PRINT July 1963


Dog Star Man: Part I

DOG STAR MAN—THE FIRST 16 MILLIMETER EPIC: In Dog Star Man (part one) Stan Brakhage learns from his two earlier films Prelude and Anticipation of the Night.* The other debt in evidence is that the beautiful shots of the beard­ed hero’s face and some scenes of mountain, cliff, and forest or solitary green fir bough sweeping in the wind are reminiscent of moments of Eisen­stein’s Ivan. In Ivan the striking scenes, printed on memory, are the broodings of Ivan’s face from the sum­mit of a crag while he looks down upon a medieval city or holds soliloquy with his soul as the camera comes in for a profile of his jagged nose and chin, with foxy beard pointing to heaven and hell.

Where Eisenstein must show Ivan brooding in solitary state in a logical sequence of dramatic events, Brakhage may only show the chin of his hero––or a grimace of emotion and turmoil against whiteness of sky. Where Eisen­stein shows the whole flush of plot in an earthy drama that reaches to the cosmic Brakhage reverses the process and shows the cosmic and divine drama of flesh and thought and memory and hallucination and aspiration reaching towards the earthly.

In Dog Star Man all possible views are taken. The man dressed in ragged pants and boots with beard and hair to his shoulders, accompanied by his dog, struggles up the mountainside fleeing to a holocaust that may be real or imaginary––but the man is real! We see man and dog . . . the hand fights in the snow for a new grip upon icy rock . . . then a passage of whiteness with an almost invisible pattern of pink within it . . . cloud . . . mountain . . . canyon . . . dog . . . tree . . . blackness . . . solar corona . . . internal organ . . . bloodstream . . . blackness . . . part of face brooding against sky . . . the man falls . . . the season changes . . . he climbs . . . the memory (or fantasy) of the man dancing naked to the waist like a messiah in flickering firelight . . . he faints, struggles and hallucinates be­coming immortal in his striving.

As in all works of art Dog Star Man is an adventure that is not distinguish­able as either a physical adventure or a spiritual one. The two become inextricably woven together to prove the unity and sheer beauty of man and uni­verse. Criticism speaks of levels but Dog Star Man refuses the levels: they become indistinguishable. The camera is outside of the man photographing him . . . the camera is an eye inside of the man seeing his organs . . . the cam­era does not distinguish between future fantasy and past memory of the man . . . the camera does not say whether it is inside of the man’s organs or the dog’s organs . . . the camera does not say when the outer world is imagined and when it is real.

The rhythm of Dog Star Man is an intuitive adaptation of the pacing of classical drama, whether it be Noh theater or the wanderings of Faust. Class­ical drama is composed of self-con­tained scenes that blend one into the other leaving the spectator filled but awaiting the next. The scenes must have grandeur and unhurried rhythm while containing athletic and/or intellectual and emotional action. The accepted pacing of film, however, is seven-second sequences or scenes. Dog Star Man doubles, or more than doubles, the seven-second expectation. Each of the long (14 to 20 second) scenes is a pho­tographic marvel too proud to rely upon technical excellence and interested only in beauty and an artist’s ideal of sight. Each scene, whether in the cave of an intestine or looking up into the branches of a forest from fallen snow, is a memorable sight. Combined one after another the scenes heave up into the construction of a human tale that is given credence as a divine happening.

Dog Star Man is the most self-suf­ficient and innocent film, self-sufficient in the sense that Chaplin is. No music is needed to watch Chaplin because his dance is all the music we need. Dog Star Man is silent in the sense that the greatest silent films are. In it the film itself becomes a dance of editing and moves as the best silent actors do with their physical movements of arm, leg, tongue and face. The film breathes and is an organic and surging thing. It is a colossal lyrical adventure-dance of im­age in every variation of color.

Canyons, mountains, trees, blackness, bloodstream, whiteness shot with pink, remembrance, man and dog become actors in the medium. The versatility of 16 millimeter becomes like the flashing of verse and gains the same possibility of immortality and vision. The film is innocent of taste, and combines varied types of film, distorting lenses, and al­tered film speeds.

Taking a historical view of Brakhage’s films, Dog Star Man is the culmina­tion of Anticipation of the Night and Prelude. Anticipation is the first long film. It has upset and angered many since it received the Cannes Festival protest prize. It is an almost dizzy­ing swoosh of image after image in 2-to-4 second scenes and repeats of scenes. There are forty minutes, and much of it imprints upon thought and keeps re­turning. After the last sequence of fast pastel shots of polar bear and flamingo and baby crawling upon grass the film ends with the shadow of a hanged man. The unseen hero having this film-dream is visible for the first time in the act of suicide––he has entered his soul and decided upon self-destruction. The film has caused booing and audience dem­onstrations at more than one showing. Nobody seems to know what is going on––that it takes place inside of a man’s vision and the spectator merely has to watch. Anticipation is a story shorn of explanation but it is often viewed as an abstract film rather than a home movie-like recording of expe­rience and decision upon death. There can be no doubt that the audience is aware somewhere deep and they do disapprove.

Spring 1962, Brakhage was awarded The Independent Film Makers Award for The Dead and Prelude. (The Dead is a drifting blue-grey film of drifting serenity and feeling photo­graphed in a Paris cemetery.) Prelude is a huge objective film of the powers of nature––from splendored shots of the solar corona shooting bursts of flame into space to descents into secret processes of the interior of muscles and living organs that beat and gape and close.

Prelude uses the sequential style of the earlier Anticipation and, almost by accident, destroys the logic of rela­tivity as it darts from massive to minus­cule, from sun to bloodcell. It is an ex­ercise in transmuting the film into dra­ma but it is an adventureless drama because there is no man in it––a drama of beauty alone. Prelude is picture music. Prelude takes place in the imagination of a man working with pictures of the objective world. Anti­cipation takes place in the mind of a man contemplating suicide and moves with the swiftness of anguish. Prelude is creative contemplation and moves in a more stately manner.

Dog Star Man owes the objectivity of the nature and hero scenes to the grandeur of Prelude and it draws the intense realization of the subjective from Anticipation. It is as if Dog Star Man were a film in which the mental recording of Anticipation were encapsuled in the style of Prelude. But Dog Star Man is greater than a synthesis of earlier works. Brakhage is the actor in the film as well as camera­man. The shots wherein the hero ap­pears are directed by Brakhage and filmed by his wife.

––Michael McLure



*Dog Star Man, a trilogy, of which only the first part has been completed. Stan Brak­hage was awarded the “Film Culture” Fourth Independent Film Award for “original and unique American contributions to the cinema,” for his films The Dead and Prelude. The first part of Dog Star Man has not yet been released for commercial showing.