#349) Dog Star Man (1961-1964)

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#349) Dog Star Man (1961-1964)

OR “Stan vs. Nature”

Directed by Stan Brakhage

Class of 1992

The “Plot”: A man (Stan Brakhage) and his dog climb one of Colorado’s picturesque snowy mountains to chop down a tree.

The Actual Movie: One hell of an experimental trip, complete with abstract imagery, recurring motifs, and full-frontal nudity. In Brakhage’s words, “Dog Star Man” is a “created dream” presented as a prelude and four parts.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking” and praises the “innovative new techniques” that “ushered in a new age of experimental film”.

But Does It Really?: I’m always willing to give a pass to a film by an experimental filmmaker I’m not familiar with, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of Stan Brakhage prior to this viewing. Turns out I was in the presence of perhaps THE experimental filmmaker, the one everyone in the experimental scene bows down to. “Dog Star Man” is one of those films that you can read literally anything into, making it a sort of cinematic Rorschach test. There are pros and cons to watching this film cold vs. doing some prior homework about Brakhage, but regardless, Brakhage’s unique style and ongoing legacy has earned him a place on the Registry, and “Dog Star Man” is worth a watch.

Everybody Gets One: Stan Brakhage started out as – of all things – a boy soprano raised in Denver, Colorado. After stints making his early experimental films in San Francisco and New York (where he briefly crashed at Maya Deren’s apartment), he returned to Denver, where he met writer Mary Jane Collom. They married, and the birth of their daughter Myrrenna became the subject of Stan’s film “Window Water Baby Moving”. Brakhage films were renowned for their (then) avant-garde techniques, such as time-lapse photography and multiple exposures. He also would tamper with the physical film itself, sometimes painting directly onto the frame or punching a hole in the image.

Before we get into “Other notes”: it occurred to me that there was very little point in me trying to decipher this film or determine its symbolism. So first, here’s a list of Things I Thought I Saw in the Prelude:

  • A leaf
  • A blood-shot eye
  • Definitely breasts
  • The corona of the sun (I assume the “Star” of the title)
  • Frank Zappa
  • A skin cell
  • “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh
  • Atomic bomb footage
  • An Easter egg and/or Jelly Belly
  • The Ring! Don’t answer the phone!
  • A supernova
  • The moon
  • Snow covered trees (possibly footage from “Jack Frost”)
  • Bob Fosse’s open-heart surgery from “All That Jazz
  • The things Brakhage can do with his Spirograph
  • The San Andreas fault
  • The opening credits to a Bond movie, let’s say “The Spy Who Loved Me”.
  • God?

Other notes

  • “Dog Star Man” is presented without sound, so this time I opted for a David Bowie YouTube playlist to get me through this viewing. I think I picked Bowie because of the connection with his song “Starman”, which, ironically, didn’t play while I was watching the movie.
  • This is the film for everyone who thought “A MOVIE” was too coherent.
  • To the best of my knowledge, that’s Jane Brakhage doing the nudity. It takes a special kind of woman to allow her husband to film her naked AND film their child being born AND present both of those films publically for in the name of art.
  • Stan and his dog don’t show up until Part 1, about a half hour into the proceedings. At first I just thought it was yet another random image, and then I realized we’re sticking with this one.
  • Speaking of, anyone know if that was Stan’s dog or not?
  • A man trudging through the Colorado snow? Say hi to Jack Torrance for me.
  • Okay, I’m pretty sure that’s Stan’s junk I just saw in great detail. You know, when they say that a true filmmaker exposes themselves in their movies, this is not what they meant.
  • This whole movie would be worth it if at the end, the camera zooms out and Stan’s only about three feet away from the parking lot.
  • Each segment of “Dog Star Man” was completed every year between 1961 and 1964, with Parts 3 & 4 coming out in 1964. I guess my main question is how did this take four years to complete? You could knock out the on-location shots in a day.
  • I feel bad for Myrrenna. This baby did not sign up for any of this.
  • Okay Brakhage, enough with the extreme close-ups on body parts. I do not need to be that close to a lactating nipple. At least, I hope that’s what I just saw…
  • As I previously said, you can read anything into “Dog Star Man”. I know it’s pointless, but I’ll take a shot in the dark and say it’s the life cycle, possibly culminating in the death of the man on the mountain. Does that mean the prelude was intercourse and gestation? I have so many questions!

Legacy

  • “Dog Star Man” was the tip of the iceberg for Stan Brakhage, who continued making experimental shorts up until his death in 2003. Shortly after “Dog Star Man”, he started the “Songs” cycle, also considered among his best work.
  • Brakhage taught film at the University of Colorado for many years. Among his students were future “South Park” creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone. Brakhage appears as Noon Sr. in Parker & Stone’s student film “Cannibal! The Musical.”
  • Among those who have cited Brakhage as an influence are directors Martin Scorsese (see the crucifixion in “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and David Fincher (see the opening credits of “Se7en”).

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