Wednesday, December 5, 2007

on the act of seeing with one's own eyes, by stan brakhage

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper, but is rather an entry for Short Film Week, organized by Ed Howard (Only the Cinema) and Jeff Ignatius (Culture Snob).]

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 things—a body cut apart on a table, a scalpel moving through flesh, a hand removing organs from a cavity—and 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.


Ed Howard said...

Thanks for posting, Jeremy, this is a good essay on this very interesting but difficult film. I've also written about the whole Pittsburgh Trilogy after a recent screening. Seeing all three films together confirmed my impression that the goal of Act is not to horrify or frighten or disgust, but to provoke thought and careful contemplation on the facts of mortality and our biological foundations. Even the title of the film implies this, suggesting that we should see these things for ourselves. All three films in this trilogy are about seeing and considering things that we normally take for granted: in the first two, some basic societal structures designed to stave off mortality, and in the third, the biological foundations of our bodies themselves.

jpb said...

I'd love to see the other two, but since they're not available I think i just have to wait until someone organizes a screening. Sigh.

The three of them, taken together, are feature-length: I wish that someone like Criterion would release them as a set.

Ed Howard said...

I don't really get why Criterion didn't try to include them in the DVD set in the first place. Any of the films can stand alone quite easily, but viewed as a trilogy they inform and comment on each other, and there are interesting thematic and aesthetic links between the three films. Hopefully they'll be in the next Criterion set, and hopefully that won't be long from now, either.

I wish more Brakhage was out on DVD, period, in fact. My hazy memory of a screening of A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea pegs it as a long-form masterpiece, a study in varying shades of blue, and I'd love to see that one again, along with dozens of others I haven't had a chance to see yet.

Walter Biggins said...

Terrific write-up, JPB. I particularly like the idea of Brakhage's documentary films as forms of diaries. What gets me about the movie is that, no matter how unsettling it is, it's continually compelling and even rhythmic. I wonder if the absence allows us to, eventually, aestheticize what we're watching. (If I actually heard flesh ripping, I doubt I could have finished the movie.) It's horrifying and I can't quite wrap my mind around what I'm seeing, but it pulls you in inexorably--sort of like death itself.

jpb said...

I don't really get why Criterion didn't try to include them in the DVD set in the first place.

I can cut them some slack, just because the Brakhage set is already two discs, both fully packed. The Pittsburgh Documents-- all three of them together --are somewhere around ninety minutes, which means they'd basically have to form a third disc all to themselves, unless you wanted to cut something else.

I guess I'm just hoping that the Brakhage set is just the first of a series of projects getting Brakhage's work out there on DVD, rather than a one-stop destination, but I guess we'll see.