American filmmaker Stan Brakhage is revered in the world of cinema for his revolutionary experiments with the cinematic medium. Known for exploring universal issues like morality and sexuality through unconventional methods, Brakhage is now recognised as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century. From Martin Scorsese to Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park), Brakhage’s influence on the art of cinema is undeniable.
His 1971 experimental documentary, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, is one of his most well-known works along with the seminal Dog Star Man and Mothlight. Part of the Brakhage’s Pittsburgh trilogy, the celebrated short is a revelatory meditation on the business of death. Filmed while Brakhage visited a morgue in Pittsburgh, the 16mm footage is a silent manifestation of Brakhage’s ideas about the human condition.
The title of the film is a literal translation of the word “autopsy” and that forms the subject matter of the documentary as well. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes chronicles the rituals of death that forensic pathologists practice, dissecting the body while asking the viewers whether they are just the sum of their parts. Although the film reminds each of us about the inevitability of our demise, it is surprisingly human in its approach.
In a later interview, Brakhage reflected, “I wasn’t trying to invent new ways of being a filmmaker; that was just a by-product of my struggle to come to a sense of sight. And it seemed reasonable to me that film ought to be based on human seeing, and not just the physical eyes but the mind’s eye: that is, what happens when the eye receives images from the outside and how they interrelate with remembered images on the inside of the mind. How do we arrive at our seeing and then imagine with our sight?”
Watch Stan Brakhage’s brilliant 1971 short film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes below: