The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)
Directed by: Stan Brakhage.
Stan Brakhage’s shocking, 32 minute documentary The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, is one of those films that has imagery that will never leave you, even if you want them to. The title is a direct translation of the meaning of the word “autopsy” – and that is what Brakhage films, without sound, the most graphic images of autopsies you could imagine. It’s often bloody – skin is removed, organs exposed, the brain is exposed, faces almost literally peeled off, etc. Nearly 50 years later, these images still have the powet to shock and disturb.
Why did Brakhage shoot this film? And why did he shoot it without sound? When Georges Franju made Le Sangs des Betes in 1949 – about slaughterhouses – he shot it in black and white, assuming that the images in color would be too much for audiences to bear – but he did have sound. Brakhage shoots in color, but doesn’t use sound? Would the sound made things too hard to take? It’s probably even simpler than that – in that sound often gives the audience cues on how to feel (think of horror movie scores for example, that have you gripping your seat even over the most innocuous of imagery). By removing sound, Brakhage is removing one element that directs audiences how to feel about the images they are being presented with. Therefore, you have to confront those images in your own way.
The film breaks a very old taboo in that it confronts the audience with death – and doesn’t look away. Watching the film, you cannot help but think of your own death – that one day, your body will be little more than this slab of meat, on a table, surrounded by people you do not know, who are going about their jobs. Whether you believe in God or not – whether you believe your soul, or whatever makes you who you are, leaves the body upon death or not – that is still a rather profound, yet sad statement on us as humans. What makes it that way is just how matter of fact the film really is – to go back to Franju’s Le Sanges des Betes again, the workers in the slaughterhouse are not shocked by what they see and what they do (they may have been when they started, but not anymore) – but we in the audience are.
I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to watch the film. It is graphic, and really it is thoroughly unpleasant sitting through the film. And, to be honest, even at only 32 minutes, it’s also a little repetitive. But if you go with the film – if you’re willing to watch it, and reflect on what you’re seeing – and reflect on what that means, not just for the people onscreen, but to yourself as well – you may get something profound out of the film. The film is unforgettable because of its imagery to be sure – but that’s not the only way it is.