Dog Star Man
DOG STAR MAN
Director: Stan Brakhage
Production: Color and black and white, 16mm; silent; running time: 75 minutes (24 f.p.s.); released 1964. The film is composed of five parts which appeared separately before being brought together in the complete Dog Star Man; the parts are: Prelude (26–1/2 minutes, 1961), Part 1 (31 minutes, 1962), Part 2 (6–1/2 minutes, 1963), Part 3 (8 minutes, 1964), and Part 4 (7 minutes, 1964). Distributors continue to make the sections available for rent individually or together as a single, complete work; released in complete form on video by Mystic Fire Video, 1987.
Producer, photography, and editing: Stan Brakhage, assisted by Jane Brakhage.
Cast: Stan Brakhage and Jane Brakhage
Clark, Dan, Brakhage, New York, 1966.
Brakhage, Stan, Metaphors on Vision, New York, 1976.
Sitney, P. Adams, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–1978, 2nd ed, New York, 1979.
James, David, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Princeton, New Jersey, 1989.
Wees, William C., Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film, Berkeley, California 1992.
McClure, Michael, "Dog Star Man: The First 16mm Epic," Film Culture (New York), no. 29, Summer 1963.
Wees, William C., "Visual Renewal in Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man," in Atropos (Montreal), vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1979.
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Widely recognized as one of the monuments of experimental/avant-garde/personal film, Dog Star Man is a compendium of unorthodox filmmaking techniques applied to a deceptively simple narrative: a man (played by Brakhage) carrying an axe and accompanied by a dog, struggles up a steep mountainside and chops down a dead tree. Originally, Brakhage has said, "I thought it would be a little, simple film on a woodsman, myself as the woodsman, the wood-gatherer," but "it ended up as . . . an exploration of the whole history of man. I mean, as I climb this hill the images suggest in many ways, metaphorically and in other ways, the history of man himself and his endeavor, and the meaning of whatever it is he does and makes." While that claim may sound excessively grand, it is in keeping with the formal and thematic complexity of the work, not to mention the unusually heavy demands it places on viewers' patience, visual literacy, and interpretive skills. If Dog Star Man is a "difficult" work, it nevertheless repays close study and repeated viewing.
Moving from complete darkness, to intermittent flares and flickers of light, and then to quick glimpses of seemingly unrelated images, Prelude, the first of the film's five parts, introduces the principal images and formal techniques that will recur as the film progresses. Most shots are brief and combined with other shots through superimposition and intricate, highly kinetic montage. Dynamic camera movement—usually hand-held—adds to the intense, compelling rhythm of the work. The surge and flow of light, color, texture, and rapidly changing images propel the film forward and engage the viewer in "an adventure of perception," as Brakhage has called it, but the significance of the images is, at first, hard to determine— immediate perceptual impact prevails over conceptual understanding. But through repetition and associations built up among groups of related images, graspable meanings and the rudiments of a narrative begin to emerge. Like the leitmotifs in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, key images—the axe-bearing woodsman, a full moon, a birth, a lactating breast, a naked woman, mountains and trees that appear to stretch and writhe, a weathered, grey, dead tree, to mention just a few—return numerous times but nearly always modified in some way: in color or texture (including being painted over or scratched on), in length and clarity, in combination with other images. The images thus accumulate multiple meanings—literal, metaphoric, symbolic—as the work progresses.
"The images," Jonas Mekas has suggested, "become like words: they come back again, in little bursts, and disappear, and come back again—like in sentences—creating visual and mental impressions, experiences." P. Adams Sitney finds the images related to "four basic visual themes," which he summarizes as, "(1) the four elements, air, earth, fire and water; (2) the cosmos represented in stock footage of the sun, the moon, and the stars; (3) Brakhage's household— himself, his dog and cat, his baby, and particularly his wife's nude body; and (4) artificial, yet purely filmic devices such as painting or scratching on film, distorting lenses, double exposure and clear leader." A fifth important theme involves microscopic footage of blood vessels, close-ups of a beating heart, and other images of viscera and bodily fluids.
Part 1 offers a change of pace from Prelude's "pyrotechnic, split-second montage with as much varied material as [Brakhage] could force into a half hour" (Sitney). Many of its shots are longer and there is only one layer of images. Its principal subject is the woodsman, with his axe and dog, working his way up a snowy mountainside, slipping and stumbling in a kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression (echoed in microscopic images of the advance and retreat of blood in a vein or artery at the end of Part 1). Part 2, in which two layers of images are superimposed, features extreme close-ups of a new-born child and a technique that is new to the film: bits of images inserted into holes punched in successive frames of the film to produce a kind of animated mosaic or collage-like effect suggesting the infant's initial, disjointed engagement with the world outside the womb. Among the superimposed images are more shots of the woodsman working his way upwards as Part 2 begins, and falling backwards as it ends.
Adding a third layer of superimposition, Brakhage devotes Part 3 to the erotic body. Bare flesh, breasts and buttocks, vagina and penis, caressing hands and undulating bodies meet, overlap, merge, dissolve, and metamorphose. Distinctions between male and female and markers of separate individualities become increasingly blurred, and near the end the camera "penetrates" the fleshy, erotic surface of the body to display a beating heart and other more ambiguous images connoting the body's interior fluids, tissues, cavities, and organs. Finally, within the density of four layers of superimposition, images of the woodsman chopping the dead tree dominate Part 4, until the final moments when, as at the beginning of Prelude, the screen returns, by way of abstract flashes of light, to total darkness.
As even a brief and inadequate summary of the complete Dog Star Man indicates, particular images and themes introduced in Prelude predominate in different parts of the film, but never to the complete exclusion of the others. The result is an organic unity between the parts and the whole, reflecting, in formal terms, the work's theme of the interrelatedness of all things—animal, vegetable and mineral; microcosmic and macrocosmic; male and female; natural and artificial; external and internal (dreams, desires, the imagination, and what Brakhage has called "closed-eye vision" and "patterns that move straight out from the inside of the mind through the optic nerves").
In an interview conducted while he was in the midst of editing Dog Star Man, Brakhage summed up this urge to bring everything together—to "bring forth children and films and inspire concerns with plants and rocks and all sights seen." While deeply personal in inspiration, Dog Star Man is also the preeminent example of an avantgarde film with epic scope and a hero of mythic proportions, comparable to other twentieth century, modernist classics like Ezra Pound's Cantos or James Joyce's Ulysses.
—William C. Wees