The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is the most famous film from acclaimed and hugely important experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. This notorious avant-garde document is also one of the most unrelentingly grim films in existence.
The film came about when Brakhage talked a hospital in Pittsburgh into allowing him to film various post-mortem procedures, even though there was no explanation as to how the ensuing footage would be edited and presented. He then took the footage – shot on 8mm using various film stocks – and edited it together in a way that is part medical footage, part explosion of colour and shape.
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a literal translation of the term ‘autopsy’, and feels very appropriate here, as the viewer is brought into a world that few people will ever see. Death remains the great taboo, and the way our bodies are reduced to lifeless lumps of flesh after death is something that many people still find too uncomfortable to even consider.
Although shot in a strictly observational style, Brakhage’s underground film approach robs it of any sense of detachment that might make it less gruelling. Instead, the viewer is emotionally caught up in the sheer horror of it all. Entirely silent, the 8mm film cuts and jumps, shakes and wobbles, yet stares unblinkingly at the grotesque mutilation and destruction of the corpses. It forces the viewer to confront the reality of death in a way that more clinical films might not do (though SPK’s Two Autopsies video, shot on stark 1980s quality video, is just as startling in very different ways). The lack of sound removes the film from a mere medical instructional presentation or a sensationalist slice of exploitation – instead, the viewer is left to reach their own conclusions.
Seeing this film theatrically, as the grotesque images play out without interruption or context, is quite an experience – audiences usually sit in silence, either contemplating their own mortality or simply numbed into submission. You can always guarantee at least one walk-out, however, and vomiting and weeping are not uncommon reactions. You might want to bear that in mind before watching.