Screened Saturday at the Exploratorium was Anastomosis, a 1982 experimental film about the human hand by Andrej Zdravic. With the cooperation of surgeons at Ralph K. Davies Medical Center in San Francisco and five of their patients, Zdravic filmed reconstructive microsurgery on damaged hands, then intercut the surgery footage with interviews with the hands’ owners. I happened to see Anastomosis a few days after screening Stan Brakhage’s 1971 morgue masterpiece, The Art of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes for my students, several of whom departed rather hastily. But Anastomosis beat out The Art of Seeing by many points on my personal gross-out scale. It wasn’t the accident stories (a water-skiing fall that took off a thumb, a buzz saw that ate four fingers, an explosion that blasted away half a hand and, perhaps scariest of all, a baggage conveyer belt that crushed every digit.) And it wasn’t the microsurgery close-ups. It was when surgeons sliced off perfect toes that I flinched. (The toes were transplanted to a hand as replacement thumbs or fingers.)
Formally the two films are similar, with many lingering close-ups of human interiors framed as colorful, semi-abstract compositions. But the emotions stirred by The Art of Seeing fall in the “sublime” category—awesome, overpowering, relentless. Anastomosis feels, in comparison, almost cozy. As I was considering why this might be, I realized the effect of the interviews, which place the surgical scenes in personal narratives. This reduces the terror aroused by the blood, fat and ripped muscles on view. Brakhage gives us no story to accompany the bodies we see being autopsied in the morgue, simply allowing us to watch without an explanation for our minds to latch on to.
This afternoon at 2:00 the Exploratorium will screen another medically-related experimental film, Barbara Hammer’s Sanctus, a re-working of scientific x-ray films from the 1950s. For more information, call (415) 563-7337.