I’ve never seen a dead body. Never been to an open-casket funeral, or rubbernecked at a fatal car crash. I’ve seen people executed in newsreel footage and animals butchered in films all the time, and when I was 15 I helped bury the family dog after we had him put down (he had been sick a very long time), but I don’t think these count, not really. There’s always been something mediating the experience, something allowing me to keep death at arm’s length.
It’s this distance that Stan Brakhage attempts to dissolve with The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (made 1971 and upcoming, as part of his Pittsburgh Trilogy, at Anthology). The title is the translation of the Greek word autopsia; the film, undertaken by Brakhage as a sort of midlife face-up to mortality, is made up of 30 soundless minutes of footage shot at a mortuary, as technicians perform autopsies on the recently deceased.
Brakhage eases his audience in, beginning with the at least bearable: the camera’s entry into a room, the revealing of a naked corpse (like the director, a middle-aged white male, for what it may be worth), and other preliminaries. The truly unthinkable he approaches by degrees, first bodies dead from violence and visible decay, then, at first in the background on another gurney, and gradually closer, an electronic saw cutting away a cadaver’s cranium.
It’s obvious within the first five minutes why most religions have such specific guidelines about the handling of the dead (the flaying only gets more extreme from what I’ve described), and also why, for that matter, even at an open-casket funeral I’d just see an embalmed corpse done up lifelike as possible. Emphasizing, more and more explicitly (even the editing becomes increasingly forceful), the physical aspect of postmortem dehumanization, Brakhage forces ever more metaphysical rationalizations, peeling them away with each layer of tissue: it’s just a piece of meat on a slab becomes it’s not me becomes, finally, when it is me, I won’t know.
There’s an oft bandied-about cliché, “Everybody should [unpleasant, nevertheless essential experience] once in their life,” as if one moment of reckoning sustains unwaveringly. This is, of course, hogwash: for me, the most harrowing aspect of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is how quickly I’ve been able to distance myself from it. I’ve seen dead bodies opened and pulled apart, but that was only a movie I watched once.