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December 9, 2008 9:45 AM   Subscribe

"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."

In 1971, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage took his camera into the Allegheny County Coroner's Office. The soundless film that resulted - The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes [the literal definition of "autopsy"] - is, in the words of Amos Vogel, "an appalling, haunting work of great purity and truth".

[A "graphic autopsy footage" warning may not be enough. Proceed with caution.]

Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4
posted by Joe Beese (23 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
How did you know to post one of my favorite Brakhage films after I'd tramped around in the snow all morning to see some boring art. Seriously: How did you know?

Here is a beautiful article on Brakhage for anyone who is as fascinated as I am with this film or his others, and

Here is another film of his, Mothlight, which is far less graphic but just as visually propulsive, created, if I recall correctly, with impressions of moth's wings on ink on film.
posted by goldfinches at 9:58 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


as much as I possibly can, I'd like to stress that anyone who is interested in Brakhage's work, or likes what they see here, find some way to see it off of the internet. Even if it's a DVD, possibly the lowest quality available medium besides youtube, rent it or buy it. The man's work is extraordinary, my favorite high art film maker, but so much of it resides in the details and the quality of the work.

I mean, when the guy is painting by hand on every frame of a film strip to create his pieces, youtube isn't really showing you what he made.
posted by shmegegge at 10:16 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I watched that movie some years ago and remember being strongly affected by it. But I don't remember any emotions that I can articulate, or can comprehend, really. I'm wary of going back to it, though it may be different, seeing it on a small screen instead of at a movie theater.
posted by klangklangston at 10:17 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I saw a bunch of Brakhage films by sitting in on a university independent film class. I wasn't enrolled in the class, I just went to the screenings. The prof was good enough to even occasionally let me ask questions. For those of you near a university, try this.
posted by orthogonality at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


as much as I possibly can, I'd like to stress that anyone who is interested in Brakhage's work, or likes what they see here, find some way to see it off of the internet. Even if it's a DVD, possibly the lowest quality available medium besides youtube, rent it or buy it.

In the late 80s, when a Brakhage festival in New York City scheduled a single showing of Act in the middle of a weekday, I had every reason to think that it would the sole opportunity in my entire life to see the obscure film. I wouldn't have remembered what was taught during the classes I skipped to attend it. But I'll never forget sitting in the silence with less than a dozen other people as the overwhelming images played out in vivid color on the large screen.

The Criterion DVD is a very poor substitute. But it's better than nothing.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2008


I saw a bunch of Brakhage films by sitting in on a university independent film class. I wasn't enrolled in the class, I just went to the screenings. The prof was good enough to even occasionally let me ask questions. For those of you near a university, try this.

there's a documentary (included on the DVD Joe Beese linked to) following brakhage around in the later days of his life. in it, he tells the story of his favorite viewer experience of one of his films. it was a guy in a business suit who had stumbled into a screening of one of his films by accident without realizing what it was for. apparently, the guy repeatedly turned around to walk out of the theater, but kept coming back and - almost angrily - staring at the screen to figure out what the hell he was seeing. he just kept turning to the door, then stopping, then slowly turning back and staring at the screen some more.

the point: sitting in on a screening you're not technically supposed to sit in on is the kind of thing i think brakhage would like very much if people did.
posted by shmegegge at 10:43 AM on December 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


I should mention that as good as "Act" is, "Window Water Baby Moving" is just lyrical, and so probably my favorite Brakhage.
posted by orthogonality at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2008


last thing for now: if you're in the nyc area, and have access to the Anthology Film Archives building, by all means peruse their books for sale. The owner of the building, an incredible venerable old man who has forgotten more about film than you or I will ever know, self-publishes these incredible books about him, including a unique book of Brakhages dream diaries that is one of my favorite possessions. Apparently they knew each other quite well, the AFA being one his frequent screening spaces. For real, excellent resource for Brakhage stuff.
posted by shmegegge at 11:17 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never been able to make it through this one - and brother, I have tried.
Some of the best experiences of my life were spent in Stan's classes at CU, as he premiered his new films for us. He was a super-cool, friendly, approachable, and all-around brilliant guy.
And he was no stranger to mainstream film - I remember him LOVING "Armageddon". And he went on for a half hour straight about how much he hated "The Phantom Menace."
posted by ghastlyfop at 11:18 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


which reminds me! (I know, I should stop...) while he taught at CU, he was a professor for Matt Parker and Trey Stone (of South Park fame) and, before they made it big with South Park, acted in their Troma film "Cannibal The Musical" as the father of one of the main characters. brief cameo, but hysterical if you recognize him.
posted by shmegegge at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've never been able to make it through this one - and brother, I have tried.

It's upsetting on a whole other level than just "eww... icky organ things." It's an existential kick-to-the-gut like nothing I've encountered in any other art work.

The bravery of that man humbles me.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:39 AM on December 9, 2008


That is the weirdest childbirth movie I have ever seen. Also Part 1 of the FPP links seems to be gone but the others are still there. If anyone can find another link, let me know and I'll replace it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Pt 1" link: Cause of death: "This video has been removed due to terms of use violation."
posted by not_on_display at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2008


Part 1 of the FPP links seems to be gone

I know it was there when I posted - because I checked.

I really, really hope it wasn't reported as a violation to YouTube by someone referred to it from this thread.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:44 AM on December 9, 2008


I saw this in university along with a selection of his other work, projected on 16mm. Definitely the way to see these films. Absolutely amazing. Mothlight is definitely a highlight for me.

Though I could've done without seeing Window Water Baby Moving and included childbirth at 10AM on a very hungover Wednesday morning. I don't care how beautiful the act is.

I swear I saw Mothlight being projected onto a screen at a rave I went to once as well, way before my uni-days.

(Paul Sharits and his flicker films really drew me into avant garde cinema for a while though...)

Excellent post.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:01 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


For the record, I just watched this while eating a small tin of French-style, coarse-grind paté. Was that ever...synaesthetic.

My mom's a pathologist, so I've always been less grossed out by "real" gore than the pretend gore of films; I saw autopsy slides before I saw sex-ed films. Actually, a better way of putting it is that I've never be desensitized to scenes of torture, pain, sadism, etc, but I have no qualms looking at opened flesh, bone, and so on. It's a lot easier to watch this without the stories that put those bodies there; the hardest cases for my mom were always child abuse deaths.

I was interested to note that the pathologists / morgue assistants pulled up a flap of skin on the neck to cover the eyes. I suppose it's kinda unnerving to have vacant eyes staring at you as you cut into their body.

OK, back to pondering my eventual demise.
posted by LMGM at 1:05 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Youtube has pulled Pt 1.
posted by chairface at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2008


That is the weirdest childbirth movie I have ever seen.
This is a shocking live birth scene for other reasons.
posted by tellurian at 1:33 PM on December 9, 2008


I saw a huge number of Brakhage films at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria years ago, and the man himself was there and gave a talk. What a great filmmaker. I agree with Joe: if you can't see the movies as they were meant to be seen, the Criterion DVD is wonderful to have, even if it's not a substitute.
posted by languagehat at 1:38 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is amazing, amazingly powerful stuff. I thought that the silence might be kind of over the top artsy (forgive me, this is my first exposure to Brakhage), but it's really... soothing somehow. It allows you just enough distance to watch without feeling like you're involved. And yet, it's like being totally, totally immersed in the scene.

(Also, on a practical level, it squicked me out WAY LESS to see someone's skull cut open without *hearing* the drill. I think the sound is actually way more creepy than the visual, even though a drill sounds pretty much the same no matter what it's cutting. Why is that?)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:30 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also: WEIRD that you can watch the linked films in the FPP without having to verify age, but you have to signin to YouTube to prove you're 18 before you can watch a live birth.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:52 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it is the content that makes it disturbing. The editing is good, but I'm not sure I can agree that the film is a whole lot better than simply watching autopsies.
posted by demiurge at 5:28 PM on December 9, 2008


The editing is good, but I'm not sure I can agree that the film is a whole lot better than simply watching autopsies.

I can totally respect that difference of opinion. Brakhage broadcasts on an obscure frequency and not everyone is wired to receive it.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:52 PM on December 9, 2008


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