Another DVD in my watch pile is the 2-disc Stan Brakhage set on Criterion. Brakhage's style of work of the years is a lot of what most people's idea of avant-garde, underground film used to be like: handheld, twitchy, manipulated, if at all, by human hands, plotless, associative. (And, of course, namechecked by Stereolab.) Like a lot of avant-garde stuff, it's not too difficult to draw a line of descent between the source and the countless appropriators from MTV and its children. But Brakhage had his own, more personal reasons for making films the way he did.
So I'd finished most of the first disc a while ago; if you do “play all” you get most of the films that reside on the disc; then it goes back to a menu which lists “The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes,” with this note: Warning: this film contains footage of actual autopsies. Brakhage made this film because he wanted to get past his fear of death.
I'm kind of odd about the icky. Sometimes it doesn't get to me, other times, like when they show surgery on one of the Discovery channels on cable, I start feeling light-headed and yet I must look. So I didn't know what to expect when I swallowed, steeled myself, and press “Play” on the DVD remote control.
It wasn't “that bad” at first — you see bodies being wheeled in, limbs gently flexed. It's hard to tell when it was made, maybe the late 60s. There's the pallor of death, but nothing graphically shocking to anybody who watched Seven or CSI (what exactly does that say ?); most of the departed appear to have died quietly, maybe some in the hospital. This goes on for about ten minutes (of a thirty-minute film, of course I kept an eye on the time remaining !), then the autopsies begin in earnest.
Brakhage doesn't linger on any one body or procedure — his shots are longer in this film than his impressionistic works, as close to a documentary as I've seen from him so far. He said in a interview included on the disc that he had to prop either himself or the camera up for steadiness most of the time. The camera doesn't flinch, though. Because there's no sound or captions, it's hard to tell the goal of these autopsies, but apparently, it's not uncommon to remove the brain or excavate the entire abdominal cavity. The fact that we humans are sedentary animals can be seen in the fat that is enountered. I can't say I'd ever look forward to the day I could look into a freshly evacuted human skull, but here it was possible, and it was just part of someone's job.
If nothing else, it drove home the point that it's one thing to know about anatomy, it's another to get a good luck at all the moving parts that we've all got inside. Are we still there after the parts have been dismantled ?