Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Pittsburgh Trilogy d. Stan Brakhage, 1971

Stan Brakhage saw his trilogy of Pittsburgh films as documents, not documentaries. The distinction being that a documentary comes prepackaged with some type of agenda. I imagine the extreme example of this would be Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but many others - from last year's astounding Touching the Void to the early days of documentary, with something like Nanook of the North. Given Brakhage's view of his films as documents - and I believe it to be valid, considering the overwhelming objectivity (or - at least - as close to objectivity as a framed object can get) of the content - The Pittsburgh Trilogy might be the first film I would consider interpreting in terms of my reaction to the film instead of basing my ideas on the pure content of the image. What follows, then, is less of a review and more of my own personal meanderings on the meaning I found, piece by piece, in The Pittsburgh Trilogy.


Eyes, like most all of Brakhage's films (and the entirety of the Trilogy) is completely devoid of sound. In the film, the camera records images of a policeman's day. Arrests, emergency calls, book 'em dan-o's, &c. The way in which the policemen are portrayed impresses conflicting feelings of fear, disgust, and respect. Those uniformed are never shown in a negative light - excepting, possibly, the way in which one cop lights a cigarette while dealing with a man whose head is gashed open - but it becomes relatively clear (that is, it became clear to me) that the boys in blue are unapproachable figures. The camera always leering outside of their space, circled off somehow, while the cops do what they do inspires a "rally "round the wagons" disgust, but also an admiration for the community and - I guess - the pure grit that it takes to go to a job whose turf is the dirty streets of PA.

Deus Ex

Hospital footage of what seems to be a maternity ward and (maybe) a cancer ward. The blurring images of young and old - the recently birthed and the almost deceased - seem to comment on the relationship - close, I think - between life & death. Open-heart surgery is juxtaposed against a blooming flower, with the dissolves between the two alternating between ham-fisted and striking. But isn't that how death works? Death conquers all, the images imply, and there really isn't much difference between the neophytic and the dying.

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes

All footage being taken from a morgue, from actual autopsies, you can imagine how this one is hard to handle. Dread at the sight of a man measuring out body parts - the length between thumb and index, the width of a nose, the depression of the instep - turns, amazingly, to a sort of catharsis when the bodies are finally cut open. Fear is a big part of this: here are dead bodies, empty vessels now, and we see them reduced to meat, pieced out and discarded. The realization that there is some type of spark that magically keeps the body going, and that in all the digging done by the excavators the spark is not to be found, provides hope. Maybe not hope, actually, maybe dignity; a contentment with the realization that your own body could end up on a metal table, cleaved apart, and yet that spark - or whatever it was that made you go - cannot be damaged in all the unrest. This is a small piece of comfort, I know, but it's still a piece.


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