhage casts a figure in a dark crimson robe in the shadows. As his camera creeps towards him, steadily at first, Brakhage returns to the horrific images of mortality, eventually speeding up the camera as if rushing headlong towards a blood-soaked grim reaper. In general, black and red seem to be the two leitmotif colors in the film, perhaps a bit obviously standing in for both blood (as a symbol of life and mortality), as well as death and the void.

Brakhage closes Part 1 of the film with two unique devices. The first involves splitting the film into four frames that allows him to more directly juxtapose various images. As if flash cutting single images wasn’t dense enough to process, these patterns approximate the effect of Bach’s intellectually demanding fugues. The other device is the polar opposite: a close-up of Brakhage’s hand writing in a diary. Here the realm of words-as-symbols and pure imagery meet, and even here it’s a disjunctive marriage. The words only vaguely connect to the film, perhaps an indirect reminder of the allusive literary title—a most famous work about finding peace amongst death.

The film’s second part is quite distinct from its first, perhaps primarily because it’s divided into several sections, including one devoted to Peter Kubelka’s Vienna and Brakhage’s Vienna, one to Freud, one to Nietszhe, one to East Berlin, and a Coda. Part 2 opens with a lovely prelude that returns to the light and sky motif by combining a mesmeric image of city nightlights (cars, streetlights, buildings) superimposed on images of skies as the lights rush by as if on a freeway. Overall, Part 2 is more meditative than 1, more impressionistic and humanistic. Images of war and destruction are almost gone, only intruding like invading ghosts of memory.

Kubelka’s Vienna primarily juxtaposes a flute (?) player lit by a glowing, hovering lamp with a couple and child as they walk the streets, intercut with a crosswalk sign that flashes between green and red. Brakhage’s Vienna contrasts even more tangible scenes of human life and interactions with shadowy, anthropomorphic undulations. Later, many of the war symbols recapitulate, most memorably the graffiti/cave drawings, but are redeemed by the iconography of crucifixes. Freud’s section is primarily filtered in green and full of evocative urban architecture spliced together. Here, the red motif returns in monotone flashes as a potent reminder of ever-lurking death. Nietzsche’s section is more abstract; images of gore, warplanes and other machines clash against Brakhage’s most varied and visceral film painting. East Berlin is a haunting, dark (but brief) ode to the city. The film closes with a coda, bringing us back to the sanctuary of nature, art and music before ending with a mysterious superimposition of children playing around a donkey with sparklers (an allusion to Bresson’s Balthazar perhaps?).

After writing 2200 words on a director whom I said defies language, have I really “captured” anything about this film? There is something about Brakhage that just demands to be experienced. It’s pure vision, pure existence, pure feeling; that feeling is crucial too, as no director is more deeply sensitive to the torrential emotions behind images in time, and whether you rage like Tarkovsky2, rationalize like Pauline Kael3, or sit in awe like myself, you have to react and, if you’re lucky, learn—or relearn—how to see. Your brain will struggle to process it at first, but if you stick with it, what was once cacophonous noise will turn to pure melody and harmony as sublime as the music of the spheres.

1 For a good introduction, see Yudkowsky’s article or Wikipedia on these opposing but complimentary concepts.

2 For an account of Brakhage’s encounter with Tarkovsky, read here.

3 The Pauline Kael/Stan Brakhage interview can be heard here.

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