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Notes on Marie Menken

by Martina Kudlácek, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2006
DVD, 97 mins., colour/b&w
Sales, $US398.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Kathryn Adams


It comes as a surprise that little known and largely forgotten abstract painter, collage artist and filmmaker Marie Menken, influenced so many of the big names synonymous with the New York art scene of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Avant-garde filmmakers and artists of the era, such as Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Gerard Malanga, were inspired by the gentle yet volatile Menken and attribute her innovative filming techniques with furthering the development of their own experimental films. Notes On Marie Menken, a documentary by Martina Kudlácek, uncovers never-before-seen footage by the filmmaker herself and reminds us of this flamboyant epoch in arts history.

Menken (1909-1970), a Lithuanian immigrant, made around 24 experimental films and was one of the first to improvise with the camera and edit while shooting. Her films have been described as being, ‘an explosion of poetry’, ‘swirling abstractions’ and ‘a kaleidoscope of flashing, glittering images’. On the changeover from artist to filmmaker Menken said in 1966, "it was an extension of painting for me. . . . In painting I never liked the staid and static, always looked for what would change the source of light and stance, using glitters, glass beads, luminous paint, so the camera was a natural for me to try".

Lengthy excerpts of Menken’s films, salvaged from rusty film canisters, are shown throughout the documentary displaying her fascination with light, movement and rhythm. It may be difficult for some to appreciate just how innovative Menken’s style of filming was at the time, but once you have given over, you do start to feel the energy behind the camera that so many of the experts delighted in. Menken’s foray into time lapse photography and stop animation are of particular interest as are references to her imposing and bulky physique, often cited as being at odds with the agility and grace she displayed while filming with her equally cumbersome, hand-held Bolex camera.

"She filmed with her entire body, her entire nervous system. You can feel Marie behind every image, how she constructed the film in tiny pieces and through the movement. The movement and the rhythm – this is what so many of us seized upon and have developed further in our own work," says Jonas Mekas.

Archival footage of Menken and Andy Warhol filming each other – or ‘dueling with Bolexes’ – on a Brooklyn rooftop, snippets of Warhol and Gerard Malanga screen printing in Upper Manhattan in1963 and Menken as she appeared in Warhol’s film, Chelsea Girls, are a treat. The accompanying music score, composed by John Zorn, is superb.

Although there is no information about Menken’s earlier life prior to becoming an artist in this film, a portrait of an intensely passionate and complex individual takes shape through a series of interviews with friends and colleagues who knew her well. With contributions from actress Mary Woronov, Alfred Leslie, Peter Kubelka, Mekas, Anger, Malanga and the voice of Stan Brakhage among others, the documentary is spiced with vivid recollections of the colourful Menken and her tempestuous relationship with her husband, filmmaker Willard Maas. First hand accounts of their bizarre ‘verbal jousting’ sessions are intriguing as are the claims that Menken and Maas were the inspiration for Edward Albee’s dysfunctional couple, Martha and George in his play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Unfortunately, the documentary labours in sections and loses its focus on numerous occasions, making it difficult to propel viewer interest to its 97minute conclusion. Long, drawn-out reminiscences by Mekas and Malanga towards the end and ramblings on vertigo, angels, and estranged fathers are of no use to the central theme. Editor Henry Hills could have honed this documentary down to a tight and consistently interesting 60 minutes and still had ample time to showcase Menken’s films and retain all key elements. Gratuitous shots of floor tiles, carnival rides and fish with Menken-style camera work may have worked to impress during the 1960s but will fail to excite a modern audience.

However, Kudlácek’s documentary deserves to be celebrated for bringing Menken back to life and honouring the contribution she made to avant-garde filmmaking.

"I can say…that if there’s one single filmmaker that I owe the most to – for the crucial development of my own filmmaking – it would be Marie Menken," says Stan Brakhage (1933-2003).



Updated 1st June 2007

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