CAPSULE: THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anonymous corpses

PLOT: Footage of autopsies performed at the Pittsburgh morgue, delivered without commentary.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At first I didn’t find Act at all “weird,” but the next day I found myself spontaneously describing it to another person thusly: “I saw the strangest documentary last night…” Both thoughts were true, based on different meanings of the words “weird” and “strange.” Act is strange in the sense of rare, uncommon, seldom-seen; it’s also disturbing and unsettling. But it’s deliberately rooted in reality, and not “weird” in the sense we use the term on this site: surreal, mysterious, hinting at the irrational.

COMMENTS: Society hides corpses from view—not from shame, but from unease. We seek to hide the evidence of a crime that has been committed against us. The title of Stan Brakhage’s charnel house poem (a somewhat literal translation of the Greek “autopsis”) suggests that here we will see death, and do so authentically: with our “own eyes,” not secondhand. The “act” of the title further suggests that this will not be a passive experience, but something we deliberately undertake to do.

Be prepared. Male and female, young and old, they all eventually arrive on the slab. Brakhage’s camera does not focus on any faces (a condition of his being allowed to shoot in the morgue). The anonymity of the bodies makes them more universal. He engages in little experimental camerawork (there are a few moments with strange zooms, or with abstract closeups). Bodies are clinically hacked apart and disemboweled, internal organs scooped out and placed in bins. In the most disturbing segment, the skin on the back of a man’s head is peeled upward to expose his skull, with the folds of flesh eventually bunching up around his eyes. There are closeups of meat sticking to ribs. Brakhage could have inserted footage from a butcher shop at some points, and you would not know the difference. The film runs for thirty minutes, although he could have stopped the camera after ten minutes or kept it running for another hour and a half. The end result is the same.

You might be disgusted. After a while, you might become numb, or even bored. You may be fascinated by the machinery of the body; your thoughts will likely turn to your own mortality. It’s grisly, but not exploitative. The camera does not tell you what to think or feel. The take home message of Brakhage’s audacious documentary seems to be, “look: this is what you are.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perhaps the longest uncomfortable silence in the history of cinema, Stan Brakhage’s documentary short The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a harrowing, unshakable, but fundamentally fascinating, viewing experience.”–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

(This movie was nominated for review by “Regicide.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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