JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Chris expresses her shock with the time-consuming nature of parenting

Lee lifts Alex to reach for the branches of a tree

Section 2 card

Close-up on Chris’ stomachin Misconception bath scene

Close-up on Jane’s stomachin Window Water Baby Moving bath scene

Chris puts bubbles on Alex’s chin and tells him to show Marge

Moments between the mother and son in bath

The two engage in playful bath talk

Alex climbing out of the tub

Chris drying off

Chris and Alex exit the bathroom in silence

Chris doing Lamaze exercises on the floor

Lee theorizes about the pain of childbirth and cites Pavlov

 

There also exist a couple of key interviews with Keller from the late seventies and early eighties in which she most definitively states her own investment in the medium of film and women-oriented subject matter. Two in particular are highly charged, the 1978 interview with Amy Taubin and the 1983 interview with Linda Reisman. In both cases, Keller and the interviewer disagree on the extent to which and manner in which her films function as critiques of patriarchal culture. Similarly, in both interviews, Keller expresses the difficulties that have come with being appropriated by the feminist film community. To Reisman, she states:

“I am very grateful to the women’s movement for taking up my work. But I have suffered from it a little bit in that it’s very hard for me to think that the filmmakers whose work I care about are less interested in these films than a whole lot of other people, some of whom know almost nothing about film, but who care about them because of the subject matter.”[21][open endnotes in new window]

And to Taubin she states:

“Certainly Brakhage’s world view is not mine, he has every right to acknowledge his own view in his film and he does it spectacularly well. By treating my film differently, by placing it in the tradition of feminism and outside the traditional modes of criticism of avant-garde films, I feel somewhat like a displaced person.”[22]

My essay is an attempt to respond to such pleas on the part of the filmmaker and to approach Misconception with a broader mindset than writers have had about it so far. Put more generally, past attempts at interpreting Misconception have been reliant on strict dichotomies. Most notably, it is seen as either feminist or not and thus as belonging to the tradition of the personal or lyrical avant-garde or not. In this paper, I seek to re-conceive of Misconception in a manner that releases the film of such binds. I do so with the hope of opening it up to further future interpretations, re-looking and better appreciation. In order to achieve this goal, I will keep the filmmaker’s language in play as I conduct a close formal analysis of the film attuned to its manipulation of sound and image, the feature that not only most distinctly distinguishes it from Brakhage’s film but also contains its greatest intricacies.

Misconception is forty-three minutes long and is divided into six sections of varying lengths, each announced by a typed number on a brown notecard. Though the film is by no means strictly chronological, it most generally progresses throughout the sections from mid-pregnancy to labor to the postpartum period. Before the first section of the film is announced, the film’s title, author and dates appear typed on similar paper cards separated by brief sections of black leader. Keller has described her need to divide the film in a way that related to “the enormity” of what she was representing. She has written in a letter:

“It allowed for a step back and a new point of view in my consideration of documentary form.”[23]

At the same time that the divisions provide the filmmaker distance, they do not diminish the viewing experience for the spectator. Instead, they contribute to the tension and build-up that culminates in the birth. In this as well as other ways, Keller achieves her goal of

“com[ing] up with a film that would be as strong as if [she] asked an audience to experience a childbirth in person.”[24]

I contend that the film’s strength lies largely in Keller’s complex editing of sound and image through juxtaposition and play. For this reason, as well as the general agreement that Keller differentiates her film from Brakhage’s especially in her use of sound, it is important to try to understand how sound is functioning in relation to image in Misconception and the effect it has—as opposed to silence in Window Water Baby Moving. In viewing Keller’s film it becomes clear that sound and image are being played off of one another and that their relation is in a constant state of flux throughout the length of the film. At times the sounds and images sync-up, the words match the movements of Lee’s and Chris’ mouths and the noises make sense within the scene at hand, but more often than not, this is not the case. Sometimes the scene’s dialogue or diegetic sounds have been re-arranged, while other times sounds from a completely alternate temporality accompany the depicted scene. As Keller herself has articulated:

“The film, as it is present on the screen at any given time, is made up of past, present, and future images and sounds.”[25]

By rearranging the temporal sequence of the film, Keller is recalling the lyrical film practice as established by Brakhage. Furthermore, Sitney has in fact claimed,

“In no other film does Brakhage make as much of a reorganization of chronological time [than in Window Water Baby Moving].”[26]

Keller mobilizes this practice of rearranging time into the arena of the auditory, complicates its effects, and creates disjunctures between what is seen and what is heard with its myriad temporal variances. Such audioscapes create a state of confusion for the viewer, who is unsettlingly made to work through the complications on her own.

From the start, the viewer is thrown into the mix. Without visual or aural introduction, the number “1” section card disappears, the screen goes black, and a dialogue between Keller’s brother Lee and sister-in-law Chris mid-conversation accompanies the opening shot. Lee is even mid-sentence. Furthermore, Chris and Lee, as well as their three year-old son Alex, are never formally introduced. Instead, throughout the first section, which cuts back and forth between two different scenes — 1) the couple is painting their home’s interior and discussing myths of childbirth as well as who is going to get “fixed” after the upcoming birth; and 2) the family is playing in the yard as they converse about the difficulties and benefits of having children. In this section the viewer learns their names and gathers their relation to one another.

At one point out in the yard, the camera zooms to close-up on Chris’ face as she expresses how much the difficulty of parenting has surprised her, stating that if given the chance over, she may not have chosen to have kids. Alex is seen running naked in the yard as Lee responds, “But you’re not taking into consideration the joys…” The film cuts to Lee’s face, but the sound and image do not match. Through Keller’s manipulation of the sound in editing, Lee has been cut-off, interrupted and essentially silenced. The viewer sees him speaking but cannot hear what he is saying. The camera quickly returns to Chris in close-up, and she says, “I know, I know…it just really is a shock to find out how much time it takes.” This time she is cut-off by Keller’s editing of the sound, and some continuation of the conversation on responsibility and children can be heard, but it does not match the movement of the couple’s mouths. Alex joins his father, who picks him up and plays with him, and as Lee lifts him above his head to reach for the branches of a tree, Chris distinctly states, “It sounds really corny and sentimental, but you just can’t imagine how much you love your kids — you just can’t image it.” The viewer will be frustrated when presented with just fragments of a seemingly important and relevant conversation, but it is not the only function of these segments. Such structuring also works to suggest the challenge of discursive expressivity—the difficulty of human subjects have in articulating complex feelings through language.

The second section of the film tends to play with the image/sound relation in a much different manner. The screen goes black both before and after announcing the second section with the “2” note card. In the darkness sounds are heard: they seem to be birth noises — a woman moaning and then screaming while others coach her calmly. Once visuals are presented, however, clearly Chris is in a bubble bath and not giving birth. The sounds heard did not originally accompany the bath scene but instead have been superimposed by Keller from Chris’ later delivery.

Friedberg has described this section as “the most explicit homage to Brakhage” within the film, and I would agree.[27] Window Water Baby Moving opens with imagery of Jane Brakhage, late in her pregnancy, climbing into a bath, and returns to imagery of her bathing throughout the film. While the second section of Misconception seems to echo Window Water Baby Moving in its extreme close-ups on the body of the pregnant woman bathing, the alteration of the sound effects through the rest of the scene lessen the voyeurism of such shots in making the viewer aware of the constructedness of the scene at hand.

As soon as the film cuts to a position farther away, it becomes apparent that Alex is in the bath with Chris. Here the sounds of the birth fade out and the diegetic bath sounds fade in. The mother and son are playing. She puts bubbles on his chin and tells him to show “Marge,” while asking him, “Who are you?” and him responding, “Santa Claus!” In hearing this, the viewer is reminded that there is a specific, named filmmaker shooting the footage and that it was she, Marjorie Keller, that bore original witness to the scene at hand. In addition, the flow of the bath scene is not continuous from start to finish but instead has been edited into a compilation of such moments between the mother and son. The position of the camera changes throughout, often shooting closer up on their bodies and other times moving a few feet away in the bathroom doorway. Sounds of panting accompany some of these shots, while, at other times brief cuts show images of the future delivery, accompanied by Chris and Alex’s playful bath talk.

In addition, at other points in the bath scene, namely when the two are finished and climb out of the tub, sounds that must have accompanied an earlier portion of the bath can be heard. Chris sings a song, “Everybody wash their…” and Alex fills in the blank first with “penis” and then with “hair.” Each time, Chris sings the full sentence repeatedly as they supposedly wash those body parts. The images that accompany such dialogue, however, do not match. Instead close-ups of Chris’ body are provided, as she gets out of the bath or the two of them towel off. As they continue to do so, the mother and son can be heard singing in unison, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring,” as well as a man’s voice telling Chris she’s three quarters of the way there, she’s almost there. The section ends with images of Chris and Alex finishing drying off accompanied by a deep silence, one which could have only been accomplished through the removal of all sound in editing. They open the bathroom door and exit. The screen goes black, and the film is silent and dark for about fifteen seconds. In the first section, Chris’ delivery hovered over the scene, still an unimaginable, distant event. Now the interference of brief visuals and more extensive sounds from the future birth in this second section manifest its eventuality as tangible and apparent. In addition, the concluding period of silent darkness allows for this inevitability to resonate in the viewer’s psyche.

The third section is largely composed of a fast-paced visual montage. The film cuts between Lee talking, Chris on the floor doing her Lamaze birthing exercises, Alex running around in the yard, and imagery of construction workers tearing the neighboring house down. As with the scene in the yard earlier, Chris and Lee’s conversation, which is largely about the pains of giving birth in practice and in theory, is often stopped, muted, and restarted again. Lee mentions Pavlov and his method of providing women with conditioned responses to rehearse when in labor in order to mask the pain. Chris, in response, cites a woman who wrote to Esquire magazine in criticism of a book on similar pain-free birth techniques written by a male theorist. Mid-scene the words of a Lamaze class instructor are introduced into the mix. Chris continues,

“And I think it’s sort of a lot of difference between men’s view of having a baby and a woman’s view — you know? A woman’s view is, ‘I should make this as easy as possible’ and men’s view is, ‘well it shouldn’t hurt to begin with.’”

Keller has captured and re-choreographed a debate of theory versus praxis, and as the intermittent sounds of the second section already seem to have suggested, in this film, praxis wins out.

In her 1984 essay “Disembodying the Female Voice” Kaja Silverman describes Misconception as

“a film which is devoted to the exploration of the three-way relationship between the male voice, the female voice, and the female body.”[28]

After discussing the typical roles of gendered bodies and voices in narrative cinema, where most generally the male subject is defined by immateriality and the female by corporeality, Silverman utilizes Misconception as one of her examples of feminist avant-garde practice where nonsynchronization is used to divorce the female voice from the female body and thus disrupt standard gender roles in films. She sees Keller specifically as employing the strategy of aligning a female voice with a male body or a male voice with a female body.[29] While this does happen on a series of occasions both in Chris and Lee’s conversation on pain in the third section and in their earlier conversation on the difficulties of childrearing, this does not account for the complexities of what is going on between images and dialogue. Keller is not solely re-aligning the voices and bodies of the two sexes. Instead, at times when a longer sentence is spoken by either Chris or Lee, the accompanying visual montage is often cut so rapidly that within the time it takes for the sentence to come out, the viewer has seen four or five different images. In many cases, she has seen shots of both the speaking and non-speaking member of the couple as well as other shots of their son Alex, the yard, the house next door, their dog, etc. At other times, the audio has been cut down to short fragments, and the key terms “Lamaze,” “Pavlov,” “neurological” are heard so fast and fleetingly that the viewer does not have time to align them with a singular image.

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