Feature Article

The Flying Spirit of Movement within These Solid Objects: Marie Menken’s Home Movies

Author: Adam Charles Hart

  • The Flying Spirit of Movement within These Solid Objects: Marie Menken’s Home Movies

    Feature Article

    The Flying Spirit of Movement within These Solid Objects: Marie Menken’s Home Movies

    Author:

Abstract

Marie Menken (1909-1970) was one of the most influential and beloved filmmakers of the American avant-garde, a liberatory inspiration for several subsequent generations of artists. Her films were characterized by wildly kinetic handheld camerawork, which have largely been understood through the lens of those she inspired. This essay analyzes Menken’s films in terms more specific to her, focusing on her broadly inclusive, often structuring celebration of motion in all its forms.

How to Cite:

Hart, A. C., (2023) “The Flying Spirit of Movement within These Solid Objects: Marie Menken’s Home Movies”, Film Criticism 47(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.4731

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Published on
31 Oct 2023
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CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Clip from Lights

The wild abstraction of nighttime traffic in Lights (1966)

A frantically shaking camera transforms a Christmas tree into a pulsing riot of color and the lights outlining a church into swirling, dancing blurs. It abstracts nighttime traffic into jumping streaks that seem furiously scribbled by a manic painter. The movement of the camera is not intended to follow any movement in front of the camera: it isn’t observational; it’s generative. Marie Menken’s Lights is a visual wonder – at once masterful and rough, an exquisite gem-like object and a dashed-off sketch, technically sophisticated but often resembling the tinkerings of an inexperienced amateur, a playful exercise and a demonstration of the camera’s most extreme capabilities for abstraction. The film’s euphoric catalog of visual effects is created by the shake and spin of Menken’s camera, among a handful of pointed misuses and abuses of the camera that form the foundation of her style, an embrace of settings and techniques that distort, alter, and convert whatever she’s photographing. Like most of Menken’s film work, Lights rejects nearly every tenet of proper cinematography as espoused by studio professionals, by skilled amateurs, and by pretty much anyone who felt strongly enough about filmmaking to record their thoughts on techniques or aesthetics. Menken’s films are made up of images that would have been discarded by any filmmaker that came before her: pulsating globs of color; hazy footage vibrating with kinetic energy.

Menken’s influence and achievements have only recently begun to be fully acknowledged and celebrated. This delay in recognition is not least because she eschewed the kinds of undertakings that have traditionally been associated with mastery and genius – the structurally complex mediations on existential themes, the longform conceptual works, the quasi-narrative epics – in favor of brief bursts of rhythm and color, frequently made “for” or about her friends: Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961), Bagatelle for Willard Maas (1961), Dwightiana (1959), Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), Watts with Eggs (1967). Like Maya Deren, she distributed her own films (through Gryphon Films, which she formed with her husband Willard Maas), and like Deren she was seen as a model by younger filmmakers. But, unlike Deren and unlike many of her more prominent acolytes, Menken was not a writer or theorist. She did not articulate her cinematic project in essays or talks and was never a spokesperson for poetic or avant-garde cinema. But, perhaps more than any other filmmaker of her era, she eradicated the rules that governed filmmaking and built an aesthetic out of those violations: the camera is not just handheld but shaky, jittery even, the settings on the camera toyed with not to achieve a clear, legible image, but to discover compelling distortions and other effects. For those she inspired, her films were revelations: the wild, shaky swings of Menken’s camera freed the cinema not just from the tripod but from an entire history of cinematic style that had prioritized and emphasized a more-or-less invisible apparatus. As Stan Brakhage put it, “Marie’s free, swinging, swooping hand-held pans changed all that, for me and for the whole independent filmmaking world.”1

Menken’s influence was immediately evident in the American avant-garde, with her most passionate fans comprising the next generation’s most significant figures, among them Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. They were both exceedingly knowledgeable and sensitive viewers whose appreciations were informed by their close relationships with Menken, but one of the dangers of artist writings is a tendency to understand an older work’s significance emphatically and exclusively through its most direct influences on subsequent artists. Brakhage, that is, saw Menken’s films through Brakhage-colored glasses: her films “generate exquisite maxims of the physiology which made them (in conjunction with the physical objects which originally excited her to photograph them and the space through which she’d move to accomplish that in accordance with her timing… the tempo and rhythm of her being, in this perceptive act, emotionally moved).”2 As an appreciation, its earnestness is vigorously evident, Menken’s impact on Brakhage made most concretely manifest in the purple eloquence of his prose. But he focuses almost wholly on the aspects of her film practice that most align with what I’ve elsewhere dubbed “gestural expressionism,” a conception of camera movement in which the camera expresses and indexes the subject that wields it.3 Menken becomes a proto-Brakhage.

Whether Brakhage set the terms himself or simply articulated them most forcefully, his account has largely defined our understanding of Menken ever since. For Stan Vanderbeek, Menken “uses the camera as fingers touching the surfaces around her.”4 For P. Adams Sitney, the enormity of Menken’s achievement comes from the pioneering of what he calls the “somatic camera” in her remarkable early films: “the identification of the mobile frame of the ultimately projected image with the movements of the filmmaker.”5

My aim here to disentangle Menken’s work from the canonical account given by Brakhage and others. Returning to the films themselves, I aim to establish a reading of Menken that sees her not as a predecessor to the subsequent generation of male filmmakers but as a radical artist who revolutionized camerawork by undoing nearly every convention of cinematic aesthetics. More than simple rejection, Menken wholly re-imagined the function of the film camera: not as a neutral recorder of the world, not as an index of authorial presence, but as a tool for generating, and indeed animating, new images.

The One Great Advantage Which All Professionals Envy: Amateur Freedom

The post-war American avant-garde was largely an evolution of the country’s robust amateur cinema – a connection made frequently and vocally by the filmmakers themselves. In the 1930s and 1940s, amateur discourse encouraged experimentation. Professionalism, Jan-Christopher Horak notes, “was equated with commercialism, while amateurism connoted artistic integrity”; foreshadowing the post-war avant-garde, the amateur movement “[identified] personal expression with formal experimentation.”6 Charles Tepperman similarly notes that the freedom from commercial concerns encouraged amateur filmmakers’ explorations of “aesthetic discoveries,” and the discourse reflected not just that freedom, but the possibility that artistically-inclined amateurs might indeed have a duty to experiment with poetic forms (even if the experimental only represented a small portion of the overall footage taken by non-professionals).7

Deren was among the most eloquent and fervent voices calling for amateur experimentation, noting that “the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom.” As Tepperman and Zimmerman both demonstrate, amateur discourse may have encouraged experimentation and non-traditional, “poetic” approaches to filmic expression, but technical proficiency was at the forefront of all discussions of aspiration and accomplishment in the amateur world.8 This becomes important in part because there was a hierarchy within the amateur world: amateur film vs “home movies.” The amateur was an artist who was not restricted by the demands of the commercial industry, and who was therefore free – some would say obligated – to experiment and develop a new, poetic language of cinema. But for someone to be taken seriously as an amateur filmmaker, whether they were making fairly straightforward travelogues, short narratives, or film poems, required careful, steady compositions, clear and legible editing, and proper lighting and focus. The amateurs needed to distinguish themselves from their less-discerning non-professional cousins lest their work be ignored entirely.

Marie Menken, however, made home movies. There was no effort on Menken’s part to justify or rationalize her divergence from mainstream narrative style and techniques, no attempt to obscure a functionally nonexistent budget with an alternative set of technical proficiencies. Deren celebrated the uniquely liberatory possibilities of amateurism, but her ethic was highly professional: expertly choreographed deployment of the camera; precise lighting and focus; carefully planned, meticulous mise-en-scène; complex, intricate screenplays. Menken, by contrast, pointed her shaky, often blurry camera at parties, tourist spots, parks: the subjects of films typically projected on a bed sheet for friends and relatives as opposed to the sort made by the aspirational amateur who subscribed to Movie Makers or, of course, American Cinematographer. Her films are structured by and around playful engagement with subjects, and with the camera. They tend not to have legible arcs or narrative shapes – and certainly no pre-planned scenarios. They are freely inventive and apparently light, especially compared to the dense, symbol-laden narratives of Deren. And, for all her remarkable virtuosity, Menken’s cinematography habitually violates established “rules” – or, rather, her films seem not to acknowledge anything resembling the guidelines of proper filmmaking technique.9 Images are often out of focus, the lighting is “bad,” and the camera is very, very shaky. As Sitney notes, “by the end of the 1950s her reputation among filmmakers was split between those who cited her as the height of inept fumbling and amateurishness and those for whom her style was revolutionary and a liberating influence.”10

Clip from Watts with Eggs

Demonstrations of motion and animation in Watts with Eggs (1967).

The liberatory quality of Menken’s work extends beyond her camerawork to the dissolution of the boundaries: between live action and animation, and, in some sense, between mediums.11 As Melissa Ragona notes, Menken’s work in animation extends directly from her gallery practice, sometimes in very literal ways realizing animated versions of styles first employed on canvas. 12 For Ragona, Menken’s primary concern was “ungrounding the easel-based practices of drawing and sculpture through film.”13 This, of course, complicates the comparatively simple account of Menken’s gestural cinematography, which, as Juan A. Suarez points out “at times bypasses the body completely, creating perceptions that could only be technologically generated.”14 But it also, for Ragona, complicates the Brakhage- and Mekas-inspired readings of Menken’s work in abstract expressionist terms, especially those concerns associated with medium-specificity. Contra Brakhage’s abstract expressionist turn, Ragona argues “perception, not paint, became medium.”15 As she argues, Menken’s critique of medium specificity was inscribed into her camerawork, her handheld camera creating “a frenetic vertigo on sculptural, architectural, natural, and domestic objects,”16 language that suggests a somewhat oppositional perspective. That is, Menken’s movement – uninhibited, spontaneous, and subtle – offers an alternative to the “verticality and stasis” of her subjects.

It is difficult to reduce Menken’s incredibly rich and fiercely inventive filmography to singular principles, and Ragona’s contribution has expanded and complicated our understandings of Menken as an artist-filmmaker while offering brilliant – and necessary – feminist correctives to the largely masculinist interpretations of her work. But I do want to suggest a dominant through-line to Menken’s work, though it is not the Brakhage model that Ragona so aptly critiques. In particular, I’d like to posit animation as a central aesthetic principle throughout Menken’s career, a sort of paradoxical key to her handheld cinematography. More specifically, Menken is concerned with creating movement, with animating. She pursues this end through a broad range of style and techniques: from stop-motion in Watts with Eggs to the pixilation-like effects in Go! Go! Go! (1964), from energetic handheld camera movement “animating” paintings, sculptures, and architecture in Visual Variations on Noguchi and Arabesque for Kennet Anger to the way Drips in Strips (1961) engages the movement of a static artwork through footage of dripping paint.

Squiggles and Scribbles: Lights

Clip from Lights

The abstraction of Christmas tree lights into colorful patterns in Lights.

Menken’s films frequently merge animation (or animation-adjacent practices) with her own hyper-shaky style of handheld camerawork. Perhaps the most perfect merger comes with her film Lights (1966). Lights begins with images that resemble countless home movies projected in suburban living rooms in the 1950s and 1960s: close-ups of a giant, colorfully decorated Christmas tree, just outside a church in New York City. The stunning opening of the film turns the photographic into abstract animation, into visual music, and, by alternating between relatively more stationary, more identifiable images and abstract shapes and squiggles that jump across the screen. Menken shows how she achieves the transformation: by moving the camera – twisting, turning, and wildly shaking it – the tree lights become ecstatic patterns of colors. At the start of the opening sequence, the camera moves (comparatively) slowly over the lights, exploring the evolving composition of colors and shadings. And then it begins to swing back and forth, and up and down, shaky and blurry but remaining controlled and concrete compared to the effects she will achieve later in the film.

The opening of the following section, in which Menken films the tree and the surrounding areas in long shot, neatly encapsulates the film’s aesthetic, poised on the edge of photography and animation. Filming at night, with only the lights visible, the tree is viewed in full for the first time, filmed from below. In a brief, 2-second shot, the tree floats and spins around the perimeter of the frame. Menken is obviously the one moving here, pirouetting at the base of the tree, but it’s the tree that appears to dance. We could read this as Menken’s camera bouncing and twisting in response to the lights in front of her, an exploration of the scene in front of her. Or we could understand it as Menken making the tree dance, the stationary subject brought to life through Menken’s shaky, out of focus, poorly lit handheld camerawork.

This is far from the subjective, expressionist mantras of Brakhage and Mekas. Menken doesn’t exactly use the camera to express or index her state of mind, but uses her handheld camerawork playfully to transform what’s in front of her. The camera movement does not record her impressions of the tree – it may be expressive, even expressionist, but it is far more concerned with using the tree for the creation of new images that are distinct from the profilmic reality. Like Deren, Menken uses the camera’s capacity for distortion to create forms of movement that could not otherwise exist. And, also like Deren, Menken alters the speed of the camera, abstracting the lights and shapes onscreen enough that the “film dance” is constantly teasing the possibility of coming unmoored from its photographic referent. But she pushes the image much further into pure abstraction than Deren ever would. Indeed, we might even start to bridge the gap between the extreme of photographic abstractions of Lights and the direct animations of Brakhage, in which he scratched, painted, and taped objects directly onto film strips. Yet that might go too far. Menken herself seems to think it is important for the viewer to recognize the profilmic referent, emphasizing the connection between the lights as identifiable, physical objects and the abstract images she creates and animates with the shakes and jumps of her handheld camera: anything that Menken films come to life.

Clip from Lights

The dance of lights on the exterior of a church in Lights.

As the film progresses, Menken drastically ups the level of abstraction. Undercranking the camera to exaggerate the shake of the image further, Menken films the church, whose structure is outlined in glowing white Christmas lights – which are, in the low-light photography, the only objects visible in the otherwise dark frame. The lights twist in a circle, the image growing even more unstable as the scene cuts to close shots. As Menken’s camera moves up and down the strings of lights, the shapes seem to break down into their individual bulbs. For the first time, the film then includes visible images of the other decorations in front of the church: angels, a nativity scene, all photographed in this jumpy, quasi-pixilated style of low-speed photography. But, even with the shakiness, the film once again resolves into photographic referentiality and fleeting stability before transitioning to the most radical abstraction of the film.

Halfway through the 6-minute film, Menken for the first time wanders from her initial subjects to film a broader nightscape of lights: car taillights, streetlamps, buildings in the distance. As the low-speed camera jumps around the nightscape, cars zoom by. During this sequence, Menken moves along gradations of abstraction through whip pans and varying focuses, including shots of traffic that abstract into a jumble of stunning curlicues scrawled across the screen, the white and red lines of headlights and taillights zig-zagging into diagonals that quickly seem to diverge from the original referent.

Menken demonstrates precisely how such a seemingly magical effect can be achieved: beginning with more recognizably photographic images, the camera shakes with increasing vigor until the image explodes into astonishing bursts of color, as if an illustrator was furiously scribbling directly onto the screen. In doing so, Menken shows off her unique investment in demystification and demonstration: she provides extraordinary, delightful, unprecedented images, but she also reveals and essentially explains how she makes them. Her films are not showcases of her own mastery, but demonstrations of easily replicable techniques for bringing images to life, for transforming nighttime traffic into visual music, for creating an animated city symphony out of whatever sights you happen to stumble across.

In this sense, Lights is typical of Menken’s filmography. We see this emphasis on demonstration, for example, in Menken’s more traditionally animated film Watts with Eggs, a film in which she runs through a stop-motion routine featuring silver eggs from a Robert Watts sculpture, moving in circles, dancing around. The first time the eggs “perform” their routine, a hand is present in the image, pixilated; the second time, the hand is absent. The film first shows how the eggs move, then shows how the effects are achieved. Watts with Eggs, like Lights, does not just want to show you playful, novel images; it wants to show how they are made. The delight in these films comes in no small part from the demonstration. In Lights, the final minute-plus of the film repeats its demonstration with variations, returning to several of the tableaux from earlier in the film. This final section is an unspeakably ecstatic eruption of light and color, but Menken grounds its transcendent images in the recognizable and familiar, and in the overt demonstration of her eccentric, unusual methods of animation. This is far from the somatic, subjective reading that has dominated writings on Menken. It is, rather, a concoction that makes its effects legible, grounding its compositions with repeated returns to more easily identifiable subjects that remind viewers of precisely how the effects are/can be achieved. Menken is interested in achievable, repeatable ecstasy.

This embrace of something like the operational aesthetic is perhaps what ties Menken most closely to the amateur filmmaking movement that had, by the 1960s, more or less dissipated. She never theorized like Deren, never wrote for Movie Makers, and never overtly inserted herself into the amateur discourse or the discourse of the flowering postwar avant-garde cinema. And yet there still does seem to be an implicitly amateur audience being addressed by Menken. As I’ve been trying to show, her demonstrations are also guides: here’s how you achieve these effects, here’s how you animate images, here’s how you create movement, here’s how you create squiggles and scribbles of light.17

An Absolute Breakthrough: Visual Variations on Noguchi

But I’ve been speaking almost exclusively about Menken’s later films. For Brakhage, it’s Menken’s early work that was truly revolutionary. As he saw it, Menken’s 1945 film Visual Variations on Noguchi is the work that broke open the avant-garde, not only announcing a new era of visual filmmaking but which innovated in ways that made possible entirely new developments within the community. For Brakhage, Noguchi inaugurated an aesthetic that even more radically rejected the principles of “good” filmmaking put forward by both Hollywood and by the amateur movement. It was not just a remarkable artistic achievement, but a radical advancement in cinematic language.

Clip from Visual Variations on Noguchi

"Wild” pans in Visual Variations on Noguchi

Noguchi is all the more radical for its simplicity, consisting solely of Menken’s explosively kinetic documentation of the sculptures in her friend Isamu Noguchi’s studio. Menken’s handheld camera moves up, down, and around Noguchi’s abstract sculptures, tracing their blobby, eccentric forms with variably rapid camera movements, building rhythms and tensions into the film strip. Brakhage ecstatically describes the film as “an absolute breakthrough, in which the human body took off the camera, not to simulate stumbling through the battlefield… or to simulate, you know, first person singularity of any kind, but to be that vibration that the whole nervous system Is, and ordinarily Is, and in ecstasy can be, can make a form of such.”18 Not without condescension, for Brakhage, Menken’s films, Noguchi especially, become the story of their filming, and he detailed his understanding of her frame: “an enormous woman, easily six feet, two inches tall, with broad and solid shoulders, a surprisingly slim waist and stout but shapely legs, like a dancer’s.”19 It is her body, and her body’s relation to the camera, that matters most to him.

The shakes and swings of Noguchi might indeed be understood in the gestural sense as Brakhage rhapsodizes: Menken is responding to her friend’s artwork in the same way that abstract-expressionism was understood by critics like Harold Rosenberg, for whom each stroke of paint on a canvas was a response to the previous, the paint registering the artist’s reactions. And in that sense, it might indeed be thought of as the founding document for the avant-garde’s gestural expressionism, the announcement of a new set of aesthetic and expressive possibilities for the handheld camera that would guide filmmakers for decades. But thinking in terms of animation offers another reading: as with the tree, the street lights, the nighttime traffic, Menken is bringing the static sculpture to life. Brakhage writes that Menken had told him the film was “an attempt to capture ‘the flying spirit of movement within these solid objects.’ She wanted to get across ‘how they made me feel.’”20 Channeling the motion she sees within its composition, releasing it, per Brakhage, but also animating it, creating and demonstrating its internal movement through camerawork. The camera isolates and juxtaposes the lines of Noguchi’s sculptures, of the wood grain, of the shadows they cast. Menken shoots almost exclusively in close-up to emphasize and compare individual details at the expense of the overall composition. This is not simple documentation but Menken’s selection of forms, a very personal curation of shapes and textures translated into movement by the pans and tilts of her camera.

Noguchi can equally be related to Menken’s previous work as cinematographer on her husband Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943). That film’s detailed exploration of the body, often in extreme close-ups (filmed through a magnifying glass) that isolate body parts, comes mostly in static shots. As with Lights, the film is structured around a tension between abstraction (here a kind of radical defamiliarization of body parts in extreme close-up) and recognizable photographic referents. The title, and the intrusive poetry of Maas’s voiceover, works against total defamiliarization. We see both a hairy male chest and female breasts, so we know this is not a single subject, but we know that these are all images of human bodies, no matter how close and seemingly abstract the image might be.21 This is perhaps an incoherent geography, or at least one that seeks to stitch together multiple bodies into a kind of totalizing, genderfluid map. And yet, it feels clinical: a series of close-ups that present their subjects as if inspecting them for blemishes.

Geography’s handful of slightly shaky close-ups are the most intimate, most sensual moments in the film. The minor, sometimes imperceptible shake indicates intimate closeness between the camera – and the camera operator – and the subject. It is those few handheld shots which distances the film from an almost antiseptic, medicalized visual analysis that so often threatens to drag it down. That shake is a reminder of human operation and human engagement – the erotic, sensuous potential of handheld camerawork comes, as Menken and Maas understood in 1943, from the interaction of bodies. The shakiness of Menken’s camera in close-up viscerally communicates her closeness to the body she’s photographing. It places us in equally intimate proximity: the extreme closeness of the close-up emphasizes each jostle of the camera.

As much as Noguchi is a wild, swinging release of energy, it’s also a human encounter – if less explicitly intimate than Geography of the Body. It isn’t “sensual” in the same way that Geography is, but it is intimate. And the film is structured around that intimate encounter. For Brakhage, that encounter comprised the foundation of gestural expressionism, Menken’s camera registering her reactions to the sculpture in front of her. But that presumes that the film centers the filmmaker, that it to some degree it is structured around a singular filmic subject whose perspective is expressed through the camera – as with all of Brakhage’s readings of Menken, this is not incorrect but it is partial, and limiting.

Noguchi contains several versions of what would be one of Menken’s signature camera movements: handheld panning and tilting tracing the lines of a structure – see, for example, her interpretation of the Alhambra in Arabesque for Kenneth Anger, or the less exotic subject of “Sidewalks” from Notebook. This dissection of shape and line isolates and defamiliarizes bits and pieces of structure, but it’s also exploratory. Menken proffers an interpretation of the work, one potential roadmap for working through the sculptures. Or rather, many interpretations, and many potential roadmaps. Its shakiness in part works against a sense of authority or of control over the subject, but also against teleology. The film announces its partiality through its hesitations and bounces, and in doing so suggests that each shot or sequence is but one way of working through Noguchi’s sculptures. Menken’s camera may channel the fluid lines of Noguchi’s work, but it does so imperfectly, bringing a sense of humanity, of the human hand, to the vaguely machinic smoothness of Noguchi’s style. Those wild, shaky swings animate the sculpture. Menken brings the sculpture to life through her camera movements just as she did the lights in Lights. She’s “bringing out the movement” that’s already present in Noguchi’s lines, but she’s also creating something in response: motion. These are not the more clinical examinations of Geography of the Body but a jubilant response that engages with and is inspired by the movement she reads into the lines of Noguchi’s sculptures. The shakiness of her camera is key to that animation: they demonstrate that it’s done by human hands, neither mastering nor limiting our understanding of the sculpture, but instead open it up to a cascading series of possibilities.

Diaries, Notes, Sketches: Menken and Mekas

Clip from Go! Go! Go!

The patterns of movement in the crowd in Go! Go! Go!

Reading Menken’s films in terms of animation, of course, does not does not change the terms of her massive influence on the next generation. Yet while Brakhage most vociferously extolled Menken as an originary figure in avant-garde filmmaking, her influence, especially through the logic of gestural expressionism, is most visibly evident in the films of Jonas Mekas.

Take Menken’s Go! Go! Go! (1962–64), which diaristically collects moments from around NYC, all filmed at a slow camera speed to generate a fast-motion effect of her subjects whizzing through the city. Go! Go! Go! is structured around discrete sequences, including a variety of street scenes, records of outdoor graduations and wedding ceremonies, ships in a harbor, a bodybuilding competition. The harbor sequence is closely echoed by Mekas’s Cassis (1966), later integrated into his first epic diary compilation, Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1964–1969). But where Menken employs the effect to blur the line between animation and live-action, Mekas, like Brakhage, sees the potential for gestural expressionism, and he would build a great deal of his filmmaking practice around the device that Menken employs in Go! Go! Go!. For Mekas, the shaky, fast-motion image very noticeably registers each shift of attention, thereby articulating not just documentary value but implicit, subjective commentary.

Again, while Menken’s work is not opposed to that reading, it is not entirely comprised by it, and the differences with Mekas matter. Go! Go! Go!, after a charming title sequence in which Menken herself makes an appearance in silhouette, begins with a breakneck series of shots flying through New York from a car. The barrage of images zips by at a clip that is barely intelligible to the viewer. The chaotic energy of the sequence begins to settle as the camera crosses a bridge and, as the car continues to move forward, begins to stabilize to follow ships in the distance. The following sequences pursue that motif from a tripod, positioning first alongside the harbor and then from a higher vantage point.

The first shot roughly pans to follow a large ship. The fast-motion paired with the gradual, incremental pan creates an effect that is alternately uncanny and hilarious: the ship seems to remain almost motionless, while the water froths furiously around it. The next shot remains stationary as the ships hurtle across the screen, made even more dance-like, more animation-like in the subsequent shots. If the former looks like rough stop-motion, movement in the latter sequence, shot from high angles, farther away, is supremely graceful, as if the boats are skaters gliding across an iced-over lake. The chaotic roughness of the waves no longer visible from the greater distance, her camera tricks once again demonstrate the nature of her technique before translating that into a sublime moment of transcendence. Menken’s undercranked camera either creates or reveals the elegance of these giant machines in motion.

These opening scenes are considerably less shaky than much of the handheld fast-motion to come, but they serve to establish the film’s emphasis on, and relationship to, movement. It’s a machinic movement, the resulting images zipping by too quickly for viewers to pick up more than a few isolated details. The harbor section, on the other hand, reveals or creates balletic motion in its subjects. As the film proceeds, these two sequences define the film’s philosophy of movement, even as it generates further kinesis through handheld movement. But the focus is on the revelation of already-present patterns and habits of movement. This is, for Suarez, surgical: “she cut into reality in order to reveal intricate configurations indiscernible to the unaided eye.”22 When she then films a graduation ceremony and a bodybuilding competition, the shaky instability of the image and its wandering attention indicate handheld camerawork. More subdued than the ecstatic swirlings of Lights, the handheld cinematography of Go! Go! Go! finds and exaggerates movement in its subjects, transforming people into cartoonish creatures through the fast-motion that reveals predictable patterns and pathways. The fuzzy line between the camera creating and revealing its subjects’ movement is essential to its aesthetic. There is again little sense of mastering or controlling her subjects, no imposition of a subjective interpretation, even if it is only through her virtuosity that bodybuilders turn into slapstick cartoon characters, or a graduation ceremony turns into a bumper car traffic pile-up.

Here the camera is truly somatic in that its inscription of Menken’s bodily rhythms, and her attention, is foregrounded, while the kinetic fireworks of more emphatic or deliberate handheld camera movements (as in Lights or Visual Variations on Noguchi) are mostly absent. The shakiness does indeed testify to the creation of movement by a camera wielded by human hands, but it allows that movement to upstage the directorial guidance behind it – without, of course, eradicating it. It humanizes the machinelike speed and the superficially regular patterns with which her fast-forwarded subjects seem to move. Or, rather, it posits that such mediated movement can only be created through human engagement with the apparatus: this is not merely somatic registration, but an assertion of humanity.

Mekas’s Cassis, by contrast, never fails to register its directorial presence, even as it remains on a tripod. Shot in the south of France, Cassis films ships zipping in fast motion through a harbor’s waters from a similarly high, distant angle. Mekas’ film, however, unfolds in a single shot, its time scale stretched out further over the course of a day and into the night, adding periodic pans. Whereas Menken’s film first pans to follow a ship, then in subsequent shots remains stationary, Mekas’s camera is mostly stationary, with pans reframing the shot independent of ship movement. It foregrounds the directorial hand, without being handheld. Cassis’s movement comes not from a collusion/collaboration of camera and subject, but from their separation. The choppy time-lapse motion of boats and pedestrians and the camera pans have no evident relationship – the latter reminding viewers that this effect is the filmmaker’s interpretation, or imposition.

This is not meant to diminish Mekas’s practice, or Menken’s influence, but to create further separation between Mekas’s understanding of cinematography and Menken’s own practice. Mekas’s signature style, developed over the course of the 1960s, is built on even shakier handheld camerawork, the image emphatically serving as an explicit index of his interpretive, authorial presence. Most of the rest of Walden consists of more traditionally diary-like spurts of filming: friends, family, street scenes –and nearly all of the rest would be handheld. Mekas shoots at variable speeds, the image moving faster and slower with dynamic abruptness, and his camera is typically fidgety and, like Menken’s, incredibly kinetic. But it always refers to Mekas as the camera operator, expressively following his attention and responding to the world around him and, as such, incorporating subjective commentary into the act of what is otherwise documentary filming. In the “Kreeping Kreplachs Meet to Discuss World Problems” section of Walden’s Reel Two, for example, the camera drifts from participant to participant during a conversation about the arts. It lingers on the faces of the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovksy, and Barbara Rubin, but not necessarily while they’re speaking – the scene contains direct sound recording, but the audio is not synchronized with the sped-up visuals. Instead the camera freely wanders the small crowd, worried less about finding whoever is speaking than in studying the faces, hands, and other details of each person as they listen. What is revelatory about this sequence, its remarkable documentary value, comes in Mekas’s ability to capture moments of spontaneous interaction. Because he isn’t attempting to follow the back and forth of the conversation with his camera; he captures moments where Ginsberg, in particular, is listening intently and feels moved to speak up. We see such decisions and reactions play out on their faces. Visually, it’s Mekas’s attention that we’re following here, and which provides the structuring principles of the sequence and the film, rather than the flow of conversation. Walden is a documentary that is structured not by the events it records, but by the person wielding the camera. And he is mostly absent from the image, frequently absent from the soundtrack, but always present through the jittery motion of his camera.

Clip from "Flowers for Marie Menken"

Intensely jittery camerawork and rapid editing in Mekas’s “Flowers for Marie Menken,” from Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1964-1969).

Reel One of Walden contains an extremely brief, lovely tribute, “Flowers for Marie Menken.” Inspired by Menken’s comparatively sedate Glimpse of the Garden (1957) as well as her more jittery films like Lights and Go! Go! Go! (not to mention Menken’s own delightful corpus of films made “for” her friends), “Flowers” shoots a flower garden in and out of focus, with rapid camera movement as well as rapid editing. In the final moments of this 30-second sequence, a faint superimposition of nighttime traffic draws a direct link to Lights and Moonplay underneath the cheery daytime tableaux, which includes a neck-down medium shot of a man holding flowers. The sequence is both a tribute and a gift, a cinematic equivalent of a bouquet.23

In Mekas’s tribute, you see the same tension between abstraction and figuration that’s found in Lights, the same kinetic interpretation found in Visual Variations on Noguchi. But there is no sense of Menken’s animation. No transformation of still objects into moving subjects. Menken’s camerawork and camera tricks bring things to life. By contrast, Mekas scrutinizes and analyzes his subjects, such as in “Flowers,” when the first anthropomorphic figure appears: a fountain statue. Mekas presents a brief barrage of images of the statue from several slightly different angles. The striking cinematography in this section hovers around the statue, several shots tellingly obscured by interceding foliage.

Clip from Arabesque for Kenneth Anger

Menken’s camera traces “movement” in a fountain in Arabesque for Kenneth Anger.

When Menken photographs a water fountain in one of her own tribute films, Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961), she first films it in long shot, then closer to examine the light reflection. When her now-undercranked camera glides over the sculpted dog-like figures lining the fountain’s circular base, it ascribes a kinetic energy to a structure that she had already revealed to be literally immobile. She then follows the movement created by the fountain, first tilting down the spout of water’s trajectory and following that with a pair of shots – shaky but stationary – of the water’s upward motion. Those final two shots are ambiguous, as they do show water movement, but from the angle at which they are filmed, the vertical line of water seems almost as static as the stone around it. Once again, Menken organizes her sequences around a dense hierarchy of motion, which points back to movement, or to references to movement, contained within the structure itself. This brief (slightly over 20-second) sequence in Arabesque strongly resembles Visual Variations in that sense, with the addition of literal pro-filmic movement within the structure (the spouting water). Mekas’s photography of the fountain statue, however, gets its considerable energy from the jittery shakiness of the camera and the stroboscopically rapid editing – it is Mekas’s attention that is animated, not the sculpture itself. He isn’t bringing it to life or discovering movement within it, but registering his shifting attention. He imposes a rhythm and a pattern onto the scene. Or, rather, he uses the images taken to create his own rhythm.

This is the distinction between Menken’s work and the gestural expressionism espoused by Mekas and Brakhage. Menken was among the first avant-garde filmmakers to systematically violate the rules of technical proficiency, and she did so not only by nudging the practices of home movie-making into the burgeoning avant-garde movement but also by creating a complex (if implicit) aesthetic philosophy of movement and animation. If Menken’s handheld camera is generative, if it creates new sorts of motion, then it also insistently grounds her abstract, colorful, dynamic creations in the properties of her profilmic subjects: Menken reveals the movement, the animation, already present in flowers, in water, in sculptures, in people.

Notes

  1. Stan Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers. New York: Documentext, 1989, 38. [^]
  2. Stan Brakhage, “Inspirations, “in Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking, ed. Bruce R. McPherson. New York: McPherson & Company, 2001, 208–211. [^]
  3. Adam Charles Hart, “Extensions of Our Bodies Moving, Dancing: The American Avant-Garde’s Theories of Handheld Subjectivity,” Discourse 41, no. 1 (Winter 2019), 37–67. [^]
  4. Vanderbeek, “Underground Film Makers,” Harper’s Bazaar (April 1965): 228. [^]
  5. P. Adams Sitney, Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 22–23. [^]
  6. Horak, “The First American Avant-Garde, 1919–1945,” In Lovers of Cinema: The First American Avant-Garde, 1919–1945, ed. Jan-Christopher Horak. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, 19. [^]
  7. Tepperman, Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923–1960. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 26–28. Tepperman’ book brilliantly chronicles the importance of avant-garde principles for the amateur film movement – and its relationship to other avant-garde movements, in particular the Little Theatre Movement. [^]
  8. Tepperman, in fact, convincingly demonstrates that the amateur realm was seen largely as a venue for experimentation: “Because amateurs weren’t bound to produce marketable films they were free to explore aesthetic discoveries more thoroughly than commercial producers.” Tepperman, Amateur Cinema, 26. [^]
  9. In one of the few mainstream reviews of Menken’s films from her lifetime, for example, Variety calls footage shot by Menken and Maas for the Living Theatre’s The Theatre of Chance “badly made.” Burm., Review of The Theatre of Chance, Variety (June 29, 1960): 74. Mekas notes that only one critic, Archer Winsten, showed up to a 1962 Menken retrospective at the Charles Theatre, and he walked out after two films. Mekas,“Praise to Marie Menken, the Film Poet”: 52. [^]
  10. Sitney, Eyes Upside Down, 23. [^]
  11. Brakhage’s work would be equally marked by a combination of live action camerawork and animation techniques, but his writings on Menken focus on her camerawork and her editing. [^]
  12. Melissa Ragona, “Swing and Sway: Marie Menken’s Filmic Events,” “Swing and Sway: Marie Menken’s Filmic Events,” in Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, ed. Robin Blaetz. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 20–44. [^]
  13. Ragona, “Swing and Sway,” 23. [^]
  14. Suarez, “Myth, Matter, Queerness: The Cinema of Willard Maas, Marie Menken, and the Gryphon Group, 1943–1969,” Grey Room, No. 36 (Summer 2009), 78. [^]
  15. Ragona, “Swing and Sway,” 23. [^]
  16. Ragona, “Swing and Sway,” 23. [^]
  17. For other approaches to the demonstrational aspects of a work, see Neil Harris’s writing on the “operational aesthetic” and Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky on the “process genre.” Harris coins the term to describe P.T. Barnum’s hoaxes and related exhibits which “delight in observing process and examining for literal truth.” Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, 79. Skvirsky shows the ways in which the demonstration or guide has been an important structural principle throughout cinema. Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. [^]
  18. Stan Brakhage,“Stan Brakhage on Marie Menken.” Film Culture 78 (Summer 1994), 8. [^]
  19. Stan Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End, 33. [^]
  20. Brakhage, Film at Wit’s End, 38. [^]
  21. The bodies are those of Maas and Menken, as well as George Barker. See Juan A. Suarez, “Myth, Matter, Queerness: The Cinema of Willard Maas, Marie Menken, and the Gryphon Group, 1943–1969. Grey Room, No. 36 (Summer 2009), 62. [^]
  22. Suarez, “Myth, Matter, Queerness,” 80. [^]
  23. Mekas loved comparing Menken’s films to flowers. In his tribute to Menken and Maas written shortly after their deaths, Mekas said their filmographies were “like a flower garden, completely useless, nothing to report in Variety or Business Week. Eh, but you can sit in it, you can sit among the flowers of Marie Menken, and they’ll fill you with sweetness and heavenly smells, and a certain rare happiness, a joy of life – yes, and maybe sadness, too, but it’s all like sitting among flowers and seeing your own life very, very close to you, feeling your own life, and all other lives, and having some insight into what it may be all about, and you are touched by the smell of these flowers, and you feel refreshed and very, very fine, and looking forward –“ Mekas, “On Marie Menken and Willard Maas, Now Dead (January 14, 1971)” in Movie Journal, 419. [^]