296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

“One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that what one dreams just before waking structures the following day. That dream material is gathered from the previous day, and therefore is a gathering of all previous days, ergo contains the structure of all history, of all Man… I wanted PRELUDE to be a created dream for the work that follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from dream; I stayed close to practical usage of dream material, in terms of learning and studying, for a while before editing. At this time I left strict myth considerations out of my study process as much as possible..”–Stan Brakhage speaking on Dog Star Man in “Metaphors on Vision

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage

PLOT: This silent non-narrative film is presented in four parts: a 20-minute “Prelude” introduces many of the visual motifs that will show up in later installments, followed by “Part One,” which focuses on a man  climbing a mountain with his dog. The man continues his climb in the seven-minute “Part Two,” but the picture now focuses on a baby boy, with abstract figures superimposed directly on the film. “Part Three” is a “sexual daydream” of a nude woman, with even more layered images, and “Part Four” is an even more abstract culmination of all that has come before.

Still from Dog Star Man (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage completed almost 400 films during his life (some of which run for less than a minute).
  • Dog Star Man is the final compilation of five short films Brakhage produced between 1961 and 1964. They are almost never screened separately, although the Prelude could stand alone.
  • While making Dog Star Man, Brakhage was unemployed and living with his wife and her parents in their Colorado cabin; to earn his keep, he chopped wood for the family.
  • Brakhage named his movie after a pulp novel he picked up as a boy, because he thought it a shame that such a great title would be forever wasted on a tawdry paperback.
  • The film is structured with increasing visual complexity. Brakhage shot one layer of film for part one, two for part 2 (and also for the prelude), three for part 3, and four for part 4. The layers of film were then superimposed on top of each other.
  • Brakhage later produced a four-and-a-half hour cut of this material called The Art of Vision, which rearranged every layer of film Brakhage shot for the project into every possible combination of superimpositions (within each part).
  • Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most of the amazing visual effects Brakhage achieves with his complex superimpositions fly by too quickly for us to consciously register—some can be seen for only a single frame or two. The most important repeated symbol in the film, however, may be the most mundane: the woodcutter struggling up the snowy mountain with his axe, stumbling and falling, while his dog happily bounds at his side.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Phosphenes on film; baby with snowflakes; sex and beating hearts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Meticulous and intentionally unentertaining, Dog Star Man is a masterwork of consciously constructed dream cinema.


Excerpt from Dog Star Man (Prelude)

COMMENTS: When ordinary people think about experimental film—-which they never do, but let’s explore the hypothetical for a moment—they typically imagine something like Dog Star Man: abstract, challenging, self-indulgent, tedious, and, begrudingly, beautiful. The vast majority of viewers will see it as visual gibberish, while a few will hail it as a masterpiece. Both may be right.

The Prelude begins with a red screen, suggesting the warm neutrality of the womb. Gradually, we see flickers, flashes, changes of light, and eventually a blurry street scene. The screen eventually explodes into a confusing montage of rapid-fire images: distorted faces, flames, the moon, sun flares, public hair, breasts, a pine forest on a snowy mountain side, a cabin, a beating heart, a dead tree, a suckling babe. These familiar images are presented in unfamiliar ways: in extreme close-ups, out-of-focus, overlapped, warped by odd lenses that might have been rescued from an optometrist’s trash bin. In addition, these natural images are often overlaid by scratches on the film emulsion and abstract blobs of color, as if projected through a Jackson Pollock painting. The clearer and more distinct the image, the less time Brakhage holds it. It’s perceptual chaos. You will see all of these images again in the subsequent parts of the movie, grouped more thematically, but still without rigorous logic.

Part I concerns a bearded man (Brakhage) climbing a mountain, and switches the rhythm so that the shots are held longer. Much of the visual sensibility of this 20-minute section is milky white, as if covered by mist or drifting snowfall. In addition to the climb there are inserts of the moon and sun, the beating heart (the woodsman’s?), flowing water, and cells seen in a microscope. Sometimes the camera focuses on the snowy ground, or on the branches of trees, as if we are looking from the woodcutter’s perspective. His canine companion accompanies him but is not part of his struggle; he bounds up the slope playfully without difficulty, pausing to wait for his master to catch up. The imagery here is mostly of nature, with manan element who’s both a part of nature and opposed to it. The woodcutter suggests an existential hero vainly struggling towards a Sisyphean goal, a pinnacle he never reaches, refusing to give up. There are no superimposed images in this segment, and most people find it to be the least interesting of the five parts; but things get more intense in a moment.

Part II neglects the climb and instead focuses on an image of a child, Brakhage’s newborn son. (It’s therefore something like Brakhage’s version of the home movie). The abstract images are again overlaid over this footage, including, charmingly, cutouts of snowflakes fluttering across the boy’s face (recalling the snowy climb). Perhaps we are meant to conclude that the climber’s thoughts have turned to his son as he continues his ascent. The Criterion Collection’s liner notes describe the third part as a “sexual daydream”: images of a nude woman (Brakhage’s wife Jane), interspersed with the heart (and other indistinct pulsing organs) to suggest carnality. There are also now two layers of superimpositions, resulting in an even more complicated visual field. I find it interesting that the structure reverses the order of childbirth and sex, although I’m not sure what to make of that other than that it stresses that the film is constructed through association, not cause-and-effect. Part IV becomes even more chaotic, with four strips of film projected simultaneously. Images from the previous parts recur. More conceptually complex ideas appear. For the first time we see a stained glass window, along with shots of the farm, the first real intrusions of civilization into the vision. The solar eruptions we saw featured in the prelude also arrive in earnest.  With orange flames of a hearth fire licking at the film and the speediest cutting since the prelude, this culmination suggests a visual apocalypse. The woodcutter finally raises his axe and begins chopping, just as the screen starts to flicker out.

Dog Star Man is an organic work: its abstract effects are all achieved through physical manipulation of the film stock or the camera lenses. Like the woodcutter’s bundle of sticks, the movie is itself a product of physical labor, of actually touching physical celluloid, something that could never have been created digitally. This fact in itself is probably a theme of Brakhage’s; he roots himself in the physical, the real, the rag and bone shop, and grows his abstractions from that soil. The material is basic but nothing is simple; elements of the film are interrelated, laid on top of each other, flowing back and forth. That includes both the conceptual and the technical parts of the work. Brakhage conceived of the work as a dream interacting with reality, which each reinforcing the other. The resulting work is highly personal, amazing in technique, and, although challenging and cryptic, worth seeing at least once if you’re serious about film as an art form.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a multilayered, self-consciously Joycean, naturally psychedelic epic..”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (Stan Brakhage obituary)

“Mythological, cosmological, and physiological, like much of Brakhage’s work during this period, it can be seen as one of the most ambitious lyrical films ever made—and also one of the most pretentious, for those who are inclined to view Brakhage’s macho poetics as a trifle self-regarding.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (retrospective)

“A man walks his dog – but this multi-layered and somewhat surreal film shows us what’s going on in his body as he does.”–David Parkinson, Empire Online

IMDB LINK: Dog Star Man (1964)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dog Star Man – Film (Movie) Plot and Review -Includes an essay on the film by William C. Wees for the Film Reference website

Northwest Film Forum :: Calendar :: Dog Star Man – Useful notes from a 2010 restoration screened at the Northwest Film Forum

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Film-Making – “Metaphors of Vision,” in which Brakhage discusses Dog Star Man at length, is out of print, but this collection should contain the same material

DVD INFO: Brakhage never had much presence on home video, but the Criterion Collection fixed that in 2003 with a DVD release of “By Brakhage: Anthology” (buy), which contains Dog Star Man in full along with twenty-five other films. It includes a few minutes of audio comments from Brakhage about the most significant films (including Dog Star Man, naturally). In 2010 Criterion released a second volume of the anthology with an additional thirty films and more interviews, tributes and audio recordings of him reflecting about his work. At the same time they compiled the two volumes and released them on Blu-ray (buy) to create the most complete collection of Brakhage material we’re ever likely to see.

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