Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) is perhaps best remembered for his abstract, hand-painted films, but he also did a number of films that, for lack of a better word, we might call "documentaries"although Brakhage's films are radically more personal than most documentaries. Think of them, perhaps, more like records of things seen, documentary in the same way a diary is documentary.
In 1971, Brakhage completes a set of three of these "documentaries," known collectively as "The Pittsburgh Documents." They include: "eyes," covering three days of activity witnessed while riding around the city with a pair of policemen; "Deus Ex," shot in the surgery wing of a hospital, including footage of open-heart surgery; and "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," also shot in a hospital, but this time in the coroner's area.
"Act" is widely available (it is included on the By Brakhage 2-disc set available via Criterion), and before viewing it the good people at Criterion gently warn you to "please be advised," for "this film consists entirely of footage of actual autopsies." And so it does.
They are perhaps right to warn you, for many of the images in this film are difficult to look at, and once seen, they are difficult to un-see. (As is my fashion, I've included some stills with this write-up, but I've hidden them behind a cut to protect the squeamish.) Brakhage himself, in an interview with Richard Grossinger (collected in the Brakhage Scrapbook (scavenged here)), writes about the experience of filming in these terms:
"I just began photographing desperately. I really overshot because I was so desperate to always keep the camera going; every moment I stopped photographing I really felt like I might faint, or burst into tears, or come apart, or something like that."
And yet I don't think it is Brakhage's intent to terrify us with this film. Over and over in his writings he has said that his intent is only to be faithful to certain types of experience, to use film to aid us in seeing things that he has seen: certain qualities of light, etc. (Prior to screenings of "Act," Brakhage reportedly said to audiences "that it was nothing to be afraid of, it was only about light hitting objects and bouncing back and seeing it with your eyes.") If Brakhage wants us to see what the inside of a body looks like, it is likely that he thinks there is a virtue to the experience of seeing (with one's own eyes) what the inside of a body looks like. (A similar motive likely influenced his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving, a film which depicts his wife in childbirth.)
It is difficult, for me, to look at these thingsa body cut apart on a table, a scalpel moving through flesh, a hand removing organs from a cavityand not think that I am watching "violence." But is that apt? More likely this is a result of my own imaginings, my horror-film-induced ability to think of these things being done in malice to a person still living. We can perhaps critique the whole idea of an autopsy as a Western-logic act of violence in the name of dispassionate observation (possible), but unless we are willing to take that step then we must concede that there is, in fact, no violence in this film; we don't even see evidence of a callous joke at the dead's expense. No one engages in mischief like propping a Santa hat up on a corpse. What we see is carnality, as close to the reality of it as a film can get us, and when we are done watching the film we have added something to the catalogue of things we have observed. This is one way to become incrementally more complete as a human being.
Stills here, but please exercise your best judgment when considering whether or not to click.