I was in the cinema program at Binghamton University which is much more based in experimental film than narrative film. After all, the program was founded by Ken Jacobs, one of the most revered people in the genre. I rarely saw any of Jacobs' work but the one filmmaker who was the cornerstone of everything the program stood for was Stan Brakhage. Brakhage is the single most influential experimental filmmaker of the 20th century, at least in terms of creating a certain genre of experimental film, the lyrical film as defined by P. Adams Sitney in his book Visionary Film. For Sitney, lyrical film is film where the one behind the camera is the protagonist of said film. Everything seen through the camera is a first person viewpoint of the events as they are seen by the protagonist. Lyrical film is also defined by the constant movement of the camera as well as constant movement of images. Brakhage fits this description but there's more to his works than that. He has an inherent romanticism about him that flows through his work, especially his earlier work, that give his films a personality that keeps them from being didactic and sterile. Only a portion of his vast output is in this Criterion set, and sadly there is no Anticipation of the Night (1962), which I feel is his most accomplished work.
There are two phases to Brakhage's career: his earlier, more lyrical works and his later, non-lyrical works, which are almost exclusively him painting directly on film. I'm not going to cover anything about those mostly because I feel that they have more to do with modern art than film. A big discussion can be brought up about what exactly these film are and how they operate in the filmic world and all but frankly, I don't find them nearly as interesting as the image film (for lack of a better term). All the Brakhage film I'd seen at Binghamton were these, and all of them are somewhat similar in structure. There are a lot of quick movements, superimposition, and contrast of a variety of images. The standout piece on the collection is Window Water Baby Moving (1962), which graphically depicts childbirth. Brakhage takes the birth footage and cuts in shots of water, light, and the body to create something that comes out that's much prettier than one would expect. I had seen this a couple of years before and had a hard time getting past the childbirth footage but seeing it again, the meticulous nature of the cuts creates a very good film. Cat's Cradle (1959) is similar in structure and more obtuse, dealing more with sexual tension. Mothlight (1963) is one of Brakhage's most memorable pieces in that it consists entirely of moth wings and parts glued to film and projected. It's an awe-inspiring film in regards to its labor and effort put in but it just doesn't quite grab me as much as the lyrical work. Of all Brakhage's later works, only Comingled Containers (1997) does anything to intrigue me. It forsakes paint for water and the contrast of aquatic imagery harkens back to the lyrical films in a way that not much work of that time does.
The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) is the closest to an actual documentary Brakhage ever gets. It is footage entirely of autopsies and I actually didn't have as much of a problem with this as when I saw Window Water Baby Moving for the first time. It's almost a linear film in its progression and with much more static shots and edits, it doesn't feel quite like typical Brakhage.
Brakhage's self-described epic, Dog Star Man (1964) is his crowning achievement and one of the best experimental films ever made. That being said, even for me, it is an extremely difficult film to get through. Just because a film is difficult doesn't mean that it's not great or there aren't redeeming qualities about it. Shot in five parts, a prelude and four acts, it's a romantic observation of man, his dreams, and his interaction with the world. It's really difficult to try and boil down all the ideas in it to a paragraph or so but it's really about a man's search for truth and beauty in the world around him. It's Brakhage's most aesthetically accomplished work, with layers upon layers of superimpositions and images. It can become such an overload of imagery that it becomes hard to really focus on certain aspects for too long, especially towards the end of the Prelude and Act I. Even though, its achievement of filmmaking artistry is so impressive that the construction of the film is the center for me. Along with Scorpio Rising and Wavelength, Dog Star Man is one of the experimental films that define the genre for me. I know this kind of work isn't for everyone but for anyone with an interest in experimental film, Brakhage's work is not to be missed.