The foundational figure of a certain Romantic tradition within experimental cinema, in which the lone artist’s camerawork (or hand-manipulation of celluloid) and the subsequent transmittal of light through film become metaphysical metaphors, Stan Brakhage stressed the “act of seeing” as the central concern of his prodigious career. The Mammals of Victoria and The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him are two long-form exempla of this ideal, completed in the final decade of his life. The middle films in the “Vancouver Island Quartet,” they are predominantly photographic, and thus depart from his latter-day signature methods of painting and scratching. (The first of the quartet, A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea, ran at Anthology in February.) In this tetrad, Brakhage attempts a poetic myth-biography of his second wife, Marilyn, through silent, visual explorations of the seashores near where she grew up.
Mammals imagines Marilyn’s teenage years, and is appropriately dominated by energetic flux and flow: rippling waters, wispy TV-monitor ghost distortions, jewel-like lens refractions, and sparse bursts of periwinkle-painted footage. Sometimes hazy-focused, at other times subtly emerging from near-total darkness, the ocean shore is transformed into an undulating abstract composition, an icy Rothko painted with camera and light. The God of Day envisions, in Brakhage’s words, “mid-age crisis.” Whereas the waters run clear in Mammals, here they are cluttered with organic flotsam, or churn violently in storms. Iconic figures—a black dog splashing, a pair of kayakers, a rainbow-colored kite—tease with opportunities for symbolism or narrative, which then disappear in the shifting cinematographic currents. These two seashore films work as self-reflective songs of experience—somber updates of Brakhage’s earlier, mystic songs of shaggy innocence. The topic may be Marilyn, but the subject remains Stan: a solitary man, contemplating life’s finitude against the vastness of the creation.