Stan Brakhage: The woodsman

Back in the spring I wrote about the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas as a poet of the city, a Whitman of the 1960s counterculture, energized by the rush of people in urban spaces.  (Mekas’ films, tellingly, always move at a sped-up frame rate.)  Mekas’ longtime friend and colleague Stan Brakhage, meanwhile, was a poet of the country—the filmmaker as hermit.  From his house in the mountains of Colorado, enclosed within the private world of his wife, their children and their pets, Brakhage made a career breaking down and reassembling in visual terms the most elemental of human experiences: birth and childhood, family, sex, home, nature.  

Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1962) has been compared to an epic poem, in which the quest of a man for firewood takes on mythic dimensions.  Through Brakhage’s fractured visual style—footage of sun flares, crying babies, and commingling bodies are continually intruding upon the footage of dog and man in the woods—the proportions of that simple task assume an allegorical resonance.  But Brakhage’s tongue is also slightly in cheek here, as he casts himself in the role of the questing figure, stumbling awkwardly through the snow.  (Apparently Brakhage was unemployed at the time and living with his in-laws, who suggested he make himself useful by chopping wood.)  The “man” of Dog Star Man is motivated by a timeless urge to prove his masculine utility to himself and others, something that Brakhage both mythologizes and ironizes. 

But the narrative of Dog Star Man is hardly its driving force; it’s a film bursting with individual images—some recognizable, many abstract—that fly at the viewer faster than he has time to process them.  Here, Brakhage and Mekas’ styles coincide: both filmmakers throw everything into their films, to dazzling effect.  Dog Star Man is just as much about the orange fur of a cat, the face of a newborn baby, the tangle of lovers’ bodies, splatters of paint and scratches in the emulsion as it is about the epic journey of its hero.

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