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60 Years of Dog Star Man

Francisco Rojas  •    26.05.2024


Barely three years had passed in Stan Brakhage’s life between the exhibition of Anticipation of the Night and the completion of Prelude: Dog Star Man, yet his life was in a certain way, especially on an emotional level, completely different from the life he had known when he closed Anticipation of the Night with a shot of his own hanging, through his silhouette. This portrayed deathwish which by now had indeed proven to be symbolic, did bring a transfiguration, a new life; he was a now married man with three children and the obligation to support them, so a job, or lack thereof was an enormous cloud over his head. Brakhage had been thrown into -or rather had thrown himself into- a traditional nuclear family life, which not only became a source for disappointment for some of his colleagues, peers and friends (a filmmaker turning into a paterfamilias was a very anti-artistic concept, at least for them), but also predictably triggered a series of new conflicts in his mind. The mere fact of having to be a present biological father was hard to grasp for someone who had been adopted at 14 months old, by a mother who had also been raised by a stepmother of her own.

Of course, “there would be (...) many more crises for Stan Brakhage”, and the answers to those crises were most of the time rooted in his own cinema, in his own body of work. In 1959 right after Anticipation of the Night, Brakhage made (amongst others) two films; Wedlock House: An Intercourse and Window Water Baby Moving. The first one is a kind of confrontation between him and his wife Jane, in which sex is ultimately the true unifying act for the two married characters who barely understand each other, while a play of light and shadow similar to Jean Cocteau’s Orphée remains ever present in their shared home. The second film is one that over time has become one of the most important films in Brakhage’s career. It portrays the before and after of childbirth (to his first daughter), showing the utter nakedness and corporeality of the act of giving birth, accompanied by the physical struggle involved in bringing a life into the world. The film ends with his wife Jane heroically holding the child in her arms, while Stan looks at them with the eyes of a child, full of wonder.


These two films side by side seem to be contradictory statements, because they are. Stan Brakhage’s emotional life was full of conflict and contradiction. Out of every new little crisis there would eventually come a reconciliation, until the cycle began all over again and sometimes the wounds were self-inflicted. Sirius Remembered, also from 1959, is a film that through the use of multiple exposure tries to recompose and bring back to life the body of Sirius, the family dog that had just died recently. Sirius is not only known as the “Dog Star”, the brightest point in the night sky, but also as Orion’s dog, a harbinger of death and suffering for all mankind. Brakhage’s family dog, Sirius, died one day after Brakhage had slapped Sirius for innocently licking his newborn child. An impulsive gesture moved by fear, which probably (unjustly, in Brakhage’ s own words) led Sirius (in)directly towards death. Sirius Remembered is a film driven by guilt.


During this time Stan Brakhage worked on commercial films, and we’re talking about everything ranging from toilet paper commercials to educational documentaries. Still, Brakhage never stopped making his own films, and that was one of the reasons he felt he wasn’t taking care of his family. Back were the death wishes and the depression, and now also asthma attacks. During a stay in Brussels, Brakhage made The Dead in order to process or to put away his thoughts on ending his life. In The Dead, Europe is basically portrayed as an immense graveyard, representing not only death but history and its transmission through images as an expression that he simply couldn't feel at home with anymore: “The graveyard could stand for all my views of Europe, for all the concerns with past art, for all involvement with symbol.” Brakhage also included Kenneth Anger in the film, who at the time was unable to make films and was, in Brakhage 's own words, “trapped (...) almost a destroyed man yet still living”. The Dead wasn’t just a way to end another crisis, watching his friend transform into the “living dead” was an indication of what Brakhage didn’t want for himself, a defeated man in a world where culture and everything around him was lifeless.


Despite this newfound energy, Brakhage had come to a standstill once back in New York. Jane and he relocated to Denver, to the home of Jane’s parents. They had never approved of the marriage to begin with and now were forced to accept Stan as the father of their newborn grandchild, a creature he could not provide for because he was unemployed at the time. Throughout their marriage, the relationship between Brakhage and Jane’s parents was contentious, to say the least, and living with them did not help. Nor did the fact that his unemployment was not exactly temporary, especially considering his obligations to his family. It's important to understand, then, that when Jane's parents offered Stan "chopping wood" as the only way he could help, it wasn't a gentle and kind offer. It was mainly a grudging alternative, and it was evidence of Brakhage's own uselessness to his own family circle, certainly Stan himself took it as such. These bitter feelings, this everyday situation, led to a dissatisfaction that turned into tragic thoughts. And these thoughts are the basis of Dog Star Man.


During the four years of the Dog Star Man cycle, Brakhage had also completed a number of notable works. Blue Moses is a film that serves as a cry of defeat against the representational image and the trap, the lie, of storytelling. Robert Benson cries out against “those damned tracks!”, that were the whole point of the film itself, making fun of Plato’s cave, and of the same idea of making up a fantasy for those who are captives, almost as if in the state of a man who no longer believes in anything, as if making cinema were something ideologically wrong. Mothlight, on the other hand, was a small abstraction: flowers, leaves and dead moths were pressed into 16mm splice tape, essentially a cameraless film. Brakhage had found the dead moths in his own desk, they’d burned to death by flying too close to the fire of a candle, and he used this as a metaphor of his own situation. With each film Brakhage was making, he resembled these dead insects more and more; he was using his money on making films instead of taking care of his family and himself, all because of his irresistible attraction to the light. 

If there is a feeling that is being present throughout the entire duration and filmmaking process of Dog Star Man, it’s desperation. This was a work of despair. A work of desperate making. Dog Star Man opens with a prelude that lasts for almost a third of the entire cycle’s running time, in which Brakhage finds a level of visual and rhythmic sophistication that was something almost entirely new compared to the rest of his work around that period. Most of Brakhage 's films were tied to a particular technique, similar in a way that if every film is a song, Brakhage chose a particular instrument to play the music. Prelude: Dog Star Man is an entire orchestra of techniques, an entire empire of vision; multiple exposure, scratches, astrophotography, all of them appearing almost as if they were meant to clash and destroy one another, but here crashing into a constructive force, a cinematographic big bang, not only conceptually, but visually. Prelude is the myth on which the rest of Dog Star Man is founded. The sun, the moon and the stars are mixed with images of the city, pillars, a human heart and the characters that will be present in the subsequent parts. Prelude: Dog Star Man is a rainfall of images in an impossible dialogue, subjects and images precipitate within the shared language of dreams. 


Prelude's laborious montage is an echo of John Cage's chance operations. But it would be foolish to mistake the process for a random equation. Brakhage proposes visual concepts that are meant to connect freely, but every splice, every cut, every frame is carefully constructed, always mediated by his own presence. To the point that when he finished editing Prelude, Brakhage told P. Adams Sitney that there weren’t any more chance operations left. Sometimes we ignore the fact that the starting point for any work of art is to draw a dot on a blank white space, and there’s nothing as fortuitous as creating something out of a vacuum. It is only when the dot is transformed into a line or a trace that rules and techniques are applied to dictate the form of the piece. 


Part I is the story, the tale from which the visions and visual transformation grow. Brakhage plays a woodsman as he tries to climb a mountain in the middle of winter, the landscape covered with snow. As he is trying and failing to climb, a dog joins him, follows him, and sometimes, even climbs faster than him. If Vittorio de Sica closed his Umberto D. with the title character being saved by his dog, who tries to dissuade him from his desire to end his life, here Brakhage opens the narrative as if the dog were somehow playing the role of his deceased dog Sirius, inviting its owner to join him in death. Images of ice and snow in the tree leaves and branches, the stream of the river and the movement of clouds appear during the course of Part I. Brakhage plays with angles and perspective, trying to make the act of climbing the mountain look more and more difficult. He falls and falls, again and again, collapsing, ax in his hand, as he tries to reach an indeterminate point. Every fall might bring back memories of Christ carrying the cross -isn’t Brakhage also carrying his own cross, trying to finish his work?- but here there is no crowd watching it take place, nor any humanity being saved. Brakhage isn’t a sacrificial lamb. There’s no redemption, or at least, it doesn’t seem like there is any to be found as there are no witnesses, other than the dog; no testament for what’s happening. It is basically a mission without a concrete motive, climbing the mountain a feat without any promise of triumph. 


The following three parts, Part II, Part III and Part IV are much shorter. These are the moments in which the character enters a world of almost total abstraction. In Part II the woodsman continues to climb and fall, cross cut with images of a baby, a forest fire, the melting snow, as time, which for a while seemed contained, seems to pass much faster with every blink of the baby’s eye. As a vision of a life for which the woodsman is responsible for, the baby’s face appears constantly as if hammering itself into the mind and vision of the man who can’t get back up. In Part III, Jane is the protagonist, as a kind of goddess or erotic spirit; she emerges from the water completely naked, while the material of a human heart appears to have stopped beating. After a rhapsody of hand painted images and scratches over celluloid, and as Jane dances over an imaginary place, an empty space, the heart starts beating again. Sex, the most primitive of impulses, is what brings the energy back to the defeated spirit. 


Part IV concludes with a storm of images. The woodsman is lying on the ground, at a certain spot in the mountains, he starts to cut a tree. It is no longer winter and the sun shines bright in warm colors. Various images appear on top of one another, the act of painting, trees, the sun, cathedrals, and religious images. We’re back at the starting point. With an energy similar to Prelude, the film returns to a rapid rhythmic quality, but this time influenced by every swing of the ax. This could very well be his end. This is the woodsman's ascension into the cosmos, but he seems condemned to cut the same tree again and again for the rest of his life, as he becomes one with the sun, in a silent howl, the explosions of light and multiple exposures as the lone testimony of this desperation.


The conclusion of Dog Star Man could be considered tragic, and perhaps for its 78-minute running time indeed it is. The woodsman cuts down the tree, but there is no real reason to drive his act; we see a baby, a woman, but he never returns home, there is no real use for the wood that has been cut, and he is now trapped in a cycle designed only to purge his mind. But even if we consider Brakhage’s own vision of the conclusion of Dog Star Man; he argued that culture was a dead tree from which one could only cut wood to burn, material to be used as a temporary measure; it is hard to see the film as a defeated work of art. Even if Brakhage didn’t see much use for culture at the time, as if he had given up on the reactionaries of his time, the images point in another direction. Dog Star Man is imagination, a triumph of the unconscious, a realm of technique and visions, a pure state of trance as sophisticated as it is primitive, another way, a terrain that demands to be explored differently, with a new set of eyes. If cinema is dead, then Dog Star Man is the machine that brings life back to the inanimate body. Isn’t creation the act of bringing light to a dark place? 


If Prometheus and Sisyphus were mythical figures that had to endure an eternity of punishment and torment, Dog Star Man is the testament of a man that recognized his entire life in that condemnation. If the tree is dead and is only used to cut wood from, then Brakhage will climb that mountain a thousand times to bring the wood back. In the end, as much as we ascribe heroic qualities to Brakhage’s life and work, his quest was always personal, it was the duty to which he decided to devote his existence. The man that cuts the wood in the middle of an impossible flow of images is condemned to do it forever, and for Brakhage his condemnation was to create. He knew better than anybody that for better or worse, he was going to keep making films as long as he could breathe. In Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage mentions The Dead as a film that kept him alive, and in a way, each and every one of his following films kept him alive almost like a primal impulse, like a spiritual calling, he followed it blindly and accepted his sentence; to create for all eternity, or at least, as long has his physical body could endure. 


Dog Star Man was a “success” -does it make sense to use such a word for films that have been perpetually deemed as noncommercial?- in the sense that it not only brought him notoriety, it also allowed him to keep working on many more films, and indeed, Brakhage chose to cut wood until his very last day. He completed Chinese Series a few days before his death in 2003. He was on his deathbed, almost without materials, and he finished the film using his spit and scratching the film with his fingernails. His body couldn’t move, but his vision wasn’t captive. 


Desistfilm was a film that indeed was desisting against the way of life of its time, and from then on, Brakhage kept desisting. His work, his films, brought personal, economical and even spiritual problems, but at the same time they were always the answer to the riddle and he continued insisting on making this “mistake” as many times as it was necessary.


The very concept of Dog Star Man being the pinnacle of Brakhage’s work seems wrong, maybe because the film itself presents the failure of such a feat and because Brakhage’s cinema changed constantly, always posing a new challenge ahead for itself, new struggles with complexity. After each film there was always a new mountain to climb and that is perhaps the most noble element of his cinema. It was always art for art's sake, granted, Brakhage always wanted to express something profound, but the films were motivated by nothing but his own quest for a personal level of expression. They could be acclaimed or forgotten, major or minor works, but every single time there was a new film to be made. If in Dog Star Man Brakhage allowed himself to incarnate a mythical figure, the rest of his body of work reveals that nobody but him forced him to carry the rock through the slope, and every time he reached the top, he invented a new slope to climb again. Here is a myth that not only survived, but embraced his own condemnation and he made it his reason to live, the rush that set him free. A myth of flesh and blood. The Dog Star Man.

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