Stan Brakhage: 23rd Psalm Branch

It’s no accident that a book’s design should echo that of a door. Open it, and the rooms inside can be as mysterious, spacious and memorable as those of any building. Every turn of the page is another door, one room leading into another like one of those corridors you might find yourself losing your way in while dreaming. The paperback pictured above was certainly like that: I first picked up Sheldon Renan’s The Underground Film on a shelf at Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth at some point in my mid teens, paid something like 75p for it, and am still wandering its pages discovering films whose existence seemed impossible until I read about them there.

Ever since buying that first copy, I’ve been trying to see the films the book catalogues, and while some are now very familiar (some have made their way onto DVD, many more are visible on Youtube and on sites like Ubuweb) others remain more elusive. Tonight’s screening of 23rd Psalm Branch  by Stan Brakhage in The Space at Nottingham Contemporary was the first chance I’ve had to make the acquaintance of a work that – even when Renan was writing in 1967 – was considered something of a masterpiece in an essential oeuvre. Since Brakhage would go on making films into the 1990s, Renan’s assessment came barely a decade into the director’s career.

Better still, the film would be shown on a 16mm transfer from its original 8mm reels, so the signature emphasis on film as a physical material that runs through all of Brakhage’s work would be evident tonight in a way that a screening from DVD might not permit. One thing that Brakhage is noted for is his tendency to use film in ways that stand at odds with everything we’ve been conditioned to expect: no soundtrack (for the most part), no characters, dialogue, stories or drama. Not even the routine expectations of frames staying in focus, or images being held long enough to take in at a glance are respected here.

Instead, he manipulates found footage and blank reels by varnishing moth wings, lichens and mould onto strips of film, or painting, inking and scratching directly into the individual cells of super 8 or 16mm. Coming to Brakhage from even the more inventive shores of TV and conventional cinema is akin to running into Jackson Pollock after having seen nothing but Norman Rockwell, or finding yourself confronted with Ezra Pound’s Cantos immediately after finishing A Child’s Garden of Verse. The effect is on one level ‘difficult’ – these films will never play at your local multiplex or give the likes of James Cameron any cause for concern (more’s the pity) – but also very direct and, if you’re prepared to go with their flow, surprisingly accessible.

23rd Psalm Branch, for example,  is direct to the point of bluntness. It’s Brakhage’s response to the (then still escalating) Vietnam war, and draws on a childhood spent in the atmosphere of the second world war (he was ten years old in 1943). That earlier conflict supplies much of the imagery in the opening section as footage from concentration camps, dead soldiers and civilians, devastated buildings and explosions flash in and out between shots of rural America blurred in a car window, or views of cities through clouds filmed from aircraft. Clouds of debris and the spray of a stormy sea assaulting breakers all seem to merge into one another. Even the weather or close-ups of stones on a beach seem threatened by an all engulfing wave of violence.

It’s literally uncomfortable to watch. Not only are the images disturbing, insofar as they can be easily read at all, they are presented in a fragmented way: strobing across the screen as frames alternate between blank film and image, or layered into hand-made moving paintings, scratched and handwritten titles and a general destabilisation of the appearance of the film itself. As things progress (or more precisely, repeat, change, contrast, circle and echo as endless variations on a theme) with neither music, natural sound nor voiceover to offer an anchor, the silent detonations, deaths and visual manipulations take on a hypnotic effect while the sound of the projector (the only sound in the auditorium) emphasises the material nature of the film itself.

The horrors accumulate, but in a pattern that grounds them in political causes: we begin to catch glimpses of Nuremberg rallies or Mussolini addressing crowds; we watch armies marching in formation down occupied streets cut with images of priests walking in similar formations down the aisles of churches. At one point, an aerial view of a Nazi rally doubles as a crucifix, which in turn begins a new cycle of imagery, as words from the Biblical 23rd Psalm (“…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”) begin to appear on screen. The effect is as though a sermon has been intercut with a proto-psychedelic lightshow.

This move from despair to a partial redemption continues as images of rural America become more frequent: we glimpse trees and a nude woman on a beach, scenes of Brakhage’s own family life. These more positive images accumulate between the still jerkily flickering and eerily silent war footage: a counterweight to the horrors, a vision of peaceful existence to contrast with the destruction elsewhere. We see the neon lights of cities, a jazz musician blowing silently into a clarinet, children playing naked in a doorway outside a shack, as though captured in a kind of ordinary Eden before the Fall (as an aside, when writing in 1967, Renan’s book notes that “since 1964…Brakhage has lived with his family in a ghost town nine thousand feet high in the Colorado mountains”).

This redemptive quality is one reason why the film’s violent images don’t render the material impossible to watch, and 23rd Psalm Branch evades the charge of being no more than anti-war propaganda  by going so far beyond that limitation: there’s a deeper folk memory and yearning being evoked, a sense of a Freudian opposition between Eros and Thanatos. The treatment of Brakhage’s film-stock underscores the hand-made quality of the piece, and places an emphasis on the film as material, adding a layer of abstraction and significantly complicating the total effect. This is as much a film about the unique potential of film as a medium as it is a statement about violence.

It’s also suggestive that the redemptive images towards which the film moves (and with which it ends) might themselves contain hints of latent violence: a yellow lampshade on the ceiling of a room visually rhymes with the dome of a rising mushroom cloud and those sparklers that Brakhage’s children wave in the air while dancing around a white horse (an image that appears celebratory and pagan in some unspecified way) serve a dual function in a poetic sense. They mark an end to the cycle of violence (as to the film itself) while transparently reminding us of the bodies, flames and explosions with which the cycle began.

These redemptive closing images return us to the cycle’s beginnings, albeit wth the potential for change emphatically noted: the fireworks visually echo the explosions of war, but are yet to become destructive. The effect may be more poetic and painterly than conventionally cinematic, but the fact that a film like 23rd Psalm Branch  throws the expectations we drag with us into our seats at the cinema for a loop is more an exposure of the limitations we have put on film as a medium than any particular problem of Brakhage’s. Considered in the same way as spending 45 minutes in front of a painting like Jackson Pollock’s Convergence or Jay deFeo’s The Rose, or as equivalent to an immersion in the fractured layers of The Cantos or Howl, it’s a more familiar experience than might at first be thought.


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