Thoughts on Birth and Brakhage

Thoughts on Birth and Brakhage
By Lynne Sachs
(Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture & Media Studies, Winter, 2006)

From California to Florida to New York to Maryland to Tennessee, I’ve been making and teaching avant-garde film for 20 years.  In my experience, there is only one film, of the many works to which I expose my college students, that consistently creates a passionate, call it vitriolic, reaction:  Stan Brakhage’s “Window, Water, Baby, Moving”(1959, 12 min.).  From “sublime!” to “disgusting!” and all the shades in between, this 45-year old silent movie never fails to stir a classroom audience.  Over the course of the semester, the initial issues that emerge from our discussions of the film attain a deeper, more charged level of discourse.   Reactions to Brakhage’s filming of his wife Jane’s labor and at-home delivery of their first-born baby have revealed to me an ever-evolving cultural fascination with birth and the body.

Over the years, I have remained deeply committed to projecting and discussing this remarkably intimate film, a quasi-mirror on the genesis of all of our lives.  In 1995, I gave birth to my first daughter Maya.  Two years later, my second daughter popped out.  Images and sounds from both pregnancies and deliveries eventually found their way into my film “Biography of Lilith” (1997).  Resonating in my mind in way I am only beginning to understand, Brakhages images have clearly touched me personally, aesthetically, and intellectually as a mother and a maker of experiemental films.  As a teacher, I have also witnessed the impact on my students of his visceral, physical use of the camera, his exquisite relationship to light, and his fascination with human anatomy.   When we are watching “Window, Water, Baby, Moving”, we are experiencing a primal moment in life through the eyes of a film artist whose vision is different from anything the students have ever seen.  Alas, it is as a feminist, however, that I watch this film with the greatest ambivalence, wondering how Jane might have felt there, sprawled out before her husband’s camera, and later across thousands of movie screens.   Is she painfully vulnerable or is she the essence of strength and courage?

This modest, ever so human, moment in Brakhage’s life as a young father comes near the beginning of his astoundingly prolific, four-decade involvement with the practice of cinema (He died in 2003).  I do not show this film because Stan would later be dubbed “the father of American avant-garde film,” for it is my belief that the very core of an experimental (a.k.a underground, non-Hollywood, alternative) approach to film studies is a disregard for such notions of hierarchy and stature.  And yet, I ask myself as a filmmaker and a teacher:  “Why is it that almost every student of experimental film has been introduced to the startling imagery of Stan Brakhage’s ‘Window, Water, Baby, Moving’”?

Stan’s movie has inspired and haunted me since the first time I saw it in 1987.  Beginning with “Still Life With Woman and Four Objects” (4 min. 1987), then a few years later with the more diaristic “The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts” (29 min. 1991, chosen by Brakhage himself as one of his favorite experimental films of that year) and then with “Biography of Lilith”, my own work has explored issues involving representation of women in film in both an autobiographical and a critical way.  By both shooting my own material and engaging with the detritus of popular culture in found footage, I too am exploring the intimate, often fraught relationship that exists between the camera and the body.

I firmly believe that the issues Stan and Jane together bring to us in “Window Water Baby Moving” will always provoke and inspire audiences. Thus, Camera Obscura’s “Archive for the Future” sparked my thinking about a list of possible lectures one might give in conjunction with the screening of this film. I offer them to you as a vehicle by which to ponder the last forty years of American cultural history.

Reflections on Teaching “Window, Water, Baby, Moving”
In Defense of a Male Filmmaker Shooting Film of His Wife Having a Baby
In Defense of Having Children
In Defense of the Female Body
Towards an Understanding of the Camera in the Delivery Room
Beyond the Birthday Party and the Graduation: Art & the Home Movie
Confronting the Male Gaze
Pornography and Aesthetics: The Politics of …
Graphic Blood & Gore in Early 1960’s American Avant-Garde Film
Maya Deren’s Attack of Stan Brakhage:  Feminism Meets Bohemianism
Love and the Camera
Who’s Really in Control?
Abandoning the Establishing Shot
Mid-Century Birth Celebration
The Tripod in the Production of a Personal Documentary: ForgetABoutIt!
Is Anything Sacred?
The Camera as Obstacle to “Normal” Family Life
The Camera as Subjective Witness
Is This Really a Documentary Film?
The Shock of the Everyday
Where We Come From
Don’t Remind Me
Why Didn’t You Warn Us?

Lynne Sachs