… one … difference … arises out of the distinction between a documentary’s acts of showing and Brakhage’s (antithetical) acts of seeing.
This is from the essay ‘Seeing with Experimental Eyes: Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes‘ by Bart Testa found in Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski (1998):
… We can readily imagine watching another equally explicit movie of autopsies; but very likely we will also imagine that such a film would allow us to slip behind verbal explanations of the pathologists’ procedures, analyses of the cause of death, or perhaps some moral argument that necessitates showing such images.
[line break added] However, as Bill Nichols notes, none of these familiar viewing strategies is on offer here: “We witness what exceeds our sight and grasp. The camera gazes. It presents evidence destined to disturb. The evidence cries out for argument, some interpretive frame within which to comprehend it. Nowhere is this need more acutely felt than in a film that refuses to provide any explanatory commentary whatsoever.”
… Ideally, in a well-made documentary there is a symmetry in the exchange of signifying relations between images and “interpretive frames,” and this exchange makes showing and explanation a unity. This is the case whether the images are made to illustrate the steps of a technical process (as in, say, a medical or industrial education film) or to provide forceful evidence for a moral or political argument. The uses of images in documentary filmmaking hold in common the role of performing what, in simple summary terms, could be called acts of showing.
… To illustrate a procedure that needs to be explained, for example, or to support a moral argument, provides a ready-made position from which to comprehend what is shown. By creating such a position, which is what structures of understanding do, even traumatic images are softened by making them significant evidence within an interpretive frame.
[line break added] The act of showing implants images within a wider and controlling function of meaning. This implantation subordinates seeing images as literal presentations to the higher-order process of argumentation. Witnessing and seeing recede, to a greater or lesser degree, behind signification and showing.
… This is a film that completely dispenses with any verbal explanation. It is not a film about showing, but about bringing us very close to actual bodies in a morgue; in other words, it is a film rigorously about seeing. It remains at a literal level of confrontation with a truth, which is why Nichols says it “exceeds our sight and grasp”: Brakhage’s film restricts its means to an act of seeing, and seeing this, as the direct witness to bodies under autopsy.
… I have already suggested one limited but sharp difference between Brakhage’s film and documentary practice: it arises out of the distinction between a documentary’s acts of showing and Brakhage’s (antithetical) acts of seeing. Further, Nichols has isolated a significant positive structural feature that allows us to distinguish the efforts of documentarians from the exertions of experimental filmmakers.
[line break added] Documentarians are committed to exposition, explanation, and argument of kinds that are shared by the socially defined “discourses of sobriety,” those recognized as serious explanations of truth, such as science, politics, and religion. Documentary’s “interpretive frames” are homologies of socially recognized, knowable, and understood meanings. Avant-garde cinema, in contrast, often pursues less socially recognized sorts of meaning; artists are drawn to subject matter that goes unaccounted by, or seems incomprehensible, mysterious, and/or forbidden to “sober discourse.”
[line break added] Arguments and interpretations of the sober type are very often ignored by experimentalists in favor of exploratory and hence unfamiliar aesthetic, philosophical, and poetic structures of expression, many of which are not actually assimilable to “discursive” forms at all. This is true of Brakhage’s film. It completely abandons verbal argument and other ready “interpretive frames” and deliberately focuses on what seems, in principle, to be unknowable and mysterious — the spectacle of death.
… Brakhage times and paces the shots, and frames sequences, so none remains long enough or repeats often enough to desensitize the viewer. We are never allowed to get used to the film’s imagery, to watch it as part of a procedural routine, and so not see it. The act of seeing, its shock and troubling power, is constantly renewed. Indeed, the images are so relentlessly literal and, in the main, so clearly shot that all there seem to be in this film are successive acts of seeing, and seeing this. And this seeing is itself, Brakhage seems to imply, the film’s moral end.