Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)

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Multi-layered in both content and form, the panoply of holistic vision which Dog Star Man presents makes the magnum opus of this stage in Brakhage’s career a pretty clearly intentional candidate for the lyrical film’s equivalent of the Great American Novel. Wholly representative of the Brakhage family’s participation in the Back-to-the-Land movement, Dog Star Man seems to meditate on in the interconnectedness of all things, from – appropriately enough – dogs, to stars, to men. Gratifyingly, the technical brilliance of Dog Star Man‘s post-production is considerably more self-acknowledged than in, for instance,Window Water Baby Moving or The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, in which descriptions tend to include phrases such as, “completely unedited, except for ____ and ____ and ____,” thus the deftness with which juxtaposition becomes comparison, which in turn becomes abstraction carries weighty meaning in line with some of the more compelling aspects of New Age woo: namely, the similarity between such things as the appearance of galaxies and, appropriately, the human eye.

Dog Star Man ventures on a journey of sight that includes the spectacular cosmos and details, actions and events of the human anatomy, external and internal, beautiful and shocking. The miracle of birth and the flow of blood through capillaries share space with stars and the trees of the Colorado mountains. However, predictably, at the centre of it all does seem to be Brakhage himself, journeying through said trees, up said mountains, felling for firewood. As with any (proto-)hippie-esque piece of artwork, man’s interaction with nature is one of ambiguity, Brakhage himself describing the act as “man felling the tree of the world.” However, sensitive as Brakhage may on occasion consider himself, he is frankly a bit too much of a patriarchal caveman not to tip the balance in his favour: he with his axe and his dog, trudging through the snow, was always going to end up looking more majestic than ecocidal and why wouldn’t it? It’s his visual poetry, and I’m sure he left considerably less of a carbon footprint on this planet than the most of us.

The parenthetical sections Prelude and Part IV are, to my mind, simultaneously the film’s most kaleidoscopic and strongest points, with the middle sections focusing on his mountain-climbing and his baby the least engaging, simply for being the most standard bits of filmmaking. The direct engagement with the celluloid itself, most particularly through the method of scratching patterns into it, is a beautiful precursor to the painting films of his last 15 years. Dog Star Man is wonderful in its ability to express so much of Brakhage the man – both the poetic genius and the patriarchal jerk, and both somehow come across with flair and charm in this essential milestone of the American avant-garde.

 

*****

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