My impulse--even just now, when typing out the title to this entry--is to call Stan Brakhage's short film the art of seeing with one's own eyes. To transpose art for act, however, would be to undermine his project in two important ways. First, Brakhage's title is the transliteration of the word "autopsy"--autopsos, which literally means the act of seeing with one's own eyes; second, the film itself--lasting just over a half hour--is anything but an "aesthetized" experience.
To be blunt, the film is sickening in its matter-of-fact presentation. Body after body splayed, gaped, gutted--and all without what Brakhage would consider the distractions of sound. So think silence. Think of a scalpel starting from behind an ear lobe, running around the back of a head, just under the hair line, and ending behind the opposite ear. Now imagine a pair of hands--the coroner's--gripping that skin, pulling it up and over the top of the head, pealing it down the forehead, separating it from the bone beneath, down to the bridge of the nose. Imagine the curls of brown hair that were once at the back of the head now rolled up and under the nose. Think of watching this without any kind of score or soundtrack to orchestrate the tone or tenore of this scene or others in which, over and over again, bodies are undone before you. It's quite horrifying.
There are many moments that stand out for their eerie juxtapositioning of the living and the dead. One moment, though, particularly stands out. The coroner has just finished removing handful over handful of bowel, when the camera suddenly cuts to an orderly wiping down the cadaver, hosing blood and offal back into the now hollow chest cavity to be suctioned out. The camera quickly cuts again and focuses next on a small concavity around the ribs--it's hard to tell exactly where this recess is--in which a tiny puddle of water glints with light. It's a brief moment, lasting, maybe, only a few seconds. And yet it's a poignant moment, juxtaposing, as it does, with the murkiness of body cavities and the meaty reds and blues and blacks of the organs that fill Brakhage's underlit frames. For me, this little puddle becomes a kind of beautiful pause amid all the gruesomeness. And it trembles as Brakhage, or someone else off-camera, brushes against the table on which the body rests.
To be sure, this is something Brakhage (from what little I've learned about him, thus far) wants to avoid--that is, to aestheticize and / or to make metaphors out of the bodies (living and dead) in such a way that would distance him (and, presumably, us) from the act of seeing with our own eyes. And yet it seems all but impossible to avoid. The criss and cross striatations of muscle, the wildly varying shades of red, the foamy whiteness of the fat as it erupts from under the scalpel. Making something of it all (or seeing something IN it) is what the living do. Be it in the act of filming, or through process of editing, or, on the other side of the screen as the viewer (and, in this sense, seeing with one's own eyes through another's eyes)--beauty is found, or at least improvised. Compulsively sought out. And if not beauty, then at least some sort of sparing grace. How it all comes from meat and bone and sinew is itself, a (and I don't use this word lightly, if ever) miracle. And one worth discovering.