The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

act of seeing

Though I’m unsure how many times I have seen this film at this point, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this was the first time I had realised the meaning behind the title: that “autopsy” (derived from the ancient Greek autos meaning “self” and optos meaning “seen,”) can in fact be translated to “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.” This information massively contextualises the content: rather than the film providing us with a typically unseen vision – corpses – in a manner one might describe, for example, Mothlight as doing, Act of Seeing instead places the kino eye within the morgue as locus of the revelatory event of autopsy. The reality of the film itself merely provides an entrance to a very literal unveiling. Stripped away is skin, fat, muscle, organic matter and what is left is… hard to say. But impossible not to see… and that, in a nutshell, is Brakhage’s game.

Such discomfort that I endure during Act of Seeing is not on account of gore; rather, much like sea-sickness, which is the visceral response to cognitive dissonance between perceptions of balance and vision, the nausea arises from the cognitive dissonance between the loss of these human bodies living, experiential subjectivity, and the addition of their objective potential as containers of mystery. Perhaps most disturbing is seeing the removal of faces, peeled away like a mask, revealing largely un-individual skull. The barrage of graphic imagery inducing a certain nigh-intoxicated effect, I mused, stoner-like, about the etymological meaning of “person” – mask. I recalled Alan Watts’ discourse on “who am I?” in which he discussed the ways in which one may not know oneself, in the same way one may not taste one’s own tongue or indeed see one’s own eyes with one’s own eyes, without the use of a mirror. How interesting that what we use to identify one another, read one another, be attracted to one another, is that about ourselves we are unable to see unaided…

I could go on but, as an act of mercy, I shan’t.

That Brakhage is able to elicit just as much wistful navel-gazing as he is pure revulsion is highly impressive, but perhaps also to be expected from his mastery of camerawork. Act of Seeing performs a certain phenomenological Cubism: flattening, thus relativising, the relief of subjectivity by stripping away the outside world, as so too is stripped away the flesh of the bodies, vision once again becomes an act of holism, just as it did in Dog Star Man. When the body of a larger woman is wheeled in near the end, green, the whiteness of the fat revealed as her chest is sliced open giving the effect of mattress foam more than anything as shocking as body tissue, it becomes ever unclear through the juxtaposing montage with other corpses of hues white, brown and grey, if the green-ness of this body was an effect of decomposition, or a trick of the light. The universal eyeball of the kino eye makes no valuation. Not this time. The final conflict between the lyrical hand and the Bazinian objectif in this film ends, I believe, in the latter’s favour. Though these corpses may no longer possess the subjectivity of the anima of their former living hosts, the gaze in the Act of Seeing feels considerably more akin to that expressed by Todd McGowan than by Laura Mulvey: this is no controlling gaze. Neither Brakhage’s eye, the camera’s eye, nor our eye has anymore say in what happens to these bodies than the bodies themselves; all we can do is see them, or turn and look away.

 

*****

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