Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks

Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks

by Robin Blaetz

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This volume offers introductions to the work of fifteen avant-garde American women filmmakers.See more details below


This volume offers introductions to the work of fifteen avant-garde American women filmmakers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Women’s Experimental Cinema is an invaluable resource for students and devotees of experimental cinema and feminist film, fields defined by remarkable films and a dearth of critical attention. It brings to light the social and political roots and cultural impact of women’s experimental film, and the specific female, feminine, and feminist practices of an exceptional group of women artists.”—Alexandra Juhasz, editor of Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video

“This definitive volume on U.S. women’s experimental cinema fills a significant and long-lamented gap within film studies, and in feminist film studies in particular. Together, these essays offer us a richly nuanced picture not only of women’s experimental film but of avant-garde filmmaking in general from the 1940s to the present.”—Sharon Willis, author of High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film

W. W. Dixon

“A truly remarkable collection on feminist independent cinema, this is one of the most comprehensive and well thought out books on the subject to appear to date. . . . [T]he book moves from strength to strength to create a collection that is as cohesive as it is authoritative. . . . Well illustrated with behind-the-scenes production shots and frame blow ups from the films themselves, and written by some of the most gifted critics working in the field today, this collection is both deeply felt and rigorously detailed. Essential. All readers, all levels.”

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Women's Experimental Cinema

critical frameworks

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4044-7

Chapter One


Swing and Sway

Marie Menken's Filmic Events

Marie Menken (1910-70) is one of the least recognized experimental filmmakers of her generation. Menken's influence on filmmakers like Willard Maas (her husband and collaborator), Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Norman McLaren, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Andy Warhol is vast and varied. Brakhage has written the most lucidly and candidly about Menken's life. Indeed, he claims that Menken was one of the most important influences on his "lid-swinging" or "ways of seeing" through the camera eye. In step with Parker Tyler, who claims that Menken was "one of the very first to endow the handheld camera with an elementary sort of dance pulse" or a signature "swing and sway," Brakhage argues that the fluidity of Menken's camera was revolutionary for filmmakers during the 1950s and 1960s who still felt they had to "imitate the Hollywood dolly shot, without dollies." The smooth pan that implied the invisibility of the camera, a seamlessness without human error, was a norm that Menken challenged with her "free, swinging, swooping handheld pans."

Menken's use of film as a new perceptual medium-especially one that could be manipulated as an object-suggested several paths down which one could travel aesthetically. As Brakhage implied, her work inspired him to think about the relationship of paint to film and eventually painting on film, a process he began to explore in the early 1960s. He describes Menken's approach to the film strip, in a similar way to his own during this period: "When she came to film, then she looked at it first of all as a 'thread' of many shades and colors to be woven or 'spun out' into related patterns. She would hold the strips of film in her hand very much as she would strands of beads to be put into a collage painting. She would hang the film strips on clothespins and, after much meditation and often without running them through a viewer at all, would cut them together." As Sitney describes, "a quarter of Brakhage's oeuvre was made without using a camera," but unlike Menken, Brakhage moved toward an abstract expressionist penchant for medium-specific painterliness, individuality, and the uniqueness of the painterly mark in film. In contrast, Menken's later work led her more and more toward viewing film as an event-based medium. Closer to Fluxus performance aesthetics and Pop Art's quick play with the readymade, Menken's animations played skillfully with both the objecthood of film (making the viewer aware of film frame, projection surface, shot arrangement, and montage sequence) as well as film's performativity-its ability to animate the inanimate, to reveal critical relationships between media: film frame and painterly canvas, audio and image, language and figure.

Born in 1910 in New York to Lithuanian immigrant parents, Menken began painting in her early twenties. In the mid-1930s, she received a residence-grant from Yaddo, an art colony in upstate New York, where she met the poet and filmmaker Willard Maas, whom she married in 1937. Cecil Starr writes that she "worked as [Hilla] Rebay's secretary" for the Gallery of Non-Objective Painting (later known as the Guggenheim Museum) in order to support her work as a painter during this period. In her position as Rebay's assistant, Menken attended many film screenings or "Concerts of Non-Objectivity," organized by Rebay which included films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, and Norman McLaren. From the mid-1940s until the time of her death in 1970, Menken worked as a night-time manager of the Foreign News Department at Time-Life in New York. Outside a few, very brief reviews of her shows at the Tibor de Nagy and Betty Parsons galleries in New York, not much is known about Menken's early painting, but by the 1950s she had begun experimenting with other media, including sand, collage, assemblage, and installation. Film seemed to provide the logical step that would bring her work into more kinetic arrangements and allow her to explore the Duchampian chance operations that she was already engaged in with painting.

In the inaugural show of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1950, Menken was surrounded by a new second school of New York painters: Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Harry Jackson, Alfred Leslie, Robert Goodnough, and Helen Frankenthaler. While this second school defied the orthodox abstract expressionism of the color field painters like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Adolph Gottlieb, they still remained devoted to the material of paint-a medium that Menken found limited, and which she began to explore and extend through film. Her engagement in the worlds of Fluxus (through her friendship with Robert Watts) and Pop Art (amplified by her involvement in Warhol's film projects) further inspired her rejection of abstract expressionist concerns with the specificity of paint and canvas.

Menken used film as a way of rethinking painting and sculptural problems, in particular the transition from abstract expressionism to Pop and conceptual projects. The latter can be most clearly read in her ironic title, Pop Goes the Easel (1964), or in her explicit works on painting like Mood Mondrian (1963) or Drips in Strips (1963). Most commonly, Menken's talents have been read through her poet husband Maas's work, focusing on her contribution to the film poem or film sentence. This is underlined by Jonas Mekas's description of her work in his 1962 Film Journal: "The structure of Menken's filmic sentences, her movements, and her rhythms are those of poetry." In the scant critical literature on Menken produced primarily by Brakhage, Sitney, and Mekas (more recently by David James and Scott MacDonald), Menken is lauded as one of the great film diarists, as a film poet, and as one of the important inventors of the lyrical tradition in film. In this essay, I hope to reveal how these critics and filmmakers, in their efforts to celebrate her within the purview of their own achievements (Brakhage and Mekas are central players here), reduce the specificity and complexity of her work. While Menken was interested in the materiality of cinematic language, her strategies are more deeply concerned with ungrounding the easel-based practices of drawing and sculpture through film. Film not only freed her from canvas and brush but allowed her to critique the verticality and stasis of 1940s painting and object-based practices. Her handheld camera produced a frenetic vertigo on sculptural, architectural, natural, and domestic objects, while her play with animation stretched the borders of film frame and event. Cinematic writing with light (as seen in Moonplay, Lights, Greek Epiphany, and Night Writing, all combined in Notebook) replaced painterly values; perception, not paint, became medium.

The Notebook: Quick Sketches and Events

Menken's work addresses a moment in painting and art making similar to the modernist turn taken by Gertrude Stein in the early twentieth century. Stein, privy to the worlds of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Camille Pissarro, was interested in the shape and duration of the fragment; consequently her writing was more of a response to painting than literature. As Brakhage has noted, the influence Menken had on his work was in step with the inspiration Stein had asserted upon him, "continually draw[ing] [him] toward the material of [his] daily living rather than 'literature.'" The notion of a "notebook," journal, or diary has played a central role in framing Menken's filmic work critically. As indicated above, she is often referred to as a film poet, one of the first to use the film journal as a form. One of my contentions, however, is that the history of the film diary, which is placed squarely at the center of Menken's invention, uses only a very specific definition to propagate this genealogy.

David James gives an exhaustive treatise on the differences between the film diary and the diary film. In brief, he argues that the film diary delivers immediacy, raw daily life; it privileges a single textual sense, that of the subjective position of the filmmaker. In contrast, the diary film is mediated: "it subjects the original images to sounds and disjunct visual material." The impossibility of a pure version of the former (unmediated, the problem of the ever-slipping present, the presence of the unstaged filmmaker) has been a main critique of this genre. But James gives Mekas credit for approaching the contradictions of the film diary with panache: "Mekas was the first fully to articulate this combination of imperatives-the need to respond immediately with the camera to and in the present, and the need to subjectivize that recording-as the essential conditions of the film diary, and the first fully to turn them to advantage, and eventually to invest filmic attention to daily life with religious significance."

Menken, on the other hand, is inscribed by James as an extension of feminist diary writing of the 1970s, "where introspection and self-awareness were understood as individual participation in a collective historical recovery." After Menken, he cites work by Chantal Akerman, Storm de Hirsch, Su Friedrich, Marjorie Keller, Yvonne Rainer, Amalie Rothschild, Carolee Schneemann, and Claudia Weill as a continuation of this tradition. In contrast, male experimental filmmakers, such as Andrew Noren, George Pinkus, and Mekas, began utilizing the film diary approach only after 1960s avant-garde filmmaking models lost steam (he seems to be referring to structuralist film). In short, Menken's invention of the film diary is valued as something unique because it strongly influenced Mekas and Brakhage. Moreover, it is read as an existential, anti-structural move, a more enlightened form than the subjective works offered by "people of color, women, and gays." In contrast, Mekas's and Brakhage's form of the film diary are presented as having more structural rigor, as well as being informed by the open, more personal, feminist-inspired essay.

Menken's Notebook, I would like to argue, is closer to quick sketching than journal writing-and it does not reflect the kind of subjective autobiography and existential angst that works like Walden (Mekas, 1964-69) or Anticipation of the Night (Brakhage, 1958) represent. Menken's collection here-"Raindrops," "Greek Epiphany," "Moonplay," "Copy Cat," "Paper Cuts," "Lights," "Night Writing," "The Egg," and "Etcetcetc."-is a playful sketchbook of manipulated nature, animated objects, and moving cutouts. From the beginning of this series, Menken was not engaged in exercising the internal world of the film diary, its registering of the unadulterated, subjective view of the filmmaker. Instead, she created a kind of frenetic artifice out of natural events. For example, in "Raindrops," she pushes nature's clock prematurely: "As she waits behind the camera for a drop of rain on the tip of a leaf to gather sufficient mass to fall, we sense her impatience and even anxiety lest the film will run out on her; so an unseen hand taps the branch, forcing the drops to fall." "Raindrops" characterizes, in a sense, the kind of manipulation that Menken regularly engaged in with her work; she was not interested, as Mekas was, in registering her "state of feeling (and all the memories)" as she filmed a particular object, action, or scene. As Sitney has so cogently argued in Visionary Film, Menken "tampered" with her handheld work. She was not interested in the "straightforward observational film" but rather wanted to incorporate her own sordid hand, even if it registered her cigarette smoke as it wafted into a particular shooting session.

In Notebook's "Greek Epiphany," "Moonplay," "Lights," and "Night Writing," Menken treats natural and artificial light with equal valence. Menken's experimentation with light as a medium was informed both by her own fascination of transposing other media (painting, light, sculpture) into filmic contours, and also by the proliferation of art works that took "light" as both subject and modus operandi. Artists like Julio Le Parc, Dan Flavin, Chryssa, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and James Terrell (just to name a few) were interested in light, perception, movement, and illusion as a central part of their art practices during the mid-1960s, continuing into the 1970s and, in some cases, up into the present. Menken's fascination with neon lighting, as presented in "Night Writing," as well as in her 3-D works at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in December 1950, is echoed in the work of Dan Flavin, in which light has the ability to transform an environment. But where Flavin and Bell were interested in having their audiences confront light as a sculptural object (as in Flavin's exposed fluorescent fixtures or Bell's light boxes), Menken was closer to Irwin in her efforts to reveal the hypnotic effect of light divorced from any object. In "Night Writing," we are confronted by "such quick movement" that the red and green neon lights seem to be "brilliant calligraphy on the screen." In "Greek Epiphany," candlelight-at first discernible, analog light-becomes abstracted into color, marking an anonymous pattern, rather than an orthodox religious, representational ceremony. A similar transformation takes place in "Lights" when a Christmas tree is inverted and its lights take over the screen in 3-D forms. Moreover, an analogy is made between the tree lights and the lights in an adjacent building, removing any narrative context from the sense of the decorative. Likewise, in "Moonplay," the moon as it moves with lightning speed across the sky seems to appear more like a flashlight or strobe, flattening any sense of depth of field on the screen. There are two versions of "Moonplay"; one was made for Notebook, and the other, made a bit later, develops the themes Menken had begun in her first short sketch. The latter is set to music by Teiji Ito so that the moon moves-through stop-motion animation-frenetically, wildly with the quick-changing score. As Sitney has noted, the night photography of Menken's "Moonplay," its fast panning, fusing of foreground and background, as well as its elimination of depth are borrowed by Brakhage for Anticipation of the Night. "A short mixture of what Marie Menken called both 'Moonplay' and 'Night Writing,' here [in Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night] intercut, prepares the transition to an amusement park, where older children take rides in the night ... the lights of the park behind them have next to no depth on the screen."

The flatness of the screen is even more prominent in Menken's animation pieces in Notebook: "Copycat," "Paper Cuts," "The Egg," and "Etcetcetc." Inspiring to Norman McLaren and a host of younger, contemporary animators, including Lewis Klahr, Janie Geiser, Emily Breer, and Martha Colburn, Menken's animation work nonetheless has been ignored or mentioned briefly in critical discussions of her work. This is most likely because this work, which is playful, irreverent, and abject, does not fit the prevailing model of her as a lyrical film poet and keen observer of everyday life. "Copycat," a brief study in diagonals, is in some ways more successful than the longer Mood Mondrian (1963). Rather than having her camera race over the structure of a painting, as she does in Mood Mondrian, Menken allows the structure of diagonals-their play against one another-to constitute the movement of the film. Reminiscent, sans sound, of McLaren's Lines Horizontal and Lines Vertical (1961-62), Menken's "Copycat" reveals the formalist energy of abstraction, commenting once again on the tabula rasa of the film screen and pointing back at its artificial borders to the edges of its proscenium square. She also pokes fun at the alleged symmetry of the modernist diagonal. When repeated, diagonals copy each other endlessly, outwitting each other with new juxtapositions, threatening to misalign themselves in asymmetrical patterns, but always moving in similar directions and finding order next to each other.


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