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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Francis Bacon & Stan Brakhage at the butcher's

We are ‘human meat and carcasses-in-waiting’. I got this idea from a visit to the Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Modern in London in 2009. The exhibition made me think of lots of things, but one rose to the surface like a cork and bobbed about: the idea of being ‘carcasses-in-waiting’ links especially to Stan Brakhage’s film of 1971 The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes. Once conceived, the link is obvious, since the film was made in an autopsy laboratory and shows naked corpses being wheeled in for cutting up. By ‘cut up’ I don’t mean a small incision here, a minor opening there, but the full slit down the middle of the chest, removal of the ribs with a bone-cutter and the lifting out of the entrails. That’s not all: the flesh on the top of the head is separated from the skull; the top half of the skull is removed with a mechanical saw; the brain is lifted out and put in a plastic bag.

What would Bacon, so fascinated with photographs and the cinema, have made of it? (Perhaps he even saw it: it was shown in London in the 1970s, while Bacon was still alive and working hard.) The paintings are so clear about his fascination with sides of meat and with bloody entrails that a film on the subject would surely have met with his approval? That all depends. Bacon did not like painting as ‘illustration’ but "as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object". I don’t believe he said it in so many words, but his pronouncements on this subject suggest to me that he felt photography was second best in a way: "The texture of a photograph seems to go through an illustrational process onto the nervous system, whereas the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system."

Brakhage, as I recall, got agitated about the importance of distinguishing between photography and film, wanting to separate the two, perhaps even to think of them as different in kind not different in degree. The Act of Seeing confirms the distinction, as it does not seek (photographic) objectivity about the process of autopsy: the film is silent (utterly), which puts the onus on the thoughts of the viewer, and offers no answers to questions such as ‘who are these bodies?’ or ‘why are they being cut up?’ Our reactions are subjective and nervous, a process underpinned by the camerawork and by the editing. Initial views of the corpses are partial and then grotesque by being filmed lengthways, either from behind the head to the feet, or behind the feet to the head. As its 33 minutes roll by, we learn more about the process, and sense its relentlessness: one damn corpse after another, on a production line. The camera is hand-held, and used with a telephoto lens, it magnifies slight movements, giving a nervous twitch to the image. The editing, in the Brakhage manner, is rapid, concentrating the eye and the mind on the image and permitting no wandering. On the other hand, it is true that in his painting Bacon can take liberties denied to the camera in distorting forms; in the film when we see a corpse with the flesh that covered the skull pulled down over the face, we have a feeling of the brutality of fact, but not in the way we look at Bacon’s (still living) bodies writhing in agony. Yet the way the film makes us peer at the bodies and interpret the shapes so that we can make sense of them as images, the way it uncovers then blocks off sight, the way it jumps like a blinking moving eye, creates an effect which could be described as "the unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object". Their common enterprise is illustrated too in Bacon’s resistance to a narrative being read into his paintings, and by Brakhage wanting to eschew any more ‘metaphor’ than was necessary in the way he filmed, i.e. (I think) to head off interpretations or judgements while we watch the film about the corpses, about the men at work, about life and death.

In 1655 Rembrandt had painted the carcass of an ox in a slaughterhouse (a painting now in the Louvre, so seen by Bacon when he was in Paris in 1927? - see image on right), and a link has been made between Bacon and the photographs by Eli Lotar of the slaughterhouse at La Villette in Paris, published in George Bataille’s ‘Documents’ in 1929. I could make a further link to Georges Franju’s documentary (‘film poem’ might be a better description), Le Sang des Betes, about the same slaughterhouses, but I haven’t seen it in years. (I have now since I discovered it on YouTube - 2014)

(c) Tim Cawkwell 2010