Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On the mechanisms of expanded cinema: a close look at Dog Star Man and xx.xx.xx

I propose to analyse Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961-1964), comprehending how his characteristic approach manifests itself specifically in this particular piece and by which mechanisms it becomes a piece of expanded cinema. My goal in doing so is to shed light into the reasoning and making of my group’s project this term, by comparing it to Brakhage’s practice. However, I will also try to explore briefly how the contrasts of our works might be a consequence of the technological and social changes occurred in the fifty years that separate them.

To facilitate the understanding of the comparisons I am going to make I shall first describe our project. It consisted of a three-screen projection of a three-minute mood portrait of London. The images are disposed in a straight line, each screen complementing each other, being more of an expansion of each other rather than having independent signifying purposes. The images are abstracted and the audience is led through the experience by sound. The project also comprises manifestations in other mediums, however they serve only as promotion to this experience. There is a webpage with a twenty-second three-screen video of a similar sort to the main production and also a mobile phone piece that consists of a written manifesto.

The will to analyse this particular piece in relation to my group's project was instigated by a passage in Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema where he describes the workings of the relationships between images in Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961-1964), which stood out to me as practically identical to the system we were conceiving to construct our piece. In this passage, he defends that Dog Star Man is not:

a nonobjective experience. The images develop their own syntactical meaning and a 'narrative' line is perceived, though the meaning of any given image may change in the context of different sequences. This constitutes a creative use of the language itself, over and above any particular 'content' conveyed by that language. (1970: 90)

Our particular keenness in approaching image in this way was central to constructing and accepting our project as a piece of expanded cinema since even at the confusing beginning we felt that there needed to be a level of experience for the audience that transcended our control and manipulation. The whole enterprise of expanded cinema comes across as an intention of transforming the medium into an event that can respond more fully to the demands of contemporary human reality. In his introduction to Expanded Cinema, Buckminster Fuller points out that ‘technology is decentralizing and individualizing the communication channels of humanity’ (1970: 42) which is to say that the sphere of individual experience has grown to its fullest potential through the means of technology, admittedly being reckoned as the only possible space of communication since it even excludes the possibility of a shared experience, in its complete conception. Therefore, it would be besides the point trying to impose a strict, integral message onto the audience because that would be ignoring the basic premise of our present society that any transmission between two parts will always be altered by their idiosyncratic interchange with reality.

In addition, the appearance of the internet and the specific form and rhythms of its language has modeled the structure of thoughts in the latest generations, as it has been very recently discussed in the BBC documentary series The Virtual Revolution. Professor David Nicholas at University College London conducted a study that revealed younger generations ‘answered a question after looking at half a number of web pages – and spent only one sixth of the time viewing the information – than their elders.’[1] Further discussed on this documentary is that because of their handling of this medium during the years when their brains are still very actively creating new connections, these more recent generations have developed a tendency to associative thinking, so strong that there is almost an inability to follow linear thinking. In terms of what they might expect from a cinematic experience, we can safely predict that there will be little interest for very restricted forms of communication where undivided attention is called for and totality of meaning is provided simply because they will not know how to deal with that. Expanded cinema foresaw this and worked on liberating perhaps the audience from this suspension of disbelief that must provide one with a whole reality to sustain itself. The synaesthetic cinema that Youngblood defends seems closer to appease this new way of structuring thought, simply because ‘through synaesthetic cinema man attempts to express a total phenomenon— his own consciousness.’ (1970: 74).

Going back to Brakhage and Dog Star Man, this concept of expressing a consciousness is perhaps what best defines his attempts within his film-work, and that which I can connect more tightly into our project. Malcolm Le Grice has described it as ‘epitomising the direction of personal, visionary cinema, establishing, more than any other film-maker’s, the camera as heroic protagonist.’ (1977: 88) Answering Vertov, when he announces as ‘the genuine purpose of the movie-camera: the exploration of life itself’ (1984: 69), Brakhage has used the camera and the actual medium in a most active way. In ‘Prelude’ (the first installment of Dog Star Man, finished in 1961) he presents a collage of moving images that momentarily superimpose, instead of cutting from one to the other, at a fast pace for nearly twenty-five minutes. The sheer amount of shots, rhythm and some of the techniques used, like painting and scratching on the celluloid, render obsolete any attempt to establish concrete meanings in the relationships between the images. Youngblood describes it best when he says ‘we are not asked to interpret this as the creation of life or some similar dramatic notion, but rather as a perceptual experience for its own sake, in addition to the contextual relationship of this image to the rest of the film, or what Eisenstein indicated by the term intellectual montage(1970: 88). Though this is a very personal and intuitive construction of visual elements, it remains open to multiple and simultaneous readings.

Despite having limited content exploration to his own subjective experience, his practical efforts to recreate in the medium the particularities of his own visual sensations make it universally valid, for it is one of the Art’s practical goals to allow one to ‘confront oneself— but aspects of oneself previously unrecognized’ (Youngblood, 1970: 60) through 'the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen’ (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959: 31). That Brakhage chooses to approach his work through what Le Grice calls ‘Romantic Expressionist content’ (1977: 89) is a consequence of his Surrealist influences and responds in advance to the dictatorship of the overblown individual perception that we seem to be experiencing nowadays. There was a similar concern when building our project, which was to keep ourselves at a reasonable distance not to constrict the piece in such a way that it became closed but allowing ourselves to feed personal aesthetic motives into it and to let a certain mood come through our automatic handling of the camera (in this case, filming in digital video) in response to the environment surrounding us (time, space and social context). Consequently, where Brakhage decided to act physically onto the material to make it closer to a subjective reality that he felt, we acted through the elements that the digital medium allowed us to – shutter speed, exposure, white balance, size, format, codec – to the same effect. Moreover, there were seven realities (the number of people in the group) being manifested through the different processes of the making of this piece, which extend the intersubjective plan beyond the viewing experience because it already existed during the creation of the piece. Each of these seven individual entities, though working in association, had an independent crucial moment in the process where they were able to feed their unique vantage point into it.

Another interesting point of contrast between our own work and Brakhage’s is how the narrative is built into it. From ‘Part 1’ to ‘Part 4’ in Dog Star Man, we follow an epic narrative of a man and a dog in a journey up the mountain. In an interview with Colin Still in 1996, Brakhage reckons that ‘Dog Star Man, played out on all of its mythopoetical levels, can encompass the whole of human endeavour’[2] as, on his journey, the man finds a dead tree and chops it down to use as firewood for his family. Even though he leaves the camera-work and editing to an intuitive level, he is very much concerned with constructing this poetic myth in his film so we follow a rather loose, ambiguous and generic story of a family in a wild, sort of primeval environment – one could describe it as the paradigm of a mythical epic scenario. This narrative is conveyed through his performance most of the time, in conjuction with images of a woman, a baby and a dog - still here, it is his subjective experience feeding into the film. However, through his editing technique, a kind of extra-subjectivity is yet again achieved. Le Grice elaborates on it:

At the level of image association he develops a form of Joycean stream of consciousness, using rapid intercutting to establish a ‘cluster’ of psycho-montage, an extension from Surrealist form. (...) Brakhage’s essential artistic process is one of impulsive selection and construction, never constraining himself by preconception of didactic procedure. (…) Structure or form in this kind of process is not a priori, but the result of a search for ‘a logic’ during the selection and construction process. (1977: 90)

Particularly in ‘Part 1’, the successive display of images where there is an apparent repetition of the action in an unchanging scenario delivers them not as a continuous stream of events, but instead as a harmonic multiplicity of perspectives that exist simultaneously and therefore become a more faithful portrait of reality, as it can exist intersubjectively. Youngblood describes it once again as Brakhage’s attempt to express ‘the totality of consciousness, the reality continuum of the living present’ where ‘both time and space are subsumed in the wholeness of the experience’ (1970: 88).

However, in our own piece, narrative is explored through sound, an element that Brakhage decided to ignore in the making of Dog Star Man and in most of his work. Maureem Cheryn Turim sees Brakhage’s use of silence ‘as not only signifying interiority of vision, but also as functioning to emphasise the exploration of the physical properties of cinematographic registration.’ (1978: 30). This perspective did not interest us as we feel we must stimulate as many senses as the medium is supposed to reach since in our information overloaded current existence, an only partially explored experience is easily disregarded. Furthermore, we were interested in the paradoxical process of manipulation of sound, which allows us to create a concrete narrative through abstracting recordings in foley. That is to say that we could play around with the elements of the medium – speed, volume and depth – but construct sounds that would appear real. So, the narrative in our case was not as identifiable as in Dog Star Man, it was more of a realist construction of the city’s cycle, therefore narrative because the audience could identify specific sounds that are very closely related to their reality and create relations between them, through their own personal bank of data (like the informative voice in the bus, the breathing of a human being and ethnic music picked up in the middle of a market). It is an intrinsically different concept of narrative, which completely depends on the audience’s experience and perhaps it should even be considered as non-narrative.

This idea, which I think links both Brakhage’s and our projects, that the piece completes itself in the experience of the audience, possibly not even during the viewing nor immediately after, but at a simultaneous moment when the making and the impact of the piece overlap and reveal an aspect of (or even a full) reality in the viewer’s experience – that is when the viewer becomes a participant and Youngblood’s words transcend themselves:

We're in direct contact with the human condition; there's no longer any need to represent it through art. Not only does this release cinema; it virtually forces cinema to move beyond the objective human condition into newer extra-objective territory. (1970: 88)


Cheryn Turim, M. (1978) Abstraction in Avant-Garde Films. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Reasearch Press.

Hein, B. ‘The Structural Film’ in Hayward Gallery’s catalogue (1979), Film as film: formal experiment in film 1910-1975. London: the Arts Council of Great Britain

Le Grice, M. (1977) Abstract film and beyond. London: Cassell & Collier Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Michelson, A (1984) Kino-Eye: the writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press Ltd.

Rees, A. L. (1999) A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: BFI Publishing

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1959) The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row

Youngblood, G. (1970) Expanded Cinema. New York: P. Dutton & Co., Inc.


Dog Star Man. Dir. Stan Brakhage (1961-1964)

by Brakhage: an anthology. The Criterion Collection. (2003)

The Virtual Revolution: ‘Homo Interneticus’. BBC Television, dir. Molly Milton, coordinated and presented by Aleks Krotoski, transmitted March 3, 2010, 60 minutes.

Other resources

Daily Mail online article, ‘Internet ‘rewires our brains’ and makes teenagers vulnerable to mental illness’.

Retrieved March 10, 2010 from

[1] transcribed from online Daily Mail article, ‘Internet ‘rewires our brains’ and makes teenagers vulnerable to mental illness’. Retrieved March 10, 2010 from

[2] transcribed from an audio commentary in by Brakhage: an anthology. The Criterion Collection (2003).