REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA
2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
birth as a site of filmic experimentation
By Roxanne Samer
How then can we define [cinema]? It is still embryonic. A new art must create its own organs. All that we can do is to help to deliver them out of chaos. — Elie Faure[open endnotes in new window]
Childbirth, procreation: the ever-ready metaphors for artistic creation, newness and originality. In some cases, no other word play is more apt. Such is the case with U.S. avant-gardist Stan Brakhage, who trained his camera throughout his prolific career, which spanned the second half of the twentieth century, on his own family, including filming the births of his first five children. This, in and of itself, was a revolutionary act, as prior to the 1950s childbirth was for the most part off limits as subject matter for filmmaking. As Amos Vogel states in his well-recognized text Film as a Subversive Art, due to its inextricable ties to sex and blood taboos,
“The cinema has treated birth as a guilty secret of mankind, a mystery to be kept from the impressionable young, a clandestine medical event reserved exclusively for physicians.”
This all began to change in the 1950s when both documentary and experimental filmmakers such as Brakhage began testing censorship laws and the public’s tolerance by making their own films of the event. Furthermore, Brakhage’s filming of his wife Jane giving birth to their first child, which resulted in Window Water Baby Moving (1959), was done at a time when he was experimenting with his filmmaking style as well as beginning to theorize as to the significance of the medium as a whole in what would result as his first book Metaphors on Vision.
It was a time of change and growth in Brakhage’s career, as he abandoned his earlier psychodramas in favor of what has been described as a lyrical or personal filmmaking aesthetic. Window Water Baby Moving was one of four films he made in 1959, a productivity level that has been seen as “a sign of a major breakthrough in his art.” This stylistic shift was also accompanied by his abandoning the use of sound in his films. Seeking to distance himself from commercialized Hollywood cinema in all of its kitschiness and to appeal to the more autonomous visual arts, Brakhage’s new filmmaking style becamez for the most part devoid of sound and keenly attuned to the sense of sight. As the filmmaker himself stated in a letter of 1966:
“The more informed I became with aesthetics of sound, the less I began to feel any need for an audio accompaniment of the visuals I was making. I think it was seven/eight years ago I began making intentionally silent films…I now see/feel no more absolute necessity for a sound track than a painter feels the need to exhibit a painting with a recorded musical background.”
This lyrical mode of filmmaking had begun to show itself in Anticipation of the Night (1958) but did not solidify until 1959. It accentuates visuality and is defined by its positing of the filmmaker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist, whose vision is equated with the images occurring on the screen. In order to convey himself looking, he uses an emphasis on movement in the camerawork, editing or harmonization between the two, and more often than not tends to accentuating the flatness of the screen rather than give an illusionary depth. While this filmmaking style was to become extremely prevalent in experimental films of the late-sixties, P. Adams Sitney, a primary exegete of the U.S. avant-garde, considers it to be single-handedly forged by Brakhage a decade prior to its period of popularity. Thus Window Water Baby Moving played a principle role not only in registering the delivery of a newborn child into this world and making this taboo content public but also in the conception of a new mode of filmmaking
Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, which was published as a special issue of Film Culture in 1963, echoed the attention to issues of the visual that he was simultaneously developing in his films.  In the text, Brakhage posits the prelingual child as an ideal viewer of the world, asking his adult readers to imagine what it might be like to mobilize a mode of seeing based on an eye untutored by culture. He challenges Western rules of perspective and color, postulating them as unnecessarily and messily bound to language. As an alternative he advocates a return to seeing “before the ‘beginning was the word.’” Brakhage asks, “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?” He says it is the eye that “reflects the loss of innocence more eloquently than any other human feature.” In such passages of Metaphors on Vision such as these, Brakhage first develops his idealization of the child as visionary exemplar, which would permeate his career. As film historian and filmmaker Marjorie Keller, who responded to Brakhage’s work in both her writing and her films, has succinctly stated:
“Simply put, the infant is a metaphor for the filmmaker at his best moments.”
Although Brakhage’s work dominated the U.S. avant-garde scene of the 1950s, throughout the following decades he would encounter opposition from fellow filmmakers and critics. In order to earn a living, he taught and lectured incessantly, which often brought him into contact with those with alternative positions on the function and purpose of independent filmmaking. The social movements of the 60s, in turn, led to an increasing interest in identity politics both inside and outside the art world. Artists and filmmakers alike began to rethink the conditions of perception and to challenge the autonomy cultural objects had acquired in their theorization as neutral or disembodied. Mediamakers, artists and scholars began to insist instead that the race, gender and sexuality of practitioners and viewers be considered as integral to the understanding of aesthetics. Feminist film theory and praxis developed a particularly strong base in the United States and Britain, and as David E. James has concisely put it,
“At exactly the time when the search for nonpatriarchal sex and family roles had greatest cultural urgency, Brakhage, interchangeably ‘bring[ing] forth films and children’ in the Colorado wilderness, appeared to embody not the solution, but the problem itself.”
Feminists took particular issue with the manner in which Brakhage captured his wife and problematically utilized her as an objectified muse in his films. His intense close-ups, hand-held camera movements and fast-paced editing seemed either to fetishize or commit violence to Jane Brakhage’s body. In a 1978 interview, Amy Taubin stated:
“In Brakhage what I think those formal aspects point to is that out of the unlimited access he has to his subjects’ lives, an access that is given to him by law, these are the final things that he culled, the final distillation of the myriads of footage which he could expose of them and on which he exposed them. It’s an ugly metaphor but I always think that Jane has no right, even if she wanted to, and I’m not claiming that she ever does, to close her legs.”
Anne Friedberg, in a 1979 article for Millennium Film Journal, similarly wrote:
“As a filmmaker making a film about the birth of his first child, Brakhage endows Jane with a pregnancy both literal and figurative. Perhaps through his ownership rights as paternal head of a nuclear family, her body becomes his artistic material: vagina, mouth and window are intercut as comparative metaphoric apertures. In Brakhage’s film, Jane-as-woman is pregnant in a double sense—she is both bearer of his child and bearer of his meaning. ”
Feminist film critics, including Taubin and Friedberg, began to identify and champion examples of women’s films to counter the male-dominated avant-garde and women’s historical exclusion from the history of cultural objects and artistic practices. One such example was Marjorie Keller, whose birth film Misconception (1977) would come to be positioned as a feminist response to Brakhage. Rather than filming her partner or herself giving birth, Keller was invited by her brother Lee and sister-in-law Chris to film the birth of their second child. Feminist critics found it important that from the start Keller was further removed from the process at hand and thus able to offer a more critical position on childbirth, its divisions of labor and past mythologizing in the eyes of men.
And yet the manner in which Keller has been positioned and utilized as a political tool by these same critics — including alongside Taubin and Friedberg, B. Ruby Rich, Linda Reisman and Kaja Silverman in the late-70s and early-80s, to a lesser extent Robin Blaetz more recently — is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, there has been little solid formal analysis done in order to understand Misconception’s relation to Window Water Baby Moving. Instead, critics tend to mention Brakhage and his film in passing or allude to it vaguely, while noting briefly that Keller uses a few of the same formal techniques as those working in the lyrical tradition.
Second, Keller’s complex relationship to Brakhage is hardly, if ever, mentioned. In 1973, the year in which she filmed the footage for Misconception, Keller was finishing her undergraduate studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and taking courses with Brakhage. From 1974 through 1983, she was a graduate student in Cinema Studies at New York University, her research culminating in a dissertation on Jean Cocteau, Joseph Cornell and Stan Brakhage. In 1986, it was published as The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage by Associated University Presses. The third chapter of the book, quoted earlier, focuses on Brakhage specifically, looking at four of his films from 1964 through 1980 as well as Metaphors on Vision in order to study the evolution of the filmmaker’s treatment of childhood and its relation to his development as a filmmaker.
Last, and perhaps most important, past critics writing about Misconception have largely ignored the filmmaker’s own language. As a filmmaker and film historian, Keller produced a number of essays, articles and reviews, as well as her book, within which she articulates her position on a series of film-related issues, including the Brakhage tradition and the development of Lacanian psychoanalysis as a methodological approach. Notably included among these is her review of E. Ann Kaplan’s text Women and Film, which appeared in the Millennium Film Journal in the winter of 1984-85. It is a brief and yet scorching critique, panning the text’s “overdetermined nature” and failure to provide the overview and summation that the title suggests. Keller states that Kaplan’s semiological/psychoanalytic approach severely limits the range of films covered, glaringly condensing Maya Deren’s influence to two paragraphs and not even mentioning some of the other most influential female filmmakers such as Carolee Schneemann and Marie Menken. Put most blatantly, Keller writes: “By elevating the ‘theory’ film over others in the avant-garde, Kaplan obfuscates women’s filmmaking in the name of feminism.” Here as well as elsewhere, Keller appears hesitant or at times hostile to the academicizing of artistic practices, postulating avant-garde films as having more to offer than that which can be explicated by a particular theory—namely, a subjective and personal mode of expression.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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].”
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. 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.”
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. 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.
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.
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.” 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!” 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?” The fact that the placenta is, by definition, “[a] vascular membranous organ”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. 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,” 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.”
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.” 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.
This refusal to take sides is further reflected in the complex relationship between Keller and Brakhage. Keller herself is always hesitant to describe the relationship in harsh or polarizing terms. Despite attempts on Taubin’s part to categorize Keller as a feminist filmmaker who sees male filmmakers “as distinct as Joseph Cornell, Stan Brakhage, and Michael Snow” as “shar[ing] a common central theme — ‘putting women in their place,’” or her film as “clar[ying] some of the overwhelming and inarticulate rage which many women have felt in relation to these and other films by Stan Brakhage,” Keller has always been respectful and appreciative when she speaks of him. In 1987, the Millennium Film Journal published part of a speech she had given at a screening hosted by the journal that focused on her relation to Brakhage. In the beginning of the quote, she states:
“I don’t know that there could be an avant-garde filmmaker in America that is not in some way indebted to Stan Brakhage, has not studied his films, has not thought about them and taken them seriously. And I certainly don’t consider myself an exception. In fact, I consider myself somebody who really knows his films well and looks at them a lot and really enjoys them.”
“I think we have different world views. I guess that’s what I would say. I would say that I am a student of [Brakhage’s] filmmaking, but once we apply ourselves to the content something really different comes out.”
And this was far from the first time that she made such statements, simultaneously distancing herself from him while aligning her filmmaking practices with his. In her 1978 interview with Taubin, Keller describes Misconception as a “loving critique of Window Water Baby Moving” and definitively states that its creation was only made possible due to Brakhage’s previous experimentation with the subject. She also repeatedly insists that the film was not meant to “criticize the man in the film and valorize the woman” but to capture the complications that come about when two people approach such a difficult process together though from distinctly disparate positions.
But the differences between Keller’s film and Brakhage’s do not lie solely in their depictions of the sexes, their treatments of the female body and the functioning of sound or the lack thereof therein. Whereas Window Water Baby Moving was shot from the start on 16mm, Keller originally shot Misconception on sound Super-8, blowing it up to 16mm only later for distribution purposes. This technical choice accounts for the extra-grainy quality of the image and the constant visibility of splice-marks throughout the film. By choosing to shoot on Super-8, a low-budget system designed in the early-seventies for amateur use, Keller created an aesthetic resembling that of a home-movie, which, as B. Ruby Rich has noted, emphasizes the film’s “sense of intimacy and sympathy.” This effect goes hand in hand with Keller’s insistence on including material of the everyday, incorporating interviews with Chris and Lee weeks before the birth as well as shots from their home life — the painting of their house’s interior, the mother and son bath, the house next door being torn down by construction workers. While Brakhage also included shots of the pregnant wife in the bath, they are much different in nature, serving to further mythologize the birth rather than to establish setting or provide realistic documentary evidence. In fact, in Brakhage’s film, the pregnancy and birth have been wholly de-contextualized from the world at large. Other than a few shots of passionate kisses between Brakhage and Jane taken earlier in the pregnancy, the viewer is not provided with a glimpse into their life as a couple, where they live or what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Keller’s de-romanticization of the birth event is further emphasized in her use of typed note cards to introduce the title, filmmaker and sections. Its frequent repetition, with the intermittent numbered section announcements, leaves no doubt that the simple, matter-of-fact aesthetic was intended to counter Brakhage’s usage of the exact opposite — the romanticized hand-written scrawl. Prior to 1974, when Brakhage switched to copyrighting his films, each film, no matter how short, included a title at the start and a signature, “By Brakhage,” at the end. He created the title and signature by tediously scratching at the film stock, frame by frame, a process that often took hours. Since then, Brakhage has stated that he did so in order to make a personal statement and in order to distinguish his films from those of anyone else, especially those of Hollywood. And it worked, “By Brakhage” becoming a symbol for the touch of the artist’s hand. In the mid-70s, Keller was well aware of this and chose to counter in a subtle but noticeable manner. Thus, Keller would make such statements as,
“I would say that I am a student of [Brakhage’s] filmmaking, but once we apply ourselves to the content something really different comes out.”
She is correct but also seems to be understating the fact that such differences were often direct results of a purposeful reaction on her part to his earlier content and aesthetic choices.
While I do not care to endorse the general methodological strategy of privileging authorial meaning or intent, in this particular case the filmmaker’s language appears particularly apt. Keller was not only a filmmaker but a film historian as well, and she regularly re-thought her opinions on and position in relation to Brakhage from her days as his student in the early-seventies through her years as a professor at the University of Rhode Island, where she wrote about and taught his films in the late-eighties and early-nineties. Throughout the process of studying her films, returning to her extremely articulate and poignant words has been of recurring benefit and delight. It is for these reasons that I find it relevant to keep her language so at hand when conducting my own formal analysis. In addition, the fact that past critics have for the most part ignored her own language, both in written and spoken form, bodes ominously now that she is no longer living and capable of defending her own intentions in person.
In February 1994, at the age of forty-three, Keller passed away, survived by her parents, husband, twin daughters, two stepchildren and six siblings. Since the time of her early death, her films have unfortunately been written about even less than they were when she was alive. Her work has, however, continued to be appreciated and loved by a close community of filmmakers and historians with whom she had regularly associated with at such organizations as Anthology Film Archives, where her films were frequently shown, and the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative, where she served as president from 1986 through 1989. In 1981, Keller had been included in the exhibition Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films curated by J. Hoberman at Anthology Film Archives, and in the winter of 1998-89, she would be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films curated by Steve Anker and Jytte Jensen. The small but substantial file on her located at Anthology Film Archives as well as the recent DVD compilation of her films by Canyon Cinema and the restoration of three of her films by the New York Public Library of Performing Arts are testimony to the continuing appreciation for her work.
In 2007, Robin Blaetz’s edited text Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks was published by Duke University Press. Blaetz’s essay, “Amnesis Time: The Films of Marjorie Keller,” returns to Keller’s films approximately twenty years after they received regular public attention. The essay is extensive, informed by interviews with P. Adams Sitney, Keller’s husband, and Saul Levine, Keller’s close friend and early film teacher, as well as Keller’s unpublished manuscript on women’s films. Blaetz provides a section of thorough biographical information before establishing her interest in Keller’s exemplar position as a woman who was raised with traditional notions of femininity in the 1950s and yet matured as a professional after the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies. Due to this interest, the focus of Blaetz’s analysis is on the functioning of what she terms “amnesis time” in a few of Keller’s films — Ancient Parts, Foreign Parts, Private Parts, Daughters of Chaos, Misconception and Herein — spanning her oeuvre.
This article seeks to join Blaetz’s essay in re-awakening attention to Keller’s films. In conducting a formal analysis of Misconception particularly attuned to its complexly-edited image/sound relationship, I have woven into my analysis the filmmaker’s own language as well as past critics analyses and their comparisons to her predecessor’s film. I wish to release the film from past binds to do so in a manner that opens it up for further inquiry. As Keller’s friend and fellow film historian Maria DiBattista wrote in an article for Film Culture upon the filmmaker’s death, “[Keller] was by all estimations a myriad-minded woman — a filmmaker and a film scholar, a teacher, a wife and mother, a daughter, sister and friend,” and a similar range can be found in her films as well. I have focused on the intricacies of a single Keller film but with knowledge of the breadth of her oeuvre. While material for her films tended to come from within a tight radius surrounding her own personal experience, the tone and texture of each piece range in their explorations of familial relationships, old home movies, a death of a close pet and the pleasurable labor of gardening. She made silent films and sound films. She made films on 8mm, Super-8 and 16mm; they range from three to fifty minutes in length. Unfortunately, critical reception of her films has not yet been fully brought to term but has experienced an extended period of gestation. If serious film historians, academics, critics and cinephiles begin to put in the appropriate labor, films such as Misconception could experience the jubilant attention that they deserve — better late than never.
1. Elie Faure, “The Art of Charlie Chaplin,” from The Art of Cineplastics (Boston, 1923), reprinted in The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian, Richard Schickel, ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 77. [return to text]
2. In his first book to examine Brakhage’s films postmortem, Sitney writes:
“Between 1952 and his death in 2003, Brakhage made approximately 350 films, some shorter than a minute long and one more than four hours.” P. Adams Sitney, Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 70.
3. Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (London and New York: Distributed Art Publishers/CT Editions, 2005), 258.
4. Sitney coined the term “lyrical” in his Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), which would go on to become the primary canonization of the field and at the center of which Brakhage was distinctly positioned.
5. Sitney, Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson, 70.
6. Brakhage has used sound in only a minute percentage of his films, and Blue Moses (1962) is the only case in which he used synchronous speech. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 179.
7. Stan Brakhage in an April 1966 letter to Ronna Page, Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980, Robert A. Haller, ed. (New Paltz, NY: Documentext, 1982), 49.
8. Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, 160.
10. Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision, P. Adams Sitney, ed., Film Culture 30 (New York, 1963), unpaginated.
12. Marjorie Keller, The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage (Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 1986), 186.
13. David E. James, Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 15.
14. Adding fuel to the flames, Brakhage refused to allow his own films, which had tested the limits of sexual censorship laws, to be appropriated by what he called “’The Cause of Sexual Freedom’ or some-such,” insisting instead that he had made such films “out of personal necessity taking shape thru means available to me of historical aesthetics” and risked imprisonment showing them “in order to meet the, as requested, needs of others.” Sex, in his work, was an inspiration, muse or material for the aesthetic and was not to be utilized for its own sake. Brakhage in letter to Ronna Page, Brakhage Scrapbook, Robert A. Haller, ed., 52.
15. Amy Taubin, “Discussion Between Marjorie Keller and Amy Taubin,” Idiolects #6 (1978): 29-30.
16. Anne Friedberg, “Misconception = The Division of Labor in the Childbirth Film,” Millennium Film Journal 4-5 (1979): 65-66.
17. In 1972, Keller was expelled from Tufts University for protesting a racially motivated firing of a departmental secretary. Although she would receive her degree from Tufts, she finished her coursework at the Art Institute in Chicago. Robin Blaetz, ed., Women’s Experimental Cinema: critical frameworks (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 214.
18. Keller, The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage, 180.
19. Marjorie Keller, "Review of E. Ann Kaplan's Women and Film," Millennium Film Journal 14-15 (1984-85): 44.
21. Marjorie Keller in interview with Linda Reisman, “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” Camera Obscura 11 (1983): 81.
22. Marjorie Keller in conversation with Amy Taubin, “Discussion Between Marjorie Keller and Amy Taubin,” 31.
23. Marjorie Keller in letter to Abigail Child from 1989, reprinted by Sitney in Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, 422.
24. Keller in interview with Reisman, “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” 74.
26. Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, 169.
27. Friedberg, “Misconception = The Division of Labor in the Childbirth Film,” 67.
28. Kaja Silverman, “Disembodying the Female Voice,” Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, eds. (Frederick: University Publications of America, Inc., 1984), 137.
30. Friedberg, “Misconception = The Division of Labor in the Childbirth Film,” 68.
31. Keller explains in her interview with Reisman that the baby actually came out unexpectedly quickly and that she was initially disappointed at missing the actual birth after preparing for it so long. She then states:
“So I was concentrating on the mask-like face of the mother pushing while the baby was born. I was frustrated and angry—I didn’t get it. But it occurred to me when I saw the footage and listened to the sound that I had gotten something that was quite extraordinary in the relationship between the sound of my brother saying ‘It’s a girl’ and the camera moving from the mother’s face in the very unfocused, rapidly moving way trying to find the baby.” Keller in interview with Reisman, “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” 74.
32. Reisman, “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” 67.
33. Margery S. Berube, ed., Webster’s II New College Dictionary (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 841.
34. Taubin writes:
“We remember Brakhage agonizing about whether he should or should not show the afterbirth because it would perhaps interrupt the aesthetic distance which he feels the artwork must maintain. Aesthetic distance then becomes the suppression of certain kinds of material which do not fit an already idealized structure whose boundaries have been set by men.” Amy Taubin, “Keller’s Misconception,” The Soho Weekly News (May 11, 1978): 42.
Whether or not Brakhage did any such agonizing, I do not know, as I have yet to come across any interview or piece of writing where he states as much and Taubin fails to cite this piece of information. In the completed film, however, Brakhage did include the afterbirth and captured it with as much investigative attention as Keller.
35. Reisman, “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” 62.
38 Amy Taubin, “Daughters of Chaos: feminist and Avant-Garde Filmmakers,” Village Voice (November 30, 1982): 80.
39. Taubin, “Keller’s Misconception,” 42.
40 Marjorie Keller, "Montage of Voices." Millennium Film Journal 14-16 (1987): 250.
42. Keller in conversation with Taubin, “Discussion Between Marjorie Keller and Amy Taubin,” 28.
44. Because of her early use of Super-8 as well as her continued commitment to the medium, Keller has been described as “[t]he first filmmaker of the post-sixties generation who established a primary and lasting relationship with 8mm.” Steve Anker, “Big as Life,” Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films, Albert Kilchesty, ed. (San Francisco: Foundation for Art in Cinema, 1998), 10.
45. B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 122.
46. Stan Brakhage in interview with Hollis Frampton, originally published in the January 1973 Artforum, reprinted in Brakhage Scrapbook, Robert A. Haller, ed., 175.
47. Stan Brakhage in a question and answer section after a screening of The Text of Light at the Art Institute on November 18th, 1978, reprinted in Brakhage Scrapbook, Robert A. Haller, ed., 213.
48. Keller, "Montage of Voices,” 250.
49. Biographical information found in “A Memorial Worship In Loving Memory of Marjorie Keller Sitney” pamphlet in The Marjorie Keller File at Anthology Film Archives, accessed on April 9, 2009.
51. J. Hoberman, Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1981), and Albert Kilchesty, ed., Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films (San Francisco: Foundation for Art in Cinema, 1998).
52. Maria DiBattista, “Marjorie Keller: A Remembrance,” Film Culture 78 (1994): 16.
Anthology Film Archives, The Marjorie Keller File, New York, NY. Accessed on April 9, 2009.
Berube, Margery S. Webster’s II New College Dictionary. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Blaetz, Robin, ed. Women's Experimental Cinema: critical frameworks. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Brakhage, Stan. Metaphors on Vision. P. Adams Sitney, ed. Film Culture 30. New York, 1963: pages unnumbered.
DiBattista, Maria. “Marjorie Keller: A Remembrance,” Film Culture 78 (1994): 15-17.
Faure, Ellie, “The Art of Charlie Chaplin,” The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian, ed. Richard Schickel. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Friedberg, Anne. “Misconception = The Division of Labor in the Childbirth Film,” Millennium Film Journal 4-5 (1979): 64-70.
Haller, Robert, ed. Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980. New Paltz, NY: Documentext, 1982.
Hoberman, J. Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films.
New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1981.
James, David E. Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.
Keller, Marjorie. "Montage of Voices." Millennium Film Journal 14-16 (1987): 250.
———. The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage. Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 1986.
———. "Review of E. Ann Kaplan's Women and Film." Millennium Film Journal 14-15 (1984-85): 43-47.
Kilchesty, Albert, ed. Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films. San Francisco: Foundation for Art in Cinema, 1998.
Reisman, Linda. “Personal Film/Feminist Film,” Camera Obscura 11 (1983): 60-85.
Rich, B. Ruby. Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kaja. “Disembodying the Female Voice,” Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams. Frederick: University Publications of America, Inc., 1984.
Sitney, P. Adams. Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
———. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
———. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Taubin, Amy. “Daughters of Chaos: feminist and Avant-Garde Filmmakers,” Village Voice (November 30, 1982): 80-81, 87.
———. “Discussion Between Marjorie Keller and Amy Taubin,” Idiolects #6 (1978): 28-31.
———. “Keller’s Misconception,” The Soho Weekly News (May 11, 1978): 42.
Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art. London and New York: Distributed Art Publishers/CT Editions, 2005.