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New collection does justice to Brakhage films

John DeFore
For some of his work, Brakhage painted on the film. On Blu-ray, the clarity of color is exemplary.

Avant-garde pioneer Stan Brakhage, possibly the most revered film artist ever to toil exclusively in the so-called experimental world, was a filmmaker in a more literal sense than his peers sometimes discarding his camera to paint directly on film, scratch it for effect, or make adhesive-backed celluloid substitutes to which he could attach debris.

He created thousands of hand-made, single-frame compositions, knowing they'd be brought to life by a projector bulb casting light through them.

He also photographed subjects the old-fashioned way, and some of his famous work contains startlingly graphic images of childbirth, sex and a human autopsy, all presented in pursuit of the deeper meanings of life.

Given his intimate manipulation of the medium, it's natural that Brakhage had serious misgivings about home-video presentations of his work. His acolytes have been even more adamant, sometimes going so far as to claim that a VHS release of one of his movies was worse than nothing at all. Still, he collaborated before his death in 2003 on a release with the Criterion Collection, trusting the company to make the best possible DVD version.

Now the company has gone a step further in that commitment, reissuing their original "By Brakhage" collection in a video format better than any that existed during the auteur's life — offering a high-resolution Blu-ray set combining both the original DVD's 26 shorts with 30 more titles never available on disc. (A standard DVD of those new shorts also is available.)

Purists can argue (with reason) that a TV can never truly replicate the sensory experience of film projection. The former manufactures images using light-up pixels, while the latter pushes light through a film print and casts flickering shadows on a screen. But most would probably agree that, ephemeral interplay of light and celluloid aside, Blu-ray offers a crispness and clarity of color that actually surpasses what one is likely to see in the educational or specialized venues that would screen Brakhage's work in its original form.

Also, digital versions allow us to study this work as we couldn't before. Scholars of painting have always had the ability, when seeing a canvas in the flesh, to step up close and examine the brushwork of any given square inch. But only the most privileged film buffs can take a canister of film and run it through an editing machine, examining the composition of each frame or running the movie slower than normal to analyze its rhythms.

Now any cinephile can do that in his or her living room, and this endlessly rewatchable material rewards that scrutiny.

Other recent DVDs offer short films that, though less famous, have been eagerly awaited by cinephiles.

The new Blu-ray edition of "Animation Express" (Image Entertainment) gathers examples of most of the animation techniques out there today, from hand-drawn cartoons and stop-motion model work to computer-generated graphics — including such celebrated works as "Madame Tutli-Putli" and the haunting "Ryan."

Two releases devoted to Hal Hartley, "Surviving Desire" and "Possible Films, Vol. 2" (Microcinema), present a filmmaker moving from long-form storytelling (on the first disc) to less accessible experiments (on the second) that, to be frank, will probably hold the interest of only Hartley's most loyal followers.

Meanwhile, McSweeney's continues its "Wholphin" series, an ongoing DVD magazine that is surely the most successful venture of its kind. The eleventh volume, which should be available at the end of this month, promises to include "Werner Herzog giving a voice to a lovelorn plastic bag," "a time-traveling Viking odyssey" and "the most humiliating breakup of all time." I can't wait.