Monday, February 8, 2010

Notes On Marie Menken

[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. I have also reviewed some of the short films included as extras on this disc, here and here.]

Marie Menken's importance to the early American cinematic avant-garde is often forgotten today. She was an abstract painter, a filmmaker, an inspiration to Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, an important figure on the fringes of Andy Warhol's large entourage, appearing in his films and documenting some of the Warhol group's activities. Martina Kudlácek's documentary Notes on Marie Menken probes this rich legacy, examining Menken's life and art through her films and the memories of those who knew her. Menken was a very diaristic filmmaker, crafting small, nearly incidental works of observation and prosaic activity, chronicling the day-to-day and the ordinary with a sensibility that discovered surprise and beauty in such conventional sights as a flower garden, a sparkle of light off a shiny object, a person's face. Kudlácek pays tribute to this sensibility by making her own film a reflection of, a response to, Menken's own methods. In sensuous black and white images, Kudlácek interviews those who knew Menken: Mekas, Kenneth Anger, to whom Menken dedicated a film, Warhol assistant and filmmaker Gerard Malanga, Warhol Factory designer Billy Name, underground actress Mary Woronov, filmmaker Peter Kubelka and painter Alfred Leslie. These people weave a complex web of anecdotes and impressions, contributing to a portrait of a woman who was crucial to the development of the American avant-garde, and whose corpus of unassuming little films endures as an unshowy, private oeuvre. Menken's films, originally not meant for public consumption, were intended as documents of her observations and impressions, chronicles of the way she perceived certain moments in time. They are deeply personal, and Kudlácek's documentary maintains that sense of peeking into a private life, seeing the art and beauty in this woman's everyday life.

Kudlácek weaves together the interviews and reminiscences with excerpts from Menken's own films, as well as interludes in which Kudlácek follows her subject in capturing ephemeral moments on camera. At one point, while interviewing Mekas, her camera peers out a window, down at the street two stories below, where a group of kids are exchanging greetings and eager chatter, making plans and saying goodbye before they split up for the evening. Kudlácek watches them for a few moments before panning back inside onto the documents and film canisters on Mekas' desk. Such moments — like similar ones where Kudlácek lingers on the spray of water from a fountain or the skeleton-like designs on the backs of some fish in a pond or the twirling kaleidoscope of lights from a carnival ride — are the documentarian's way of paying tribute to Menken, who made such small and poetic details the substance of her oeuvre.

Kudlácek gathers a great deal of stories and information about Menken, who seems to inspire an almost aching nostalgia in many of these interviewees. When Kudlácek interviews Mekas and, especially, Malanga, one can see the warmth and love that these men felt for Menken, whose art and personality meant so much to them. Throughout the course of the film, Kudlácek deals with Menken's passionate but often troubled relationship with her husband Willard Maas (the couple were the inspiration for Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and her interactions with the New York art scene of the time. But the real meat of the film, the real way in which Menken's essence is captured, is in the excerpts from her work. Kudlácek includes the full film Arabesque for Kenneth Anger, Menken's film made in Spain, set to a new score composed by John Zorn. Zorn contributes lyrical, low-key jazz throughout the film and here provides a lively, propulsive piece, derived from the ethnic melodies of his Masada group, to accompany Menken's fast-moving snatches of Spanish architecture and fountains. The film is contextualized by Anger himself, who accompanied Menken on the trip that produced this film and indeed was apparently standing right behind her while she made it. He describes how he was guiding her while she moved through the gardens and courtyards documented in the film, making sure she wouldn't fall. For Anger, and for many others who describe Menken's working methods here, she was dancing with her camera, fluidly moving so that the images she captured were an extension of her body, of her senses. Hers was a very physical cinema, but also a graceful one, and Anger's story, of the two of them dancing in tandem as she made this film in tribute to him, is moving and evocative of Menken's art.

Perhaps even more so than in her excellent, informative documentary on Maya Deren, Kudlácek really makes this material her own, finding her own way into Menken's life and art. Increasingly, in the second half of the film, Kudlácek seems to have discovered a peripheral story that she finds as interesting as Menken herself: Gerard Malanga, Warhol's assistant for so long, star of some of Warhol's most iconic films, a poet and photographer and filmmaker in his own right. The scenes with him, which form a substantial part of this film, are poignant and almost startlingly emotional, as the prospect of talking about Menken brings forth in Malanga a virtual torrent of nostalgic feelings and potent memories. This is especially true during a wonderful scene in which Malanga unearths a crusty old film strip that contains footage of Menken and Warhol. On his own small reel-to-reel machine, he begins playing the film, letting it pass slowly across an editing stage, excitedly picking out frames of interest that seem to trigger deep-seated emotional reactions in him. The film contains a "duel" between Menken and Warhol in which the two artists essentially danced around each other on a rooftop at sunset, the sky bright red behind them, as they filmed one another on handheld Bolex cameras. It is a fantastic scene, and the degraded quality of the filmstrip only adds to the poignancy of it all: the rot and decay of the years at times threaten to swallow the image whole, and then a few frames of Menken or Warhol with their cameras will abruptly emerge from the morass. As Malanga says, the film seems to be "resisting extinction." This is followed by some footage Menken shot, in her jumpy time-lapse style, of Warhol and Malanga walking through the city, creating some screenprints in a small apartment studio, and then returning home. It's the kind of time capsule moment that's invaluable, one great artist documenting another at work, and Kudlácek and Malanga both seem very aware of the historical import and beauty of these documents.

Kudlácek returns again and again to Malanga throughout this film, fascinated by his obviously emotional reaction to being reminded of Menken and Warhol and this whole scene that he was a part of. Menken, he says, was like a mother to him, and she thought of him as a son. His nostalgic recounting of private moments with her — going to visit her at her late-night shift at Time magazine, where they used the magazine's photocopiers and facilities to assist in their personal work — provides the film with an emotional heft that contextualizes Menken beyond her art, beyond her influence and importance, in the personal relationships she formed with those around her. It seems, for those who knew her, Menken herself loomed as large as the art she made. The pinnacle of this approach comes when Kudlácek goes with Malanga to the cemetery where Menken is buried. He goes first to visit his father, who he'd never really known but who happened to be buried in the same place, and then he goes to visit the woman who became virtually his surrogate mother. It could've been an exploitative, tear-jerking moment, but Kudlácek films it with a quiet, unassuming observational quality, so that Malanga's graveside visits with his real father and his spiritual mother are poignant rather than manipulative.

The way that Malanga's reminiscences merge his personal affection for Menken with the artistic inspiration he and so many others took from her provides the template for Kudlácek's own multifaceted tribute to the filmmaker. She excerpts liberally from Menken's rich oeuvre: the stop-motion animated paintings of Dwightiana, the lush light studies of Lights and Eye Music in Red Major (the latter introduced by Brakhage's blend of the mystical and the pseudo-scientific from one of his lectures), the diaristic observation of Andy Warhol or her portrait of Spanish monk gravediggers, the blurry rapidity of her New York fantasia Go! Go! Go!, the blend of home movies and theatricality in Midnight Maases. But Kudlácek goes beyond Menken's own images, her own films, to probe the artist's broader sensibility, and the image of Menken herself that endures in memory. Kudlácek's documentary includes the kind of moments that Menken herself would have loved to capture, like a wonderfully funny visual diversion while interviewing Billy Name, in which Kudlácek indulges in a close-up of Name's bushy beard, exploring its textures, bristly white like steel wool, as he talks about Menken and strokes the long beard's tip. Menken, one suspects, would have loved this image, simultaneously absurd and sublime, utterly prosaic and somehow also lyrically beautiful.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Most interested in seeing this. Glad the Albee inspiration was noted. Back in 1965 Andy shot a film of the tow of them, Willard and Marie. When he looked at the finished work he decided it wouldn't be a good idea to have it shown "Because it would embarass Edward too much."

She was a blig blowsey women who made delicate little movies.

Ed Howard said...

It's a great doc, less a straightforward bio than a collection of memories and images relating to its subject and the whole NY arts scene surrounding her. Great stuff about Warhol, Anger, etc. And just enough generous excerpts from her Menken's films to create a strong impression of her aesthetic: which is exactly as you sum it up there. Delicate, gentle, stripped-down, totally at odds with the outsized persona of Menken herself.