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Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks

01 Oct 2007-

AbstractAcknowledgments ix Introduction: Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks / Robin Blaetz 1 Swing and Sway: Marie Menken's Filmic Events / Melissa Ragona 20 Different/Same/Both/Neither: The Polycentric Cinema of Joyce Wieland / Paul Arthur 45 Evacuating Visual Fields, Layering Auditory Frames: Signature, Translation, Resonance, and Gunvor Nelson's Films / Chris Holmlund 67 Moving and Moving: From Minimalism to Lives of Performers / Noel Carroll 89 Eye/Body: The Cinematic Paintings of Carolee Schneemann / M.M. Serra and Kathryn Ramey 103 "Absently Enchanted": The Apocryphal, Ecstatic Cinema of Barbara Rubin / Ara Osterweil 127 Amy Greenfield: Film, Dynamic Movement, and Transformation / Robert A. Haller 152 Barbara Hammer: Lyrics and History / Chuck Kleinhans 167 Chick Strand's Experimental Ethnography / Maria Pramaggiore 188 Amnesis Time: The Films of Marjorie Keller / Robin Blaetz 211 In the Ruins of the Image: The Work of Leslie Thornton / Mary Ann Doane 239 Sounds, Intervals, and Startling Images in the Films of Abigail Child / Maureen Turim 263 Peggy's Playhouse: Contesting the Modernist Paradigm / William C. Wees 290 Su Friedrich: Breaking the Rules / Janet Cutler 312 The Experimental "Dunyementary": A Cinematic Signature Effect / Kathleen McHugh 339 Women's Experimental Cinema: Some Pedgogical Challenges / Scott Macdonald 360 Appendix: Film Distribution 383 Bibliography 385 Contributors 401 Index 405

Summary (5 min read)

Augusta and Miranda,

  • This project benefited from the generosity of the American Association of University Women in the form of a Summer Research Grant and from a number of Faculty Research Grants from Mount Holyoke College.
  • I am grateful to all the writers who have been part of this project for their enthusiasm and commitment and for their substantial and passionate work.
  • I want also to express my gratitude to my colleagues at Mount Holyoke College, particularly Elizabeth Young, Tom Wartenberg, Paul Staiti, Ajay Sinha, and Jenny Perlin, and to a number of others, including Cosmas Demetriou, Chris Holmlund, Kathleen McHugh, Adrienne McLean, James Meyer, Gordon Spencer-Blaetz, Ann Steuernagel, Patty White, Ken Wissoker, and two most helpful anonymous readers.


  • Swing and Sway Marie Menken’s Filmic Events b Marie Menken (1910–70) is one of the least recognized experimental filmmakers of her generation.
  • White, abstract forms (photographic fragments of the sculpture) seem to soar through space, reminding us of her ability to animate the most static of objects—to confront us, through film, with the plasticity of sculpture and, in turn, with the sculptural aspects of film.
  • Embedded in Menken’s work is an explicit critique of the lyricism of abstract expressionism, as well as any direct equations made between poetry and film.
  • As has been documented in the scant literature on Menken, she and Willard Maas threw some of the most important MARIE MENKEN ∏ 37 star-studded parties (hosting Edward Albee, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, et al.) long before Warhol’s Factory attracted a ‘‘scene.’’.
  • Her films, like Warhol’s canvases, depict not images or pictures, but rather, to borrow from George Brecht, an event.


  • Excavating Visual Fields, Layering Auditory Frames Signature, Translation, Resonance, and Gunvor Nelson’s Films b Of Signature and Translation Swedish artist Gunvor Nelson (b. 1931) is well established within avantgarde circles.
  • With twenty films, five videos, and one video installation≤ to her credit as of 2006, one might well say, with Steve Anker, that her ‘‘films compose one of the great bodies of independent work in the history of the medium.’’≥.
  • In the five ‘‘field studies’’ (that is, Frame Line, Light Years, Light Years Expanding, Field Study #2, and Natural Features),∞∂ Nelson juxtaposes, morphs, and examines photographed, painted, sketched, and real elements within a single frame and frame to frame, using animation stands and optical printers.
  • In Kristina’s Harbor and especially in Old Digs, sounds break away from images while silences interrupt and pace sounds.
  • At issue with Nelson’s films must also be resonance, not just signature or translation.


  • Warmest thanks to Gunvor Grundel Nelson for her suggestions and feedback.
  • Thanks also to Steve Anker and Paul Arthur for stimulating discussions about Nelson’s work, and to John Sundholm, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, and Anders Pettersson for engaging conversations and for sharing their own essays, in English and Swedish, on Nelson.
  • Once again, Nelson’s word play combines Swedish (which translates to ‘‘in sound and image’’) with English; it also evokes time (‘‘still moving’’), travel (‘‘moving’’), and, of course, core aspects of film and video, that is, stills and movement.


  • Moving and Moving From Minimalism to Lives of Performers b.
  • The film begins with rehearsal footage of the dance Walk, She Said, which gives every appearance of being a minimalist exercise devoted to the exploration of movement as such.∞.
  • For while aspiring to tell stories about the loves of performers, Rainer also, at the same time, wants to comment analytically on the nature of narrative—or, at least, certain aspects thereof—in this film.
  • Thus, in Lives of Performers, characters are often played by different actors,∞∞ and scenes are putatively rehearsed and played in alternative ways, though each instantiation of the written text appears absolutely authoritative visually.
  • Nevertheless, if most of the film brackets or deemphasizes the bodily expression of emotion, concentrating on the mental or propositional content of the emotive states portrayed, the bodily realm is not forgotten.


  • Amy Greenfield Film, Dynamic Movement, and Transformation b Amy Greenfield’s cinema is bound up in the dynamism of movement, in the voice of the human body, and the transformation of both through the language of film.
  • While performing in other people’s films, she wrote about what had been done, and the possibilities of what could be done with the cinematic treatment of human movement.
  • The ways in which cinema can give meaning to, transform, and enlarge the energy of movement set Greenfield’s work apart from most of her contemporaries.
  • The tactile sense of physical sensation in Greenfield’s films is due to the kinetic force of camera movement and proximity, and the framing and angled vision of her work, which give it a palpable tension.
  • She wrote of identifying with being trapped in the coils of destiny, yet overcoming her fear through her choice of action.∞∞.


  • Barbara Hammer Lyrics and History b Barbara Hammer (b. 1939) is a remarkably productive and innovative filmmaker.
  • Understanding her originality demands breaking some of the easy commonplaces of current media criticism.
  • Yet Hammer’s work deserves attention for addressing personal, aesthetic, and social issues with a complexity and density rare in fictional narrative or social documentary forms.
  • Given the pioneering work of lesbian historians, both academic and amateur, today’s queer audience knows a great deal about many aspects of the past revolving around visual misrepresentation and the way the community itself appropriated and reinterpreted mass culture.
  • Often falling between an innovative eclecticism of form and theme on the one hand and an underdeveloped thoughtfulness and pathetic restaging on the other, overall the film intrigues and aggravates.


  • Chick Strand’s Experimental Ethnography b I am a believer that art can always be tampered with.
  • Before turning to a discussion of the way four of Strand’s films use poetic images and ironic structure to produce experimental ethnography, I briefly summarize relevant biographical and historical information.
  • Close-ups and personal narratives immerse viewers in the two women’s subjective experiences as sister Isabel proudly comments on the civilization the Spanish have brought to the Indians and Carmelita describes her upbringing, marriage, and motherhood.
  • Because the film is an assemblage, a viewer might expect that an important key to meaning should rest in the metonymic connection between images—the chain of proximity that builds meaning.


  • In the Ruins of the Image The Work of Leslie Thornton b Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
  • The incorrigible incompletion characterizing her work is intimately linked to the use and recycling (within her own oeuvre) of found footage, the tendency to implant it within varying contexts and syntaxes, extending the life of an image as though it were a word in some fantastic and obscure vocabulary that she is trying to make legible.
  • As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, spectatorial engagement with such a discourse reveals ‘‘all sorts of ideological positions and forms of ignorance about the Orient,’’ demonstrating that ‘‘one’s misconceptions and uncertainties about what one sees and hears are not a distraction from the film’s focus but part of its subject.’’∞≠.
  • Thornton has become something of a collector of marvelous images, both her own and those she discovers in the debris of film history, subjecting them to a working and reworking which seems to be without limit, and which reveals the aspirations of intermediality.


  • Sounds, Intervals, and Startling Images in the Films of Abigail Child b Abigail Child (b. 1948) has been making films for over twenty years.
  • Work ranges from the saccadic frame repetitions and variations of Martin Arnold in Pièce Touché (1989) to work that analyzes home movies such as Alan Berliner’s The Family Album (1988) to Peter Tscherkassky’s cinemascope trilogy of the 1990s that turns found footage into a highly abstracted visual mon- ABIGAIL CHILD ∏ 265 tage.
  • Women’s faces and their bodies dominate the imagery, creating a swirl of sensuality, of performance for the camera, alternately self-aware or captured in unsuspecting innocence.
  • Throughout these visually delineated sequences loosely organized as narrative threads, an active, independent sound montage further cuts into the images.
  • Seemingly inspired by Jean Rouch’s cinema verité, but shot and edited in Child’s characteristically rhythmic ABIGAIL CHILD ∏ 281 style, the film never apologizes for its onlooker observation, instead seeing its deep look at this scene as its own form of respect.


  • Peggy’s Playhouse Contesting the Modernist Paradigm b I like it when a work involves the viewer in some kind of dilemma about how to read its meaning.
  • There she continued working in the arts and met a number of filmmakers, musicians, and photographers.
  • Dargis refers to a ‘‘deceptively thrown-together feel’’ in Martina’s Playhouse and the Super 8 films that preceded it,∂ and Lia Gangitano has noted that Ahwesh’s techniques ‘‘could be viewed as indulgent, undisciplined, pointless,’’ though, in fact, they serve ‘‘an aggressive feminist aim that demands a form that does not comply with existing authoritative narrative structures.’’∑.
  • Her films and videos also reflect a major change in the interests and intentions of North American avant-garde filmmakers who, like Ahwesh, came to prominence in the 1980s.
  • As P. Adams Sitney has noted, ‘‘Younger artists were energized by the issues the older generation sidestepped,’’∏ and Tom Gunning announced that ‘‘avant-garde filmmaking has suddenly gained a new influx of energy’’ leading to the production of films notable for ‘‘their freshness, their distance from the dominant [avant-garde] films of the last two decades.’’.

Martina’s Playhouse

  • I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I like not knowing.
  • In most movies, the plan of the producers is there, the directorial position of the filmmaker is there.
  • As Manohla Dargis’s reference to the ‘‘deceptively thrown-together feel’’ of Martina’s Playhouse suggests, the underlying logic of those connections is not always apparent, even to astute and experienced viewers of avant-garde films.
  • A close-up of a flower also accompanies an extract from Jacques Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.
  • This connection via montage establishes Martina and Montgomery as the principal reference points for the various issues raised in the film, one of which is how a little girl and a grown woman present themselves to Ahwesh’s camera and relate to Ahwesh herself—which is pretty much the same thing.≤π.


  • Su Friedrich Breaking the Rules b New York–based filmmaker Su Friedrich (b. 1954) has created a rich body of work that has established her as a major figure in contemporary avantgarde cinema.
  • Friedrich lends her works emotional resonance and intellectual clarity through a variety of strategies.
  • She mixes intimate recollections with elements of popular culture and gender politics, placing her own experience in a broader social context.
  • At once angry and droll, wounded and analytic, Friedrich embraces and critiques her chosen subjects: the film medium and her own life.
  • Her expression of these tensions and ambiguities— her following the uncertain path—enlivens her thinking and technique, adding surprise and depth to her films.


  • The Experimental ‘‘Dunyementary’’ A Cinematic Signature Effect b I am my own text.
  • A simple but telling anecdote—Janine chastising Cheryl for not using shampoo correctly—captures Janine’s role in the relationship, a role which Cheryl accepted at the time, but then realized was a misrecognition in which she herself participated, and which she documented in the video.
  • The Dunyementary animates and textualizes several convergences or crossovers: between the singularity of the proper name and the textual community of genre, and between autobiography and documentary, life and art, biology and biography.
  • Dunye ‘‘casts [her] own history as an allegory for a community or culture that cannot be essentialized,’’ even as she inscribes this allegory in her selfportrait of the artist she is becoming.≤≤.
  • Her identity as actor and filmmaker appear, or surface, in the body of and in the place of her character and subject—the life, loves, and professional labors of a black lesbian.

The Potluck and the Passion:

  • Realizing, not Idealizing, Community The Dunyementaries feature recurring characters, in the mode of a sitcom, and Dunye is the one who runs through them all, although her characters have different names (for example, Shae in She Don’t Fade).
  • Once the party begins, very little screen time is devoted to Linda and Nikki, but rather the story revolves around several people whose direct address to the camera punctuates footage of the dinner and of one couple (Lisa and Kendra) trying to make it to the dinner.
  • The Dunyementaries investigate their filmmaker documenting herself as constructed— and, further, constructed as becoming a member of a profession and becoming an identity that does not yet exist.
  • The Watermelon Woman, Dunye makes the film she set out to make in 1990 about African American women artists, a film that both invents an artistic predecessor with whom she can identify and also ‘‘finds’’.
  • The descriptions alone led him to accuse the nea of funding child pornography in addition to obscene material (Su Friedrich’s Hide and Seek, a coming-of-age narrative about adolescent girls, is an example of the films included on the list).

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critical frameworks
Women’s Experimental Cinema
R o b i n b l a e t z , editor
b l a e t z ,
Women’s Experimental Cinema
d u k e
F i lm s t u d i e s / W o m e n s s t u d i e s
Womens Experimental Cinema provides lively introductions to the work of fteen avant-
garde women lmmakers, some of whom worked as early as the s and many of whom
are still working today. In each essay in this collection, a leading lm scholar considers a
single lmmaker, supplying biographical information, analyzing various inuences on her
work, examining the development of her corpus, and interpreting a signicant number of
individual lms. e essays rescue the work of critically neglected but inuential women
lmmakers for teaching, further study, and, hopefully, restoration and preservation. Just
as importantly, they enrich the understanding of feminism in cinema and expand the ter-
rain of film history, particularly the history of the American avant-garde.
e essays highlight the diversity in these lmmakersforms and methods, covering
topics such as how Marie Menken used lm as a way to rethink the transition from ab-
stract expressionism to Pop Art in the s and s, how Barbara Rubin both objecti-
ed the body and investigated the lmic apparatus that enabled that objectication in
her lm Christmas on Earth (), and how Cheryl Dunye uses lm to explore her own
identity as a black lesbian artist. At the same time, the essays reveal commonalities, in-
cluding a tendency toward documentary rather than ction and a commitment to nonhi-
erarchical, collaborative production practices. e volumes nal essay focuses explicitly
on teaching womens experimental lms, addressing logistical concerns (how to acquire
the lms and secure proper viewing spaces) and extending the range of the book by sug-
gesting alternative films for classroom use.
Womens Experimental Cinema is an invaluable resource for students and devotees of
experimental cinema and feminist lm, elds dened by remarkable lms and a dearth
of critical attention. It brings to light the social and political roots and cultural impact of
womens experimental lm, and the specic female, feminine, and feminist practices of
an exceptional group of women artists.a l e x a n d R a J u h a s z , editor of Women of
Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video
is denitive volume on U.S. womens experimental cinema lls a signicant and long-
lamented gap within lm studies, and in feminist lm studies in particular. Together,
these essays offer us a richly nuanced picture not only of womens experimental lm but
of avant-garde lmmaking in general from the s to the present.s h a R o n W i l l i s ,
author of High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film
R o b i n b l a e t z is Associate Professor and Chair of the Film Studies Program at Mount
Holyoke College. She is the author of Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film
and Culture.
d u k e u n i v e R s i t y P R e s s
Box , Durham, NC -
: From Peggy Ahweshse Color of Love, .
Courtesy of Peggy Ahwesh.

Women’s Experimental Cinema


Women’s Experimental Cinema
critical frameworks
Duke University Press Durham & London 2007

2007 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper $
Designed by C. H. Westmoreland
Typeset in Warnock Pro by Keystone
Typesetting, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-
Publication Data appear on the last printed
page of this book.
Noël Carroll’s article ‘‘Moving and Moving:
Minimalism to Lives of Performers’’
originally appeared in Millennium Film
Journal 3536 (2000). Reprinted with
Duke University Press gratefully
acknowledges the support of the American
Association of University Women, which
provided funds toward the production of
this book.

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"Women's Experimental Cinema: Critic..." refers background or methods in this paper

  • ...2 The records of the festival at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique indicate that women’s work was a minimal presence in the festival, with 5 percent or less representation from North America overall, and even these women were most often present as part of a male/female couple. 3 Keller, ‘‘Report from Knokke-Exprmentl 5,’’28–33. Keller notes particularly the number of purportedly feminist films in the festival that were essentially sexist male fantasies, and she makes an equally strong case against women’s films that she sees as banal psychodramas. She also remarks on the festival’s unfortunate exclusion of 8mm and Super 8 films, both of which were less expensive to shoot and more easily available to women filmmakers. 4 Michelson and Sitney, ‘‘A Conversation on Knokke and the Independent Filmmaker.’’ 5 Patricia Mellencamp notes in Indiscretions: Avant-Garde, Video, and Feminism, that many approaches to the avant-garde, particularly Sitney’s Visionary Film, serve primarily as investigations of the romantic artist—who is by definition male—in which women can only be muses, critics, lovers, or mothers (19). I note, however, that Sitney’s latest work in progress encompasses the films of Marie Menken, Abigail Child, and Su Friedrich, among others. 6 Women and Film 1, nos. 1–6, and 2, no. 7 (1972–75); Film Library Quarterly 5, no. 1 (1971–72); and Take One 3, no. 2 (1972). 7 For a list of all the films shown, see D....


  • ...∞∞ Menken used film as a way of rethinking painting and sculptural problems, in particular the transition from abstract expressionism to Pop and conceptual projects. The latter can be most clearly read in her ironic title, Pop Goes the Easel (1964),∞≤ or in her explicit works on painting like MoodMondrian (1963) or Drips in Strips (1963)....


  • ...For example, two pink forms shove off of a silvery background (a kind of sandy glitter), signaling a brigade of pink forms that march, in full force, across the screen. They proceed to infect (a favorite Menken animation ploy) a collection of what appear to be green leaflike forms. The latter become leaves of an orange, but are then quickly deconstructed as abstract forms, which fly off the screen at the end of the film. Prefiguring the Brothers Quay’s films such as Street of Crocodiles (1986), Menken’s ‘‘The Egg’’ is a neogothic study of a skeleton that magically acquires an egg, which comes swinging into the picture and settles into a lower cavity of the skeleton....


  • ...’’ The notion of the archive is present not only in the audio track but also in the visual one in the form of found footage. The previously shot film or video images, advertising imagery, or, in the case of Ahwesh’s She-Puppet (2001), a video game are juxtaposed with original footage and sound to refer to and comment upon the larger cultural context, particularly the mass media....


  • ...∞∞ Menken used film as a way of rethinking painting and sculptural problems, in particular the transition from abstract expressionism to Pop and conceptual projects. The latter can be most clearly read in her ironic title, Pop Goes the Easel (1964),∞≤ or in her explicit works on painting like MoodMondrian (1963) or Drips in Strips (1963). Most commonly, Menken’s talents have been read through her poet husband Maas’s work, focusing on her contribution to the film poem or film sentence....