In trying to come to terms with Stan Brakhage’s five-part experimental epic Dog Star Man, it’s easy to get the impression you’re only scratching the surface of it all. That’s indicative of the philosophy and craft that went into that cycle of films, but it’s also a feeling you’re going to have to get used to should you decide to investigate any portion of his lengthy and influential career. Even simply seeing all of his films would be something of a herculean endeavor; lots of artists have had prolific periods lasting years, but Brakhage was steadily putting out shorts for over five fucking decades, all while managing to stay a relevant and respected figure in the field. Beyond what made it to the screen, he was a busy lecturer, writer and thinker, whose personal life was also not without a few surprises. He was so accomplished, so rightly revered that his career is more than a little intimidating in its size and scope, particularly to the uninitiated, but just like every frame of Dog Star Man, even the briefest exposure to his work is a rich and rewarding experience.
Born into a Kansas City, Missouri orphanage on January 14, 1933, Brakhage’s youth was tumultuous and troubled. There were asthma and other health problems, which were only compounded by an unstable living situation that bounced him between dysfunctional foster families and boy’s homes and into a brief stint as a petty criminal before evening out long enough for him to discover a talent and passion for the arts, particularly poetry and drama. His creative endeavors gave him a sense of purpose and self-respect, but his problems didn’t disappear, in fact, during his time as a soloist in the school choir, he even tried to strangle a voice coach. Still, he showed enough promise to be awarded a fine arts scholarship to Dartmouth, but he quickly found the academic environment constrictive and dropped out after two months, beginning work on his first film, 1951’s Interim, shortly thereafter. Seeking out more the more liberated climes of New York and San Francisco’s experimental arts scenes, he rubbed elbows with the likes of John Cage, Kenneth Rexroth and Maya Deren as he gradually developed his creative voice, graduating from more derivative psychologically loaded dramas to his own brand of cinematic lyricism.
That maturation reached its culmination in the first half of the 1960s, which found Brakhage shooting and incrementally releasing the five parts of what, collectively, would become his masterpiece, Dog Star Man. It was the truest expression to date of an idea that would define his entire oeuvre, that of trying to channel the purest sensations of sight, as experienced by humans before language, logic and life in general robs it of all its wonder. “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective,” he wrote while working on the series, “an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.” While that perhaps sounds outrageously conceptual and ambitious, Dog Star Man made it a visceral reality, beginning in the blackness of some unnamed existential womb before thrusting the viewer into a chaotic, vibrating world of light and color, made even more disorienting by the unbroken silence that envelopes it.
The film is not totally devoid of content or structure, loosely following an archetypal woodsman engaged in arduous mountain trek that’s potently symbolic of humanity’s endless evolutionary and generational struggle. But those fleeting moments of concrete meaning are few and far between, emerging from a boundless sea of stream-of-consciousness imagery before dissolving back into primordial chaos moments later. It’s a formal and philosophical approach that Brakhage would elaborate on and explore for the remainder of his career, using it as an elemental lens through which to view complicated universal themes like human sexuality, mortality and the friction between civilization and the natural world, one which only became more textured and expressive as he continued to explore unorthodox ways of manipulating film itself, including etching and painting directly onto the celluloid.
As abstract as his work is, it can sometimes belie the level of care and craft that went into the creation of his films, something that sets him apart from the countless hacky wannabe artistes who’ve ripped him off over the years. Brakhage didn’t simply toss a bunch of random shots together and just hope something significant or meaningful would coalesce, he was a notoriously meticulous editor, carefully layering imagery and impressions until they approached something as mysterious and ineffable as the grandiose ideas that moved him to create them in the first place. Sometimes, the process led him in more than one direction; the same god-knows-how-many feet of footage woven together to create Dog Star Man also became a second, much longer film, The Art of Vision, which is regarded as a classic alongside its kid brother.
Considering how detail-oriented and precise he was in the editing room, it’s almost a wonder he ever finished a project as substantial as the 74-minute Dog Star Man, so it’s downright amazing that it only comprises five of the nearly 400 films he completed before passing away from bladder cancer in 2003. Granted many of them are brief by comparison, but accumulatively they add up to one of the most immense bodies of work in cinematic history. “Indeed, Brakhage’s creative productivity has been so remarkable for so long…” wrote critic and author Scott MacDonald, “…that few scholars have had the temerity to engage Brakhage’s career [as a whole], no matter how enthusiastic they are about the films.” If digesting his voluminous output is a daunting task to people who study experimental cinema for a living, being a completist, or even tackling the majority of his work is probably out of the question for the rest of us, but that’s no reason not to get acquainted with Dog Star Moon, or any of his other films for that matter. Even if you just scratch the surface it’s a surface worth scratching.