The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, November 10, 2002
COLD CINEMA: I can't find much fault with Auto Focus, Paul Schrader's softcore biopic about the sex-mad TV star Bob Crane, except this: After a while -- like, say, 25 years -- Schrader's obsessions get a little ... repetitious. Sometimes this is literally true: There is a scene in Bringing Out the Dead, directed by Martin Scorsese from a Schrader script, that is almost identical to a scene in Schrader's earlier Light Sleeper. But usually it's true in a broader, duller sense. It's fine to spend a career exploring the psychic residue of your youthful Dutch Calvinist repression, but you shouldn't expect the results to connect with more than a small audience most of the time. There are filmmakers I really love, and there are filmmakers I somewhat coldly respect. Schrader falls into the second category.

So does
Stan Brakhage, though I like him enough that I drove to Washington today to watch two back-to-back programs of his films. Just as I never really appreciated Peter Greenaway's movies until I stopped thinking of him as a storyteller and started regarding him as a painter, I never really understood Brakhage until I stopped regarding him as a painter -- even though he sometimes eschews photography altogether and paints directly onto the celluloid -- and started thinking of him as a documentarian. Sometimes the connection is obvious: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, an unflinchingly graphic half-hour of autopsy footage, is clearly a documentary, though it eventually transcends that category, achieving a sort of snuff poetry. But even his purely abstract films are inspired by such familiar phenomena as the strange dance of light on the inside of one's eyelids. One of his life's obsessions is finding ways to present such universal yet rarely articulated visions on film. "Imagine an eye un-ruled by man-made laws of perspective," Brakhage wrote in a 1963 essay that is, conveniently, quoted on the cover of the afternoon's program notes: "an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure in perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'?"

Sometimes this works for me: I loved the dancing colors of Interpolations I–V, though I don't have the vocabulary to explain why. More often, I was diverted but not engaged: Abstract impressionism isn't usually my cup of tea, even when it's animated onscreen. Brakhage's photographed films also blow hot and cold for me: The Act of Seeing... is a difficult but rewarding experience, for example, while Self Song & Death Song simply mystified me until I read the program notes' explanation of what I was seeing. A film shouldn't require an external annotation to have its effect.


posted by Jesse 11:44 PM
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