We Like Shorts, Shorts is a new column in which we single out impressive short films which are easily accessible online. The full shorts will always be embedded in the articles for easy access.
WARNING: The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a very graphic short, featuring scenes from actual autopsies. It is not for the faint of heart.
The title of The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a wry word puzzle; viewers who solve it are clued into not just the film’s content, but also its basic subtext. The phrase is a purposefully wordy, laboured transliteration of ‘autopsy’ (autos = self, opsos = seen). Indeed, the content of the thirty-minute short, directed by the wildly prolific American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage in 1971, is revealed obliquely by its title – it documents autopsies taking place at a Pittsburgh mortuary, in painstaking and lurid detail. However, the process by which the title reflects the subject is more important. Taking apart a word in such a way, laying out its constituent elements of meaning in the most dispassionate way possible, mimics the way in which Brakhage depicts his subject matter: the human body, the corpse. Over the course of the film, the body is relentlessly exposed for what it is – a temporary, brittle shell – with Brakhage’s camera capturing both the intimacy and violence of the autopsy process. What emerges is an obstinate confrontation with death, and a powerful avant-garde horror film.
The Act of Seeing opens with a mortician seemingly ‘testing’ a cadaver – flexing the tendons in a hand, pinching the man’s doughy flesh – as though the body is being prepared for its ordeal. Those working on the bodies wear long white coats, and their faces are rarely seen unobscured. This, combined with their businesslike handling of the corpses – a woman’s foot is wrenched into the air to allow access to her underside, a man’s genitals are measured with grimy tape – a sense of revulsion marks the pathologists as enemies, like Nazi doctors or evil scientists from ’30s B-horrors. As the film continues, the autopsies taking place delve physically deeper into the space of the human body, which Brakhage matches with the increasing metaphorical depth of the viewer’s visceral experience.
Several shots use the real, human corpses to evoke both the animalian gore of the meat industry and the alien body shock of science fiction; while one examiner wears brown leather gloves and holds a meat cleaver like a butcher, reminiscent of Georges Franju’s intense slaughterhouse short Blood of the Beasts (1949), the film’s most memorable sequence shows a mortician neatly peeling back the flesh of a man’s face and head to examine his skull, with Brakhage taking great delight in a close-up of his ear scrunching into a ball almost comically. The film removes the body from any association with humanity, forcing us to view the cadavers on display as meat and bones, vehicles for life but not living themselves.
In many ways, The Act of Seeing is something of a departure for Brakhage, who was better known for less direct, more abstract works. Through his long career he traversed sexually-charged mood pieces (Cat’s Cradle, 1959), the natural landscapes of North America (Boulder Blues and Pearls and…, 1993), and experiments with light and innocence in the vein of his friend and sometime collaborator Joseph Cornell (Scenes from Under Childhood, 1967-1970). Before his death in 2003, he began work on an expansive series of films made by painting, scratching, or even applying dead bugs to the physical film.
In comparison, The Act of Seeing feels more immediate and as a result more human, as if Frederick Wiseman had made it after suffering a massive existential crisis. Nevertheless, the style and mood of the piece remain tangibly Brakhage. The total lack of sound for which he is renowned was never more appropriate than here, evoking the distance and the peace of the state of death. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, as a title, has a further subtextual meaning: one’s own eyes. In utilising silence, violence, voyeurism and horror, Brakhage created with this film the unforgettable viewing experience of facing one’s own mortality.