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.
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
reminded me of an interview that Florian Hopf, a film journalist from
screening at Innis did not give Marie Menken her due—even in terms of
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")