When it comes to sex, people generally seem to think of it in one of two ways. Either it’s merely “fun,” an act of temporary pleasure-seeking as inconsequential in the long run as, say, eating a finely prepared meal or watching a mindlessly entertaining action movie. Or it’s undertaken in a weighty manner that ascribes great importance to the underlying implications of the act—whether as an expression of love between individuals, of one’s power over another, and/or of some sort of interpersonal emotional connection more intense than other outward expressions. Naturally, the complexity of human thoughts and feelings dictate that there will inevitably be complications within those two poles, but in general, that hedonistic/meaningful dichotomy seems to dominate private and public discourse. This is especially the case in the realm of art & culture, with plenty of films, books, theater pieces, paintings, sculptures, and so on over the years and centuries, some more boundary-pushing than others in style and content, many of them inviting us to confront our own thoughts on sex and what it means to each of us individually.
Judging by Window Water Baby Moving, a silent 12-minute short film made in 1959, its creator, legendary avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, appears to fall into the “meaningful” camp when it comes to sex. But Brakhage doesn’t articulate this view through depicting the sexual act itself, instead juxtaposing an impressionistic rendering of sexual desire with the sometimes unpleasant reality of one of its the most profound consequences: childbirth.
Juxtapositions were the lifeblood of Brakhage’s cinema, though he usually pursued that dialectical sense in the realm of visual abstraction than in more concrete forms. One of his most famous films, his four-minute 1963 work Mothlight, generates much of its meaning from the wild contrasts of color and texture that resulted from taping dead moth wings, flower petals, and blades of grass onto strips of 16mm film. No story, no characters—just a series of images whizzing past, with the viewer forced to adjust to the rapid-fire pace in order to take in the finer details and perceive the bigger picture. Such was the gist of Brakhage’s body of work as a whole, an imposing monument to the inexhaustible vision of a man who was always interested in challenging conventional notions of filmmaking and film-watching.
Brakhage didn’t always deal in abstraction, however. In his earliest work, especially, he toyed with the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction in his films, shooting real human beings but using unexpected camera angles, lighting, and editing rhythms to render their on-screen behavior in unfamiliar ways. Window Water Baby Moving comes from this period, featuring both Brakhage himself and his then-wife, Jane, the latter seen throughout the film in the throes of giving birth to their daughter, Myrrenna. But the film is more than just a straight recording of a childbirth.
The film cuts between roughly three different scenes and settings. Though the bulk of it is set in the room in which Jane is seen giving birth, it actually begins in a bathroom, with footage of a pregnant Jane bathing while Stan stays by her side. At some point during the bathroom footage, we see a few shots of the two, fully clothed, embracing in what appears to be a different room.
Early Brakhage films such as this one bear the influence of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s theories about montage—an approach to cinema that emphasized the importance of editing in a film’s creation, celebrating the power of the juxtaposition of images to imply intellectual and ideological content. In Window Water Baby Moving, those shots of Jane and Stan embracing are intercut with shots in the bathroom of their hands, Jane’s hand squeezing Stan’s as he rubs her pregnant stomach. The combination of shots creates a montage sequence that exudes deep affection, with the ensuing birth a symbol of their love for each other. It’s a feeling that Brakhage is able to evoke without any ambient noise, music or dialogue whatsoever; it’s all in the images and the way they’re cut together.
Such editing patterns, however, wouldn’t necessarily mean much without the images themselves doing some of the expressive heavy lifting, and this is where Brakhage’s acute attention to light and texture comes in. Witness the golden glow of the images in the bathroom, with light flooding in from the window illuminating the beads of water on Jane’s body, the reflection of the bath water giving her face a near-angelic splendor. Brakhage isn’t shy about showing us full-frontal nudity, genitalia and all, but one comes away from these images with a sense not of leering prurience, but of intimacy verging on the erotic. By comparison, the lighting in the shots of Jane as she’s giving birth is flat and functional, with even close-ups of her vulva as the baby slowly emerges from her vagina presented without much stylistic adornment beyond the occasional restless camera movement. Even then, though, Brakhage avoids any sense of gynecological detachment simply by continuing to alternate such shots with more of the sensual bathroom shots, as if reminding us of the romantic feelings that have led to this spectacle of a new life being given to the world.
Perhaps the key to the distinctive beauty of Window Water Baby Moving, though, lies in its close-ups of Jane in the midst of the birthing process. Her eyes closed and her eyebrows contorted in ways that radiate as much ecstasy as agony, her facial expressions don’t seem too far off from the kind that accompany an orgasm. Few movies have linked sex and childbirth as vividly as Brakhage’s does; after all, both involve an act of vaginal penetration that induce both pleasure and pain, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a connection that perhaps could only have been made in a context like this one, with the film alternating between the warmth of long-term romance and the harshness of labor, both threads informing and enriching the other. Window Water Baby Moving may be about childbirth on the surface, but in presenting the wonder and revulsion that radiates from the miracle of life that results from the sex act, Brakhage’s film is also one of the most profound movies about sex ever made.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.