Thursday, October 15, 2015

Stan Brakhage | Dog Star Man

a voyage into to nature
by Douglas Messerli

Stan Brakhage Dog Star Man, in a Prelude and four parts / 1961-1964

Often described as his early masterwork, Stan Brakhage’s five-part Dog Star Man is exemplary once again at how humor and would-be epic forces are intertwined in his films.

The 25 minute Prelude, with its two layers of superimposed imagery, might almost be read as an abstracted guide to the work’s later parts, as startlingly beautiful images of landscape, animals, humans, clouds, and planetary systems shift in an out of recognition, some of the frames scratched and half-erased, others presented with narrative straight-forwardness.
     Indeed, the first of follows begins with a rather simple narrative situation. As Fred Camper describes it in the Criterion liner notes to by Brakhage: “Unemployed and living in his wife’s parents’ home, Brakhage had asked them what he could do, and they suggested that he cut wood.”

      What follows is almost something out of Chaplin, as the director, looking something like a mountain man, takes an ax and a dog and sets out in a snow-bound landscape to find some wood to chop. In fact, the figure, fighting to climb hills, struggling through the deep snow, and becoming increasingly exhausted in the task—the dog often bounding about him with unabated energy and delight—never actually accomplishes his goal. At first his actions, set against the raw, mostly black and white, images of nature, seem ridiculously comic, as if he were a city boy suddenly facing the forces of the harsh world. But after a while, the comedy begins to shift into both a recognition of the beauty of the landscape of trees, woods, and stars set against the lone human’s near Herculean tasks that can never be accomplished, we see the film in more epic terms. The clown becomes a  a more sympathetic figure, who Brakhage increasingly portrays as an exhausted being, who finds it more and more difficult to walk or, at moments, even to stand. A bit like a Beckett character, this would-be woodsman, starts out on his voyage as a kind smug fool before we recognize that he is a sort of existential hero, a man who can’t go on, but will continue nonetheless.
    After the 30 minute first part, the 5 minute second part, again with two layers of images, almost appears to represent the woodsman’s life passing before his eyes. A child, filmed at his birth, quickly morphs into images of animals, planets, sun, and moon. And part 3, 7 minutes in length, with its three layers of images, quickly sorts through our hero’s sexual fantasies, which, after all, were the cause, in part, of the family history we saw in Part 2.
    Finally, Part 4, with four overlaying sets of pictures, depicts the lost figure’s symbolic end, depicting a kind of cosmic deconstruction.

     If there is a loose narrative logic to this work, however, it is the constant retransformation of all recognizable images into abstraction that dominates. Some of the Prelude and the later parts are so simply startling in their abstract beauty that they almost take our breath away. But like a quickly shifting kaleidoscope, they each break apart, recombining and regenerating further and further pictures and patterns. By the end, we are nearly as worn out and wearied by nature as is this failed mountain man.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2015

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