Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements for a work of art is to acknowledge one’s ambivalence toward it. I change my mind about Dog Star Man each time I see it. Again and again I reconsider its symbols, endure its pacing and marvel at its virtuosity, and I am never able to digest it. In part, this is a good thing. I find that the best art, by and large, actively prevents one from getting too cozy with it. However, this is not the kind of uneasiness I feel watching a given film by Cassavetes, Bergman or Bresson. My ambivalence about Dog Star Man is almost strictly intellectual as opposes to the emotional discomfort and uneasiness elicited from repeated viewings of A Woman Under the Influence, Scenes from a Marriage or Une Femme Douce.
The biggest difficulty I have with Dog Star Man is the lack of narrative complexity. Despite Brakhage’s reputation for visual abstraction, this is a narrative film; make no mistake about it. It is the story of human life, the great myth of the existential journey through the figure of the filmmaker/protagonist. It is as P. Adams Sitney describes it (paraphrasing Brakhage I believe), one of the tales of the tribes. But unlike the narrative cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky that Brakhage so admired, his narrative is clunky and his symbols seem trite and loud. As a tale of the tribe, Dog Star Man comes across overdone and lacking any shade of subtlety. Yes, it is intense, messy, visceral, physically and psychologically grueling, but I wonder if the film’s effects are multi-dimensional or just singularly taxing. This is not to say that it lacks formal complexity. Dog Star Man is in fact quite adventurous formally, but I cannot help feeling that the message cannot catch up to the method.
He uses images as if they were musical notes, though Brakhage knew that this very concept was dubious. Images can never really function as notes do. He describes trying to defend his movies to Andrei Tarkovsky for precisely this reason: “I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had before Window Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming. Because he’s arguing, this isn’t music, it has symbols, things that are nameable. It was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent I’ve ever had, but it’s totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of my kind of films.” (Brakhage Meets Tarkovsky 2) I’m rather inclined to agree with Tarkovsky, at least regarding most of Brakhage’s camera films, because the ultimate effect is one of overload, rather more cacophonous than musical. A note is a note, but an image is a sign with all kinds of meanings carried with it.
This method renders Dog Star Man exceptionally challenging for first-time viewers. Why all the trees, breasts, stars, organs? A clever student will make the symbols into metaphors: trees to stars, breast to moon, etc, and there is indeed some of that to be had. A close-up of a vagina superimposed over a baby’s head followed by an image of a stained glass Madonna heavily relies on the viewer’s understanding and familiarity with a set of pre-established signs, namely the iconography of Western mythology and Christianity. But a much more ambitious sign arrangement propels Dog Star Man. Vaginas are not just vaginas anymore; dogs are not merely dogs. They are explicitly materials – images to be manipulated like two colors of paint one would mix together to come up with the desired color. That I am left unable to give these signs a denotative meaning or assign a name to these colors is quite likely the filmmaker’s intention, and possibly one of the film’s great strengths.
Documentary filmmaker, Fred Wiseman, says the problem of cinema is that the director tries to show what is inside a person by photographing his or her outside. This sounds like exactly the opposite of much of what one can see in Brakhage’s work. More than just using stock footage of the inside (cells, organs, etc.), Brakhage tries to visualize an inside and project it on the screen. Maybe scratched up celluloid, overlaid images and optical printing effects are not what you see in your mind’s eye, but for Brakhage those techniques function as metaphor. Let us be certain to understand his purpose. Brakhage does not represent the internal; metaphors do not represent, signify or stand in. Metaphors compare. They change the meanings of the things they compare. In Dog Star Man it is often difficult to distinguish between internal and external, that is the eye and the mind’s eye, even if you have a good grasp of the symbols and mythology.
This movie is about really basic stuff. Why am I here? Brakhage explores this question from various fairly well known angles – the struggle between man and nature, the miracle of birth, the simultaneous beauty and agony of sexuality, confronting the otherness of woman. All of these are pretty standard canonical tropes in the history of western literature and art. Dog Star Man is the story of the same journey we know from the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and As I Lay Dying. It is the western myth in which the protagonist first becomes self-aware, and then attempts to come to terms with his or her place in the universe by confronting and struggling against basic human fears.
Telling this story again is not Brakhage’s achievement. He makes it new. He puts the viewer through the journey all over again in his own idiosyncratic way. Even if the tropes and symbols are tired, Brakhage revives them by injecting film into the mythology. Dog Star Man is not just animals, genitalia, the human circulatory system and heavenly bodies. It is also self-conscience, deliberate and obtrusive celluloid. The western viewer will be familiar enough with the journey. One will recognize Brakhage’s concerns as the fundamental mythology of the Western world. But the experience of Dog Star Man is to be lived through, rather than discussed afterward. One must gaze upon its unique light and take part in its palpable duration. Dog Star Man is not the story of a journey; it is the journey.