Saturday, January 3, 2009

Avant-Garde: Window Water Baby Moving (1959, Stan Brakhage)

Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
USA, 13 min
Directed by: Stan Brakhage
Written by: n/a
Starring: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage, Myrrena Brakhage

Quite a few years ago, I attended a secondary school excursion to the Melbourne Museum, where we focused primarily upon the science of the human body. As part of the tour, we also attended a screening for the IMAX film The Human Body (2001), which used some nifty film-making techniques to demonstrate the workings of our organs, bones and muscles. The documentary even delved into the subject of reproduction, though I couldn't help noticing that the newly-born infant emerged in an peculiar state of utter cleanliness. Avant-garde Stan Brakhage apparently had no such inclinations towards prudishness. Perhaps his most notorious film, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) {filmed in November 1958} documents in unflinching detail the birth of his first-born daughter, Myrrena Brakhage. Unlike the bewildering Mothlight (1963), this is a Brakhage film that one doesn't need to decipher; the editing and images tell the entire story, not just of a human birth, but of the tender emotional bond between husband and wife, parent and child, and the all-seeing lens of the movie camera.

As a warning to potential viewers, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) doesn't recoil from capturing the most intimate (and explicit) moments of the baby's delivery. Events that would ordinarily be glossed over in other films, such as the cutting of the umbilical cord, or the ejection of the placenta (which looks just as painful as getting the baby out), are documented in detail, over a 13-minute running time that feels substantially longer. Being a student of biology myself, I felt confident that I could manage well enough, though the truth is that I'm a complete prude. In fact, I probably should have filmed myself watching the film, because my facial expressions must have betrayed something akin to revulsion on at least one occasion. However, as soon as that tiny head emerged from the necessary orifice, I began to understand this "miracle of birth" that people talk about so frequently. Even this term, however, is a misnomer, given that there's absolutely nothing miraculous about reproduction – in fact, it's perhaps the most natural phenomenon of all.

Brakhage's film surprised me in that I had expected a straightforward, literal documentation of the childbirth process, filmed in that continuous hand-held manner that characterises most modern home movies. However, his use of editing really breathes emotion into every scene. Even throughout the most crucial moments of the delivery, Brakhage cuts to shots of his wife, Jane, sharing an affectionate smile with the camera, or the couple's tightly-clasped hands, the husband offering his love and support during a time when the male was typically ejected from the room. Window Water Baby Moving is a movingly personal ode to the immortal bond of family, and to cinema's ability to capture and bottle these emotions as best as it can. Brakhage obviously found this documentary excursion to be a worthwhile endeavour, because he repeated the effort several years later with Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), to record the birth of one of Myrrena's siblings. Not for the faint-hearted, but an unmissable avant-garde experience.

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