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Notes on Marie Menken

by Martina Kudlacek, Director; John Zorn, Music
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2006
97 mins., col. / b&w
Sales: $398; rental/VHS: $125
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art
University of Northern Iowa
Website: http://www.bobolinkbooks.com


So who was Marie Menken (1909-1970)? The short answer is that she was an experimental New York-based filmmaker, born in Lithuania, but ignored until this film came out. A longer, less interesting answer is that she earned a living as a clerk on the graveyard shift at Time Magazine. She had a volatile marriage, the best moments of which were weekend drinking marathons, during which she and her gay husband would attack each other with alarming vehemence, despite (or maybe because of) the presence of houseguests. One of those guests was the playwright Edward Albee, and, to this day, Menken’s foremost claim to fame has been the suspicion that she and her husband were inspirations for the characters of Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Inadvertently, the tall and bulky Menken became an underground movie superstar, when she was featured in two of Andy Warhol’s films, The Life of Juanita Castro and The Chelsea Girls. She knew Warhol not because she was an actress (she had initially been a rather awful abstract painter), but because both she and Warhol had been goofing around with filmmaking, using hand-held, spring-driven cameras. There is a great moment in this film in which Menken and Warhol are shown in a "dance" on a rooftop, in which they repeatedly charge one another, armed with Bolex cameras. This is a rich, interesting film in certain ways, but I doubt if its worth can be credited to the tragedy of Menken’s life. No doubt her films are significant as historic artistic excursions, but far more interesting are the candid, incidental clips of the circle of various artists she knew, along with more recent filmed memories by Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka, Kenneth Anger, Gerard Malanga and others.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



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