Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage

Dog Star Man, part II

I have seen this film a number of times; I used to have a VHS copy that I made an epic journey to Los Angeles to get, which like the film, was a largely abstract, ego-drowned, enigmatic, futility obsessed trip unto itself. Dog Star Man was made when Mr. Brakhage was staying unemployed at his wife's parents home, what I imagine to be a crucible of self-loathing for the young filmmaker. The story goes that he asked for something to do, and it was suggested he go out into the snow and chop wood, which in the mind of the indolent becomes an epic and meaningful endeavor. You are bringing fire! You are conquering nature! You are meeting yourself at the crossroads of usefulness and self-purpose at the moment of existential dawn, and it is that way that Mr. Brakhage, whether it be ironically or melodramatically depicts himself lumbering through the snow with a dog and an axe trying to fell a small tree.

Mr. Brakhage is generally described as an abstract filmmaker because his images are smeared, bent, chopped up, flickering descendants of cohesive thoughts. He has made abstract films, some painstakingly drawn directly on tape, freeing image from external meaning, but Dog Star Man is not one of those films. His techniques are put here to a most romantic end - overlaying the struggle of life in reality with the fever of life in the mind. He accomplishes this by actually layering film over film, each of the five parts becoming tighter and more dense as they proceed.

One can only imagine his father-in-law's dismay when he asked for firewood and instead got this nearly unwatchable monstrosity clogging up his 16mm projector. I say unwatchable because, beautiful as his imagery is, this is a difficult film to pay attention to. Feature-length, silent, recycling images throughout - it puts you either in a trance or asleep. I've never been able to watch it all the way through in silence like intended, in this case, halfway through the extended prelude, I put on a super-minimal La Monte Young cello piece just to have something that would not force any unintended juxtapositions, though as it happens, the piece came to a halt tidily at the end of part IV.

I have also seen The Art of Vision, a four-hour "un mix" of Dog Star Man where the layers are separated and recombined in every permutation. I saw it on my one trip to New York about fifteen years ago, at the Anthology Film Archives. It had a reasonably sized crowd when it started but most of the people, including the two I brought with me, abandoned ship after 45 minutes. I was determined to bleed through partly because I thought the bearded guy sitting right next to the projection booth window must be Stan Brakhage even though he was not introduced as such, and because I'd come all that way, not just to see this, but partially to see this.

My Dog Star Man trip to LA involved my staying at the house of a deeply depressed person with whom I'd corresponded with by mail and phone, trading tapes and books and letters. Immediatley upon arrival I was informed that he'd lived in this house for ten years with his boyfriend and mother and thousands of tapes and records and books without a single visitor, not even a friend coming over. I knew he was gay and a little eccentric but was not prepared for the severity of his condition. His combination of powerful anti-psychotic drugs made him gargantuan, sweaty and emotionally erratic. He generally did not leave the house except to buy pornography and records. We went to see a movie after the third consecutive day of being cooped up in the house listening to records (albeit ones that have shaped my thinking from that point on) and when a guy in the row in front of us turned to shush us, he exploded in a rage, marching down the aisle bellowing "FUCK YOU ALL" over and over at shuddering capacity. We heard him screaming through the lobby and out into the street before following to look for him.

It was the reality of Ignacius Reilly, Arturo Bandini and a number of celebrated disconnected figures without the distance of literature. I didn't know a soul in LA, had no where to go. He proceeded to scream in their little car for the 45-minute drive home, and then locked himself in his room for the next day and a half as I was left to prowl his house in fear. But while I was going to sleep the night before I left, he did peer into my room holding a tape of Dog Star Man, and set it on the dresser. It was nestled on the tape between hours of pornographic Japanese game-shows and vintage muscle man videos, but there it was. That tape was later stolen by some druggy kids that hung around the house next to my apartment, no doubt a profound disappointment when they popped it in.

So, having gone through that trial once, I lasted through the entire four hours of The Art of Vision, me and one other guy sitting a few rows back. I shook his hand after, he said he'd come down from Boston to see it, and looking through the material accompanying this Criterion collection of Brakhage films, I'm guessing he might have been the anthology's producer Fred Camper. Whoever he was, it became clear I was in the presence of an even more committed viewer when I suggested we go get a beer after, and the guy politely declined. "I'm going to go ask the projectionist if I can sit up there and watch it again."

Mr. Brakhage has said that he believes the vision of an individual can transform the world, and though I don't know if I believe this to be true, I do think that the need to see one's own vision can radiate from a person and affect those around them. I know that in some part, my vision has been forever overlayed by the psychic residue of this film, whether by the lengths I took to see it or the backstory of the film or the content of the film itself, is irrelevant.

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