Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image
New Approaches to Stan Brakhage
March, 07 2015
Brakhage as an essayist: Dog Star Man and the construction of memory.
I’ll begin this presentation by saying that instead of offering a complete and well-rounded research project, this paper was mainly and ultimately informed by artistic intuition. I’m primarily an image-maker, and as such, other image-makers heavily influenced my world-view. However, my artistic curiosity consistently takes me out of the art world into the discursive world of academia and research. Academic writing and research illuminates and informs my art practice. Research in and through art brings together practical action (the making) and theoretical reflection (the thinking). The one cannot exist without the other. Art practice and academic research have inevitably shaped my views, and it is by telling a little story that I would like to start this presentation.
I must confess this presentation originated from a deep feeling of frustration. I first encountered the work of Stan Brakhage when I was a film student, in my course ‘Experimental Cinema’. A different self would come out of the classroom each Wednesday at 6pm. Every week I enjoyed and struggled, not only with the work being shown, but also with the ways in which these films were presented and interpreted for us. When I first saw Brakhage films I must say, I didn’t understand a thing. Scratched and painted films were definitely not among my most favorite genres, much less if the film lasts over an hour, and has no sound. However, at the end of the course, my final 10 pages term paper was precisely about this scratched, silent film. I’m referring about Stan Brakhage Dog Star Man. This film in particular and the persona of Stan Brakhage will hunt me all the way during my undergrad years, passing through grad school, until now, 2015.
There was something deeply unsatisfactory about the way this film was presented to us. Dog Star Man is more than “the dialectics of British and American Romantic poetry and contemporary developments in painting, specifically Abstract Expressionism” (1), as P. Adams Sitney through his Visionary Film wanted us to believe. As it happens with any great piece of art, is about something, and also about something else. As I struggled stuttering some semi-coherent thoughts on Brakhage Dog Star Man, I slowly developed a taste for Brakhage films. As we all know, Brakhage is an acquired taste. It requires a lot from the spectator, much more than other experimental films. A Brakhage film asks for time and patience. As I continued watching Brakhage films every time I had the opportunity, at every encounter I discovered a new facet, a new angle, and a different approach to enter into his work at each viewing.
I had my first epiphany soon after my son Leo was born, in 2011. For some reason I felt like watching Dog Star Man at home. Some forty minutes after I pressed play on the DVD, I suddenly realized what Dog Star Man has been trying to tell me all these years: That this film is about the struggle of a married man. I could clearly see Brakhage’s own struggles with life, with married life and having kids, with identity. Of course, maybe it was my own-self projecting preoccupations and anxieties unto the screen, and probably it was, but it was also something else, as usually happens with important introspective moments. Dog Star Man was talking directly to me. It was telling me: I am the reflection of angst. I’m the representation of anxiety when a man looses himself at the wake of married life, when a man breaks into a different identity and his partner stops being that and transforms into breasts and milk and motion.
I began to reflect about Brakhage films in a completely different way. I finally understood why I was unsatisfied during all these years of reading and listening about Brakhage’s work. I researched Brakhage own thoughts on his work, of course, taking into consideration that we cannot fully account for verisimilitude when a filmmaker speaks about its own work. However, I encountered a different Brakhage, an artist that has been referring to his practice as home movies and to himself as an amateur. As it comes to my own art practice, these were revelatory moments. I found another filmmaker articulating in a better way what I have been trying to articulate for so long. It was revelatory also because I finally knew how to begin my research on Brakhage work, particularly his early films.
My paper then aims to explore the essayistic qualities in Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, locating the notion of essayistic primarily as an “encounter between the self and the public domain” (2). “The essayistic stretches and balances itself between abstracted and exaggerated representation of the self (in language and image) and an experiential world encountered and acquired through the discourse of thinking out loud” (3). I consider the discursive production of self, whereas through home movies, self-portraits, autobiographies, and so on, to be an important component of popular culture. It’s not only a place for kinship affiliations, but also a place for the production of personal history and memory. Memory is one of our most important facets. We are largely defined by what we remember of ourselves and what other remembers of us.
Memory is vital for knowledge of the self and for knowledge of the world, and cinema has become one of the most important agencies for the transmission of this knowledge. In Brakhage own words: “The entire act of motion picture making, thus, can be considered as an exteriorization of the process of memory” (4). What memory and cinema have in common is a complex and rather nuanced relationship to the indexical quality of the present and the construction of the past. Brakhage’s exteriorization of personal memory acts as a bastion for the use of self-narration and autobiography as counter-memory. As Brakhage has shown on his personal account of his own family, family representation is never just documentation of the moment, whether anecdotal or formal or anywhere in between. Dog Star Man largely departs from the social and cultural conventions of family representations, which is to present a preferred, socially acceptable or idealised version of the family narrative.
Brakhage”s Dog Star Man enacts an underlined tension and conflict, which forms part of a larger artistic, sociological and ideological network. Dog Star Man and other contemporary self-representation strategies and autobiographical narratives can be traced back to the tradition of self-portraiture in painting for example, from the psychological depth in Rembrandt to the autobiographical symbolism in Frida Kahlo. For the case of Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, I contend that one of the main subversive strategies in its autobiographical was the attack on “what he calls one of the most dominant myths of the century, that an artist cannot be meaningfully married, with a sketch of how his wife has inspired and helped to make all of his films…I would say (Brakhage says) I grew very quickly as a film artist once I got rid of drama as prime source of inspiration. I began to feel all history, all life, all that I would have as material with which to work” (5).
Brakhage began working on Dog Star Man allegedly between 1959-1964, when the family –his wife and two daughters- were living with his wife’s parents in their mountain house in Colorado, finally settling in 1964 in a log cabin in Lump Gulch, a largely abandoned mining area above Boulder. “Brakhage’s films became largely preoccupied with the dailiness of his family life in the wilderness and the more general human concerns they reflected, ‘Birth, death, sex and the search for God’, as he summarized in his first long statement of his aesthetics, the monograph, Metaphors on Vision” (6). However, I contend that Dog Star Man concerns expands over abstractions about death and life; moreover Dog Star Man acts out a performative presentation of self, whereas the self is a permanent negotiation between the many-layered activities of a personal point of view as a public experience and the recognition “of a fundamentally domestic cinema, an art version of home movies in which family life and the filmmaking it engendered were lived as an aesthetic process” (7).
Dog Star Man is a series of states, a dynamic product different from the static views offered by family photographs, giving priority to non-figurative images by manipulating its construction or deconstruction of, by other means than the mechanical duplication of reality (images drawn by hand, scratched and manipulated through optical printing), blocking the process of production of a narrative. “Thus subverts the dominant codes which assumes linearity and spatio-temporal cohesiveness and traditional narrative structures” (8).
It is precisely because of its obtuse and multilayered narrative that Dog Star Man has been considered for many years as a mythical film, charged with symbolism. As P. Adams Sitney says in his analysis: “Brakhage zooms in repeatedly on the screaming infant as if moving the camera in sympathy with his cries… Lastly, he watches the spasmodic movements of the feet and hands. The effect of these scenes is to present a catalogue of the senses: the birth of sight, of hearing, and the haptic complex evoked by the kicking feet and waving fists…The second figure in this sequence, a black-and-white image of bodies making love, also appeared in Part One, where it stood out as a rupture in the logic of the woodman’s drama. There I called attention to an unexplained image of childbirth…The occurrence of the shot of the Dog Star Man chopping wood early in this narrative renders that gesture a metaphor for lovemaking. Then a dynamic eruption of a solar corona, covered with emulsion scratches at the moment of the flame burst, symbolizes the orgasm”. (9).
To present a catalogue of the senses, bodies making love as a rupture in the logic of the woodman’s drama, the Dog Star Man chopping wood as a metaphor for lovemaking, a dynamic eruption of a solar corona symbolizing the orgasm. These are selections of P. Adams Sitney interpretations, which I don’t think I need to elaborate lot on them, are in serious need of reconsideration. Perhaps we should listen to Brakhage own words as he describes his process when making Dog Star Man: “I have worked alone and at home, on films of seemingly no commercial value at home. As these home movies have come to be valued, have grown into a public life, I have come to be called a ‘professional’, an ‘artist’, and an ‘amateur’. Of those three terms, the last one –‘amateur’– is the one I am truly most honored by… I am guided primarily in all creative dimensions by the spirit of the home in which I’m living, by my own very living room… The amateur photographs the persons, places, and objects of his love and the events of his happiness and personal importance in a gesture that can act directly and solely according to the needs of memory” (10).
The notion of memory keeps coming up. No matter how complex or obtuse memory-strategies are, or the ways in which the work addresses them, it is the skill and ability of the artist –Brakhage in this case-, to return to the past, gathering and binding altogether those primordial experiences. “The artist’s ability to set the past within a social or collective framework is also vital to the success of memory” (11). We are made of memory. The emergence of the study of memory and its relationship to culture, foregrounds the notion of a bounded-coherent self. “A coherent self who comes to be understood as the ‘container’ or possessor of memory. The distinction of an ‘outside’ of happenings and an ‘inside’ of their remembrance is inextricably connected with the emergence of this bounded subject” (12). This bounded subject re-enacts not only a performative act of memory, but also and precisely through this externalization of memory, creates a sort of counter-memory, providing ideological and political alternatives to previous historicisations of the past. Brakhage’s Dog Star Man interrogates the ideological characteristics of the nuclear family model as the predominant form of amateur media practice, thus, rejecting a static model of the home movie and the autobiographical commonly at service of bourgeois social reproduction.
The home mode in Brakhage’s Dog Star Man deviates from normative representations of the nuclear family by foregrounding personal struggles and anxiety. These emotions are not commonly found in home movies. Home movies usually are a reiteration of culturally structured values, reaffirming themes of stability, conformity to norms, and maintenance of ethnocentric values. Brakhage presents us a different home movie charged with conflicting values, as the normative head of the nuclear family (Brakhage himself), is involved in a re-negotiation of the self, challenging the notion of a coherent and integrated nuclear family and changing the social and power relations that shapes the contours of home movie practices.
Brakhage’s Dog Star Man expresses a different kind of consensus, undermining dominant ideologies of stability and middle class values largely found and perpetuated in home movies. By re-writing himself, Brakhage not only exteriorizes a personal point of view, which is ultimately the norm in the essay form, but performs an entirely new negotiation of the world, re-enacting a place to reclaim lost and marginalised histories. ‘The essay film do not create new forms of experimentation, realism, or narrative; they rethink existing ones as a dialogue of ideas” (13). The memorialization of our place in the world and the struggle that comes with it, is as vital as ever for knowledge of the self and for knowledge of the world.
I would like to conclude with a fragment of a dialogue between Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, which summarizes very well my personal interpretation on Brakhage’s Dog Star Man:
Frampton: Everyone’s likewise free to make up his own Stan Brakhage.
Brakhage: Right. Absolutely right (14).
(1) E. James, David, ed. Stan Brakhage Filmmaker, Temple University Press, 2005. P: 11.
(2) Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne after Marker. Oxford University Press, 2011. P: 6.
(3) Ibid at P: 15.
(4) R. McPherson, Bruce, ed. Essential Brakhage. Selected writings by Stan Brakhage. New York, McPherson & Company, 2001. P: 149.
(5) Adams, Sitney P.. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. P: 165.
(6) E. James, David, ed. Stan Brakhage Filmmaker, Temple University Press, 2005. P: 3.
(7) Ibid at P: 4.
(8) John G. Hanhardt. “The Medium Viewed: American Avant-Garde Film”, in A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, ed. Marilyn Singer. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1976. P: 29.
(9) Adams, Sitney P.. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. P: 199-201.
(10) R. McPherson, Bruce, ed. Essential Brakhage. Selected writings by Stan Brakhage. New York, McPherson & Company, 2001. P: 142, 150, 149.
(11) Gibbons, Joan. Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance: I.B. Tauris, London, 2007. P: 147.
(12) Hodgkin, Katharine and Susannaha Radstone, eds. Regimes of Memory: Routledge, London, 2003. P: 3.
(13) Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne after Marker. Oxford University Press, 2011. P: 51.
(14) “Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) Talking”, in Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964–1980, ed. Robert Haller. New York: Treacle Pr, 1982. P: 174.