Friday, 27 November 2009
dog star man - by brakhage
a brief note on structure might be in order to begin with: as much as the film can be said to have a 'narrative' (which in any case is in the order of epic or myth, rather than the 'story' of traditional film-making), it concerns the rise and fall of the dog star man (though the title can be taken two ways: either as the name of the man, or as a conflation of the three main visual threads of the film - a man, a dog, and a star (the sun, shown both in archive and original footage)). the man undertakes a physical journey up a mountain, where, accompanied by his dog, he chops down a dead tree: various dreams and remembrances (of his child and his wife) combine with sense impressions of the landscape around him (mountains, trees, snow, clouds, sun), as well as less obviously referential visual patterns created through superimposition and handpainting on film. the prelude combines footage from the four following parts and is concerned, broadly, with the cosmic - much use is made of footage of the sun (the 'star' of the title). part i introduces the footage of a woodsman, the dog star man (played by brakhage himself) climbing a snowy mountain with his dog, and chopping down a dead tree. part ii superimposes onto footage of a baby (one of brakhage's children) a riot of colour and rapidly changing visual phenomena, achieved thru the technique of painting on film, a kind of animation which he intended to approximate 'closed-eye vision' - i.e. what one sees when one closes one's eyes. part iii, a 'daydream of sex', is visceral and supremely physical, mixing footage of the sexual act with blood and organs - most notably, a beating heart. part iv returns to the woodsman, whose journey up the mountain comes to seem increasingly futile; trapped in an endless ascent, with no hope of reaching a summit, and made, through looping, to continuously chop at a tree which never falls, the man collapses on the ground, grimacing in agony, his wild long hair giving him a caveman appearance - the struggles against nature and physical limitation are unchanged from man's early beginnings. a mystical quality briefly emerges, hinting at some kind of hope, as the man reaches for a nightsky of twinkling stars, but these stars are, in reality, full of molten, deathly heat, as we see from the footage of the sun.
that's a very brief outline of what 'happens' in the film, although, in order to provide some sense of cohesion, i've inevitably imposed a too-schematic narrative outline on a film which lives moment by moment, as a profoundly immersive and visually busy experience. it's almost as if the absence of sound is made up for by what might at first seem to be an OVERcrowding of visual event; and watching the film silently, as intended, provides a very different experience of how one experiences the medium - one's eye trained to become more active, more able to discern connections, cohesions and fractures. therein lies the main problem with trying to describe 'dog star man' - for, fundamentally, the film teaches one how to read it itself, as it progresses: no amount of preparation will really equip one to the same degree as this instantaneous visual training. in that sense, the film is, like the best avant-garde art, a PARTICIPATORY piece, an experience which the viewer can share - but to do so, they must work, they cannot sit back and let the film-maker tell them something. this makes watching 'dog star man' a very personal experience, and the film itself is a very personal piece, showing the most intimate details of brakhage's life, the most intimate and extreme details of his fears and hopes. but at the same time, it has an epic scope rarely matched in conventional feature films. it is about the simultaneity of the local and the cosmic, about the struggle for security, for a home base, and the dangers and rigours of manual labour, of making one's way in a world full of overwhelming sense data, a world that shapes one and that is shaped into being by sense perceptions, rather than existing as something 'already there' which one can schematise, organise and make sense of.
moving in, from outline to detail, we might ask 'what do we have here'? and to answer that question would require a whole book (a frame-by-frame analysis is out of the question!) but, in brief, we can say that we have: perception nature repetition cycles recurrences man in the cosmos light movement the body organs sex fluid secretion the breast the penis the axe the tree the eye/ man as mythological figure an epic made from home movies the handmade handscratched handpainted the sun's molten leaps clouds passing the ascent the struggle up the mountain interludes lightness the woodsman playing with his dog (who, as we know from 'sirius remembered', decomposes in a quite horrifically beautiful way)/ back from the sense of narrative based around character development to the epic cipher figure yet with an utterly intense focus on the body inside and outside its environment (the dog star man, the woodsman, is brakhage himself but his motivations are not considered in the sense of a 'character study', though the preoccupations ARE very much diurnal - his baby, his home life sex, the mountain near his home, his cabin (in part iv), manual labour, struggles and fears in the moment revealing huge cosmic dramas) its environment snow falling thru and landing on trees twigs branches hand drawings of crystals superimpositions snow caught in hair snow struggled through and slippery hair skin organs blood opening and shutting the mouth beating of the heart blood red black/ we can say that we have the elemental (which is never, really, elementary)