By Lauren Bliss
Murder Psalm (1980) is the closest film has come to figuring psychosis. That is not to say that there is anything wrong or sick with Murder Psalm. As Michel Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilisation, it was the psychiatrists and not the psychotics who fostered the rationalisation and objectification of psychosis as a diagnosis for purposes of power and control. Thus, and in extension of this, I would suggest that the psychosis of Murder Psalm is neither irrational nor unreasonable.
The film contains a series of disparate images which skim across the eye: a cartoon Mickey Mouse running along a never-ending road; an inverted shot of cars driving at night so the darkness is white and the light is black; documentary footage of a doctor examining a model of the brain; close-up images of an adult female corpse dissected along the stomach to the pubis; shots of a young girl looking into a mirror, and soldiers marching on the battlefield. These are all interspersed with the coloured, flickering frames that Brakhage is famous for. Threaded through the flow of images is what appears to be a narrative of Red Riding Hood, a little girl dressed in a cape walks through the woods and has a seizure on the forest floor. But it is not from the path, but from the image that she strays, and she reappears in the mirrored reflection of the other girl, and again as a figure blurred into the background of the coloured, flickering frames.
Psychosis is, to offer the loosest definition in this review, what makes sense only to you and not to anybody else. It is thought returned to an omnipotent interiority. Psychosis, in other words, shatters as soon as one tries to communicate it. In this regard, the images of Murder Psalm work as though the film understands its own interior logic: the model brain shifts to a live specimen; the little girl who looks into the mirror is examined by a doctor, and her body, echoing the dissected corpse, metamorphoses from his examination table to images of soldiers injured on stretchers, and finally to Red Riding Hood lying on the forest floor.
The film incites anxiety and confusion, as the title suggests it is a murder psalm, but it is only because it contains the world within itself. The silence of Brakhage’s filmmaking is key in this respect. It is not that voices of the ‘purple-people’ are telling the images to do violent things that they might not otherwise do, but rather that the images communicate internally with each other. The technique of watching a film by Brakhage is key to this. Like the first time I was taught the joy of silent reading as a child, I still remember the undergraduate class where my film teacher instructed us to relax before the projection and let the images wash over us as though they were thoughts skimming along the surface of our own mind.
To call Murder Psalm psychotic is to extend upon what Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his ideological critique of Brakhage, called the Romantic American reduction of the universe to a “list of male possessions” (see Martin and Brenez in Rouge, 2006). Although Murder Psalm does, from one point of view, commit a stereotypical violence upon the female body – from another point of view it is an interior violence, isolated in its timelessness that is, to borrow a title from another film by Brakhage, the act of seeing with one’s own eyes.