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Brakhage stirs the mind with 'Tortured Dust'

A major film by Stan Brakhage is always a major event, and the latest is no exception. Despite its tortured title, Tortured Dust is a work of beauty and feeling. It will have its world premiere tomorrow night at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York, and then be available for enterprising showplaces elsewhere.

For those not familiar with Brakhage, he is among the most personal and poetic of all filmmakers and has exerted a vast influence on independent cinema. Like nearly all his work, the new movie is silent, living entirely through the eyes of the viewer. It has no story, at least in the usual sense. Its images are dense and fast-flowing.

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Also typically, while its themes are rooted in philosophical issues, the outward content is downright homey, focusing on the artist's family life in his rural Colorado digs.

In treating those themes, ''Tortured Dust'' seems an ambivalent film. It can be interpreted as a yowl of frustration with the human condition, with the way aspirations get mired in the ruts of everyday life. More pointedly, it illustrates the artist's struggle to capture living, breathing emotions - the stuff of life - through malleable but nonliving materials.

That may sound heavy, but Brakhage followers won't be surprised to learn there's a happy ending. As often in his work, intimate relations with loved ones are a key to redemption. After working through a long cascade of images and ideas, the film finds joy and transcendence in the presence of its youngest characters, a couple of splendid young children - ''dust'' like other mortals, maybe, but charged with a freshness and a limitless potential that are the vital opposite of ''tortured.''

That's one reading of the film; other viewers will find other layers of meaning. Moreover, like most Brakhage works, ''Tortured Dust'' is a stimulating visual experience apart from its emotional and intellectual content. Lasting about 90 minutes and including four sections, it begins with a vivid portrait of two young men in the Brakhage household, catching their individual qualities as well as the lines of tension and affection that tie them to other family members.

The shots become more fragmented in the second portion, the rhythm speeds up, and Brakhage gingerly tests the cold waters of separation and loss by fading to black at the end of many key images. The lights continue going out in Part 3, and figures start appearing upside down, too, heightening the sense of disequilibrium.

By contrast, the final section begins with radiant bursts of pure color. They last until the end, punctuating the visions of youth and vigor that Brakhage weaves around the children who fill him (and the movie) with palpable delight.

Not all viewers find Brakhage's complex ''home movies'' rewarding enough to justify the work of studying and intepreting them. Even some who respect him can't share his fascination with the middle-class family life he often celebrates in his otherwise radical and exploratory work.

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I'm sure, for example, that certain feminist critics will hoot at the image of his wife cozily serving him at the kitchen table in ''Tortured Dust,'' and those critics will have a point. But I also appreciate the generosity of the self-portrait that's part of this film, in which Brakhage comes off as one part dedicated artist, another part eccentric grandpa prowling the house in an endless hunt for shots.

What's especially appealing about Brakhage is the way he searches for artistic and philosophical truths right under his nose, in the everyday terrain most of us take for granted. Of all the figures in ''Tortured Dust,'' the ones he truly identifies with are the kids, especially a baby girl whom he portrays with a care recalling his earlier film ''15 Song Traits.'' In fact, she's his alter ego on the screen.

Like her, he finds it can be a struggle to really see things, to decipher them, to figure out all they can mean. Like her, he knows there's more to experience than meets the eye, yet the eye can give the most wonderful clues.

And like her, he seems to be seeing the world for the first time - as if it were fresh and new, and all our learned responses hadn't yet put a crust on our perceptions. In his best work, he helps us begin to see that way again, too.

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