Movies I’ve Seen: The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)

Directed by Stan Brakhage.

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is 31 minutes of actual autopsies, filmed by Brakhage in a Pittsburgh morgue. No music, dialogue, or any sound whatsoever interferes with the rapidly cut footage. I was startled as much by the calm demeanor of the morticians—though why should I have been?—as I was by the brutal incisions, and savage, sloppy extractions of internal organs. The stark white of the morgue and the dead white skin contrasts brilliantly (and scarily) with the smears of red and chaotically thrown-apart bodies. The entire process—prodding, endless measuring, bending of appendages, drainage, cuts, weighing, washing, cataloguing—is so professional that we don’t see the faces of any of the dead people, and rarely those of the morticians. That way, we’re forced to contend with the decaying, mutilated flesh that is the end for all of us. I’m unsettled by how well Brakhage can aestheticize this. His editing and camera movement is purely subjective even here, in the coldest and most clinical environment ever; it’s clear from every frame that we’re watching a Brakhage movie. The compositions are so steady and precise in the beginning, calm and with a palette that’s as drained as the bodies (or as they will become over the course of the movie). Even at the start, though, the prods and pokes and measure-taking seem slightly off-kilter. Brakhage cuts away at the oddest moments, or pans up into a mortician’s lab coat, or zooms on the eerie cleanness of a latex glove. It’s as if the camera is squeamish. Slowly, though, its curiosity gets the better of it, and blood creeps in—on gloves, on the forearms of working morticians, on fingers holding scalpels that we don’t quite see. Abruptly, we plunge in. We don’t see the initial incision, but a body’s lying with the chest wide open, ribcage and organs spilling out. Sometimes, the camera turns away from the gore but, more and more, it stays. The shots zoom in, often while the camera is still lurching. Tendons glisten. A brain is scooped out by two hands. A dead woman, with open cavity and wounds jiggling, is hoisted—slung, really—onto a gurney. Once the cinematic plunge has been taken, Brakhage seems to suggest, we find ourselves riveted. The compositions, always restless, always in motion, are (can I admit this?) beautiful. The facelessness was imposed on Brakhage by the hospital, though we get glimpses of the workers. Basically, nothing but limbs, blood, scalpels, organs, hoses, and clean floors are seen here, in quick rhythms that are occasionally interrupted by long gazes. If these pauses weren’t lingering on images so gruesome, I’d almost call it calming. Without faces, I thought the bodies would be reduced to chattel, to props. But not quite. As the bodies are being so torn apart, but so efficiently, I was constantly reminded, say, this open maw of gristle used to be a person’s face—maybe a father, maybe a husband, maybe a brother. That blood being drained once kept someone alive. That woman, so bloated and drained that a fast slash opens up a chest cavity that’s foam-white and bloodless—she was someone’s daughter. By the end, though, I was exhausted and deadened; I’ve never expended so much energy watching a movie. At the beginning, the camera is so sensitive that it can barely look at the bodies. By the end, it’s consciously making compositions that echo Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Francis Bacon. It’s that ability to dehumanize and aestheticize so quickly—Brakhage sees the ability in himself (and in us) as well as in the morticians—that’s so disturbing. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is an autopsy of the viewer and filmmaker at once.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to Movies I’ve Seen: The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)

  1. OutOfContext says:

    I’ve had the Criterion discs of Brakhage for a year, but have yet to be in the mood to watch The Act of Seeing. Which is another way of saying, I don’t have the stomach for it. Hell, I get queasy watching the opening of Quincy, but that could just be a reaction to Jack Klugman. For some reason, Mothlight is the Brakhage movie that stays most prominent in my memory.

  2. Steve C. says:

    Damn, you nailed this. It’s a beautiful, depressing and draining work — probably the most seminal film that I hesitate to recommend to anyone.

  3. Ed Howard says:

    Nice work, I’ve posted a link to this as part of the Short Film blog-a-thon. This is definitely a rough film to take, but I’ve seen it twice now, once on DVD and once in the cinema, and its horror is strangely mesmerizing.

  4. Nice write-up! I wrote on the same film for Short Film Week; my entry, if you’re curious, is here.

  5. Pingback: My own damn poll | Quiet Bubble

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