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The Celebration of Womanhood in Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving By Christine Stoddard
When feminist filmmaker Maya Deren denounced Stan Brakhage’s twelve-minute film, “Window Water Baby Moving” (1959), as an infringement of birthing rituals’ female exclusivity, she misinterpreted the film's celebration of women and motherhood as well as underestimated its potential power in improving women’s status in Western society. The silent film centers on Stan Brakhage’s pregnant wife, Jane, before, during, and after labor with an occasional glance at Stan’s reactions, as he plays himself during the movie. The work, therefore, is at once documentary and art house. This hybrid form allows it to achieve a certain eloquence without detracting from the painful realities of childbirth. “Window Water Baby Moving” explores the concept of women’s involvement in pregnancy and birthing in nothing but a flattering and appreciative light that helps male audiences better understand motherhood and their duties as fathers. The film is inherently a feminist work because, instead of demeaning women by ‘othering’ their wombs and vaginas, it praises them for their body’s ability to bring new life into the world. Deren’s main contention with the
film lied in its alleged assault on a pregnant woman’s private, very feminine life. In his book, Underground Film: A Critical History, Parker Tyler describes Deren's reaction to “Window Water Baby Moving” as such:
"It was a little astounding to hear a senior member of the avant-garde ranks so 'anti' about a modest film done in perfect good faith, but Miss Deren was objecting that woman's privacy had been deliberately, tactlessly invaded. Human birth, she declared, is a mystery and especially a feminine mystery. Though herself a scholar
of primitive ritual, she did not sympathize at all, here, with the male couvade that Brakhage was celebrating." (Tyler 37)
Perhaps Deren’s strange relationship with her domineering father (Brakhage, Film 92) influenced her idea that men should distance themselves and not partake in the birth of their own children. Perhaps since Deren was never happy in her own two marriages and never had children (Brakhage, Film 93), she cannot fathom the comfort of having her husband being compassionate and useful during her hypothetical pregnancy. But she should not have permitted her personal history to deprive women and their curious husbands from experiencing pregnancy as a team. Dominant modes of feminism would resist the idea of any mystique surrounding allegedly "sex-specific" qualities altogether. Deren’s belief in the preservation of 'feminine mystery' does not help women in their advocacy for fair treatment and equal rights. Such a creed only further alienates women in the minds of men who wish to accept the idea that significant intellectual, emotional, and psychological differences exist between the sexes, and that separation of men and women in real life is necessary. If “Window Water Baby Moving” is at all invasive, it is so only in the sense that it tries to accomplish so much good for women in bettering their image as breathing receptacles for life. Just as assertive, feminist-minded women have been called pioneers,
Brakhage's film was brazen and counter-culture for its time. One of the reasons why "Window Water Baby Moving" should appeal to feminist sentiments is because it shattered the misogynist taboo surrounding mothers-to-be. When "Window Water Baby Moving" was first released in 1959, Western men typically did not witness the births of their children. It was not until the baby had fully left its mother’s body, was completely wiped of all mucus, checked for deformities, and wrapped up nice and neatly in a blanket that the husband was even permitted to see his adorably packaged child. Until then, husbands wandered off to a waiting room while doctors and nurses hovered over their wives behind the secrecy of closed doors. Husbands distanced themselves from their laboring wives because society made them believe pregnancy was repulsive. It was repulsive because it was distinctly female. Brakhage does not seem to share that belief, if his film and his
autobiographical character in the film is a true representation of himself. Throughout the film, Stan caresses his wife's bloated abdomen in a very intimate, loving, and respective way. He also smiles very warmly. All of the efforts Brakhage makes to depict pregnancy and birth, as shall be discussed in ensuing paragraphs, place women in control of what he also colors as a very beautiful circumstance. Admittedly, the film is very graphic, especially by
mainstream, 1950s America's standards. Just because it is raw and bloody, does not mean it is repulsive, as men during the period perceived pregnancy. Random House Dictionary's first definition of ‘repulsiveness’ is something "causing repugnance or aversion." Yet, except those who are particularly sensitive to the sight of blood, the film hardly pushes audiences away. Rather, it draws in the audience because of its poetry and unusual perspective: a man entering what has traditionally been perceived as women's territory. Because Brakhage portrays birth as lovely and natural, and therefore not repulsive, he privileges women. Men may contribute to the formation of life, but only women can feel the heartbeats of their children fluttering within them. Men's involvement in their children's early lives simply
cannot compare to that of women, as Stan recognizes and even envies to an extent. Through Brakhage's use of montage, the audience sees constant flashes of Stan stroking Jane's protruding belly. On one hand, Stan's act is endearing, but on the other, it seems to allude to a warped version of Freud's Penis Envy concept. The hand to the stomach appears over and over, so that occasionally the image persists even after it has disappeared from the screen. The effect is subliminal, just like the regular flashes of Jane's pregnant silhouette before the bathroom window. Jane is not the mere object of hungry male eyes in the Berger sense (i.e., Ways of Seeing). Brakhage raises her to religious heights. In the ultra close-up shots of Jane's face, her large, expressive eyes and straight nose echo Eastern Orthodox icons. Even if that reference were, for whatever reason, discounted altogether, Brakhage writes in his essay, "The Camera Eye," that film is a "religion" (Brakhage, Essential 14), so by featuring Jane in the film, he automatically idolizes her. He worships her body as a vessel for life. Worship always entails some kind of longing. In this case, it signals his longing for his inability to give birth, which is a longing he believes other men should experience. Brakhage's distinctive
stylistic choices throughout the film reinforce his fascination with birth and his respect for women's main role in it. From his selections in lighting to montage to talent to composition, Brakhage repeatedly draws in feminist connotations. First off, each unit of the title, "Window Water Baby Moving," pays homage to womanhood. The window symbolizes the birth canal, through which all humans came through into the world before the invention of the Cesarean section. From water, all life originated. Furthermore, in ancient Greek and Roman medicinal philosophy, water represented femininity. Babies evidently come out of women's bodies and the word "moving" euphemistically describes the production that is labor. It may also refer to how women are largely responsible for the movement of the cycle of life or how the pregnant body moves through various stages as the baby grows. Secondly, in examining the film's positive attitude toward women,
consider that Jane goes au naturel throughout the work. She wears no make-up; her hair hangs straight down, showing no signs of chemical processing or even a bobby pin. Her body hair remains unshaven, except for her vulva during labor, but that was a matter of medical, not aesthetic reasons (the hairlessness would have made seeing and feeling the baby easier for the doctor). This costume/wardrobe detail implies that Jane resisted any social pressures to conform to the 1950s standard of the over-coiffed, painted, and corsetted housewife because she was a strong, confident, and free-thinking woman. Brakhage could have chosen a model or movie star, but he cast a real, natural woman as his muse: his wife. Jane may not be June Cleaver, but Stan still reveres her unconventional looks because pregnancy and the act of birth make her beautiful in a way that must be captured on film. In his essay, “With Love,” Brakhage discusses the fundamental femininity of art and the muse (“…yet each source of inspiration, creatix of impulse throughout, is woman—the muse is female” [Brakhage Essential, 127]), but he seems to see an especially inspiring magnetism in Jane’s simple, natural pregnancy. A third feminist detail in the film requires a wider stretch of the imagination: the tub represents a womb. It, like Jane’s abdomen is bulbous and full of water, the compound that largely fills the uterus and supports all life forms. The red bathroom lighting, which casts a fleshy glow upon the bathwater, creates the illusion of blood, which both alludes to one of the womb’s natural fluids and foreshadows the
blood lost during labor. Stan bonds with his wife in this metaphorical womb as he strokes her belly, showing that it does not scare or ‘repulse’ him. He does not alienate her because of her pregnancy and is still willing to touch her, kiss her, and enjoy his time with her. In fact, pregnancy attracts Stan so much that he is willing to enter the womb (i.e., the tub) and become part of the pregnancy to the biggest possible extent. This is what Parker Tyler described as Stan’s approximation of a couvade (37). A couvade is a practice in some non-Western countries where husbands attempt to sympathize with their wives immediately after the birth of their baby. The husbands accomplish this by lying down, complaining of labor pains, and then receive the same care and attention usually reserved for pregnant or laboring women. Many other feminist details, should the viewer wish to search for them, thrive throughout the film. Overall, they contribute to Brakhage’s idea that, “There is no contemporary place for women in art, if art be considered a form in history the shape of which is determined by inventions which have shaped it and each invention of which answers the previous inventions which are crucial to it (as is clear in the medium of mathematics, etc.). because the form is male (as most historical forms are) and even overtly exclusive of women…” (Brakhage, Essential 127). Brakhage recognizes art as an institution that privileges men, not women, so he uses his film, “Window Water Baby Moving,” to succeed in doing the reverse. He is not violating a “feminine mystery,” therefore, but rather very humbly asking to participate in it. While one should always distinguish the author from the author function and never assume that one work in an artist's oeuvres directly influences another, biographical context often strengthens an already solid interpretation of a work. Given all of the feminist-leaning stylistic elements present in Window Water Baby, given the fact that Brakhage deliberately praises a feminist writer in his writings, given his socially liberal lifestyle--how can a viewer believe that Brakhage had a malicious, anti-women agenda in making “Window Water Baby Moving”? Throughout his writings in general, for example, Brakhage references Gertrude Stein, the famous feminist writer, again and again, such as in his reflection essay, “Gertrude Stein: Meditative Literature and Film” (Brakhage, Essential 194). Throughout his writings and films, there is no evidence of insensitivity or disrespect toward the opposite sex, especially not in “Window Water Baby
Moving.” Brakhage’s wife obviously gave him permission to use her as the main subject of his film. He obviously loved the prospect of glorifying motherhood on camera and showing himself off as a proud father. The only person who had no say in the project was the baby, but that was because of her age and developmental stage, not her sex. At least one of "Window Water Baby Moving"'s messages seems to be this: Since all men have mothers and many men become fathers, men should feel indebted to women for perpetuating the cycle of life. You cannot be a living thing and totally detach yourself from the birthing process without detaching yourself from existence itself. Men need to support their wives during pregnancy and be as actively involved in the births of their children as possible without lying down on the hospital bed themselves (unless the concept of couvade appeals to them). Love likely led to the creation of the baby in the first place, so love should endure during the pregnancy, too. What exactly, Maya Deren, is wrong with that?
*Brakhage, Stan. Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking. New York: McPherson & Company, 2001.
*Brakhage, Stan. Film at Wit’s End. New York: McPherson & Company, 1989.
*“Repulsiveness.” Random House Dictionary ( HYPERLINK "http://www.dictionary.com" www.dictionary.com). HYPERLINK "http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/repulsiveness" http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/repulsiveness.
*Tyler, Parker. Underground Film: A Critical History. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Please note: For the sake of clarity, ‘Brakhage’ will refer to Stan Brakhage the filmmaker, while ‘Stan’ will refer to his father character in the film, "Window Water Baby Moving."
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