Talking Pictures

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Dog Star Man

Posted by keith1942 on May 4, 2013


This film was the centrepiece of the Tribute to Stan Brakhage at the 19th Bradford International Film Festival. The other five of his films screened ran for one and two minutes: this film ran for 78 minutes. Neil Young’s introduction was spot on when he stated that this film marked a change from a ‘lyrical style to an epic style’. Like the whole programme the film was screened in silence and on 16mm, so we saw Brakhage as he intended. The film is composed of five parts, constructed by Brakhage between 1961 and 1964. We saw all the discrete parts in sequence. Apparently the early screenings presented the separate parts individually and I did feel that at least a break between reels would have assisted viewers.

The opening part is a Prelude and runs for about 30 minutes. Part 1 is not quite as long: Parts 2 and 3 are shorter, though of about equal length. And Part 5 is the shortest, about 5 minutes. In P. Adams Sitney’s classic study of The American Avant-Garde 1943 – 2000 (Oxford University Press) there is a long section on this film. He quotes Brakhage himself on the film:

“The man climbs the mountain out of the winter and night into the dawn, up through spring and early morning to mid summer and high noon to where he chops down the tree.. There’s a fall – and the fall back to somewhere, mid-winter …”.

This gives an outline sense but Brakhage’s work is neither as simple nor as chronological as this suggests. Certainly the man, accompanied by a dog, is seen in recurring sequences struggling up a mountain: at times through snow and in darkness. But there are whole other sequences of seasonal variations, solar flares [this is found footage and the only credit in the film], sexual activity [explicit] and a newborn child. Much of this, like the baby, is partly autobiographical. Much of it is recurring references to art and symbolism: William Blake, Ezra Pound and the Vorticists are the most easy to identify.

The range of techniques bought to this is extremely varied. Most of Parts I to 4 involved superimpositions, often using different layers combined together. There are also scratching, painting, punched holes and inlaid materials on the celluloid. And the cameras uses most of the possible movements and angles, plus zooms, filters, distorting lenses and occasionally anamorphic lenses. Many of these techniques are familiar from Brakhage’s shorter films. And as with them much pleasure can be derived from the films’ distinctive aesthetic qualities. However with Dog Star Man it becomes clear that whilst this is not a narrative film Brakhage has invested the work with complex but [for him] important meanings, symbolism and metaphors.

Adam Sitney has several pages of comments, including attributing meanings rather different from those of Brakhage himself. I suppose this is fair comment, viewers responses are part of the developing meanings of films. However, my sense was that the film has a poetic rather than explicable set of meanings. And what struck me after the screening was that as the film is clearly autobiographical it could in one sense be an extended commentary on Brakhage’s own artistic endeavours. Certainly a Freudian approach to sexuality is central to his films: like Blake he is obviously concerned with the movement between innocence and experience: and the rise and fall of his career [in a rather esoteric field] parallels the sojourns of his protagonist.

In the end of the pleasures of Brakhage’s films are much closer to the art works of a group like the Vorticists, found in art galleries: or the poems of Blake and Pound, which we read in books. But his real achievement is to bring these into the darkened chamber of projected film, where the experience takes on a whole different dimension.

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