Acts of Seeing

“It was nothing to be afraid of, it was only about light hitting objects and bouncing back and seeing it with your own eyes.”   

—Stan Brakhage


i. how to survive birth

In 1958, Stan Brakhage was a mostly unknown filmmaker living in New York with his new wife Jane. They were expecting their first child, and to support the family Stan was making sponsored industrial films—though his passion was the burgeoning wave of American underground cinema of which he would eventually become a figurehead. Jane was averse to hospitals, and arranged for the birth to take place in their home bathroom. Stan was nervous about witnessing the event, and elected to be absent for the childbirth itself (a fairly common practice for men at the time). However, Jane convinced him to stay by her side. To resolve his fear, and to alleviate the sense that he would faint otherwise, Brakhage did what he did best: he picked up his camera and recorded the event in intimate, messy, visceral detail. The resulting film he called Window Water Baby Moving, and it was screened the following year.

That screening was attended by several other luminaries of the underground scene, including elder statesman Jonas Mekas who recalled the evening thus:

In December 1959 a screening took place at the Living Theater, corner of Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, New York City. A program of five or six films was projected. One of the films was Stan Brakhage’s New York premiere of Window Water Baby Moving. Stan was the projectionist for the evening. After the screening of Stan’s film, Maya Deren came before the audience to declare, very emphatically, that giving birth was a very “private matter,” and it shouldn’t ever be made into a public affair. “Even the animals, when they give birth, retreat into a secret place,” said Maya.

This is a nice anecdote for film history name-checkers, but it also shows how controversial Brakhage’s film was for its time, simply because it depicted the gory nitty-gritty of childbirth that usually went unseen. Indeed, when Brakhage sent the film to be processed, Kodak found it so offensive that they threatened to either destroy it or contact the police. They only relented when the Jane’s doctor intervened. Despite Maya Deren’s protest, Window Water Baby Moving went on to become an instructional video for midwives, and it has even been credited with making delivery rooms more accessible to fathers. Yet Brakhage’s coup was a simple one: he pointed his camera at what scared him. Here, it happened to be the birth of his daughter Myrrena. And the film is truly beautiful, a document not only of Myrrena’s birth but also of her parents’ big-hearted, overwhelmed reaction to it.

Stan Brakhage is perhaps best known for his painting and montage work, which remains a touchstone for abstract cinema. Influenced by Greek mythology, Ezra Pound, and the American landscape, Brakhage was a self-avowed romantic, but his documentaries reveal a more immediate anxiety about the stuff of life. They are motivated by fear, and within them filmmaking is a method by which to confront, engage, and resolve that fear. Window Water Baby Moving is a process of using the camera as a transformative tool to not only replicate but engage with and reshape how we see.

For this film, Brakhage has been charged with sentimentalism, though I think that for the birth of a first child even a serious auteur deserves to flex his emotions a little. This is a romantic take on pregnancy, but also a specific romantic relationship bared open for all to witness, full of energy and startling imagery. The aesthetic is striking because of its pure intimacy; sit down to watch it, and there you are looking at the most private parts of a woman’s body through the eyes of her lover. The loving husband moves the camera as close to Jane’s body as physically possible, so that her vagina resembles a gigantic natural landmark dripping with blood.

The way Brakhage films his wife’s swollen belly—peeking out of the bath water like an island in the sea—replicates the subjective gaze of a man who is overcome with adoration, though also mystified by the imminent change to his world. He gets every angle he can on it, and even films his own hand gently pressing and holding it, along with her hand on top of his. Shots of them both smiling and kissing weave in and out. It’s an exhilarating picture of love.

Before long, another hand enters—the midwife measures Jane’s cervix. This provokes a double register, because we’re reminded that proximity to Jane’s body is not only reserved for lovers; medical staff have an intimate gaze of their own.

Stan Brakhage’s camera, then, is being used to “look again” at his wife’s body, and it transforms that body—as does the baby that grows inside and then emerges from it. Shots of Jane’s serene, smiling face are intercut with her screams; just as she is doubled onscreen, our seeing her via the camera can’t be separated from Brakhage’s own memories of her, and his emotion before this intensely visceral event. The camera’s eye substitutes both his and ours, and records not only the event but also how it is being seen.

Ultimately, between its beginning and end, the film produces another gaze that is brand new to the world: that of Myrrena Brakhage. Her arrival is a moment of wonder that registers almost like science fiction: Who is this tiny, grey, squealing being emerging from the vagina that was so enormous a moment ago? After she is born, Brakhage cuts rapidly between all of his shots, so that the event becomes a heady whirlwind of skin, blood, light, water, colour, hair, and placenta.

At the very end of the film, Jane takes control of the camera and films Stan, the picture of giddy bliss before his daughter. Stan’s anxiety is resolved, and the film has witnessed the birth of both a new person and a new way of seeing.

ii. How to survive death

As Brakhage moved into middle age, his fear of birth more or less conquered, he picked up his camera once again, this time to confront an encroaching fear of death.

He had a friend who worked at a morgue in Pittsburgh, and in 1971 he arranged a visit to film all the autopsies for one night. The only condition was that Brakhage not record any of the corpse’s faces in a way that would identify them. Apart from that, all bets were off. The resulting film is The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (a literal translation of the word “autopsy”). The film is entirely silent, half an hour long, and contains some of the most graphic images in cinema history. It has achieved a kind of mythic status amongst avant-garde cinephiles, many of whom still find it difficult to sit through. It demonstrates perhaps better than any other documentary the sheer visceral power of film to transform how we see and fear the world.

It begins timidly. Brakhage films the morgue at a distance—there is a cautious back and forth between the medical examiners and the lifeless corpses they inspect, like a child’s game of “spot the difference” with skin colour, texture, and tone the only clues. As the film goes on, the living bodies cut open the dead ones, to gradually more extreme degrees, until the corpses become at times unrecognizable as human forms.

The camera is constantly shaking because Brakhage was scared silly—it’s easy to imagine him as a character from Scooby-Doo, stuttering and stammering in the face of what he imagines to be ghouls. Yet the camera is his defense—in his hand it’s like one of the examiner’s surgical tools, used to take a look inside the bodies and find a view that most of us won’t achieve otherwise.

The images are frightening: Brains are exposed, chests are split, the skin of a face is peeled away from a skull like a mask. This might sound repellent, but there’s a sincere humanity in how the images are recorded. It’s all about the act of seeing: we don’t just see death, we see Brakhage seeing death, and his camera invites us to see ourselves seeing death. Simply looking at the dead bodies is a thrilling and intense experience—once you’ve seen a torso cracked open, emptied, and hosed down, you might never look at a body quite the same way again.

As with Window Water Baby Moving, the aesthetic here could be fairly characterized as “nervous.” Cuts come quickly and rarely allow an image to fully settle or cohere in our minds. However, one longer take stands out. At the beginning of the shot, all you can make out is blood and guts, but as Brakhage steps backwards we get a view of a whole body, cut open in the torso. Confusion turns to understanding; revulsion turns to recognition; chaos turns to order. This is matched with that. It’s a relatively still and even reflective moment in an otherwise frenetically paced film. Left alone with the exposed body, Brakhage takes a few seconds to commit its lifeless character to film. He demonstrates a willingness to first get close to what scares him, and then to take a step back to understand it. Were it not for the fact of being a filmmaker at that moment, would he avert his eyes? Were it not for being an audience, would we?

Brakhage’s lens follows the body as it’s veiled by a white cloth and wheeled away, though he lingers on an unconcealed hand and blood seeping through the sheet, giving lie to the apparent erasure of gore from his field of vision. Out of sight is not out of mind; in the act of seeing, Brakhage has gained knowledge. He now has experience of death, shared with us, and the memory will linger in the mind like a bloodstain.

The next body, a woman’s, still appears to be flush with warmth. Her hand is draped casually across her belly—she could almost be asleep. But the medical examiner returns to the frame and cuts the body open. It’s remarkable to watch how a dead body behaves in the hands of the living as mere material. In another incomplete veiling, the staff wraps the woman up in a white sheet—but this time, instead of blood, we see the woman’s markedly bloodless and unscathed face. Tucked up and motionless, she resembles more than anything an anaesthetized surgery patient being taken to a recovery ward.

In the first film, Brakhage aimed the camera on his wife’s body to make sense of the phenomenal upheaval it was undergoing. Here, the camera is used as a buffer between the living and the dead, though as a proxy for the human eye it can’t escape the emotional and historical attachments we carry with what it documents. Can we really see a dead body as empty material? Or is the impulse to recognize humanity too strong? Though death is everywhere in cinema, these are questions that audiences are rarely confronted with. By the end of a gory half-hour, the morgue’s surfaces are cleaned, the medical examiner gives his final report, and Brakhage’s fear is resolved. The film stands as a testament to his satisfaction of the documentary form, of having stood and witnessed an event. The anxious aesthetic is transformed through the fact of the film into certainty. The film is about, most of all, precisely what it advertises: the act of seeing with one’s own eyes.

iii. How to survive life

If you can stomach it, I recommend watching Window Water Baby Moving and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes as a double bill. Birth and death are just about the only two things guaranteed to everyone, yet we have organized our world so that they are usually hidden from view. Both films feel strangely intimate because they cover such personal subject matter (that is, the literal body matter that’s inside us all). Filming these bodies with such curiosity is vital—not because the camera is objective, but because it forms part of the tense, nervous, euphoric subjectivity behind how we see.

Window Water Baby Moving is an expression of anxious joy. For all our films celebrating the “magic of childbirth,” few manage to capture the intense emotions of the moment itself. Few even attempt to capture the utter messiness. This might sound hokey, but watching the film I feel trusted as a spectator to witness a birth in such proximity. That trust is a rarity in cinema.

The Act of Seeing is our greatest film about death. There’s no violence, malice, or doom—there is just the fear, and a steadfast commitment to look that fear in the face. As an audience, all we can do is look. Stan Brakhage’s power is in making that look transform us. He deals with it as he deals with film itself: as substance in space, capturing light. Personally, nothing is more comforting to me than the reminder that, despite 100,000 years of contemplating eternity, we are unavoidably material beings. One day we’ll end up in the morgue too, and denying that is the root of fear; opening your eyes to it is the remedy. How wonderful it is to take a good look at what you’re really made of.

So if you fear death, are alienated from your body, or just want to quicken your heart, watch these films. Share in Stan Brakhage’s method for staying sane: aim your eyes at what scares you, and let light bounce between the two. “Looking again” might just reshape how you understand your own body as something that had to grow and will have to die. You’ll never be so awake to just how alive you really are.