Watching both Prelude: Dog Star Man (1961, Stan Brakhage) and Scorpio Rising (1963, Bruce Byron) was a pretty new experience to me, aside from what we watched in class on Tuesday the only other thing that I’ve seen that I would think is akin to experimental film is Duality ( 2014, Captain Murphy) which is a film that is a music video for the entire album, after having discussing experimental film in class and watching both of the aforementioned films it is quite obvious that Duality gets a lot of its inspiration from such films as Dog Star Man. What surprised me most about both films Is how well they managed to keep my attention, not once during either film did I find myself wandering in thought I was completely involved in what I was consuming, attempting to understand what I was watching and what each film was trying to convey. In the case of Prelude: Dog Star Man most of my energy when to interpreting the image on screen and with the rapid cuts and distortion I was left with little time to piece it all together and try to make meaning of it all. What I was able to take away from Prelude: Dog Star Man is the collision of the worlds of man, dog and star, what I mean by that is that nearly every shot in the film was of a man, nature, or the sun, and they were strung together showing they are in conflict but also how they are all one. With each of the three subjects taking up about the same screen time it suggest to me that they were some sort of trinity and the result is the Dog Star Man, a mystical figure made up of nature flesh and the cosmos, as far as what the Dog Star Mans purpose is and why he exist and what message Brakhage is attempting to tell us is still a mystery to me, maybe if I watch the entirety of Dog Star Man I could answer these question though I have the feeling ill only be left with more questions. Scorpio Rising (1963, Bruce Byron) was a very different viewing experience from Dog Star Man, with Scorpio Rising much like in Dog Star Man I was intently focused on the film and trying to comprehend it, however unlike in Dog Star Man though out the film I knew what I was looking at and so my thoughts were more on what this all means together. That being said I still have no real sense of what I was intended to take away from the film, I got that Anger was drawing a connection between Christianity the homosexual bikers and Nazis but I’m not sure what he’s saying by lumping the three together or who the film is really critical of.
Interesting note about what Professor Zinman said in class about studying experimental film to prepare us for ambiguity in the world, the author makes a point here that “the work generally doesn’t aspire to what is often meant by purity; instead, it’s chock-full of the conflicting emotions and general messiness of life itself.” This is heavily contrasted with many classical movies where the goal of the director is to make the audience feel an emotion in line with what he is trying to convey. Brakhage seems to be approaching the topic as trying to make you feel any emotion, perhaps many emotions, at any time.
Naturally there are a group of people who express distaste for the types of film Brakhage creates, but if the goal is to elicit emotion, then perhaps it could be counted as a success if you dislike the film enough to emotionally react to it.
That is not to say that any emotion is free to express at any time throughout the film. In films in general, there are designated sections where “some characters and scenes evoke empathy and others create tension and fear. These emotions are provoked primarily by the subject matter… but while subject matter is important in Brakhage’s films, they do their work mainly through composition, camera movement, rhythms within images, and the rhythms of editing or paint on the film.” That is to say that Brakhage aims for causing certain emotions with things that are not typically associated with it. While talking about the predetermined forms and story arc structures of most narratives, the article says “all were to be undermined because they block the individual from experiencing the unpredictability of inner life.” This goes back to the life lesson of not always being prepared for something and having to react real time to life.
The first thing I thought about during our class on Tuesday was this song:
It is a fun song that lampoons the idea of an amateur making an experimental film (or maybe the idea of experimental film in general). It has some fun lines, like: “I already know the ending, its the part that makes your face implode, I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends”. This line in particular, in some way, parallels the grand ideas that these films are supposed to convey. For example, the idea that Dog Star Man is a creation myth or that Un Chien Anadalou would be extremely upsetting to the bourgeoisie at the time. However, I didn’t want to just pick this song since I really don’t think it has too much to say beyond “haha, aren’t those artists and experimental films strange?”.
This article goes into a bit into the history of archival footage:
Archival footage has become a business, but at the time Bruce Conner created A Movie most archival footage was old government stock. Material film is highly flammable, so storing it in the past posed difficulties. However, digitizing old footage has made it both easier to store and retrieve. I would be curious to see a movie similar to A Movie made today with digital editing, and compare the differences.
To tie to all together, They Might be Giants use a large variety of different sounds and genres. However, their entire catalog is immediately recognizable. Similarly, the making of A Movie didn’t involve any actual filming and used stock footage throughout, but has a very distinct feel and narrative.
After having read some information on Stan Brakhage and his themes and practices, I understand what I was seeing (or more, the intent behind what I was seeing) more clearly now. The constant motion in the film aligns with the representation of “moving visual thinking”. Also that Brakhage did indeed hand-paint his films. The layers of colors and dots of stars/moons also make sense to me now as being an attempt of Brakhage to represent optical feedback.
This film was truly unlike anything I had ever seen. I want to know a bit more about the exact techniques that Brakhage used to make his films. Also, could the title be related to the imagery of the film?
This article attempts to define what constitutes experimental film, and argues for its defiance of rules as a method of furthering the language of cinema. This can range from Kubrick’s hugely impactful innovation of technical methods to “Kren’s 16/67 September 20th, dubbed the ‘Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Film’ [which] involves clips of exactly what the title suggests, and seems to exist to shock its audience purely by portraying this human cycle.” The author emphasizes an approach to defining experimental film as a work that pushes or defies some aspect of what is expected by an audience. Film has inherently captured the nature of experimentation from its inception, with cumulative innovation driving growth in the techniques and storytelling devices used by directors. On the spectrum detailed by the author, the end farthest from convention approaches “visual art, with each technical choice being like the purposeful strokes on a canvas.” This article works to capture the facets of experimental film, with a broad range allowing for the inclusion of those films that edge the mainstream envelope ever further to fall in the same category as extreme works of visual manipulation. It argues that these films are often created to draw attention to the nature of our expectations by turning them on their head or making us painfully aware of how heavily we rely on convention. Regardless of its creator’s intent, experimental film is a driving force of innovation and an ongoing conversation between artist and audience about what can be conveyed through cinema.
Experimental film making eschews the conventions of film making, particularly continuity editing, cinematography, and sound. The unconventional elements of these combine to produce a single, overwhelming, though often hard to place, effect. These elements are center stage in Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961) and Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963). Dog Star Man showcases the experimental film’s unconventional editing and while Scorpio Rising certainly eschews conventional editing, it seems to have a more political bent.
The short film Prelude: Dog Star Man typifies many of the elements of experimental film, it was made largely by one man, it seems to lack a clear linear structure, it makes heavy use of the elements of film, and its lack of a clear message or narrative. The first element is quite simple enough to explore, the film is directed by, stars, and is edited by one man, Stan Brakhage. This sort of auteur film making typifies the genre, though it can be found elsewhere. The lack of clear linear structure is more than apparent with the film consisting mostly of short sequences of distinct shots bound together through some sort of rhythm and theme. Many shots are composed of several shots layered over each other in varying degrees of transparency, sometimes dissolving in and out. Many of these shots also feature erratic camera movement, with many short pans, tilts, push shots, and zooms. The shots often are broken up by patterns reminiscent of film grain, though these are often exaggerated. All these elements make the film seem to be a more intense version of Eisensteinian Montage, with shots matched typically by color and rhythm and then contrasted with visually or rhythmically jarring images. What this is building to, I can’t really say. Below is a shot of what could best be described as the subject of the film, the lumberjack.
While Dog Star Man seems to never follow a clear linear narrative, Scorpio Rising seems to initially follow some continuity editing conventions which degrades over time. The film begins quite heavily with continuity editing, with the major deviations from continuity editing being used for a title card, a not totally experimental feature. It features eye line matches and matches on action quite regularly. The continuity editing decays towards the end of the film with numerous disjointed shots beginning to get cut together. This becomes incredibly apparent when the film begins to cut between shots of men riding motorcycles, Jesus Christ, and a Halloween party with clear homoerotic visuals and homosexual acts. The continuity only further decays as one of the bikers enters a church with more sources of imagery, particularly Nazi emblems, Christian icons, and biking men, disjointedly added into the mix. The content of these images, as well as the way they are cut together, when into context seem to point to a more political bent for this film. The film appears to have some element of criticism of the 1950’s biker culture, typified by James Dean and Marlon Brando films, with prominent use of biker leather products combined with Nazi imagery, period music, and homosexual activity. The use of period music for the film’s score, particularly its synchronous nature with the onscreen action, was certainly influential and served as an influence for music videos and feature films alike.
Where are some places where the aesthetic of Dog Star Man has been applied? What are some other ways Scorpio Rising poses a challenge to the audience and how has it changed since its creation?
Dog Star Man (1961 ) by Stan Brakhage
The first noticeable aspect of this film is its use of dialectical montage. This is apparent because it is comprised of briefly moving images; these images briefly appear and contrast with following images. The images are seemingly unrelated but there is a constant, abstract, motifs that appear throughout the film. The first is the amber or reddish orange color that appears in the beginning. Personally, it makes me think of the surface of a new planet. (I could be wrong, but I believe new planets look molten or lava-like.) Also, it reminds me of flesh when you shine a flashlight through it or hold it close to a camera. The second images I noticed were ocean and nature related. They contrast heavily with the first, however, they are more recognizable to the viewer. Perhaps they are part of a narrative? There is also a close-up of a bearded face that appears occasionally. Is this the main character? Some times he appears with the silhouette of a thorny push which could be metaphorical prop relating to Christianity or directly to Jesus Christ, but I do not know if the director did that on purpose.
There is a lot of astronomical symbolism in the film. The moon and the sun appear most often. These appear as starkly contrasted with various colors such as black, red, or grey. Also, they contrast with the microscopic overlay that frequently appears over the images. A colorful overlay filled with moving spots often shows over the images, these could be bacteria or just any general small organism. The cosmic and microscopic imagery show the extremities of the natural world.
I am not sure whether this is accurate, but I believe this film mainly represents the beginning of something (vague I know). This is supported because this is the first part of the entire film.
Is there a narrative to this film? Or is it just random scenes?
Scorpio Rising (1963) by Kenneth Anger
This film is a more concrete and less abstract but weirdly haunting. It focuses on the activities of a counterculture youth. He is a big fan of masculine characters like James Dean and is a part of a biker subculture. He is completely fixated on his motorcycle. There is evidence he was honorable discharged from the military and continues to wear militaristic clothing. He seems to be in pursuit to be as masculine as possible.
They participate in progressive, but taboo, homosexual ritualistic activities. Even today the ritualistic and dark imagery is taboo. It can be considered satanic or occultist. Homosexuality is more accepted today; however, it still often accompanies the perception of being feminine. This film seems to challenge that. However, the occult becomes evil when we later learn it’s associated with Nazism.
What is the film saying about the counterculture? Is it progressive or regressive (pro-lgbt or pro-Nazi)? What is the director’s message?
Scorpio Rising is a 1963 experimental film staring Bruce Byron as Scorpio, who appears to be the leader of a Nazi-like biker gang.
One of the things I found noteworthy while watching this film is how it appears to be a prelude to music videos. There are various songs dispersed throughout the film that correspond to the images on the screen. To me, the songs cut up the film and tell separate, yet interconnected stories and touch on different themes, whether it be longing, love, rejection, rebellion, or torture. To the best of my knowledge, music videos weren’t big until the 80s, so to see this style in a film from the 60s was very interesting. It really shows how elements of past film culture can be incorporated into modern day film and art. I have included a clip that shows this below, where some of the “Jesus imagery” begins in the film. You can see that as the song talks about “the way he shuffles his feet” and “how he goes walking by”, we see the biker’s feet moving along with crosscutting to sequences that feature Jesus walking. There are many connections between the words of the song and the images on screen that give it a music video feel.
Below, I have linked an article from the website “Senses of Cinema”, which touches on the music video aspect of Scorpio Rising and also does a great job of analyzing the film in more depth. I think it’s worth a read as it analyzes the film without being too subjective, allowing the viewer to still draw their own conclusions.
Article 1 “Senses of Cinema”: http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/cteq/scorpio-rising/
I also found another article that I think is really helpful in dissecting the film, linked here: https://walkerart.org/magazine/a-listeners-guide-to-kenneth-angers-scorpio-rising. It features each of the songs used in the film and goes over some common themes of the songs and how they were relevant to the film. The author of the article also points out that all of the songs in the film are love songs. I definitely noticed this about the film, but didn’t realize that EVERY one of the songs was a love song. The use of love songs over imagery of hate, rebellion, and crime is a very ironic parallel and it almost makes the events taking place on screen seem less severe. For example, at one point in the film, there is a lot of Nazi imagery, but playing along with the imagery is a song about love. What do you make of this combination?
Although the short film is full of powerful, shocking, and sometimes unsettling visual imagery, the soundtrack in Scorpio Rising stood out to me as the film’s most influential element. The 60’s themed music filled the void created by the lack of any diegetic sound or dialogue with hit pop or rock songs that fit the theme of each scene. This can be seen in one of the first scenes where Scorpio is working on his motorcycle. The song Wind Up Doll compliments the physical but quiet scene by playing “wind up noises” right as Scorpio is using his wrench, acting in an almost diegetic manner. This makes the scene feel more realistic since expected sounds can be heard, allowing for a more immersive experience for the viewer.
The soundtrack also complimented the otherwise soundless film by providing context that may have not been as easily implied without it. Take the “I Will Follow” scene for example:
The lyrics “…and where he goes I’ll follow…” are played repeatedly accompanying images of both Jesus and a character dressed in all black. This song, as well as the clips of Jesus, allow the viewer to imply exactly who this man is and what his role is in the organization with no other context. Without the music or the accompanying clips, he seems to be nothing more than a man standing alone on what appears to be a stage. However, the music changes the whole meaning of the scene and establishes him as a leader with the same kind of influence as Jesus.
Is the role that the soundtrack plays in this film strictly reserved for experimental films? Can you think of any mainstream films where the soundtrack is as important as it is in Scorpio Rising? Which film had the better soundtrack: Scorpio Rising or Dog Star Man?
Throughout Kenneth Anger’s 1963 short film Scorpio Rising, shots of christianity and Jesus are intercut between the actions of the homosexual, nazi bikers. Shots of Jesus walking with his disciples, healing blind men, and riding his donkey are shown at the same time as the bikers partying and riding their motorcycles. Shown directly next to each other, the differences between their teachings were emphasized greatly. Jesus taught peace and love, the nazi bikers taught hate and violence. Christianity is generally against homosexuality, the bikers were all gay and vain, taking great pride in their clothing and how they looked. However, even with all the differences between the two groups, there was a parallelism between their beliefs and actions. They were both shown doing similar things at the same time, such as Jesus riding his donkey and the bikers on their bikes. The bikers also had leaders they looked up to and followed, similar to the Christians, but these heroes were the actors from biker movies, the club leaders, and Hitler. I believe that while promoting the differences between the two groups beliefs, Anger was also trying to show just how similar they can actually be.
Do you think that Scorpio Rising is a religious film? Is there a parallel between the gay nazi bikers and Christianity? How do these similarities both emphasize and hide their differences?