If you typed “Chantal Akerman by way of John Cassavetes by way of Doris Wishman by way of Agnès Varda” into an AI generator, you might get something like Storm de Hirsch’s 1964 film Goodbye in the Mirror.
De Hirsch was a major figure in the American avant-garde community from the 1940s through the ’70s — first as a poet and critic and later as a filmmaker. Born Lillian Malkin in 1912 in New Jersey, she relocated to the Big Apple at a young age, changed her name, and published her first chapbook, Alleh Lulleh Cockatoo and Other Poems, in 1955. (She’d go on to publish three more — all of them “engaging punctuative declarations, onomatopoeia, chorus repetitions, and sensual, ornithological and Cabalistic imagery”).
Like pioneering experimental cineaste Maya Deren, de Hirsch found the written word limiting and eventually transitioned to filmmaking. Her first two films — 1962’s Silently, Bearing the Totem of a Bird and 1963’s A Reticule of Love — were silent meditations replete with natural imagery (flowers, trees, water), shot on Super 8 color film stock and together running under 15 minutes.
De Hirsch’s third endeavor, Goodbye in the Mirror, marked the first and only time she made a feature-length film. The remainder of her catalog consists of non-narrative works that scarcely run longer than half an hour. They often combine frame-by-frame etching, meta-diegetic editing, and painting with live-action footage. About the making of her hallucinatory 1964 short Divinations (which immediately followed Goodbye in the Mirror), she told her colleague, fellow avant-garde titan Jonas Mekas:
I wanted badly to make an animated short and had no camera available. I did have some old, unused film stock and several rolls of 16mm sound tape. So I used that — plus a variety of discarded surgical instruments and the sharp edge of a screwdriver — by cutting, etching, and painting directly on both [the] film and tape.
Later shorts of de Hirsch’s that combined direct animation with live-action film often explored light and space and drew from religious, poetic, and psychedelic influences. For example, 1967’s trippy Shaman, A Tapestry for Sorcerers, is dedicated “to all the magic makers of the world who weave a talisman for man’s rebirth in his house of breath”. Meanwhile, 1966’s Sing Lotus depicts “eighteenth century Indian miniatures enact[ing] a traditional wedding ceremony of a Hindu Prince and Princess”. One of Mekas’ personal favorites of de Hirsch’s films, 1965’s Peyote Queen, offers a supersaturated amalgamation of etched and painted colors with split-screen footage of kaleidoscopes, described by writer and film historian Dominique Noguez as “a[n] exploration into the color of ritual, the color of thought… a journey through the underworld of sensory derangement”.
De Hirsch and artists like Mekas, Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and Jack Smith were founding members of New York City’s Film-Makers’ Cooperative in the early ’60s. A nonprofit, artist-run collective, it’s the largest archive and distributor of avant-garde and underground films in the world today.
Like Flo Jacobs and Clarke, de Hirsch was one of the few women directors active in the experimental filmmaking community during the formative years of the “New American Cinema” (not to be confused with “New Hollywood” of the ’70s — though that movement was certainly influenced by the renegade aesthetics and subject matter of the New American Cinema). In the words of film scholar Laura E.B. Key, the former movement sought to “create independent films that expressed the countercultural moods and sensibilities of the late 1950s and early 1960s; these films represented a break away from the standardization and conformity of corporate Hollywood and from the ideological conservatism of the American mainstream”.
New American Cinema is recognizable nowadays thanks to first-of-their-kind works like Mekas’ sprawling 1969 “diary film” Walden and Smith’s groundbreaking 1963 queer classic Flaming Creatures, which was one of the first films to predominantly feature drag queens, trans folks, and intersex folks, and landed Smith in the New York Supreme Court on obscenity charges. But the movement — in all its ingenuity — was not without its progenitors. As noted in the first official statement of the New American Cinema Group (or NACG, the distribution branch of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative) in 1961:
In the course of the past three years we have been witnessing the spontaneous growth of a new generation of filmmakers — the Free Cinema in England, the Nouvelle Vague in France, the young movements in Poland, Italy, and Russia… the ‘official’ cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring.
Mekas would summarize the vision of the NACG best: “We don’t want rosy films. We want films the color of blood.”
De Hirsch crafted some of the more visually imaginative of those “blood-colored films”, yet her contributions to the American experimental film community (and the art form in general) have long been overlooked. It wasn’t until after her death in 2000 that her works were finally preserved, thanks to the efforts of the New York Women’s Film Preservation Fund and the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Those efforts have ensured the existence of de Hirsch’s work for posterity. The recent Re:Voir Video DVD collection Mythology for the Soul showcases 15 of her eye-popping shorts from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s, beginning with 1964’s Divinations and culminating with Lace of Summer and September Express (both made in 1973). Of that bunch, the etched and painted work like Divinations brought de Hirsch the most attention during her career. As noted by film scholar Amber Frost:
She eventually got ahold of a camera, [but] it’s what she accomplished without one that most baldly represented her creative drive… One of her former intern[s] even remembers her hand-coloring the fading frames of ‘Peyote Queen’ with [a] magic marker in 1973, restoring [its] splashy, electric feel.
Understanding de Hirsch’s proclivity towards short, color, and typically hand-crafted works makes watching the 80-minute-long, black-and-white, and live-action Goodbye in the Mirror an even more surreal and anomalous experience than if one watched it without any prior knowledge of her oeuvre. It’s also the best-kept “secret” of the artist’s filmography. Never released on home video in any format and unavailable (at least publicly) in a digital modality, the archive of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative is one of the only places in the United States where Goodbye in the Mirror can be found today.
Made on a budget of $20k (approximately $200k in 2023), de Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror chronicles the lives of three roommates — New Yorker Maria, Londoner Berenice (whose actual name is Pamela), and Swede Ingrid — “who [all] engage in a series of volatile relationships” while living in Italy and teaching a group of young men how to speak English. It begins with a rather conventional title sequence, filmed out of the windows and windshields of moving cars in the streets of Rome. The names of unknown actors (Rosa Piradell, Franco Volpino, Diane Stainton, Barbara Apostal, Charlotte Bradley) are delineated in a traditional Hollywood fashion; Louis Brigante, de Hirsch’s husband, is notably credited as the assistant director. Giorgio Turi is also credited as the director of photography — surprising considering de Hirsch was the cinematographer on nearly all of her films.
The narrative starts with a handheld shot of a man ascending the steps of an apartment building, the camera zooming in on his feet and later his hand as he rings the doorbell. (These images invoke the opening sequence of Maya Deren’s 1943 opus Meshes of the Afternoon, in which her then-husband, filmmaker Alexander Hammid, filmed her walking up the front steps to their house.) Shortly thereafter, Maria (Piradell) is introduced in her living room, speaking to the man whose face is unseen for most of their conversation. Berenice (Stainton) briefly interrupts her, and Maria chastises her for it.
The ensuing dialogue between Maria and her guest is difficult to follow and crudely dubbed in post-production, hardly synched with the movement of their lips. De Hirsch distracts from this technical wrinkle by focusing on the hands of her characters — ashing their cigarettes, pouring cups of coffee and tea — and various objects around the house, like a spinning chandelier. (In some regard, it’s fitting the dialogue is dubbed in post-filming and in such a contrived and clumsy fashion. By teaching English, Maria and her roommates are, in a sense, putting words in their students’ mouths. De Hirsch and sound technician Harlan Frost are doing the same thing with their actors).
Under Turi’s direction, de Hirsch’s camera is a whirling dervish — whipping from one moment to the next, lapsing in and out of focus, and casting shadows on actors’ countenances while capturing them in inexplicable, ultra-tight close-ups. A scene early in Goodbye in the Mirror shows Maria donning a nightgown and broodingly staring at herself in a body-length mirror, which offers a glimpse of Turi filming behind her. A blunder? An intentional act of “self-referential” filmmaking, in which the camera is acknowledged within the film’s universe? Hard to say.
Visually and aurally, Goodbye in the Mirror evokes the low-budget grittiness of Doris Wishman’s 1965 cult sexploitation classic Bad Girls Go to Hell, which was also shot entirely on a handheld Bolex and had all of its dialogue dubbed in post. It also foreshadows the unvarnished and invasive cinéma vérité textures of John Cassavetes’ 1968 divorce drama Faces.
Goodbye in the Mirror‘s metropolitan European setting and references to various Hollywood figures and creations echo the French New Wave — particularly a film like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless from 1960, in which nihilistic protagonist Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) idolizes Humphrey Bogart. For example, around Goodbye in the Mirror’s midpoint, Berenice is filmed, in slow motion, dancing in front of a massive Charlie Chaplin poster in her bedroom. Earlier, a picture of a pin-up model à la Bettie Page is visible when Maria goes on a date with a suitor named Marco (Volpino); that same date ends with the duo going to a movie theater to see an American film made by some of Maria’s friends from New York.
Endless shots of Maria, Berenice, and Ingrid (Apostal) pondering their own visages in mirrors and reflective surfaces — hence the title Goodbye in the Mirror — recall moments from Agnès Varda’s 1962 Left Bank classic Cléo from 5 to 7. In that film, Varda’s protagonist, fatalistic (and sometimes narcissistic) pop singer Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), constantly examines her face, be it in the cracked glass of a damaged storefront window or the mirror of her tarot reader’s foyer after she’s dealt a pretty foreboding set of cards.
These shots in Goodbye in the Mirror — visually enticing but rather static in terms of action and narrative development — are just one example of de Hirsch’s tendency to capture moments that most mainstream directors would have left on the cutting room floor (or not even filmed in the first place). That tendency prophesies Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (which just last year was named the “greatest film of all time” in Sight and Sound’s decennial poll). A landmark of “slow cinema” due to its three-hour runtime and meticulous focus on its titular housewife and sex worker (Delphine Seyrig) cooking, cleaning, running errands, and welcoming clients into her home, Akerman toyed with cinematic temporality by documenting seeming “mundanities” (e.g., domestic chores and routines — “mundane” to some, the reality of everyday life for others). In turn, Jeanne Dielman challenges viewers’ notions of what (in films and life) is truly “mundane”.
De Hirsch’s focus is similar. Whereas several of her live-action shorts documented Eastern religious rituals, she documents domestic rituals here. Early in Goodbye in the Mirror, Berenice and Ingrid complain about the apartment’s low water supply and ask Maria to rectify the issue. De Hirsch shows no regard for brevity while filming Maria’s ascent to the building’s water tanks with a bucket, whereupon she laboriously steals from a neighbor’s supply to add to theirs. Shortly after, about five minutes of footage are devoted to Maria, Berenice, and Ingrid scrubbing the bathtub, washing clothes in the sink, and conversing about nothing of significance. One particularly evocative shot finds Turi slithering his camera up and down the length of a serpentine bath hose while one of the women tries to wrangle it.
Not much can be said of the maladroit plotting, which makes visuals like these all the more bracing. Disjointed scenes show Maria going on dates with Marco, Berenice welcoming various suitors into the apartment, and even managing to nab a date with a filmmaker named Pepe (one of Maria’s students — thereby inciting jealousy from her — though Pepe is a filmmaker and Berenice dreams of being an actress), and all (or a combination of) the women fighting with each other for no good reason.
In other words, there isn’t much of a “story” in Goodbye in the Mirror. But the film boasts enough calculated visual brilliance to make watching it a worthwhile if at times confounding, experience.
Mekas and fellow NACG co-founder Gregory Markopoulos noted that brilliance shortly following the film’s premiere, out of competition, at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. Mekas (always the cheerleader) “couldn’t believe what beauty struck [his] eyes, what sensuousness”. Markopoulos similarly characterized Goodbye in the Mirror as a film full of “visual wisdom”.
Certainly, many of its images are indelible. For example, a sun-soaked shot of Maria washing a bunch of grapes in a fountain while out on the town with Marco. Or a recurring close-up of the Mona Lisa’s eyes instead of her smile. (This is one of two major visual motifs in the film, the other being shots of black-robed nuns roaming the cobblestone streets outside the women’s apartment).
Around the halfway mark, Maria is chased to her front door by a predatory suitor. Turi and de Hirsch capture the moment in an unsettling aerial shot emphasizing the seemingly never-ending spiral staircase she must ascend. There are also protracted moments of whimsy, like Maria and Marco running around a tree in the park, and surreal moments with biting social subtext, like Berenice loudly declaiming from the apartment balcony: “The evil that men do lives after them!”, followed by a birds’ eye view of a truck of pigs being shipped, presumably, to their deaths.
In the third act, it’s implied that Berenice is sexually assaulted. Maria finds her after the perpetrator is seen fleeing from the apartment and inexplicably throws her out. Fed up with that “Swedish creep”, she throws Ingrid out, too. It’s the last we see of Berenice, but we’re treated to a pensive segment that features Ingrid roaming a sorrowful industrial landscape on the outskirts of the city, à la Monica Vitti in Michaelangelo Antononi’s Red Desert (also from 1964). In one shot, Ingrid walks left by a street sign that shows an arrow pointing right. Moments later, the nuns (their jet-black robes jarring against white, sun-tinged pavement) reappear. What is the meaning of all these images stacked together? I’m not quite sure. In all their ambiguity and mystique, they feel like poetry — open to unbounded interpretation and contemplation.
At the end of Goodbye in the Mirror, Maria welcomes a new roommate — an American woman named Sarah (Bradley) — to live with her. Sarah is introduced sneaking into Maria’s room at night and waking her before complaining of nightmares and homesickness and asking to sleep in her bed. In the moments leading up to Maria rousing from her slumber, Sarah is a totally unfamiliar figure. She’s never shown meeting Maria for the first time or moving into the apartment. De Hirsch jumps forward in time, eschewing exposition entirely.
While arbitrary from a structural standpoint, this scene is necessary for reinforcing Maria’s general coldness and irritability. Her animosity with Berenice and Ingrid during the first two acts is unrelenting but plausible when considering the three have been living together for some time and in close quarters. But Maria (like the audience) has no ties with Sarah: no past, no real time spent with her, and therefore no reason to resent her. Even so, her reaction is harsh — she scolds Sarah for waking her and only lets her sleep in her bed after much begging and pleading.
A similar scene occurs at the end of Robert Altman’s 1977 psychological drama 3 Women, in which meek Pinky (Sissy Spacek) wakes her roommate Millie (Shelley Duvall) after a nightmare and asks to sleep in bed with her. Despite their previous conflicts (which include Millie driving Pinky to a suicide attempt and Pinky later assuming Millie’s identity), Millie still exudes warmth and generosity toward her roommate, allowing Pinky to crawl into bed with her and even consoling her. There’s no such warmth between Maria and Sarah, and de Hirsch doesn’t prolong their relationship. It’s the only scene featuring both women, as Sarah returns to the States shortly thereafter.
In this way, Goodbye in the Mirror is unique in its portrayal of women’s relationships. A plethora of films about friendships between women, made by great women filmmakers, would follow it. Think Věra Chytilová’s colorful and anarchic Czech New Wave classic Daisies in 1966. Or Varda’s warm and politically-trenchant abortion rights musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t in 1977. Even Claudia Weill’s proto-mumblecore New York dramedy Girlfriends in 1978. All of these films — produced at the height of second-wave feminism — portray relationships between women as fraught, complicated, but ultimately loving. Goodbye in the Mirror doesn’t have an ounce of love in it — not between its women, and certainly not between its men and women.
That overarching lovelessness culminates in a particularly violent and depressing ending. After Marco sees Maria hop in the car of a man she’s never met before (why she does this is never explained), he shows up at her apartment, slaps her across the face repeatedly, and announces that he’s been waiting for her to come home all day so he can propose to her. When Maria accepts his proposal and expresses her excitement about moving back to America with him, he tells her he cannot marry a woman who won’t live in Italy and subsequently leaves her. The final shot finds Maria, a wreck, roaming her balcony at nighttime and gazing into an uncertain future.
For all the film’s seriousness and lyrical, often enigmatic imagery, de Hirsch still manages to have fun with the material. Goodbye in the Mirror boasts a delightfully playful score, with musician Stewart Robb playing harpsichord ditties that sound tailor-made for an ice cream truck and arranger Pola Chapelle providing vocals, in Italian, on a handful of sugary orchestral numbers.
Of course, few who saw the film during its initial run remarked on its playfulness. Most mainstream critics panned it (according to filmmaker and de Hirsch biographer Cecile Starr, Variety lambasted the film as “uneven and overlong”). On the contrary, many artists in the avant-garde film community (like Mekas and Markopoulos) praised it as a groundbreaking feminist work. Shirley Clarke, in a conversation with de Hirsch in 1967, called Goodbye in the Mirror the first “real woman’s film”, and even criticized contemporaneous women filmmakers, like Varda, for de-centering women in their work:
So far, women filmmakers have yet to deal with the subject of women. That usually, for instance, Varda’s heroes are men. Her women may or may not be what brings them to their salvation, or whatever… we have yet to have treated on the most basic level, very personal reactions of women. Because so far, we’ve had mostly men directors who, whether they’ve been very sensitive or not, have not really been able to deal with women this way. Just like when they write about women, they’re writing from a certain separateness. ‘Goodbye in the Mirror’ is dealing with women. And women’s reactions to a series of events.
Clarke’s take is compelling, even if it’s not entirely true. Varda’s films don’t feature only men as heroes — Cléo from 5 to 7 doesn’t, and many of the films she would make throughout the 1960s and ‘70s (I’m looking at you, 1965’s Le Bonheur and 1977’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) outright condemn patriarchal hegemony and violence.
It’s also bold to call Goodbye in the Mirror a “real woman’s film” due to the unpleasantries its women both commit and are subjected to. Maria’s relationships with Berenice, Ingrid, and Sarah are characterized only by conflict, often relayed through extreme verbal vitriol. Her relationship with Marco is not only verbally and emotionally abusive but, in the film’s final moments, physically abusive. And Maria herself isn’t all that fleshed out. She hails from New York (with all those “real artist studios! Just like in Greenwich Village!”), teaches English, and dates Marco. But what else is there to her personality? What are her desires and her motivations? In the final scene, fist clenched behind his back, Marco paces around Maria’s bedroom and asks her why she’s living in Italy in the first place — “to teach? To look at statues? To have a good time? To bring back a husband?” Viewers may find themselves asking the same questions.
Granted, these unpleasantries and a general lack of character development don’t “disqualify” de Hirsch’s film from being a feminist work. For starters, her entire body of work comes from the avant-garde tradition and cannot be assessed by Hollywood or “mainstream” standards of narrative logic and cohesion. More importantly, Goodbye in the Mirror highlights the irrefutable fact that sometimes relationships between women are volatile, in the way Maria’s, Berenice’s, Ingrid’s, and Sarah’s are. It isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.
Moreover, Maria’s lack of motivation — her involvement in destructive relationships, her irascibility, her aimlessness — predate protagonist Wanda Goronski’s similar arc in Barbara Loden’s “feminist masterpiece” Wanda from 1970. In that film, Wanda (played by Loden) is an unhappy wife and mother living in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. One day, she leaves her husband and children and hits the road with an abusive bank robber (played by Michael Higgins). Loden described Wanda as someone “who doesn’t know what she wants, but knows what she doesn’t want”. That passivity and lack of direction divided feminist critics when the film first came out. Writing for the Criterion Collection on the occasion of Wanda’s 2018 re-release, critic Amy Taubin noted:
There was — and continues to be — discomfort around ‘Wanda’ because the central character is not a role model… [viewers] resented having to spend nearly two hours watching a character who is so passive, who allows herself to be so mistreated. They could not see how the film and Loden’s performance spoke to Wanda’s humanity and to that of the majority of women worldwide.
Could Maria in Goodbye in the Mirror join Wanda Goronski in that tradition of great, wholly imperfect, sometimes exasperating feminist protagonists on film? It’s one of many inquiries broached by de Hirsch’s feature, which remains one of the most intriguing and bewildering works of New American Cinema and cinema in general. Thematically and stylistically, Goodbye in the Mirror is a bizarre amalgam of the films of Varda, Cassavetes, Akerman, Wishman, and about a dozen other directors of the time working across mainstream, independent, and avant-garde contexts. At the same time, it’s unlike anything else that came before or after it — utterly unclassifiable and a cinematic “curio” in every sense of the word.
The film’s general lack of availability today, combined with de Hirsch’s choice to make only experimental shorts for the rest of her career, makes one wonder if she was disappointed with Goodbye in the Mirror and wanted it to fall through the cracks. Perhaps she felt it unworthy of exposure, of being digitized and disseminated across ensuing generations of cinephiles. Regardless, the film still exists on three reels of black-and-white 16mm stock (also on 35mm, presumably blown up for its showing at Cannes) that hold up nearly 60 years later.
If you want to decide about Storm de Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror, visit the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York or LUX Moving Image in London, and give it a watch. Those may be the only places you’ll ever get to see it.
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