JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Alex outside in yard with the dog

Chris experiencing early contractions

Outside Chris is smiling

Inside Chrisí face is tense with pain

Jane’s face while in delivery in Window Water Baby Moving

Chris scrunches her face in obvious discomfort

Lee's red shirt out of focus

Shot of Chrisí bloody thigh

The umbilical cord

Lee cuts the cord

 

 

The rapidity of the third section winds down as Chris is heard saying, “I don’t want to do it!” before the camera pulls back from its close-ups, and Chris is seen fully dressed on a couch with her knees up and Lee at her feet. It appears to be the beginning of her contractions. The shots begin cutting between the early birth and the construction work next door. Chris mentions the perineum and the possibility of it tearing in labor as the film cuts to a bulldozer pushing through the side of the house. Keller is drawing parallels between the female body and the potential violence it faces in childbirth by juxtaposing it against the man-made destruction next door. Furthermore, by concluding each section with a more intense segment than concluded the preceding section, the tension becomes paramount, building continually as the film progresses.

The fourth section of the film seems to serve a couple of specific functions — providing the last of the significant background, pre-birth material and isolating the parents for the purpose of exploring their struggles as individuals with the upcoming event. Segregated by Keller to separate spaces, Chris is seen bracing herself during early contractions in her delivery room while Lee is seen with Alex, playing together near a river with a waterfall. As compared to the water imagery in Window Water Baby Moving, where it seems to have a soothing effect, in this section of Misconception, the loud rumbling water dominates the soundtrack, its pressure making apparent the stress being felt by both of the parents as they are uncontrollably rushed towards the impending birth. Despite having gotten pregnant together, they face its difficulties psychologically apart as individuals and differently positioned in relation to what is about to happen. At one point, in almost complete silence, Alex and Lee can be seen walking in front of the waterfall, holding hands, silhouetted against the pounding water. One might assume that such a silence would present a feeling of calm but instead it is fraught with anxiety. And the section ends with Lee’s voice blatantly stating, “I’ll tell ya — I’m really scared.” It is true, as many of the film’s critics have pointed out, that Misconception tends to focus on the mother’s bodily experience, but in cases such as this, Keller provides space for the father, demonstrating her interest in both of their responses to the event at hand. While there might not be an equality in the distribution of work in labor, Keller renders so much apparent without excluding and thus belittling either party.

Doctor examines Chris early on in delivery The bulldozer pushes through the side of the house next door
Lee and Alex play near a river with a waterfall Lee is anxious about the delivery

With the start of the fifth section and the appearance of the “5” card, the viewer is once again presented with a black screen accompanied by birthing noises. Chris is panting, and the doctor is telling her to push through the pain. Once the section of black leader is over and the film again provides the viewer with visuals, Chris can be seen on her side on the delivery table with Lee seated at her head. Shots of the birth scene appear in a montage containing clips of Chris earlier in the pregnancy coming out of the house and approaching the camera. The difference in facial expressions is obvious. Outside she is smiling. On the delivery table, her face is tense with pain. This segment is similar to another in Window Water Baby Moving, where Brakhage brings together shots of Jane’s face in delivery and shots of her face from earlier in the bath. As Friedberg has noted, however, the “images of Jane’s face stretched in agony which seems, in their silence, to be ecstasy in the throes of labor.”[30][open endnotes in new window] By including Chris’ verbal expressions of pain — heavy breathing, grunting and screaming — Keller’s film avoids such misinterpretation. The pain is quite apparent.

Before long, the camerawork becomes more and more confusing. In and out of blackness, the viewer is provided with fragmented images, distractedly joined by sounds of the next-door construction. The camera begins to scan Chris’ curled up body, at times getting so close that her legs appear as out of focus pink blotches. As the camera re-arrives at her upper-body in close-up, she turns her face into the pillow, scrunching it in obvious discomfort. The camera scans the room wildly, as the nurse tells Chris to take a deep breath, and we hear her gasp again. “Long steady pushes, Chris,” accompanies a long but not so steady movement of the camera. The nurse continues her instruction as the camera captures everything in mere color field blotches. Not completely disoriented, the viewer knows the bright red to be Lee’s shirt, the light blue to be Chris’ gown, the pink her naked skin. Her legs come more clearly into focus, and the viewer is provided with just a glimpse of her crotch and inner thigh, which appear bloody. Eventually, the camera returns to her face. Her lips are trembling, and one hears both the doctor and nurse encouraging, warning her, “not too fast,” before the screen goes black. The wild, hand-held movements of the camera in this section are direct references to the lyrical filmmaking tradition and Brakhage’s part in its formation. As in his films circa 1960, here the viewer gets a sense of viewing that which the filmmaker herself saw and experienced, and the camera’s particularly extreme gestures reflect the state of stress and excitement felt by those witness to the biological act of creation.

The rapid editing of image and sound that occurs through the first five sections sets a pace that is then broken in the sixth section when the actual birth occurs. The first two minutes and forty seconds of the section appear as an unedited, single long take with in-sync audio. The camera moves about the scene, the image going in and out of focus, as Chris pants and screams and Lee, the doctor, and the nurse tell her to push or take it slow. Often all the camera captures is the fuzzy color-fields of the bodies and fabrics out of focus, but it continually returns to both Lee and Chris’ mouths and faces, where the synchronicity of the audio to the image is confirmed. At one point, however, as the camera closely examines Chris’ face, the viewer becomes aware that the baby has been born, hearing Lee’s voice say, “Come on baby, cry!”[31] The camera then jerks quickly from Chris’ face down her body, and we hear the nurse and Lee almost simultaneously announce, “It’s a girl,” as the camera arrives at the face of the newborn. The camera moves wildly about as both Lee and Chris exclaim excitedly.

After Chris has been handed the baby, the screen goes black for a few seconds, and the afterbirth fills the second half of the sixth section. Although the fast-paced editing and disjuncture between image and sound of the first five sections does not completely return, this second half is composed of a couple of shots, rather than just the one, and there are a few edited silences. For the most part the camerawork continues in the wavering, explorative nature of the first half. At one point, the camera moves in a fluid slow motion from Chris’ face to the baby’s head to her vagina with the umbilical cord coming out. The baby cries, and the film cuts to a shot of the mother and child from the side. Lee’s hands find the umbilical cord, bring a set of medical scissors to it and cut it. A sound beep accompanies the cut and a small pool of red blood gushes out.

The viewer hears the doctor speaking about the feeling of ecstasy often felt by successful parents and the humanness felt by others, as she simultaneously sees Chris’ vagina about to pass the afterbirth. Chris is on the phone, saying, “We just had a little girl,” and the placenta emerges and slides out. The doctor’s hands take it away, and the viewer is returned to Chris sitting up on the phone. A couple of the past articles on this film have offered questionable and greatly differing interpretations of the role of afterbirth. Reisman, for example, is confused as to why Keller would include the placenta at all, never mind film it in a manner that “make[s] the placenta look like an ugly, bloody mass,” and asks “why was it photographed in such an unappealing and lingering way?”[32] The fact that the placenta is, by definition, “[a] vascular membranous organ”[33]and a natural part of childbirth, which may on its own appear ugly and bloody, does not seem to occur to her or matter. Taubin, on the other hand, finds the placenta’s place in Misconception to be exemplar of Keller’s willingness to “interrupt the aesthetic distance,” a choice that Brakhage supposedly agonized over, despite his similar inclusion and rendering of afterbirth in his own film.[34] For me, the reason Keller would choose to include a shot of the placenta seems to have a much simpler explanation. First, it references Brakhage’s own handling of the afterbirth in Window Water Baby Moving, and, second, Keller’s willingness to depict childbirth’s beauty, although that beauty is often not culturally accepted, goes hand-in-hand with her willingness to depict its culturally repressed pain.

The film comes to an end as the camera continues to scan Chris’ face, the baby, and her body. She joyously recounts the birth to the person at the other end of the line:

“Yes, yes, we are, believe me. Did you know that Lee delivered the baby?...Oh, he was fine! I did all the work!”

The camera is zoomed in so close on Chris’ face that the viewer can see only her eyes and the lines around them, which indicate that she is smiling. She laughs, and then the film goes silent. Her happy eyes bounce back and forth, and then the camera follows the phone’s cord down to the sleeping baby. Staying on the baby’s face, it pulls around to get the two in the same shot. Chris’ lips move silently against the phone in the immediate foreground, and the baby’s resting face appears just behind in the foreshortened distance. The screen goes black for a second, and the film is over. Its concluding use of silence and darkness finally does have a relieving effect, as despite the tension, stress and pain of the process seen, the film culminates in health and happiness.

Upon closely examining Misconception, it is apparent that the relation between image and sound is one of instability and unpredictability. Keller demonstrates her fascination with images and sounds in the ways that they conduct meaning and how flexible they are in the ways in which they lend themselves to comprehension. The film frequently relays an interest in the limits of both images and sounds in articulating complex human emotions and opinions. For example, when the viewer sees Chris and Lee in conversation and hears them debating issues of parenting, and then, through editing, their words become realigned with disparate images or they become silenced mid-sentence, the couple’s own meaning becomes lost or conflated. And the opposite is true as well. In viewing this family, their home and second birth, one’s perception of them is altered by the sounds that their images are joined with. In more specific cases, particularly in the earlier sections when the viewer is presented with brief images and sounds from the future delivery, these brief fragments suggest what inevitably lies ahead. Their disparity functions as a complexly collaged foreshadowing, and as the technique is repeated, it builds a sense of tension that is finally released upon birth.

Past critics have attempted to connect these techniques more specifically to a political statement. They see Keller’s manipulation of image and sound as linked to the film’s feminism. However, what these critics mean by such a term seems to vary, but their opinions also often overlap. In some cases, they locate the film’s feminism in the way it has Chris speak. In comparison to Jane Brakhage, Chris is able to express the pain she experiences in childbirth and the challenges she faces in mothering. For some critics, Lee seems to be made a fool of or presented as a dominating patriarchal figure to be criticized. And in general, they tend to emphasize the she said/he said, situating Chris and Lee as opposing figures against one another. Reisman was perhaps the only feminist critic who interviewed Keller and wrote about Misconception in the early eighties to come to the conclusion that the film was not in fact feminist. Challenging Taubin’s reading as essentialist and stating that “the filmmaker’s gender [has been] confused with the films themselves,”[35] Reisman suggests that Misconception’s extreme ambiguity and confusion lead to its failure as a political statement. She states:

“The film continually switches voices between Chris and Lee, but by the montage and the overlapping of image and sound, the point of view that Keller holds as filmmaker is unclear. We can never be sure ‘whose side,’ if anyone’s, she is on in relation to the couple. And because of this confusion, the spectator doesn’t get a clear sense of whether Keller wants the film to be read as her own commentary on childbirth and marriage, or from the perspective of Chris or of Lee.”[36]

She draws a similar conclusion about Keller’s following film Daughters of Chaos (1979): “The film is also unclear as it suggests a reluctance to negate traditional notions of womanhood.”[37] For Reisman, these uncertainties appear as a disappointment, and she seems unable to draw significance from either film in the absence of an obvious political statement. While I do not agree with the extent to which she takes her conclusions, I too find significance in the ambiguity of Misconception’s use of image and sound. Keller spent over three years editing the film and the result is purposeful and prepared. Therefore, it is my contention that ambiguity and uncertainty function as key structural tropes in the film.

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