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March 10, 2008
RATING: 9/10
The majority of Stan Brakhage's oeuvre defies categorization. A filmmaker who at once challenges the technical and psychological bounds of film, Brakhage uses his experimentation to create something unique - from the experience of seeing through the eyes of a moth to those of a mortician, the experience of watching a Brakhage film is almost unrivaled in cinema.

Visually, Brakhage's films always seem crisp and new, while his intellectual goals seem as original now as they did when he began working. His diverse subject matter and the often oblique or abstract techniques he uses to explore these subjects render each variation of style completely different. In his film The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, Brakhage tackles one of the most pertinent absolutes in life: death. Free of music, narration or even the slightest diagetic sound, the film functions as an objective representation of work-day-to-work-day life at a Pittsburgh morgue, but even this outside of the norm "plot" is alone not enough for Brakhage. Is this film even objective? Or does the presence of a camera, the act of filming, the editing, the choice of shots or the shocking subject itself function to bring all of the foundational conventions of documentary film making directly into question? Even if one approaches the average documentary with an absolute suspicion of "objectivity," its requirements have never been as apparent as in Brakhage's film. The fact that documentary studies work under the basic postulate that documentaries can never be completely objective seems to work its way into the back of our minds as we get further away from this initial assumption, and The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes reignites our scholarly suspicions. This, however, is not entirely the goal of the film, though certainly one possible side effect, along with nausea.

The most obvious category that the film fits conveniently into would be Observational. If nothing else, the film is a document of the process of preparing the dead for burial. The removal of organs and ensuing embalming process is shown in every gory detail as it is, or as it may appear to the naked eye. All ideals of objective portrayal aside, the film shows the reality of what happens to us after we die: we are gutted and sucked dry of our fluids on a cold steel slab in the sterile, seedy basement of some century-old civic building. As cynical as that might sound, the film doesn't place any judgment on the realities it shows, but instead uses its simplistic, stripped-down filming style, free of explanation, to allow each viewer to bring their own judgments and interpretations to the table. At its most basic level, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is exactly what its title suggests: a study in observation and immersion. Brakhage uses his lens as our eyes, but this unblinking mechanical eye is to the casual observer controlled by some sadistic madman with a taste for stale blood. In this film, if the experiment goes as intended, it is impossible to doubt what is being seen, and, by the same token, there is no ability to look away in defiance to what is being seen by "your own eyes." Though informational on the surface, the film functions to force the viewer into seeing the macabre images unfolding in front of them while also expecting some form of deeper thought about the piece as a form of escaping or separating oneself from the images. This approach to gaining validity through individual interpretations brought to a piece of art by its viewers is a staple of so-called "high-art," but even without the stamp of ART, Brakhage's film begs for some meaning other than its purest depictions of Pittsburgh undertakers prepping the dead for burial.



Aside from its easy fit into the observational category, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is a uniquely poetic documentary. There exists a litany of points to be made in support of this categorization, and in the interest of brevity I cite a few instances in the film that struck me as particularly poetic. Firstly, the hand-held camera, though distracting at first, gives the film an intimate and gritty presence. The audience sees through the lens, but the camera movements are no longer mechanical and instead take on an extremely organic and natural mode of looking-at. This technique brings the viewer into the environment being filmed, but Brakhage tricks us with the initial comfort of a camera which looks away occasionally when the camera is thrown into menacingly bloody close-ups of the floppy-fleshed innards of the dead. As the film continues, Brakhage intensifies his organic filming technique by adding a blinking exposure and a heartbeat editing rhythm to the mix, effectively manipulating the viewers' most primal instinct of fight or flight. As images rapidly move from grotesque to worse, the camera's iris blocks our vision then blinds us with overexposure, a disorienting effect that stabs at the heart of the ease with which our minds have been trained to understand editing rhythms and the revealing/concealing cycle on a psychophysiological level. The pattern the film reaches towards the end seems nerve-racking and calming in turns, but the images themselves stay the same. The film is a roller-coaster ride, however - instead of being splashed in a pool of cleansing water at the end, we are thrown back into a body cavity.

One particularly artful image in the film is the moment in which the camera acquires such an angle that it is actually shooting through the top of the corpse's skull, out of its eye sockets. Oddly enough, after seeing brain and gut conveniently removed and packaged as leftovers, the emptiness of these husks of people never seems more exaggerated than at this point. We are quite literally taken inside this person's head, and the world looks exactly the same as it does in every shot in the film, with the exception of the reddish borders framing the two images filtering into the skull. Though cleared of most traditional forms of subjective intervention, the film's message still seems to me to be obvious: one set of images can be seen differently by any number of eyes, but each person's interpretation will likely never be completely understood by anyone but themselves. Maybe I'm taking this little metaphor too far, but the image struck me as a statement on the importance of the individual core in all our minds, without which, we would be walking, talking movie cameras, recording everything but proffering nothing original without editing and good shots in mind.

Quite possibly the most organic and real-feeling film I've seen to date, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes flooded me with mixed emotions. I was initially disgusted by what was happening on screen, but the unyieldingly graphic images, mixed with the film's length, made it impossible to close or avert my eyes. Though disturbing, the images soon began to lose their weight, giving way to another wave of emotional confusion. What does it mean when after only 10 minutes of the film my sensitivity towards the subject began to waiver? I remember wondering at the time whether I fully understood the impact of the images, or if I had simply begun to shut them out entirely. I suspect that I might have been less quickly swayed into this disconnect had the faces of the dead been exposed, but the act of concealing identity by way of folding the face over the crown of the head soon became one of the main discomforts. The act of so forcefully hiding the person behind the corpse in this way, though an attempt to protect the dignity of the deceased and their relatives, seemed more disrespectful than allowing their faces to be shown. I attempted to fill in the gory gaps before my eyes by reasoning out the importance or message behind the images I was seeing. "What is Brakhage trying to say with this piece?" was probably the most laughably clichéd art-thinking question that presented itself, but I quickly realized it was not the filmmaker that was bringing meaning or thought into these weighty but otherwise meaningless images. Instead, my thought process while viewing the film seemed the more rewarding message.

What does my interpretation of Brakhage's images - and of his choices of what to show, how to show it, and how to edit it - say about me, both as a student of film and as an individual? As cheesy, pseudo-psychological, and borderline guidance counselor as that might sound, I felt more aware of my thoughts - what I chose to see and not see, the sounds I chose to hear, the smells to smell - and afterwards I even became more aware of my own body: the temperature of the room around me, the malleability of my own flesh, the sights sounds and smells I experience every day. More importantly, however, I became more aware of the imminence of death. Not strictly a memento mori, or reinforcement of my mortality, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes also reinforced my life and vitality. Possibly a side effect of my thirst to learn more about myself through my reactions to my cinematic explorations, the feeling lasted much longer than usual. I felt myself drifting into a whistle while walking home as cars whizzed past at near-fatal speed, and, though terrified of the prospect of one veer of the steering wheel of some stranger's car suddenly ending my life, I was strangely comforted, if only for a moment, by my increased understanding of life through the eyes - or at least the eye-holes - of the dead.

SEE ALSO: www.brakhage.com
SEE ALSO: www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=184

--
Zack Hall
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Zack Hall.

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