And now for something completely different. I’d originally planned to watch 23rd Psalm Branch (Brakhage, 1967 & 1978), but I couldn’t find copies of them anywhere. But I did come across another of Stan Brakhage’s films, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (Brakhage, 1971), a documentary shot on 16mm in a Pittsburgh morgue.
The graphic images of autopsies make it a very hard film to watch, but Brakhage racks up this discomfort by making his film completely silent. There’s no narration, music or sound of any kind (and no subtitles or intertitles either). It’s a wholly visual experience.
After spending the past few films expressly noticing the sound design and how it was used to add meaning to the visual elements, this was a completely different experience. And a very unsettling one. It makes me realise how much we rely on sound to convey emotion and how much easier it is to tell a story (or add context to one) with sound instead to visuals.
The lack of sound made the film much more confusing (in a good way) and thought provoking than it would have been had Brakhage given the audience any auditory clues. The audience is forced to make their own interpretation of what’s on screen, to decide for themselves if what they are seeing is good, bad or neither. This works particularly well with the uncomfortable subject matter; thoughts of death and what happens to us after we die is something that most of us actively avoid. By removing any aural cues as to whether the images are supposed to be comforting or horrific, Brakhage forces the audience to answer this question themselves and in doing so confront their own fears and prejudices about dying and death. It’s a reminder of the power of sound, but also the power of silence.
Brakhage shot the film handheld, and uses a lot of closeups in the final cut, of both the bodies and the pathologists. In fact we never see the faces of either (except at the very end when we see a pathologist recording his comments on a dictaphone). I suspect that this was one of the restrictions that Brakhage had to work within to be allowed to film the autopsies (that he wouldn’t show the faces of the living or the dead). But it becomes an effective technique in making the film about more than simply the individuals on screen; it rises above the personal and asks the audience to consider universal questions about the human condition.
Brakhage, S., (1967), 23rd Psalm Branch: Part 1
Brakhage, S., (1971), The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes
Brakhage, S., (1978), 23rd Psalm Branch: Part 2
Frye, B., (2002), Stan Brakhage, Melbourne: Senses of Cinema, Available from: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/brakhage/ [Accessed on 31 May 2016]