Stan Brakhage: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Jun/140

Stan Brakhage: The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)

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As with other Stan Brakhage shorts, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is available in multiple venues, and can be watched here.

The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes - 1971Last year, Ryan Coogler dramatized the wasteful death of Oscar Grant in the excellent Fruitvale Station.  When films center on a tragedy, like the heightened tension that led to the officer shooting Oscar, we'll get the point of impact and maybe some scenes of the grieving family afterward.  Coogler doesn't give us any kind of break to process Oscar's passing in terms of his family and friends.  Instead, the camera follows Oscar back into the hospital where we watch as the doctors try to save his life then, once that's done, merciless minutes sitting with the body as it's being prepared for autopsy.

Coogler, by staying with the body, emphasizes that the life we saw Oscar approaching the day with is no more.  I do not know if Coogler has seen Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, but I kept thinking bad to those final moments with Oscar's body throughout Brakhage's short.  It is not nearly as experimental as Dog Star Man, but extremely difficult to watch because of the critical way his film faces death.

The "seeing", in this case, is the examination of the bodies that the doctors perform with skill and no hesitation.  Usually there's an emotional entry point to the exploration of death in film.  But there is no one to weep for these people, no story that met its conclusion with their death, and we're instead treated with the cold reality of what happens to us when we're gone.  There may be celebration or sadness to come, but that period in between is filled with the cold gaze of people who need to see clearly in order to explore death and find out what the deceased can no longer communicate.

What we watch is the unspoken conclusion of every narrative known to man.  Brakhage's decision to exclude sound from the film is an appropriate one, because we don't get lost in any of the extra tools and processes of the job these doctors have, but the slow deconstruction of the bodies that lie on the slabs.  It would have been that much more difficult to see what becomes of our bodies if we had to hear the suction hoses taking out what's left of the bodies after the organs are removed.  This also makes the last image of the doctor dictating his autopsy report into a recorder quite appropriate - the details of what he says don't matter, and do not change the truth of the death that surrounds him.

To reach this unsettling truth it's important that Brakhage did not just set the camera back and have it watch the doctors go to work.  That would have made the subject the autopsies that the doctors perform and not the death that they have to work with.  There's no escaping the bodies as the camera holds tight and close on various extremities as the doctors cut open the corpses.  The most shocking is when a light blue body is deposited and it looks to be a training dummy but, instead, puffed because the skin has absorbed so much moisture.  The red that explodes from underneath when the skin is cut open is a reminder that even when the truth of death looks absurd it can burst away from the pulsing mechanisms that gave us life at any time.

This isn't as rewarding an experience as Dog Star Man, but the most illuminating one so far.  It teaches how even the simplest observation of a subject, even one that is no longer capable of responding, changes dramatically based on where the camera is positioned.  Because of Brakhage's insistence in keeping the lens so close to the bodies the film keeps us from being able to escape the reality of death.

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Brakhage with text

Posted by Andrew

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