Dear Leila,

I was glad (to say the least) to see the book by Lauren Rabinowitz on Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke and Joyce Wieland. Finally, Joyce's films are being given some critical attention—I'm assuming this is the focus! And then last night I went to Innis Film Society to see a number (all?) of Marie Menken's films. I was looking forward to the screening—curious to finally get to see this work—even solely as a recovery of history denied us. But I never anticipated how connected I would feel to the films themselves—how I would detect the seeds of so much of the work I have been shown, in school and out, as avant-garde and how my own work, though I never saw any Menken before, is related particularly in the rhythms of shooting and, generally, in a non-monumentality, non-mystifying, observational sensibility. The films are rather playful and humorous, more purely visual and often silent unlike my films or most of the work that would be made now. The humour in some of the films, for example, Hurry! Hurry! had a certain political/feminist wit which reminded me of Joyce Wieland's films like Patriotism I. In other ways too I sensed in Joyce and Marie kindred spirits: the lush colours of the flowers in Glimpses of a Garden and Wieland's Watersark; the soundtrack of Glimpses, exaggerated bird chirping (a caged budgie? a mechanical reproduction?) and parts of Rat Life and Diet in North America's track; their use of avant-garde musicians of the day on the soundtrack; the length of time they will stay with an image on the screen (the enjoyment of seeing) and a kind of simplicity—though in no way unthoughtful or without point—a human scale in both women's works.


I also saw Menken's influence on Stan Brakhage: there was his (or what we think of as 'his') jiggly camera, rhythmic and moving in the shooting and through cutting; light itself was the subject of several films; and the camera motion creating brushstrokes or, in Brakhage, the camera as extension of the body. Some parts of some of the films made me think of Michael Snow... And others, abstract art and action painting... A cumulative picture was forming not only of Menken's sensibility, but of the times, a picture not of a series of individual men of genius and singular vision, but a picture of the energy and 'ecstasy of vision' that informed filmmaking in the 50's and 60's New York, a film scene of which women were very much apart and leading.


It reminded me of an interview that Florian Hopf, a film journalist from Germany, conducted with Joyce in 1985. She was speaking of teaching art, of removing the layers that veil people's eyes, and of inner vision: "It came in New York in the 60's and before, the underground filmmakers, and I saw what they called "ecstatic vision' and I thought what could that be—and I wanted it! And I would see these people developing from their own vision, from their little lives in their studio from wherever they would see the light and it was always about light. The problem is to go into oneself and find out what one is and to suffer what it is to be oneself. Go to the darkest parts and brightest parts and find out what you like and want and to validate that. ...A lot of people think art is to be separate, but art is to embrace others—whether to convey something difficult or to talk about light—to communicate those things without selling out...Work that comes from the spirit, journeys into the spirit, are what we need now. Spirit has always been in art." 

The screening at Innis did not give Marie Menken her due—even in terms of Toronto's experimental film audience. The films were introduced with little or no ado, though disappointment was expressed for the very small turnout. (Looking around, I noted the absence of even the regular Innis supporters, the inner circle. Where were the film teachers (and their students) who would appreciate the significance historically of this work and of this screening in the re-evaluating of 'the' history? Where were the feminist critics?) Where was the guest speaker to contextualize the work for an audience, speak to it, help us see what's there and, in giving the work this attention, validate it? The program notes did none of this for us, did not quote from Brakhage's acknowledgement of his debt to Menken's films, for instance, did not even give the dates of the films—that they're '50's. In this world of limited screen time/venue/money for experimental film works, this screening probably means she won't get shown again for some time.


And so I was simultaneously exhilarated and angry that these films that were so obviously formative of much of the work we have seen and do know of that period were not written about, screened—were excluded, as we say, from the 'canon'. (I did know her name, that she made some film(s), and that she was married to Willard Maas—need I say/know more? Anyway, better late than never, I guess—and in case I ever teach again...Keep up your good work!  


(This was originally printed in The Independent Eye, "Centering Marginality" summer/spring 1991 as: "An Open letter from Barbara Sternberg to Leila Sujir On the Occasion of Seeing Several Films by Marie Menken for the First Time")