Stan Brakhage

Desistfilm (1954 USA 7 mins)

Filmmaker: Stan Brakhage

A buzz over the handmade titles disintegrates into a screech of feedback and a piano that sounds like clanking metal. A mandolin player flops on an armchair, but this music is less Vivaldi than the intoxicated agonies of Sherlock Holmes or Roderick Usher. If the music evokes an atonal “Flight of the Bumblebee”, the camera takes on the character of a flying insect, flitting over the blur of party-goers, some talking a language we can’t hear, but most silent, staring and smoking. It is an opening of unbearable tension, compounded by the discontinuity of sound and image, and can only be released in a crazed bacchanalia. Distorted dance music galvanises these mummies into a carousel: the result is not freedom, but more claustrophobia.

Desistfilm is a prototype horror movie, shot through with the quicksilver sensibilities of Cocteau and Epstein – a group of young adults isolated in a house in the woods; a darkening of mood into paranoia and violence as a gang of sexually frustrated men hurl one of their number in a makeshift trampoline, as inarticulate voices howl on the soundtrack, then chase him through the twilight forest as he flees. Lighting effects create sneering horror faces, and the film ends with the central couple surrounded by sinister voyeurs. Objects take on a life of their own, liquefying bodies. Clothes are magically lost and regained. The mandolin becomes a stuttering machine gun; a tower of books collapses. A woman is caught in a spool of wool. An introvert plays occult games with matches.

Brakhage’s work often bears a significant relation to the horror genre – the exploration of heightened subjective vision and bodily decay; the deploying of fragmented “narrative” forms; the address to a knowledgeable clique. Many of the directors Brakhage admires – such as Méliès and Dreyer – have made striking, post-generic uses of horror, and Brakhage’s appreciation of them is often couched in mystico-shamanistic terms (1). The supernatural will recur in films like Cat’s Cradle (1959), The Dante Quartet (1987), The Chartres Series (1994) and The Dark Tower (1999), until it becomes indistinguishable from more spiritual expression.

Desistfilm is atypical Brakhage. It has a plot of sorts, and a soundtrack that creates meaning through interplay with the images, whereas most of the director’s works are silent, heightening visual experience by depriving the other senses. Its focus on a social gathering contrasts with the solipsism of his later works, which may have been the result of working on this film, as Brakhage later confessed to his frustration at having to rely on collaborators (2).

The avant-garde has often presumed not just to break dominant narrative forms, but the social norms embedded in them. Brakhage’s often taboo-breaking subject matter – love-making in Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959), birth in Water Window Baby Moving (1959), autopsy in The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) – brings his work close to exploitation cinema, a status also suggested by the limited, non-mainstream, even furtive conditions of his films’ screening. But the emphasis on teenage anomie in Desistfilm was also typical of a time that produced films like Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955, Richard Brooks). For an art dedicated to liberating the eye, discourse surrounding the experimental film is often elitist and prescriptive (3), so it might be fruitful to position Desistfilm and its representation of anti-social subjects such as drugs (4), sex and violence as a left-field forerunner of such Hollywood films as The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955), Baby Doll (Elia Kazan, 1956), Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray,1956) and Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956).

In Desistfilm, Brakhage dramatises the act of seeing – later films will show us what he sees. But the Brakhage aesthetic exists here in embryonic form: the attempt to project the subjective; the embracing of flawed vision (whether produced by drunkenness, lust and disgust, as here, or impairment resulting from a fall, as in Black Ice [1994]) as a means of reaching beyond what we are conventionally expected to see; an interest in rhythm, light and shapes (the carousel is a human form of the painted whirligigs characteristic of his mature work); and, in the jokey close-up of a sweatered bosom, a depiction of women as physical objects.


  1. See Stan Brakhage, The Brakhage Lectures: Georges Méliès, David Wark Griffith, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, The Goodlion, Chicago, 1972.
  2. See Brakhage’s remarks on Desistfilm on the Criterion DVD collection By Brakhage (2003).
  3. See, for example, Fred Camper’s written introduction to the Criterion set: “It’s especially important not to view Brakhage films in the way most are accustomed to screening videos.”
  4. Although Brakhage claims in By Brakhage that the revellers are merely smoking tobacco.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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