Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stan Brakhage's "Scenes From Under Childhood"

I just had the privilege of seeing the first two films in this four-part series by filmmaker Stan Brakhage, an amazing filmmaker and much-missed friend. I'd seen them before, though I'd never seen the first film with sound. The last time I saw it, I'm sure Stan projected it silent (or my aural memory has failed me).

It is always difficult to "describe" a film like this. For those people reading this blog who might not have a clue who this "Stan" guy is (he is, in fact, the namesake of the South Park character, for those who watch the show) or what his films are about, I refer you to the above link and offer you this quote from his book "Metaphors on Vision:"

"Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an 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.'"

Much of this series is a chronicle of such an "adventure of perception." Though, Stan himself cautions that "One can never go back, even in imagination," so this is an interpretation through an adult's eyes. I guess the best way to describe these films to someone who has never seen a film quite like this would be to call it a non-narrative documentary of sorts. It pushes the limits of this boundary- this just gives you an idea of what these films are "like."

Film #1

Filming through objects and materials that distort the image, under/over-exposing the image, interweaving sections of shifting colors, and filming much footage at child's-eye level, Stan Brakhage does convey the sense of "feeling" things with the eyes for the very first time. It is often difficult for the viewer to think "that's a chair, that's a hand..." etc. Many shapes had no recognizable "name" to me. Eventually, I found that my mind kind of shut down in the verbal sense, much in the same way it would during meditation. Unlike meditation, however, my mind was still otherwise quite stimulated and active. A rare "nameable" scene in which a young girl is feeding a baby with a spoon sums up my general feelings for the film: someone is offering me this new visual treat and I am reaching out with all I have to taste it! It's very difficult to put words to the experience. Often, I was reminded of just "being" as a child- waking up in the morning with my pajamas on, crawling under the furniture and staring at the patterns in the woodwork, touching things, watching things, etc.

Much of this film was somewhat dark and had a reddish hue to it, which I found to be very comforting, much in the same way a child might find a dish of macaroni and cheese to be comforting. The film is far from bland in the "dull" sense (and so is a good dish of mac and cheese), my point is that it's a gentle, soothing color. It's one we often see with eyes shut (I say "one," falling in to the name trap mentioned in the "baby unaware 'Green'" passage above- we see many shades of red (the dominant color, but there are other colors) as the light penetrates our closed eyelids, it passes through the various blood vessels, capillaries, etc. and casts a general reddish hue onto our mind's eye). I would (tentatively) imagine that this might be true for a baby, as well, but who knows? I certainly don't remember!

Film #2

This film was much more "nameable," much more "describable." It seemed to be a continuation of the perception adventure. The images were fairly bright and clear containing a fairly broad spectrum of colors. Rather than crawling and moving about in constant wonder, most of the children seemed to have a direction to their play. They begin playing with dolls (dressing and moving the little humans and gaining an understanding for how people are supposed to move, look, etc.) and toys. Organized games begin to materialize. The children play on playground equipment, and one really nice sequence showed one of the children making "mountains of snow" out of sheets on a bed and then tramping around on the bed with snow boots- what a great early step (literally) into Art!

There was a scene in this film that really started me thinking:
One of the children is falling asleep in the back of the car. He keeps falling over, catching himself and distorting himself into uncomfortable positions. His sisters keep trying to move him into a more comfortable position, but the sleepy child insists on staying uncomfortable.

I've noticed that adults don't tend to do this very often. Usually (unless we've had too much to drink), we can nod off, wake up, and recognize that we are not in a position conducive to sleep. We then adjust our position and go back to sleep. I can think of a few exceptions that I have experienced recently. One involved the buzzing alarm clock. I always press the snooze button. One morning, I was dreaming. The alarm went off and I pushed the snooze button. I fell back into a dream. The alarm went off ten minutes later. In my dream, I recall wondering when the snooze period would end and I would wake up and stop this incessant noise! I thought that the alarm was IN my dream. I woke up very disoriented and confused. It took me a moment to "snap out of it."

Now I wonder (for that child who is violently nodding off and pushing away the sisters who are trying to help) if we have difficulty distinguishing between the dream world and the "real" world as children. I also wonder if babies need to sleep as much as they do because they are tired or because their bodies are so "new" or if they are simply making the transition from a purely dream-like reality (in the womb or beyond...who knows) to this one, the "real world." Just a thought...

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