So when I wrote my digression on experimental film, this was one of the reasons why. I’d actually tried to watch a bit of it prior, on an evening after work, but the imagery and technique was so opaque that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it and tried again later. It’s not something you can give a casual glance at all.
I could tell that I was supposed to be getting some kind of plot or message from this film. The whole thing is completely silent, and consists of a chaotic jumble of frequently-recurring shots – a man and a dog climbing a mountain in the snow, the moon over a woody landscape, lights from cars on a city street at night, astronomical footage of solar flares. Every so often we see a nude woman’s torso or a baby. Towards the end the man reaches a tree and gets to work chopping it down.
The problem is that filmmaker Stan Brakhage intentionally altered the physical film with scratches or holes, superimposes one image on another, or uses color washes or slow motion or weird super-high-focus closeups – so most of the time I could have spent puzzling a story out of the images I saw was spent squinting at the screen trying to see what the images even were. Was it dog’s fur I was looking at, or the man’s beard? Or the woman’s vulva? Or moss? Or just scratches in the film again, or – wait, now we’ve shifted to the city street, is this – and it’s gone, and we’re looking at the baby again. Or – are we? Is that a baby or the moon?
I wanted to understand this film. I really did. I saw enough of it to get tantalized with the idea that it might be a poetic metaphor of sorts – that maybe the man was struggling up the mountain in search of firewood, and the repeated shots of the woman and baby were his thoughts about his family and the repeated city streets were maybe a life of comfort he’d abandoned for this starker one. Or maybe this was a post-apocalyptic tale. The problem was that I felt I was missing parts of the story, simply because I couldn’t see them – and I was left frustrated and confused.
This apparently was Brakhage’s style, though. Or at least it became his style. I did something a bit unusual and looked up an earlier film of his, one not on the list – Window Water Baby Moving, a short experimental film about the home birth of his daughter Myrrena. That film is short, and has similarly disjointed images – but those images are on the whole much clearer: his wife Jane’s pregnant belly in the birthing pool, her face as she cries out in pain, his hands entwined comfortingly in hers, Myrrena’s head crowning. And poignantly, at the end, there are several shots of Brakhage laughing into the camera, dazed and wonderstruck. There’s a bit of scratching on the film in some places, but you can still see what the hell it is you’re looking at.
By contrast – sometime after that film, and after Dog Star Man, Brakhage made another film, Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, about the birth of his third child. He felt that Window Water Baby Moving somehow didn’t capture his emotional response accurately enough, and considered Thigh Line Lyre Triangular to be closer to the mark. But from the reviews I’ve read, Brakhage piles on even more of the kind of scratching and film altering that caused me so much frustration with Dog Star Man – to the point that you can’t see anything at all except for abstract patterns.
Somehow it feels like Brakhage wanted to have things both ways – that he didn’t want me to see the very thing he was showing me. Ultimately I was left frustrated and dissatisfied, and wondering why he’d bothered.