Notes On Marie Menken

2006, Movie, NR, 97 mins


Austrian documentarian Martina Kudlacek's follow-up to IN THE MIRROR OF MAYA DEREN (2003) pays tribute to another pioneering experimental filmmaker, Marie Menken. Both began making films in the 1940s and cast powerful shadows over the American avant-garde. But though Menken continued working through the 1960s, bridging post-war abstract painting and pop art through her relationships with Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol, she remains less well known than Deren.

Menken, universally described by her friends as a tall, imposing woman with a gentle soul, began her career as a painter and collagist (her highly textured, decorative canvases are given polite short shrift by artist and filmmaker Alfred Leslie), but she found her medium in celluloid. Veteran experimental moviemakers Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Peter Kubelka all praise her eye for color, instinctive sense of visual rhythm and faith in images divorced from symbolic and literary influence. Mekas credits her impressionistic, non-narrative shorts with inspiring his work and suggests that their lyricism is rooted in their shared Lithuanian heritage. Menken shot with a handheld Bolex camera, treating the mechanism as an extension of her own body; Anger describes her as dancing with the camera, and archival footage shows her "dueling" with Warhol on a New York rooftop, each parrying and feinting with a Bolex. Married to bisexual poet Willard Maas, Menken starred in his influential Geography of the Body (1943) and collaborated with him on other projects. Their long, loyal marriage was characterized by hard drinking and screaming, public fights. Both Gerard Malanga, whom the childless Menken treated as a surrogate son, and Anger argue persuasively that Marie and Willard, a professor of English at Staten Island's Wagner College, were Edward Albee's models for embattled academics Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Though middle-aged by the time she met Malanga and Warhol, Menken was welcomed into Warhol's early Factory scene: She documented Warhol and Malanga making silk screens, appeared in THE CHELSEA GIRLS (1966), and she and Maas are both included in the "Screen Test" series.

Kudlacek's new footage is in black and white and contrasts with the generous, full-color clips from Menken's work, whose swirling images are beautifully complemented by John Zorn's smoky new jazz score. And while Kudlacek lets some of the elder statesmen ramble, their recollections are a vivid, firsthand window into a bygone era of American art. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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