New Movies -
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Old Movies -
Touki Bouki: The Journey of the Hyena
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
Recap: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 , 2005, 2006, 2007 , 2008 , 2009 , 2010 , 2011 , 2012
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)
Offering what is probably the longest uncomfortable silence in the history of cinema, Stan Brakhage’s documentary short The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a harrowing, unshakable, but fundamentally fascinating, viewing experience. Set entirely in a Pittsburgh morgue, the film records three actual autopsies with an unflinching eye. In its willingness to stare death and our inescapably corporeal state in the face it practically begs the viewer to have an extreme reaction. Different viewers, with different levels of squeamishness, will respond differently to the material. For many, I imagine it is nigh-unwatchable. Personally, I’ve seen several autopsy videos before (both in exploitation films like the Faces of Death series and in tapes produced for educational purposes), but I still found viewing this movie a difficult experience and one that forced me to call into question whether the illumination that I got from examining Brakhage’s approach was worth the trauma of watching the movie. Because Act of Seeing is entirely silent and because Brakhage’s roving camera does more than passively observe the flaying of peoples’ bodies, it feels more immediate than any such film I’ve seen before. He zooms his lens in to get uncomfortably close to his subjects, turning flesh into an abstraction. In doing so prompts the audience both to see the beauty there that we might otherwise neglect and confront the fears that we’re able to avoid due to lack of proximity to awareness of internal selves.
Apparently one of the conditions of the morgue’s cooperation in filming was the stipulation that Brakhage couldn’t show enough of the faces of the corpses so that they could be recognized. Not being able to put a face to the bodies that are mutilated does lessen the shock of watching the film, somewhat, but at the same time, it renders them anonymous enough that they can’t be as easily defined as “other people”. What’s probably the biggest shock, and the film’s primary point, comes near the end. Brakhage shows a janitor nonchalantly cleaning up after the procedure and then watches as one of the coroners dictates his report into a microphone. His complete professionalism in that context will strike the vast majority of viewers as a totally foreign attitude, but the presence of his differing point of view is as instructive as anything we’ve seen before. Both as a most disturbing slice of vérité cinema and an examination of point of view, Brakhage’s film challenges the viewer to reconsider the way that they think about themselves. His insistent point of view doesn’t impose a point of view upon the audience, but instead offers contradictions so that any easy answers prove unsatisfactory. In adding a literal deconstruction of man to the metaphorical one that graces so many works of art, Brakhage has created with The Act of Seeing With One Eye the ultimate horror film, for better or worse.