Reviewer: Jonathan Poritsky
Rating (out of 5): *****
"What's the experiment?" is a simple question I find myself asking constantly when watching experimental cinema. The term "experimental" has as of late become tainted, misused, even destroyed. Most festivals around the world now feature a section for experimental films, usually shorts, but their definition is cloudy at best, and when it comes down to it, they are generally populated with films that simply won't fit anywhere else. Which is why we have a responsibility to constantly, vigorously demand an answer to the simple question: "What's the experiment?" With the films of Stan Brakhage, you never have to ask, but that doesn't mean the answer is any clearer.
After a modicum of success with the comprehensive, albeit disjointed, two disc set of Brakhage's works in 2003, Criterion is back with a second helping of the avant-garde pioneer's films with By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 2. The set is not only a brilliantly curated look at the career of a prolific filmmaker, but it is also a major milestone for the Criterion Collection itself. It is almost inherent in the nature of experimental cinema that it not be released on home video. More often than not, the experiment is finite, contained within a movie house or screening room, a public space or gallery. That is why Criterion's first crack at this, By Brakhage Vol. 1, felt more jarring, more a random assortment of his films, where the new set is carefully prepared, divided into 90 minute sessions. The coherency was probably aided by the team behind this set, which includes Brakhage's wife, Marilyn, as well as film historian Fred Camper.