Issue 25: Blood ’n’ Guts ’n’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Journey through a body
Recently, while memory dredging for a book I’m writing, I dug out my old human anatomy sketchbook from art school in Oxford. Along with life drawing, anatomy classes were compulsory for my first year. We worked from the life model, from an anatomical skeleton on casters that could be waltzed around our large drawing studio, and from a flayed cadaver kept at the university physiology department. My life drawings weren’t bad, nor were my diagrams showing how muscles attached to bones. But I struggled to depict the cadaver clearly, to distinguish one muscle from another. It was as if my pencil were blunting before it scratched the page. My drawing became vague, fuzzy. To draw a plastic assembly model of a human torso, one in which all the organs snugged together neatly, no mess, was one thing, it was another when I looked along the cross-section of a leg on a dissection table. The mystery of the body asserted itself and brought a fog down over my eyes. My interest in pursuing anatomical art stopped there, but the experience of making those studies in the physiology department—the sight, the smell, the temperature of the room—was indelible, and now returns to me through writing fiction.
On the walls of the drawing studio were hung prints of écorchés—images of body showing the skeleton and musculature— taken from De humani corporis fabrica libri septum (The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books), by the 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Published in 1543, the book revolutionized the understanding and teaching of human anatomy. De humani corporis fabrica contained over 200 woodcuts, made by a team of artists who, it is thought, may have included a student of Titian. They imagined the medical body in classical ruins. A man standing contrapposto, skin peeling from his limbs, a beautiful town nestling in the hills behind him. (The countryside is said to be that around Padua, Italy.) A skeleton leaning against a stone plinth, resting its head in one hand, bored, the other hand placed on top of another skull, as if it were idly rolling it around under its palm like a massage ball. Surreal images, to modern eyes. This quality of strangeness, for me, was what made De humani corporis fabrica such an apt title for Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s latest documentary film.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica (titled-cased for the movie) was shot inside a group of Parisian hospitals over the course of some five to six years. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor initially planned to make a documentary composed entirely from images taken inside the body, but as the filmmakers got to know the hospital medical staff, they began to work using a combination of sources: medical imaging (such as ultrasound, X-ray), scialytic cameras (those installed directly over the operating table to record procedures), microscopic cameras that can travel inside the body, and a miniature camera the directors had specially-designed, which produced images that echoed the texture and depth-of-field of medical lenses and gave them freedom to shoot fly-on-the-wall around the hospitals without too much intrusion.
To describe De Humani Corporis Fabrica as intense is an understatement. Near the start of the film, we see a close-up on the anxious face of a middle-aged man talking to a surgeon. They’re joking about playing with Meccano as children. The doctor is asking him if he feels any pain. He winces a little, but says he doesn’t feel much. Then the camera moves to the top of his head and we see that the surgeon is screwing a metal aperture into the man’s skull. At that point, every person sat in front of me in the cinema covered their eyes or looked away from the screen. You could sense everyone asking themselves the same question: how am I going to get through the next two hours? Then it cut to inside of the man’s brain.
I am squeamish—if I must see gore on screen, I prefer it to be unrealistic, comical, like rubber and ketchup—but I suspect even people with strong stomachs might find De Humani Corporis Fabrica hard to watch. Partly this is because there is no way to abstract the experience of the film from the experience of having a body, and of knowing illness and pain. It is not like watching a film about a tree and wondering what the tree feels when it loses a branch. Here there is no escaping empathy, or at least a little somatic recognition. (I noticed that I found the footage of anything to do with the head, eyes and genitals the hardest to watch. The lower intestine, less so.)
The hard, metallic textures of video are both beautiful and unsparing. We see plastic tubing sucking fluid out of cavities, blades cutting skin like knives into butter, metal tools gripping internal organs and shuffling them around. We observe internal sutures being made, rods and screws being fixed into bones. In one scene, a device is inserted up a man’s urethra. “Try the ballistic setting, see if it’s better,” we hear the doctor say. There is a sharp rat-tat-tat and the device jerks back and forth like a gun. “Kalashnikov,” his colleague jokes. The squelch of flesh mixed with the whirr and punch of precision-milled machinery only heightens the sense of the body as something delicate and permeable, or as Castaing-Taylor puts it, “by turns divine and utterly profane.” Talk cyborg theory as much as you like, but these procedural images of observation and repair make the fusion of flesh and synthetic material look no more than a question of mixed-media sculpture, of simply one material stuck onto another, of armature and pipes and cautery welding.
After sitting with incisions and endoscopic probes for a while, you begin to adjust. Scenes of security guards patrolling the basements and peripheries of the hospital, like antibodies, seem to emphasize its role as a place designed for protection. Much of the imagery is beautiful. Sometimes dark—an oncologist examining cancer cells marbled in vivid red and violet whorls—and sometimes miraculous, such as the extraordinary scene which captures a cesarean section, and the first minutes of a newborn’s life, as they’re being cleaned and inspected.
Rarely are the faces of the medical staff seen. The framing keeps close to the body, both inside and out. One of the most harrowing scenes is shot in the corridors of a geriatric psychiatric ward. It’s a tight close-up on the faces of two elderly women walking, one holding onto the other. The stronger of the pair speaks in a low voice, repeatedly telling the other to “shut up” and “hurry up.” In the background a woman cries in pain. Another can be heard saying “I want to die.” A man peers out from a locked room, knocking on the window. The filmmakers hold on the two women for what seems like forever, one bullying the other with short repetitive orders. “Depeche vous! Tais-toi!” It’s like watching a nightmarish Samuel Beckett play depicting two characters trapped in an eternal, dreadful limbo. The unfathomable, unknowable pain of mental distress becomes much harder to witness than the plumbing and engineering issues of internal organs.*
Throughout the film are the voices of the medical staff. Often their remarks are muffled, overheard from inside the body. One talks about the cost of rent in Clichy while maneuvering a camera along someone’s intestine. Another, working on a patient’s penis, complains about how exhausted he is, because of cost-cutting layoffs. During a prostate operation that seems to be going badly, a frustrated surgeon asks his colleague if he knows what he’s doing. (“This guy is put together really weirdly,” he jokes, as he tries to get the prostate into a specimen bag inside the patient’s body.) Tools are dropped on the floor. They need fixing. A doctor doing a spine operation tells his colleague that he has ruptured his bicep lifting a heavy box and jokes that he’d never let a surgeon near it. A neurosurgeon makes a quip about being a hairdresser as he washes down a post-op brain surgery patient. A midwife chats sweetly to a newborn as she counts its fingers and toes.
Expertise meets contingency in these remarks. Ordinary chat underscores the dexterity with which they use their tools, yet you can also sense them thinking on their feet, trying to cope with unforeseen accidents and complications. Paravel says that “these attitudes and conversations are not anecdotal, nor is it even some dark side of the act of caring: it’s also thanks to this that we are able to be cared for. Without the possibility of creating distance or creating some banality in the acts that they perform, it would be impossible for them to sustain this work.” Castaing-Taylor agrees. “Their work is so intense, so engaging and so exhausting, that our presence changed the routine, afforded them some moments of relief, and even humor. We were pretty clueless, made many mistakes, and there was a lot they could educate us about. We soon realized that they were also interested in our point of view, in how we would observe them, and how they appear to outsiders.”
In a final, surprising sequence—shot during a leaving party for one of the doctors—the camera tracks in semi-darkness across an irreverent pornographic mural of the hospital’s doctors. Staff dance and drink. Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ blasts loudly, then ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order. (“How does it feel? / To treat me like you do / When you’ve laid your hands upon me / And told me who you are.”) It’s filmed in a hospital dining room, according to Castaing-Taylor, “the so-called ‘salle de garde,’ a very specific space in French hospitals, a place where all day and all night doctors and interns gather, and not the other care-givers — it’s very hierarchal. They go there to eat and to rest, but it’s a space controlled by rules that may seem like folklore but are very strict.”
As in the rest of the documentary, there is no information—no title cards, captions, voice-overs—to explain what we’re seeing. Context allows you to figure out a little of what’s going on—everyone knows what it’s like to let off steam—but to the untrained eye is hard to understand much else. The difficulty of being able to identify anything within the body seems symbolic. It reminds me of the way my mind races for imagery when I feel ill, but can’t depict what’s happening inside me. No matter where the cameras probe, existence and consciousness remain profoundly unfathomable. De Humani Corporis Fabrica is a science fiction tragicomedy, a moving and mystical film.
* The filmmakers discuss their subjects’ consent and other topics raised by the film in this interview here.
—Venceremos (We Will Win) by Working Week has been my springtime song. Released in 1984, featuring Claudia Figueroa, Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) and Robert Wyatt on vocals, and produced by the late Simon Booth. Dedicated to the Chilean protest singer Victor Jara, a classic of the 1980s new British jazz-dance scene.
—The video to Venceremos, directed by Julien Temple, featured the dance collective IDJ, which led me down a rabbit hole of watching jazz-fusion dance battles, filmed in London sometime in the ‘80s. Almost completely forgotten by most pop histories.
—My reading, as usual, is all over the place. This week I’ve been getting into The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines (author of A Kestrel for a Knave, best known as Ken Loach’s film Kes). Published in 1975, it tells the story of George Purse, an ex-steel factory worker, who leaves the city for the countryside to work as the gamekeeper on a duke’s estate. It’s a piece of vivid but unsentimental nature writing following Purse from season to season, describing his work and relationship to the animals he watches, but it also tracks its protagonist’s isolation, policing private land, confrontations with working people of his own class, negotiating the tensions this brings to his marriage and the school life of his children. I have a new edition with a nice, tasteful black-and-white landscape on the cover, but I do like this TV tie-in one from 1980, which seems more mail-order catalogue than gamekeeper.
—Teacher and poet (and old friend) Jeremy Noel-Tod has a lovely newish substack called Some Flowers Soon, featuring close readings and thoughts on poetry. He wears his erudtion lightly, writing with warmth and—as is probably right for a poet—refreshing brevity. Recent topics include the perennially difficult J.H. Prynne, an appreciation of Stevie Smith, and a beautiful counterweight to all the recent AI-worrying, in which Noel-Tod demonstrates his love of amateur poets and why a New Yorker writer who recently claimed that AI could mimic Philip Larkin clearly hadn’t a clue about Philip Larkin.
—Self-promotion corner: I have a new album coming out this Friday, 28th August, with my band The God in Hackney, titled The World in Air Quotes. We—that is, me, Andy Cooke, Nathaniel Mellors and Ashley Marlowe, with guest players Eve Essex and Kelly Pratt—began work on it in the first months of the pandemic, writing, recording and mixing in isolation from each other. Three years later it’s finally done. You can download or order it on vinyl via the group’s Bandcamp page (or if you’re a record store, via Kudos Distribution in the UK). The cover art work features a painting by Tala Madani. Video above by N. Mellors.
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