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Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Blink and you'll regret it

Love Songs

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Stan Brakhage
Running time: 64 minutes
Now showing

The late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick ("Blade Runner," "Minority Report," etc.) once had a strange experience, somewhere between mystical revelation and psychotic breakdown, that he recounted in thinly fictionalized terms in his novel "Radio Free Albemuth":

News photo
From "Coupling," a short film in the "Love Songs" collection by Stan Brakhage

"The colors are receding faster and faster as if achieving escape velocity, as if they are being sucked out of the universe itself . . . Violent phosphene activity . . . [an] exaggerated particolored square shimmered and altered at the direct center of my field of vision. Rapidly, at the terrific rate of permutation [called] flash-cutting, the frame of balanced, proportioned colors gave way to another. Within a few given seconds I had seen no less than 20 of them, each abstract, . . . dazzling." This went on for hours.

Dick supposed he was the target of a KGB telepathic experiment, beaming the entire contents of the Leningrad Museum's collection of Klee and Kandinsky into his head. Or, he thought, he had overdosed on the Vitamin C tablets he'd been taking, causing a vast drop in GABA fluids in his brain, setting off a flood of unique neural firing.

Dick never quite figured it out, but -- in an explanation the author would surely love -- perhaps he was having an experience of precognition, of seeing the collected late films of Stan Brakhage, films that weren't even made until after Dick's death in 1982.

Certainly, Brakhage's works live up to Dick's hallucinatory description. Imagine the works of Jackson Pollock, but alive, organic, squiggling across the canvas. Or imagine falling into the world depicted on the album cover of Pink Floyd's "Meddle," then swimming around in there, amid shape-shifting entities of pure energy.

Sounds fantastic? Well, it is. Brakhage has been at the forefront of American avant-garde film since the '50s, and he shows no signs of letting up. Brakhage has worked in a vast variety of styles, ranging from poetic observation of the real in "Hymn to Her" to "Mothlight," an experimental work in which he glued insect wings directly to film.

Since the late '80s or so, Brakhage has concentrated exclusively on such off-camera filmmaking, producing what he calls "hand-painted films," where he paints directly onto the celluloid. "Love Songs" is a collection of short films made between 1994 and 2001, generally in the two- to four-minute range, with one magnum opus, the 33-minute "Elementary Phrases," rounding out the collection.

The results tend to be similar in their speed and development, but infinitely varied in their texture, mood and intensity. "Earthen Aerie" shoots off into a pulsating green void, driven by a slow, pumping pulse. In "Beautiful Funerals," everything happens very fast, instantaneous explosions of color and movement: blue sheets of rain, white milky drops, diaphanous jellyfish helixes, pirouettes of viscous colored fluid. It's easy to imagine any frame of this adorning a vintage 4AD album cover.

"Love Songs" is both bold and delicate, with black tarry protozoa chasing their own tails amid realms of turquoise, ocher and sunset sky-bursts, with batiklike white overlays racing across the screen. The movements come to resemble vast flows of lava over igneous rock formations, followed by radical strobing effects that bring to mind William Burroughs and Brian Gysin's experiments with flickering light in their trance-inducing "dream-machine."

This is trance cinema: It gets to the point where you stop blinking so as not to miss a frame. The rhythmic intensity of the pulsating images lulls you into a deep theta-wave state, beyond the conscious mind.

Of course, it does so for people who are able to give themselves up to the experience. The idea of cinema as a verbally guided, story-based experience is something most cinemagoers are conditioned to expect, so no doubt many will avoid "Love Songs" as "too arty." And yet, if you approach Brakhage with the same mindset as you would, sa, the excellent Rene Magritte exhibition currently at Bunkamura's Le Museum, then you won't be disappointed.

To take another tack, Brakhage's "Concrescance" is easily as eye-popping as George Lucas' Coruscant in the latest "Star Wars," creating a sensation of soaring through distant galaxies full of clouds of fire and purple haze, with flaring rays of light falling like soft rain onto a coral sea.

With the advent of computer graphics, such abstract, "trippy" imagery has become commonplace, adorning the walls of every dance club. But Brakhage, with his low-tech but painstaking approach, blows away the very best of VJs. The necessarily random results of painting at this scale create endless variations and a complexity of depth and movement that CG's mathematical modeling rarely can rival.

Brakhage calls his works "visual music," and it's a fitting analogy: If a painting could dance, it would look like this. Brakhage keeps his films silent, so that viewers will be more attuned to the rhythms on the screen. For my second viewing, though, I plan to bring a Mini-Disc player and add my own soundtrack. (Sun Electric, John Coltrane and Srinivas, if you must know . . .)

Brakhage's work seeks to communicate the inexpressible, at times suggesting a dance of DNA, then the teeming, multidimensional worlds of DMT (though Brakhage has never associated his work with any sort of psychedelic scene). In an age when "art cinema" means Merchant/Ivory literary adaptations, Brakhage is still offering a more radical conception, a genre unto himself.

For those whose primary desire when the lights go down and the reel starts rolling is to see something they've never, ever seen before, well, here's your ticket.

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