The first image, a dead man’s distended purple scrotum, put me off watching “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” for a good three years. This second part of Stan Brakhage’s’s Pittsburgh Trilogy unfolds in a morgue. It is rough going. A friend who checked “coroner” on her grad school applications had said she would watch it with me, but we lost touch. I was on my own.
The wait let me invent the film in my imagination. I had read about this silent autopsy documentary, about Brakhage’s camera darting through these cathedrals of flesh inside our bodies. Seeing the top of a man’s scalp pulled down over his face dashed my imaginings. The actual film is not lyrical, just blunt. Beauty is incidental.
Some filmmakers have an eye for gore—Eisenstein, Diop Mambety, Franju, and the Busby Berkeley of such things, Seijun Suzuki in Gate of Flesh. The first two shock; the latter two prettify. Brakhage does neither. He seems just to inquire. He quietly charts the networks and chambers of tissue that used to move and breathe and think and now don’t. The nervous energy of the camera seems to ask why not.
It is somewhat exhausting, unless you can lose yourself in the networks like the camera does. Then it is all mysterious. Of course, watching at home, as we now all do, makes it less so. You can turn it off any time. Brakhage actually had a similar model in mind, having begun working when 8 & 16mm projectors were more common among the middle class. He had hoped for home viewings, in a salon of like-minded people. But he hated video, the ultimate in home viewing, for its insubstantial image.
Perhaps that image makes it easier to turn off, pause, or half-watch. Film demands more: the screen, the threading, the fact that it could burst into flame or rip in half. When I briefly worked as a projectionist, I was always terrified of the possibilities. With video, even HD projections, the worst that can happen is dozing off. Perhaps Brakhage demands, in this probe of lifeless bodies, more attention than our likewise immobile selves can muster, sprawled in front of the TV.