In 1958, in a Greenwich Village apartment, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage made what might be the first home birth movie.
Stan and his wife Jane had made several short, poetic movies about their daily life; when she became pregnant with their first child they decided to film the birth. The hospital initially agreed to allow filming but then reneged–dads weren’t even allowed in the delivery room in 1958, let alone movie cameras. They talked their doctor into delivering their baby at home.
The result–Window Water Baby Moving–is a film that captures not just the beauty and rawness of birth, but the feeling of bohemian, beatnik New York. The first frames show Jane pregnant, gorgeous and serene in dappled sunlight. Before you know it, there’s lots of pink and flesh and fluid; Stan’s lens doesn’t stray far from the vagina for long. Jane’s pubic hair is shaved– as was the custom for laboring mothers at the time– and in some shots you can see medical personnel in cotton scrubs and gloves. It’s interesting mash-up of late 50s cultures, not unlike scenes in Mad Men where Don Draper forays into The Village.
When the film was sent in for processing it was nearly confiscated and turned over to the authorities for being obscene. The Brakhages had to get a doctor’s note explaining that it was “medical” footage in order to get it back. Then when they screened the film for their arty friends, the audience was apparently put off. (Continuing on the Mad Men theme, I can imagine Peggy Olsen storming out, wondering how on earth that was supposed to empower her.)
Gallery-goers had a similar reaction when they saw photographs of young, naked Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz some quarter of a century earlier. In fact, there’s a long history of avant-garde male artists provoking audiences with representations of women as pure, “primitive,” wild creatures. Feminists have argued that these kinds of pictures are inherently sexist– man is culture, woman is nature. Others, including feminists, find images of strong, self-possessed women like naked Georgia O’Keeffe or birthing Jane Brakhage empowering. Stan himself reckons the film ultimately contributed to the shift in hospital policy to allow men into delivery rooms.
Here’s how Jane recalls the experience:
“Clickety-clackety-buzz goes the camera. Something tremendous is happening to me. I have entered into a world of beautiful agony – agony of great beauty, joyous agony, unbearable beauty. I roar like a lion. Stan films, clickety-clackety-buzz, his hands are trembling with the camera, but clickety-clackety-buzz anyway. I roar again and pant fast like I had run a mile and roar, and Stan films, and we are so very happy because the baby is coming at last!”
Have a look for yourself. I think it’s a stunning, thought-provoking document as well as an almost technical lesson in the physiology of crowning. And on that note, be aware that this is very graphic footage.
This is the second in a series about birth and film/video. Here is the first one about an innovative birth & family center in a rough DC neighborhood.