Looking Back at the Avant Garde

From Rien que les heures (Nothing but Time)

These two new DVDs help us take a look back at forward thinkers, and although no one will like all these films equally, the whole is an experience not only edifying but, at its most radical, even pleasurable.

Radical Pleasures

Radical Pleasures

It's the footage of her vibrant, light-struck, life-struck films that will convince you Marie Menken deserves her own postage stamp.
While we're on the subject of radical pleasures, Martina Kudlácek's Notes on Marie Menken is the first step many people will take in discovering a neglected avant-garde filmmaker. Menken was married to the above-mentioned Maas and worked on his films. The two of them had legendary drunken arguments that served as the basis for George and Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a cultural factoid that has unfortunately been slightly more well-known than her own output.

In this documentary, we learn the following four facts:

1) Jonas Mekas, founder of Anthology Film Archives and tireless promoter of underground film, says Menken's work gave him the courage to make the films he wanted to make.

2) The late Stan Brakhage, who might as well be called the dean of postwar avant-garde cinema, says Menken was the single filmmaker who most influenced his work. (In his book Film at Wit's End, he credits Menken with being the first to use a rhythmic, "free swinging" handheld style.) And by the way, Menken and Maas were instrumental in securing his first New York screening.

3) Kenneth Anger says he had the chance to make Scorpio Rising because he was living at their house at the time.

4) They lived two blocks from Andy Warhol in his pre-Factory days, and Menken took what might be the earliest footage of him and trained him in using the 16mm Bolex camera. Much later, she acted in Warhol's The Chelsea Girls.

DVD: Notes on Marie Menken (2006)

Director: Martina Kudlácek

Cast: Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas

Rated: n/a

US DVD release date: 2009-10-20

Distributor: Icarus

Image: of these facts can make you wonder why she's not more well-known, but it's the footage of her vibrant, light-struck, life-struck films that will convince you she deserves her own postage stamp. The last half hour of the documentary wanders a bit and spends time indulging in Menken-esque imagery rather than showing us more of the originals, but this is still an important call to attention. Mekas, Anger, Gerard Malanga, Mary Woronov, Peter Kubelka, Alfred Leslie and Billy Name are interviewed. Mekas says she made little films about nothing, but lyrical. She sometimes demonstrates a frame-by-frame editing technique that was done, if I understood correctly, by rapidly opening and closing the shutter on the Bolex.

Kudlácek's film, made in 2006 with an original score by John Zorn, has a different take on the Menken-Maas mythology from that in Brakhage's book, which painted Menken in a bitter marriage with an envious, verbally abusive gay husband. The interviewees here convey the impression that Menken and Maas communicated through their shouting matches, that they enjoyed having an audience, that they each gave as good as they got, and that they cared deeply for each other. Menken seemingly didn't mind her husband's male lovers. When she died, apparently of alcoholism, her husband collapsed and followed a few days later.

Two of Menken's films have previously been available on DVD. Her directorial debut was included in Volume 2 of Kino's Avant-Garde series. Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), in black and white with a concrete music track, consists of shadowy close-ups gliding around the sculptor's work, too closely to step back and see clearly. The visual and aural approach seems to fly in the face of "beauty" even as it explores beautiful shapes and movements. Menken's great Go! Go! Go! has been included in the Treasures IV box. It's a dizzying paean to bustling New York, like an anti-Koyaanisqatsi made 20 years earlier.

Kudlácek's DVD has three complete films as a bonus, including the Noguchi. The other two are the colorful Glimpse of the Garden (1957), which tries literally to be a bird's eye view of the plants (this has been selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry), and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961), a montage of tiles and fountains shot at the Alhambra.

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