Stan Brakhage: Dog Star Man (1961 - 1964) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Stan Brakhage: Dog Star Man (1961 – 1964)

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If you would like to follow along with the series, Stan Brakhage's films are available in many ways.  Dog Star Man can be viewed here.

Dog Star Man - 1961 to 1964After watching Filth, I needed a reminder that film doesn't have to adhere to a set of strict conventions to have an emotional impact.  That movie, while competently put together, felt like another in a string of Guy Ritchie-inspired bits of across the pond gangster films with a lot of flair and energy but no through line to keep all the bits of style together.  Combine that with the endless parade of Marvel films coming out that are crushing styles together into a serviceable studio palette and the state of film this year seems grim.

Dog Star Man is short by the narrative standards of length set by recent films.  Where two hours is becoming the norm, Stan Brakhage's five-part experiment clocks in at a lean seventy-four minutes with some change to spare.  There's no sound, and an endless collage of frames painted by hand, scratched into, superimposed with one another, and bleeding from one moment to the next in a narrative that is simple to describe but more difficult to convey the experience of.

What I'm discovering is that the two shorts by Brakhage that I previously watched, Desistfilm and Wedlock House: An Intercourse, did not leave me prepared for the extremes of nonlinear, experimental, and outright brilliant film making that he is capable of.  All the advances in digital technology and 3D imaging that brings increasingly crisp images to the multiplex pale in comparison to what he is able to do with a dark strip of film, some paint, and footage of solar flares lovingly donated from a friend.

The opening concerns itself not with birth, but illumination.  My mind frequently jumped back to Ingmar Bergman's thoughts on the soul as a membranous red as Brakhage slowly introduces a red mist into the darkened opening.  There's no plot to speak of in typical narrative terms, but a violent war waged between this pulsing red and the increasing appearances of civilization in the background with its unnatural lights and harsh pavement.  The Bergman association grew stronger and eventually climaxed with the sudden appearance of the sun in non-polarized or half-glimpsed ways - at which point the film seemed to start over and center around a seemingly dying tree.

My experience watching this prelude was exhilarating as the removal of traditional narrative constraints forced me to interpret everything I was seeing without the normal cushion of symbols and dialogue that provide natural interpretation.  Yet, divorced from those crutches, a narrative still formed through Brakhage's juxtaposition of the pulsing organic and darkened pavements against one another.  This is a world that can't be really born because it is always here in its various shades and formations, sometimes harsh and sometimes not, presented through the increased layers of environmental conflict and solar bursts superimposed with each other, providing a conflict only when people become conscious of the division.

It reminded me of how we define experiences not by their similarities, but their differences, and Brakhage's initial scramble of membrane and construct only become distinct separates as we linger further on each section of the frame.  A scratch grows larger, eventually forming bright rings on the film, and finally exploding into a star.  So when a conflict eventually arises in the following acts, no matter how sparsely, I grew sad that my interpretative skills were not needed as much.  The man, and his dog,  try to chop down a tree under a glaring sun - a star.

I missed the earlier moments where the editing disappeared seamlessly into the background and the film provided an emotional totality I rarely experience.  There are still intriguing techniques on display once the man begins his journey, most notably a disorientingly speedy jaunt through snow accomplished by placing the camera in close proximity to the man's feet as constantly darting just slightly ahead as he walks.  But once the tightness of the emotional editing was broken I could not get into the visuals quite as much.  Dog Star Man eventually returned to the realm of suggestion with the remaining parts, but nothing hit me as much as the escalated conflict between membrane and pavement exploding into man.

But that brings up an interesting question of consumption, especially considering how Dog Star Man was created.  Brakhage filmed each part independently of one another over four years.  Given the way that they flow together, thanks in part to the removal of strong narrative overtones, do they really need to be watched in order?  My first, and likely last, experience with the novel Naked Lunch managed this with written literature - why not this film?  My own questions became reflected in the various images of the man trying to remove the tree but to no success.

My self-examination mirrored the man's frustration so perfectly that I had to add another layer of appreciation to Brakhage's handiwork.  This radical collage had me enraptured and then questioning my very approach to its existence.  But it doesn't leave a sense of existential weariness or deflation - much like the membranous red which is always present, the question about why I consume was always there, it just needed the right outlet to present itself once again.  I doubt I will share the man's exhaustion, but I understand the need to chop away at problems with film and consumption that I can do nothing about due to the fact that the medium exists in ways that don't make immediate sense and must be felt through - exactly like Brakhage's film.

This is a reminder that film is a journey of meaning constructed through travel and experience, with all the cluttered emotions and outside experiences shifting the landscape along the way.  I needed this reminder that film is not just a product for mass consumption, but something that can reach into a longing for interpretation and meaning that requires work.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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