Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Four Marie Menken shorts

[This is part of a series of posts in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The short films below, with the exception of Go! Go! Go!, are included on Index's DVD of the documentary Notes on Marie Menken; that film is reviewed here and Menken's other short Lights is reviewed here.]

Marie Menken was an influential early pioneer in experimental film, a key figure in the development of the American avant-garde. Visual Variations on Noguchi, originally made in 1945, was her first film, a study of a set of sculptures by Isamu Noguchi. These sculptures are smooth, rounded abstract forms, and Menken impressionistically runs her camera along the curved surfaces of these sculptures, infusing movement into the static forms through her explorations. She examines the surfaces and shapes of these sculptures in patient pans across their surfaces, occasionally honing in on the detail of a textured curve, and montaging everything together with a loose, ragged aesthetic that contrasts against the fluidity of the forms. The jump-cuts and quick montage of Menken's aesthetic creates a jagged impression that works against Noguchi's amorphous blobs and graceful limb-like extensions.

Menken also added, for a 1955 re-envisioning of this film, a bold soundtrack created by Lucia Dlugoszewski. This clanging, clattering free improv is composed of pounding piano, trashy drums, scraped string feedback and occasional outbursts of talking, listing off names. The jittery, abrasive music clashes against the smoothness of the sculptures, further adding to the film's sense of opposites careening off one another. Menken made this new soundtrack version the definitive cut of her film, and with good reason. The music is one more contrasting element in a film where everything clashes against everything else: Menken is bringing together different aesthetics and sensibilities into a single space, allowing diverse artistic ideas to collide and enrich one another. Thus the simple, graceful forms of Noguchi's sculptures ricochet against Menken's rapid editing and the cacophony of the score. It is this sense of opposition, of contrast, that lends weight to Menken's precise, intimate examination of the sculptures.

Glimpse of the Garden is a simple, unassuming observational film. In this brief film, Marie Menken carefully probes the layers of a lush garden, shifting from the macro to the micro and then back again. She collages together images that nudge into the hidden details within the greenery that surrounds her. Extreme closeups of garden plants and insects alike reveal details and textures, thin hairs, protrusions, ridges and stalks that transform this hidden micro world into a whole universe. She accompanies these images with a soundtrack consisting of processed bird and insect noises: reedy trills vibrating in clustered rhythmic pulsations. The slightly off-kilter bird calls resonate with the imagery, in which natural elements are made to seem strange and alien, as Menken peers into the center of a flower or pans her camera up a stem, examining the bumps and grooves in the plant's flesh.

As always in Menken's cinema, the editing is crucial to the effect. Her sense of pacing is intuitive, as she delivers a constant barrage of colorful, sensuous imagery, shifting from streams of foliage that rush by so fast that individual images can hardly be grasped, to moments when she slows down to observe the flowers more closely. She also delivers a gorgeously dark, haunting final shot of what appears to be a watery midnight-blue sky rippling above a black filigree of tree branches. It's a mysterious, beautiful image, a fitting capper to a film that unexpectedly locates the mystery and strangeness within the ordinary. The film has the air of a home movie, a stripped-down and simple work, and this casual, amateur mood lends it a certain laidback charm that makes its more abstract imagery all the more striking.

Arabesque for Kenneth Anger is Marie Menken's tribute to her fellow avant-garde filmmaker, Kenneth Anger, whose influence obviously looms large over this expressive, evocative short. The film, shot in a Moorish palace in Spain over the course of an afternoon, is concerned, as Anger always was, with light and color, and especially with the ways in which forms could be made to interact with the tempos of music and cutting. The film is set to a lively score by composer Teiji Ito, who combines Spanish guitar and castanet motifs with Japanese-influenced reeds, resulting in a driving, vivacious score that's perfectly suited to Menken's imagery. Although the score was made later, to fit the short, the film sometimes seems to move with the tempo of the music, as when the circular ripples in a puddle dance to the beat of the snapping castanets. Even better is a wonderful section where the film takes on the stuttery rhythm of the percussion as the frame seems to jump and skip, giving the illusion of a sideways motion through a courtyard but in fact repeatedly returning to the same spot again and again. The black edges of the frame take on the function of cutaway walls, so that the viewer is faked out into believing that the camera is moving from one room to the next. It's a compelling image of being in constant motion while never quite going anywhere; the camera is essentially running in place.

With its driving rhythms and free-associative editing, the film is a fitting tribute to Anger, who Menken also nods to with repeated shots of fountains, the streams of water glistening and letting off a crystalline spray of droplets. It's an obvious visual homage to Anger's gorgeous Eaux d'artifice, in which blue-tinted images of a garden and its fountains create a sumptuous tribute to light reflecting off of water. Elsewhere, Menken intersperses a rapid time-lapse montage of gargoyle heads, and picks out random architectural features, lingering over the curves and textures of the concrete. Menken loves these details; she seems to think of "detail" in the artistic sense of the word, presenting a fragment of an arch or a roof's peak as a detail selected from a larger canvas. She explores these fragments as representative of larger forms and as textural, aesthetic forms to be admired in their own right as well.

Menken's talent lies in her mastery of editing, of pacing. Her images move and breathe, achieving a delicate balance between static observation and visceral kinetic flow. At one point, she lingers on an image of star-like lights floating in a field of black, swirling with that swoony, choreographed quality that infuses Anger's short experiments like Puce Moment. It's an abstractly beautiful shot, and a fitting tribute to Anger.

Go! Go! Go! is a time-lapse film shot in New York City, a familiar subject that Marie Menken infuses with enough energy and vitality to make it somehow feel fresh. Her camera races along through the city streets, in tracking shots that seem to have been taken from out the window of a moving car. So it's all about travel, about motion, and in terms of subtext, about how fast it all goes by, how fleeting everything in life is, how ephemeral each moment, each sensation, can be. She shows an entire graduation ceremony massively sped-up, with endless processions of black-robed students marching across the frame like lemmings, disappearing at the edge. This manic parade becomes poignant as the students stutter across the frame and seem to vanish at the edge, fading out of existence as though a life lasts only the width of a film cel; blink and you'll miss it.

Some of the film's best scenes show sped-up processes from a distance so they take on qualities of abstract design: cars and pedestrians locked into traffic patterns at a city intersection, industrial vehicles moving crates across a shipping yard, boats tracing semicircular paths on a roiling sea. Shot from above, with everything moving so fast, the cars and boats are geometric forms rather than tangible objects. As Menken continues to explore the city at hyper-speed, her frantically edited montages acquire an odd poignancy, as she accentuates the rapid pace of life. In a way, her time-lapse film mimics the form of memory, the way the past is just this indistinct blur with certain moments sticking out with utter clarity. To that end, Menken captures a beach scene where the shake and jitter of her camera eliminates individual personalities and faces, leaving only the sensual impression of youth, lust, vibrancy, play, desire: the essence of a summer day distilled in blurred images of bare limbs and bright skies and sand.

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