The history of film as a means of individual artistic expression has its beginnings in the 1890s and early twentieth century. In those "primitive" years there were neither aesthetic rules nor an established commercial industry, and a sense of wonder and astonishment pervaded the inventive first decade of moving pictures. Then, after the First World War, the artistic energies of the artists of the European avant-garde in the 1920s spilled over into film, generating a second period of highly creative uses of film for personal expression. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau, among others, made films during this decade.
In the United States, this artistic energy blossomed during the 1940s with the work of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, James and John Whitney, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson, and many more. The four decades since World War II have seen an extraordinarily rich and varied creative activity in experimental film in the United States. Much of this activity has had strong ties with other art forms, including abstract expressionism, pop art, and structuralism, as well as with the literature of the Beat Generation and performance art of the 1970s.
Stan Brakhage has been a central figure in the history of this cinema. He began working in film after dropping out of Dartmouth College in the early 50s, and has been extremely prolific for the subsequent three decades, with close to 200 completed films to date. His relationship with musicians, visual artists, and writers was a formative factor in his work, even to the extent that his 1955 film The Wonder Ring was made for Joseph Cornell, (an artist who had himself
Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man
made films). Brakhage's recognition as a major American artist was assured by 1973 when, in January of that year, half of an entire issue of Art forum was devoted to his work, a highly exceptional emphasis on a single artist by that perceptive and prestigious journal.
Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961-64), of which the Museum of Art purchased a print in 1971 as an addition to its film study collection of experimental films, is a watershed work in his career and in the development of the American avant-garde. During the 1950s Brakhage had developed a stylistic vocabulary in which very short pieces of film were often superimposed with other images; they were sometimes further manipulated by painting, scratching, and baking. The result was a high velocity of shifting forms conducive to an almost hypnotic viewing rapture. These early films, usually from five to twelve minutes of intensely crafted material, conveyed in rich textures and fleeting images fragments of Brakhage's personal life and internal experiences. Scholar P. Adams Sitney, in his classic history of the American avant-garde, Visionary Film, has compared these Brakhage films to the lyric poetry of Wordsworth and other Romantic writers.
Brakage's Dog Star Man, six times the length of all but one of his previous films and far more ambitious in its mythic material, is then comparable to the work of Romantic epic poets, particularly Blake. As Sitney has written, Dog Star Man
"stations itself within the rhetoric of Romanticism, describes the birth of consciousness, the cycle of the seasons, man's struggle with nature, and sexual balance in the visual
Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man
evocation of a fallen titan bearing the cosmic name of Dog Star Man." (p. 173)
Dog Star Man draws on the previous decade of the American avant-garde in that Brakhage himself is seen in the film as the protagonist, as was often the case in the "psychodrama" of the 1940s and 50s. In addition, the visual material of Dog Star Man contains personal imagery of Brakhage's children, wife, and friends in the course of birth, love, and daily activity, all comparable to the material which formed the basis of Brakhage's earlier lyric works. However, Dog Star Man was an entirely new departure in the visual density of its layers of superimposed images, and in the complexity of its mythic themes of Man and cosmos. During the unfolding of its five-part structure, with shifting macrocosmic and microcosmic imagery, scenes of night move to dawn and midday ; scenes of
winter are replaced by images of spring and summer; and as the man seen struggling manages to chop down the tree, "there's a Fall -- the fall back to somewhere, mid-winter" (Brakhage).
Dog Star Man established a precedent for a new level of aesthetic ambition and thematic scope in the American avant-garde. It is a major monument in the history of film not only for its own accomplishments but also for the degree to which it sanctioned and inspired a new generation of personal filmmaking.