May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 11, 2009
If you have never seen any of Marie Menken’s films, watch the three shorts included on the Icarus DVD release of Martina Kudlácek’s recent documentary about her kindly influence on the American avant-garde. These films will probably first strike you as overwrought, minor, or the practice footage of some film student with a Bolex. Glimpses of the Garden and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger certainly have a lot of energy, but they feel uncontrolled, some of their repeated angles a bit forced.
But then as you move onto the documentary, you will hear Jonas Mekas, Brakhage, Anger, Warhol confidants, and many others talk about Menken as a formative influence on this hallowed New York circle. It traces her development as an artist and filmmaker, showing us just how she became “mother of the avant garde.” Those close to her and husband Willard Maas describe their heated relationship, which, incidentally, inspired the two memorable leads in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. There is a lot of footage of Menken in the act of filming, dancing, panning, and flitting the camera like a paintbrush as early as the 1950s.
Now you can see these early Menken films as they really are: passionate and alive, an early experimental voice seeking better structural outlets. One of the finest sections of the documentary outlines her later involvement with Andy Warhol and the Factory, splicing sections of Go Go Go! and Andy Warhol with nostalgic commentary on how these films came about. Both of them are rich with color and texture, playful with time, and intensely immediate. We watch Brakhage hand painting a long strip of film while talking about Menken’s understanding of light, movement, and the myths of the eye. This is all followed by clips of her more painterly films, dancing with light and color. Her technique ranged as far as her circle of friends.
For those interested in experimental cinema, Notes is loaded with biographical detail on this era in American filmmaking. It is interesting to see Mekas, Anger, and others locating themselves on a map that Menken helped outline. But it is also a very personal look at women artists, marriage, and the task of creating. Towards the end, Notes includes footage of Warhol and Menken “dueling” haphazardly with Bolex cameras. The gripping portraits extracted from these frames during the documentary are a remarkable example of Menken’s charmed vision.