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Comments on the Criterion DVD Set, by Brakhage

by Fred Camper

1. How the DVDs Were Made

The Criterion 2-DVD set, by Brakhage, consisting of 26 Stan Brakhage films, was released on June 10, 2003. Aside from a few quibbles from a few people about a few films, the transfers have mostly garnered praise.

As a consultant on this project (in addition to writing the liner notes, I watched the transfers as they were happening and color-corrected a few films. I've since heard from one or two people that I should have color-corrected one or two more films, though most who have viewed the set have found no such problems, and Brakhage also released different types of prints of a single film in his lifetime, with different hues and different degrees of contrast.

The work began with new fine grains (for the black and white films) and interpositives (for the color films) struck by Western Cine (now CinemaLab, Inc.) from the internegatives Brakhage has been printing from for decades. At the time the new fine grains and interpositives were made Western Cine, which had been Brakhage's lab for a half-century, his entire filmmaking life, was still being run by its founder, John Newell, who unfortunately died only a few months before Brakhage; Brakhage died on March 9, 2003. The transfers were made at a high-end telecine facility, Nice Shoes, and the person who did them, Chris Ryan, had been a student of Ken Jacobs's at the State University of New York at Binghamton and knew Brakhage's work. The films were initially put into digital form at uncompressed HTDV level (D6), which may be one reason they look so good. As an aside, I was really impressed with the way HDTV looked on Nice Shoes's $50,000 Sony CRT monitor: significantly sharper than standard DVD, the HDTV versions rendered the delicate textures of these films quite faithfully. It was at this time that I realized that some of the problems I've had with video versions of films originate not with the cathode ray tube itself but with low resolution, and that video reproductions of films will be greatly improved when HDTV becomes standard. Of course the light and color of a monitor is still different from a film image projected on a screen, but the difference was a lot less than I would have expected.

The next step was the compression to and encoding onto DVDs, which was handled by Criterion. I know they put a great deal of extra work and extra care into this and found the job the most demanding they had ever faced. Criterion's technical director, Lee Kline, and their compressionist, David Phillips, were key here. As Kline wrote me, "We encoded and re-encoded over and over using different methods to get things to look the way they did. This was the most challenging material we've worked on."

Some reviewers have credited the fact that the films transferred so well mostly to me. This is certainly wrong. Criterion credits everyone, thanking Western Cine, Nice Shoes, and myself. Personally, I believe that the encoding of the films for DVD was key, and that the transfers look so good because of the Criterion's great expertise and care.

Some skeptics had predicted that the DVD format could not handle single framing at all. While not every single-frame passage is rendered perfectly, the results are surprisingly close to the films, almost indistinguishably close in most cases.


2. The DVD Compared to Film

As a long-time opponent of viewing films on video, I was pleasantly surprised to see how fine I thought the DVD looked on my home TV. Many of the differences that I think should be noted are still there: the light is different, the resolution isn't as high. But what I found is that I could get significant pleasure and "meaning" out of multiple viewings. One film, a work that I'd seen several times on film and liked a lot, suddenly seemed much greater on the DVD, revealed as one of Brakhage's greatest works. I don't think that's because the DVD reproduction is better than the film on film, but rather that my shift in opinion is an example of a phenomenon I have often observed with multiple film viewings: that you can see a film a few times and like it, but a year or more later on a subsequent viewing suddenly feel that you're only now really seeing and understanding the whole of it for the first time. That I could get this effect from the DVD shows that a significant portion of the life of these films does come through on the by Brakhage set.

Curiously, I find that some commercial feature films translate a bit less well. Perhaps one reason why a lot of what's great about Brakhage's films can be seen on the DVD might be that he relies very much on moment-to-moment rhythms, at least some of which are captured.

Anyway, noting that five Chicagoans who own prints of Brakhage films between us have about half the films on the DVD, and curious about how the DVD would look projected, I set up a private test screening, using most (but not all) of the prints owned locally. It was held on July 15 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I invited several dozen people; over a dozen, including all five collectors, attended. The announcement of the screening with the films screened is appended below, but the basic idea was to show the film versions and DVD versions back to back as much as possible, sometimes flipping the order.

The results were extremely interesting, and not quite what I had expected.

The Film Center has an expensive, DLP type (rotating mirrors) video projector that by its nature produces a relatively film-like light. Having already felt that the DVD looked really good on my home TV, I thought the DVD might look significantly worse under this more punishing big-screen test. It didn't.

I, and the others who were there, thought that some films transferred better than others. For most of us, with most of the films, the DVD version was always a bit less detailed than the original, a bit less finely textured, a little colder. Comparisons were made to the differences between music CDs and vinyl, with vinyl agreed to be "warmer." At least one other person found the DVD close enough to the films to make any differences "minor." And for most of us, for most of the films, it seemed that a viewer could get most of what was great about a film from the DVD version. I was, for example, watching for skin textures in Window Water Baby Moving and was surprised at how well the water droplets on Jane's belly came through on DVD.

A couple of the prints were not only worn (they had been rental prints that Brakhage gave away as gifts when he retired them) but very grimy and dark. For at least one of those, the DVD version looked much better. For prints in good shape, the film prints always looked a little better, but the difference was often less than I had expected.

I worked on the DVD because Brakhage had asked me to. I think he had the sense that if he hadn't asked me to, and the offer had come straight from Criterion, I might have turned it down, and so when he asked he put it in terms of my doing him a favor. I remain an opponent of using this or any DVD as a substitute for public screening of the films, or as a way for a professor to save rental money in the classroom. But one classroom use that sounds like a good idea to me, and that one film professor is already planning: for a class that includes a focus on Brakhage, is to have every student purchase the DVD, as a textbook. This will encourage multiple viewings by making them more convenient.

While almost everyone at the screening had films they thought transferred especially well and others they thought didn't look as good, these were often different for different viewers. Some thought that Window Water Baby Moving was one of the better transfers; one person thought the film didn't really survive, but she thought the handpainted films looked great, while others questioned two or so of those that involve very dense single framing. A collector who owns Commingled Containers thought it looked almost as good as the original; some others thought it was OK but not one of the finest transfers.

What all this suggests to me is that at least to some extent viewers are responding to individual preferences for the "look" of a particular film a feeling that a particular color in one shot didn't come through that well and are not responding to any systemic problems in the whole set.

Another interesting thing we noticed is that the Film Center's video projector was much brighter than their film projector. Is this a good or a bad thing? Usually older and cheaper video projectors are way too dim. At times this projector seemed to bring out more of the colors, such as in some of the handpainted films, producing a different set of colors than the film version provided. At other times it seemed a little too harsh. The projectionist says that dimming the light level doesn't necessarily produce more vibrant colors, though. I was reminded of one of Brakhage's objections to video: those little dials that allow you to change color and brightness. But by that logic he should also have objected to classical music recordings, where performances can vary vastly (never mind amplifiers' treble and bass and volume knobs), and of course he didn't. And, as I said, Brakhage often approved of and released prints that looked different from each other.

What all this told us is that there's no simple way to report on the comparison, or to project how the DVD will look in other situations. Even restricting oneself to film, prints and projection situations already vary enormously. The color temperature and brightness of film projector bulbs can also vary. Maybe there's a DLP projection set-up somewhere in which the light is bright but not quite as bright as our was, and in which the films will look even better on DVD. Undoubtedly there are low-quality projection situations where the films will look worse. One person who was at our screening had also attended a recent Brakhage screening of prints at which all of the films were projected slightly out of focus. Not surprisingly, he preferred the DVD transfers as we showed them to seeing film prints projected slightly out of focus.

All his life Brakhage wanted his films to be owned by individuals and seen in the home. He had a lifelong anti-institutional bias, and always thought his films were best seen in residences. In the 1960s he made a series of standard-8mm films, the Songs, the purchase of which was affordable, and some did buy some of them though not as many prints were purchased as one might have hoped. Brakhage also said that at least in his limited experience of it, he didn't much like the light of DVD. Unfortunately, he died before he could see these transfers; I think his mind would have been changed if he had seen them. In any case, when I spoke with him about the project, he did express the hope that it would allow his films to have life in people's homes. Because I've found that the films largely and for the most part do live on this DVD set, I think the Criterion by Brakhage in fact makes this possible. As I say in the liner notes, most viewers shouldn't try to just watch the films straight through. Much better: choose a few films and look at them a few times in a row, look at them again on several days, and let them grow on you, the way an art collector can with a painting.


3. The Future of Celluloid

One friend at the Chicago screening asked me if the quality of these transfers might cause me to change my longstanding policy as a critic of never writing on a film made to be shown on film from viewing only a video copy a policy that caused Thom Anderson to introduce me at the L. A. Filmforum in 1996 as "the last film critic in America." The answer to the question is no. If the filmmaker declares the video version as equal to the film version, then I can likely use it to write on, but most filmmakers who issue video versions do so for economic and/or accessibility reasons and consider them inferior. In those cases, I still think a genuine critical appraisal requires seeing light projected through celluloid.

The quality of the HDTV version of Brakhage does raise a question about the future, though. Will a time come when inexpensive and high-quality home projectors and HDTV discs result in a projected image that is fairly close to 16mm? I'm not such a purist that I reject 16mm prints of 35mm films as mere "reproductions," which is what I call videotapes and DVDs. If and when this quality leap occurs, it could be both a good and bad thing good because it will make reasonably decent versions of great films more accessible, bad because it could lead to the further decline in the showing of films on film.

As I've said before, I fear the time is fast approaching when the only establishments that will continue to show film on film will be facilities that have a lathe in the basement to machine new parts to keep their projectors running.


Articles About the Criterion DVD set, by Brakhage:

Reviews of and Comments on the Criterion DVD, by Brakhage, listed in approximate order of preference.
Brakhage's Adventures in Cinematic Perception, by Nathan Lee.
A director who painted on film, by David Sterritt.
Criterion Translates Fine-Art Film to DVD With 'by Brakhage' Collection, from DVD Report; this includes my own comments and an account of the set's making.
by Brakhage: an anthology, by Bryant Frazer
by Brakhage: an anthology, by Matt Langdon. A generally intelligent and sympathetic review, with production details.
Weirdo genius filmmaker Brakhage on DVD, by Mark Robison, Reno Gazette-Journal, July 3, 2003. An okay review, with one small error: the writer misheard "chance operations" in one of the Brakhage interviews as "chance opportunities."
BY BRAKHAGE: AN ANTHOLOGY, by Michael Jacobson. A generally intelligent review, though the references to Brakhage and Dada might be questioned.
Desist Film: By Brakhage- An Anthology, by William Crain.
Comments by Robert Harris, with too much credit given to me.
Review by Wade Major. Small correction: There are cinematic techniques ("tricks") not used in Dog Star Man which do show up in later Brakhage films, including various uses of the optical printer.
by brakhage: an anthology, by Mike Restaino. A reasonably sympathetic review from a critic who admits he's never been able to sit through all of Dog Star Man. One error: none of the films on by Brakhage are from Brakhage's 8mm work.
Review by Dave Jesteadt.
Unsigned review. One might quibble with a few points, especially the description of the couple in Wedlock House: An Intercourse as being "played by Brakhage and his wife at the time, Jane": this is not a fiction film; the couple are Brakhage and Jane, and not meant to be taken as actors playing roles.
Amazon.com's short in-house review, followed by customer comments.
Selected customer reviews.
By Brakhage: An Anthology: The Criterion Collection, by Gregory P. Dorr. The writer, almost totally unsympathetic to avant-garde film, has some idiotic comments, but still finds a few films to love.


[The emailed invitation as it was sent out is below]

This is to invite you and a guest to a private screening of Brakhage films on both film and DVD, tied to the recent release of Criterion's two-disk DVD (http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=184).

It turns out that several Chicagoans own prints of more than half of the films on the DVD. Without showing every last film owned by local collectors, what we're going to do is compare film prints to the DVD versions. The Film Center has a high quality, rotating-mirror affair known as a DLP projector to show video; it produces a relatively filmlike image, so this will be a fairly punishing test. Film will look better; the questions will be how much is lost in the video version and what are the differences.

Part of my motivation in organizing this is to see how good a job was done with the transfers and compression. Judging from the image on my TV, it looks like a very good job was done, and the early reviews of the transfers have all been favorable. As these particular films will likely be screened on DVD often in the future, I thought it would be good for as many people as possible to see the differences, but the screening also ought to be a good demonstration of film/DVD differences in general, especially since the imagery in a few of the films, such as "Window Water Baby Moving," is relatively "realistic," and thus closer to most film imagery than most of Brakhage's work is.

The screening is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, July 15, at 2:00 PM. "Tentatively" is necessary in case the Film Center has to schedule a press screening at the last minute. We should know this for sure by the end of the day Monday, and I will send out another email confirming or canceling on Monday evening. If we have to cancel, we have one backup time tentatively reserved: Wednesday, July 16, at 10:00 AM. It will be up to you to keep your invitee apprised of any changes. The screening should last about two and a half hours. I'm hoping some viewers can hang around for a brief discussion; I'd like to hear others' reactions, and plan to make an Internet posting on the transfers and the differences.

The films will be shown almost entirely in chronological order. I made one switch to produce what I think will make a more logical viewing sequence.

If you know more than one person who you would like to invite, please write me and let me invite them. I doubt it will happen, but I don't want the audience size to get out of control.

Of course it's understood that anyone you invite will agree that Brakhage, unlike Warhol, did NOT intend that for his silent films the audience will provide the sound track.

Fred Camper
__________________________________________________________________

The program:

On film:
Desistfilm (1954, black and white, sound, 7 minutes)

On tape:
Desistfilm (1954, black and white, sound 7 minutes)
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959, black and white, silent, 11 minutes)

On film:
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959, black and white, silent, 11 minutes)
Window Water Baby Moving (1959, color, silent, 12 minutes)

On tape:
Window Water Baby Moving (1959, color, silent, 12 minutes)
Mothlight (1963, color, silent, 3 minutes)

On film:
Mothlight (1963, color, silent, 3 minutes)
Dog Star Man: Part 2 (1963, color, silent, 6 minutes)

On tape:
Dog Star Man: Part 2 (1963, color, silent, 6 minutes)
Hell Spit Flexion [This is the second film of The Dante Quartet.] (1987, color, silent, 1 minute)

On film:
Hell Spit Flexion [This is the second film of The Dante Quartet.] (1987 color, silent, 1 minute)
Nightmusic (1996, color, silent, 1 minute)
Kindering (1987, color, sound, 3 minutes)
I....Dreaming (1988, color, sound, 7 minutes)

On tape:
Nightmusic (1996, color, silent, 1 minute)
Kindering (1987, color, sound, 3 minutes)
I....Dreaming (1988, color, sound, 7 minutes)
Study in Color and Black and White (1993, color, silent, 2 minutes)

On film:
Study in Color and Black and White (1993, color, silent, 2 minutes)
Black Ice (1994, color, silent, 2 minutes)

On tape:
Black Ice (1994, color, silent, 2 minutes)
Commingled Containers (1997, color, silent, 3 minutes)

On film:
Commingled Containers (1997, color, silent, 3 minutes)
Glaze of Cathexis (1990, color, silent, 3 minutes)

On tape:
Glaze of Cathexis (1990, color, silent, 3 minutes)
Lovesong (2001, color, silent, 11 minutes)

On film:
Lovesong (2001, color, silent, 11 minutes)


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