Movies I’ve Seen: Window Water Baby Moving (1959)

Directed by Stan Brakhage.

Despite the insistent subjectivity—and it’s always clear, even at his outset, that we’re seeing the world through his eyes and his alone—of Stan Brakhage’s early movies, it’s his wife Jane who emerges as the Romantic hero. It’s her raw vulnerability and adamant individuality that we see on display. In these intimate, maybe too intimate, films, Jane appears making love with Stan (Wedlock House: An Intercourse), homemaking (Cat’s Cradle), bedroom-talking (The Stars Are Beautiful), arguing, and otherwise living her life unguarded before the camera. By allowing herself to be exposed so fully, she’s braver than her husband. Window Water Baby Moving goes further than any of the above. Here, she gives birth to their first child. We see her cries of pain. We see the doctor lubing her up. We see the baby coming out slowly, headfirst, bloody and silent. The umbilical cord gets cut and tied. We even see the ejection of the placenta after the birth. If this were all it was, the movie would be riveting, but little more than a gross home movie. But Stan and Jane have more on their minds than avant-garde porn. The childbirth is interrupted by cuts to: pregnant Jane bathing, the water glittering on her belly and in waves around her; of Stan running his hand on her belly; of a sunlit window; of Stan half-exultant and half-bewildered by the miracle of life. The most arresting shots feature Jane’s smiles, which are at once beguiling and enigmatic, in flux between adolescence—sometimes she looks like an addled teenager—and adulthood. The present—the childbirth—is repeatedly, rhythmically undercut by flashes back to these happy/scary days right before the baby leaves the womb. The film works the way Stan’s mind is working, with moments of Jane’s labor triggering memories in rapid, though jumbled, succession. All of it’s in shaky close-up, as if (as in The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes), Stan is both fascinated and repulsed by the uncontrollable flesh. The film’s as much about Jane as it is about Stan. In repose or in action, she’s the one with whom we’re mesmerized. The movie’s shot through a reddish pink filter that heightens the connection with fluids and flesh; even the walls and bathtub look organic, humanoid. The fast editing and extreme closeups blur and warp what we see. Towards the end, we see Stan’s face more than we’ve seen it previously—Jane’s looking at him—and the flashes of memory fragments (of uneasy bliss) seem to belong to her as much as to him. Consumed by fears about baby-making and his lack of presence in the process, Brakhage made a short film that reflects his anxieties but that also shows how the world looks to his young wife. The cinematic blurs and woozy framing muddles the line between the couple. We never see anything from straight-ahead, and the camera’s constantly moving. Both Jane and Stan are active, alert presences, collaborators in making Window Water Baby Moving, even as Stan’s role in the delivery is more passive. In it, we see the roots of so much later, lesser filmmaking: the final, live childbirth shots of movies ranging from the raunchy romantic comedy Knocked Up to the raunchier but more experimental Dr. T and the Women; the scratched-up sex-education films shown in classrooms since the 1960s; fathers across America videotaping Junior’s entrance into the insurance risk pool. But these are images reduced in potency by the embrace of narrative structure and a distancing camera, of movie-making that puts us at a remove from this most common—but most alluring—of miracles. By looping, fragmenting, re-ordering, and heightening the experience, Window Water Baby Moving is glistening, jumpy, immersive, alive.

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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2 Responses to Movies I’ve Seen: Window Water Baby Moving (1959)

  1. Culture Snob says:

    The “Short-Film Week” Blog-a-thon: December 2-8, 2007

    From December 2 through 8, Culture Snob and Ed Howard’s <a hre…

  2. Ed Howard says:

    This is quite possibly one of my favorite Brakhage films, even if the gorier moments are a little hard to take. It’s just that the sense of joy and pleasure it communicates is palpable in every composition, in every smallest camera movement. Such a beautiful, moving film. I’ve add a link to this review for the Short Film blog-a-thon.

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