Twin Peeks

04.23.12

Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988–98, still from a color video, 266 minutes. Greta Garbo.


THERE ARE STILL A FEW WEEKS to catch the current edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s “1980–Now.” Under the exhibition’s rubric, a rotating selection of the museum’s extensive contemporary art holdings is installed on the second floor. For the first time, the show places films whose historic context is not the museum/gallery system side by side with painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. One expects to see video monitors displaying Beth B’s The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight (1984) and Steve McQueen’s Deadpan (1997) in “1980–Now,” but to come upon a room devoted to the projection of the opening section of Jean-Luc Godard’s four-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988–98)—and to find the benches in that room nearly filled on several visits—is a surprise, and long overdue.

Placed next to the Godard installation is a wall card informing us that films by Stan Brakhage are projected daily at 3 PM in the Time Warner Screening Room, also on the second floor. It took me a few minutes to find the small, hand-lettered signs—simply BRAKHAGE, with an arrow beneath the name—posted along the corridor next to the cafeteria, and, judging from the tiny audiences at the four screenings I attended, not too many museumgoers walked the two hundred or so feet. Nevertheless, I count it as a major institutional breakthrough to have motion pictures from the Department of Film’s collection exhibited as if they were—and indeed they are—integral to the definition of contemporary art, rather than an addendum to be programmed in a world apart in the basement Titus theaters.

The Brakhage films—all of the artist’s 1980s work—look gloriously beautiful on the Time Warner screen. The 16-mm and 35-mm prints are immaculate and are being shown at the speeds Brakhage intended for each of them—either 18FPS or 24FPS for the silent films and the necessary 24FPS for the sound films. And yes, there are several sound works. Known as a maker of silent films—he believed that viewers relied on sound for meaning and emotional cues at the expense of becoming immersed in images—Brakhage nevertheless experimented intermittently with sound throughout his career. The largest sound work in the series, a multipart film (1987–88) based on the Faust legend and made in collaboration with composers Joel Haertling and Rick Corrigan, has its champions—Brakhage expert P. Adams Sitney among them—but I am not one, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to Brakhage novices for fear that its expressionist excesses and purple text would suggest that the avant-garde film emperor is just one nude dude. But even the dubious Faust films have eye-opening passages—specifically long landscape sequences (the Southwest, I believe) shot from a moving car. Similar images appear in Visions in Meditation (1989), one of the strongest of Brakhage’s ’80s films.

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Stan Brakhage, The Dante Quartet, 1987.

The mid-’80s were a notably dark period in Brakhage’s filmmaking. In Tortured Dust (1984) and Kindering (1987), the family life that was the source of energy and inspiration for his earlier masterworks is depicted as desiccated and grotesque. Against these, we have his dazzling handpainted films, such as The Dante Quartet (1987). For me, the two not-to-be-missed films in the series are the anomalous (for Brakhage) found-footage masterpiece Murder Psalm (1980) and the amorphous yet formally precise Unconscious London Strata (1981), which Brakhage described as “a reconstruction of the mind’s-eye at the borders of the unconscious.” But just show up at the Time Warner Screening Room any day of the week at 3 PM through May 14 no matter which of the films is playing. Brakhage has never been shown to such advantage before and I fear may not be ever again.

Brakhage is included in Godard’s idiosyncratic cinema history, although his place is not as prominent as Hitchcock’s or dozens of others’—anonymous photographers of war atrocities among them. Personal taste aside, Godard and Brakhage transformed the language of cinema more extensively and radically than any other filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century. That said, my taste privileges Godard—always has, always will. The obsessive, madly free-associative work that is Histoire(s) du Cinéma is now available on a DVD Region 1 box set from Olive Films, but I prefer seeing it projected large, as it is at MoMA. I suspect that most of the people on the benches came into the room to rest and were then mesmerized by the flow of images—the unimaginably beautiful and unspeakably horrific freed from their original narrative context and refigured within Godard’s gnomic voice-over commentary. Not merely meta, but the thing itself, a motion picture like no other.

Amy Taubin

Histoire(s) du Cinéma is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until the current cycle of “1980–Now” closes. The Brakhage series runs through May 14. Check the museum’s daily film schedule for details.