Films I Love #50: Cat's Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Stan Brakhage's prolific and esoteric career as an avant-garde filmmaker is so packed with masterful works of art that it's difficult to pick a single film to represent him. The six-minute Cat's Cradle is only one of his great shorts, but it is perhaps the densest and most compact expression of what makes Brakhage's work so profound — and so profoundly moving. The film is an evocative montage of a single morning, comprised of repeating images shot in Brakhage's home: wallpaper, bedsheets, his cat, his wife Jane, himself, some friends, lamps, vases. Each image is onscreen for only seconds at a time, and yet each one has a potent sensual impact created by Brakhage's intuitive handling of light and color, and his feel for the frantic pace of his visual streams. The film is dominated by sensual reds and oranges, by images of golden light playing across a bed or a foot. Brakhage's camera dips in for intimate, hazy closeups of his wife or his cat, paying equal attention to the folds in Jane's clothes, the shadows etched into her face, or the wiry strands of whiskers projecting from the cat's cheeks.

The film is both visceral and meditative. Its rapid montage ensures that no single image ever lasts for very long; each precise yet casual framing is there and then gone again before it has fully registered. And yet the cumulative mood of the film is languid rather than frenetic, despite the pace of the editing. It creates a vivid and powerfully felt impression of a lazy morning, of lovers lounging around the house, enjoying one another's company, doing routine chores or doing nothing. The repetition of images enhances this impression: the same shots of Brakhage and Jane recur again and again, reinforcing the languor of this morning. This is a deeply affecting film, an ode to domesticity. It is sensual without being explicitly sexual; its pleasures, as in many of Brakhage's best films, are the pleasures of the world, the pleasures especially of vision and sensation.