The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

San Diego Surf

Andy Warhol, San Diego Surf, 1968/1996, ©2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

San Diego Surf (1968) is one of the later films from the period in which Andy Warhol made sexploitation films. These include: My Hustler (1965), I, a Man (1967-68), Bike Boy (1967-68), The Loves of Ondine (1967-68), The Nude Restaurant (1968) Imitation of Christ (1967-69), Lonesome Cowboys (1967-68) and Blue Movie (1968). In terms of chronology, San Diego Surf falls between Lonesome Cowboys and Blue Movie, Warhol’s final work as a director. Both Lonesome Cowboys and Blue Movie would run into censorship problems, but San Diego Surf, which was filmed shortly before Warhol was shot and seriously wounded by Valerie Solanas, was never released. Now, forty-four years later, the film has been restored and finally makes its debut on October 16 at the Museum of Modern Art, where it will be introduced by the legendary Taylor Mead, who starred in it. The film will have an extended run at the museum from January 23–28, 2013.

Although the sexploitation films were initially dismissed by many critics and scholars, a revisionist perspective on this body of work has emerged over the years. In his book, Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, Gary Indiana, for instance, writes: “Whatever else could be said of them, [the sexploitation films, or what he deems ‘the crypto-narrative talkies’] are among the most audaciously, emphatically spellbinding displays of polymorphic sexuality and verbal frankness in film history, in part because of the camera’s, or the director’s, disregard for continuity or narrative construction, the inclusion of unintelligible stretches of sound track, the pockets of total silence, the use of stuttering zooms, and, confuting their deliberately amateur qualities, a mixture of innovative and classical framing, the inclusion of synechdotal  figures and evocative objects at frame edges, and the improvisatory brilliance of actors provided with the sketchiest story premises to work within (when they remember to).”

The plot of San Diego Surf will certainly strike viewers as “sketchy.” Viva is married to Taylor Mead, a rich property owner who is supposedly a golf and tennis champion, but he can’t manage to climb the social ladder of La Jolla because he’s not a surfer. On the verge of getting divorced from Viva, Taylor indicates that he plans to marry Nawana Davis, an irresistible dancer who is the “wealthiest girl in La Jolla.” Nawana, however, considers Taylor to be a stalker, but she’s trying to give him some “soul.” Despite Taylor’s professed interest in her, he really has his eye on two men: Joe Dallasandro, a newcomer who’s also trying to learn how to surf, and Tom Luau (Tom Hompertz), a local Hawaiian surfer. A subplot involves Ingrid Superstar, who might be two months pregnant, and Viva’s attempts to find her a husband, even though Ingrid already has a steady boyfriend, Eric Emerson, who admits that his three previous marriages were a way of compensating for his homosexuality.

In one memorable scene, Taylor sings a song to a baby whom he holds in his arms. Viva complains to Joe that Taylor is not a caring parent. After she takes the infant from him, Taylor suggests that if he and Joe have a baby, he’ll be better, to which Viva mockingly replies, “In whose womb?” We hear the sound of motorcycles outside, which causes her to launch into one of her infamous tirades: “Damn motorcycles out there. The whole neighborhood’s going to pot. First they let the hippies in. Then they let the motorcyclists in. The next thing you know we’re going to have the Ku Klux Klan racing down the streets.” As Viva scoops up another child, the baby suddenly slips out of her arms, but Joe somehow miraculously manages to catch the falling infant. Obviously ruffled, Viva blames Taylor, who quickly retorts, “You were nearly a complete failure as a mother.”

Warhol films are notorious for their unpredictability. The near catastrophe of the baby slipping out of Viva’s arms, in many ways, epitomizes that element. Yet it contrasts with the staged quality of the inhibited Tom Hompertz pretending to urinate on Taylor Mead later in the film – an act that was accomplished through editing. It represents one of the few instances in Warhol films that seems to runs counter to everything his films seemed to stand for. In the scene, Taylor lies on a surfboard and begs Tom to urinate on him. Tom discreetly takes down his pants and stands up, so that the framing only shows his legs. While Taylor pretends to masturbate and squeals about suffering and the cruelty of surfers, his face is sprayed with a foamy liquid (beer). Taylor is clearly ecstatic at what he considers to be his initiation into surfing and insists that he’s “a real surfer now.”

Warhol seemed well aware of the shortcomings of San Diego Surf. He wrote: “Everybody was so happy being in La Jolla that the New York problems we usually made our movies about went away—the edge came right off everybody.” Interestingly, he adds: “From time to time I’d try to provoke a few fights so I could film them, but everybody was too relaxed even to fight. I guess that’s why the whole thing turned out to be more of a memento of a bunch of friends taking a vacation together than a movie. Even Viva’s complaints were more mellow than usual.” Joe Dallesandro has suggested that there wasn’t a very clear idea for the movie prior to filming. Looking at the material, it’s hard to imagine how the film could have been interesting given its narrative premise and lack of a central core. Victor Bockris attributes the film’s failure to the influence of Paul Morrissey. He indicates that Viva appealed to Louis Waldon “to beat the shit out of him and save this film from his cheap commercial tricks.”

San Diego Surf is a surfing movie that doesn’t show feats of surfing or, for that matter, even big waves. That might sound Warholian on some level, but here it works against the film for the simple reason that the shots of the ocean are merely intercut with the narrative. Warhol wasn’t interested in fidelity to genre expectations per se. After all, he worried that Horse, which was shot in the Factory, was too much “like a real Western.” Like Horse, San Diego Surf could have been shot entirely in the Factory. But because the film is shot on location, audience expectations change. In Lonesome Cowboys, the pop-top cans of soft drink, sounds of airplanes, filtered cigarettes, allusions to Superman, and so forth, announce the film’s contrivance, whereas San Diego Surf actually pretends to be something that it’s not. Warhol must have realized this because that certainly wasn’t the case with his next film, the notorious Blue Movie, in which Viva and Louis Waldon don’t pretend, but actually engage in sexual intercourse on camera.

San Diego Surf is not without interest in Warhol’s film career. It’s a transitional work. Although it lacks Warhol’s patented strobe cuts, idiosyncratic framing and camera movement, the film nevertheless features many of his most famous later superstars: Viva, Taylor Mead, Louis Waldon, Joe Dallesandro, Eric Emerson, Ingrid Superstar, as well as Tom Hompertz. For me, even a minor or unsuccessful Warhol film contains aspects that make it intriguing to watch. Warhol’s films were high-wire acts that contained the risk of possible failure, which was a crucial element of his conceptual and aesthetic approach to film. You have to respect Warhol for that. Most filmmakers simply aren’t that daring.

Note: For more detailed coverage of Andy Warhol’s films, including the sexploitation films and San Diego Surf, please see my new book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Taylor Mead, Viva, Joe Dallesandro, and Paul Morrissey recall the making of San Diego Surf in Interview.

Posted 14 October, 2012

Beautiful Darling

Photo by Anton Perich

Candy Darling (1944-1974) was a later Warhol superstar from the period after the Pop artist was shot by Valerie Solanas and became the producer of Paul Morrissey’s films. Born James L. Slattery, Candy appeared in Flesh (1968-69) and starred in Women in Revolt (1971), Morrissey’s satire of the women’s liberation movement – a film that parodied Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto in every way imaginable. James Rasin’s poignant documentary about the tragic life of Candy Darling, Beautiful Darling, opened in Manhattan last week. It joins the growing list of documentaries about Warhol performers and associates, such as Nico Icon, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, and A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. For true Warhol fans, Beautiful Darling, is not to be missed.

In Women in Revolt, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis decide that they need to enlist real beauty to their feminist cause. They manage to rope Candy Darling into the PIG (Politically Involved Girls) movement. After she decides to become a movie star, Candy gets taken advantage of by an agent (Michael Sklar). By the end of the film, she has managed to sleep her way to the top, only to be exposed by a tabloid reporter, who brings up the dirt about her – the suicide of her parents, her incestuous relationship with her brother, and her sleeping with various directors to get parts in foreign films where she does very little. Alluding to the title of her new film, the columnist concludes, “I don’t think you’re a Blonde on a Bum Trip; I think you’re a Bum on a Blonde Trip.”

The former might better describe Candy’s actual life story. Beautiful Darling begins with Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s former roommate and the default executor of her estate, as he forges a certificate from the Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. After we watch her gravestone being transported, Candy appears in old footage and announces buoyantly: “Hi, I’m Candy Darling. I’m an actress here in New York. I’ve been in eight pictures – small parts in big pictures, and big parts in small pictures.” In the company of Jane Fonda, who hoped to land a part in a Warhol film, Candy, looking like some sort of fashion-crazed pirate, announces, “I call myself Candy Warhol now,” as everyone laughs uproariously.

The actress Helen Hanft describes how Candy managed to “fool” her father and uncle, who acted “very courtly” when they met her. We hear Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which she was immortalized, along with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, and Joe Campbell, aka the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” who appeared in My Hustler (1965). Candy shared Warhol’s love of movie stars. She sent a fan letter to Kim Novak, and was smitten by the missive she received back from the Hollywood actress. Fran Lebowitz views Candy as obsessed and living in the past, but Paul Morrissey claims that she was essentially a humorist, who was merely poking fun at stars.

Bob Colacello points to the paradox of Candy within Warhol’s more avant-garde circle, namely that she was a throwback to another era when the movie studios still existed. Gerard Malanga, however, claims that Candy was “very avant-garde in terms of who she was and how she invented herself.” Despite the juxtaposition of the two contrasting views, in a sense, Colacello and Malanga are talking about two different things. Colacello is discussing Candy as a performer, whereas Malanga is referring to Candy’s choice of sexual identity. To Glenn O’Brien, Candy, like Warhol, was her own artwork. The film cuts to footage of Candy at Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney in 1971, where they both have great fun by putting on the press – a Warhol trademark.

Cloë Sevigny’s readings from Candy’s diaries represent some of the most compelling material in Beautiful Darling. The sense of gender difference that Candy felt early on led her to turn to the fantasy world of movies – James Slattery aspired to become a female movie star. Whereas Malanga indicates that “there was nothing fragile about Candy,” underground film star Taylor Mead describes Candy as “too gentle . . . too gentle for the bullies.” Newton met Candy when he was only 15-year-old. A devoted fan, he began his own audio diary after Candy’s death. Newton interviews a bigoted childhood friend. Once the person discovered Jimmy Slattery in drag on the Long Island train, she refused to have anything to do with him again and thought “he should be put away.” It’s a response indicative of the times.

Holly Woodlawn explains the dangers that cross dressers experienced in the 1960s before Stonewall, where men could be arrested for wearing woman’s clothes in public. Through Jackie Curtis, Candy, who went by the name “Hope” at the time, became involved in theater, which is where Warhol first saw her in Glamour, Glory and Gold. Holly describes Candy as attracting a coterie of groupies. She includes Newton among them, whereas Sam Green, who curated Warhol’s infamous early show at the ICA in Philadelphia, describes him as kind of her “younger brother” – someone who was merely star struck by her incredible beauty. Newton doesn’t deny that hanging around with Candy brought him acceptance with the hipsters at the Factory and eventually at Max’s Kansas City, where Candy, Jackie, and Holly held court in the back room.

Colacello discusses the early 1970s as a period when “a surge of Hollywood nostalgia came in.” He adds, “And Candy was right in there, somewhere between the past and the future.” John Waters comments, “She was like a real movie star from MGM . . . only in a world that was filled with LSD, and speed really.” Warhol mentions that Candy and the others weren’t really drag queens because they actually believed they were women. Jayne County insists on the fact that Candy was a transgender person. Friends seem unclear about her actual romantic relationships. Melba LaRose, Jr. mentions that Candy was in love with Gerard Malanga, who responds with surprise: “I’m flattered. I didn’t know that.”

Candy claims that she never had to pay for anything, but the truth is that Candy lived hand-to-mouth, as her diaries clearly indicate. When it’s suggested that she had to do certain things to get money, Jeremiah becomes indignant, even if his own interviews provide contrary evidence. We see rehearsal footage for Women in Revolt (so much for Morrissey’s claims about improvisation), along with the trailer, with praise of her highly theatrical performance from both John Waters and Paul Morrissey. Candy eventually appeared as Violet in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings at the time when the playwright’s own career was in free fall.

Along with starring in Women in Revolt, this marked a highpoint in Candy’s career. Her success proved short lived. Penny Arcade explains, “And then all of a sudden, it turned out to be this ephemeral thing, and the carnival had moved on.” Shortly after this, while staying at the Diplomat Hotel, in June 1973, Candy felt abandoned and alone. She writes: “All I know is: I love, and I am not loved. I do not know happiness. I know despair, loneliness, and longing. My biggest problem is I have no man to love me. So nothing else matters or makes much of a difference.”

More and more, Candy’s gender issues made her feel as if she were “living in a veritable prison.” There’s no question that Candy Darling was gorgeous, but beauty didn’t translate into love (especially for a transgender individual), just as her limited fame as performer didn’t translate into enough money to eat properly or pay the rent. Rasin’s documentary makes the most of its archival material, even if, structurally, Newton’s burial of Candy’s ashes in Cherry Valley, New York seems a contrivance for the sake of the film.

After Candy discovered she had a cancerous tumor, most people felt she accepted her fate as a final role to play. Lebowitz discusses Peter Hujar’s famous picture of Candy on her death bed. Candy staged the way she wanted to appear in the photo – a beautiful actress dying in her prime. Over the final photographs of Jimmy Slattery as a young boy, including a very sweet one of him wearing a woman’s wig, which reminded me of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), Sevigny reads from Candy’s diary: “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

Posted 1 May, 2011

Trash Humpers

To many critics, Harmony Korine’s last feature Mister Lonely served notice that he had finally mellowed. News that he had gotten married, had a baby, and moved back to his hometown of Nashville was supposed to be the confirmation of this. Mister Lonely, his story about a Michael Jackson impersonator, was completely wacko, but it contained much more plot than usual, had big-name actors, and a much larger budget. In retrospect, Korine now expresses impatience about dealing with the logistics of such productions. His latest film returns to a DIY aesthetic with a vengeance. Shot on VHS, Trash Humpers revels in poor quality images that occasionally breakup, roll and drop out, while depicting a kind of unabashed freak show.

J. Hoberman calls Trash Humpers “a gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste,” which seems a fair description. The film has the sensibility of a nightmarish carnival. Wearing geriatric masks, three characters – Korine calls them elderly “peeping Toms” – wander through a poor neighborhood of Nashville on crutches and in a wheelchair. They hump trash cans and trees, defecate, masturbate, light firecrackers, and generally wreck havoc by smashing everything in sight, especially old television sets. After destroying a television set and boom box, they tap dance gleefully in a parking lot at night, as a stream of cars pass by.

A young kid in a suit misses every attempt at getting a basketball through the hoop, as the old folks cackle at each failure. After they sing a song about a “Single Girl,” the kid takes a doll, shakes it vigorously and laughs maniacally. He says, “This is how you should do it.” The kid then shouts, “I told you I’d kill it, as he beats a doll with a hammer with such delight and enthusiasm that most viewers might be tempted to call Social Services. Equally disturbing is the scene where the elderly woman, “Momma” (Korine’s wife, Rachel), sits in a wheelchair and instructs the kid on how to put a razor blade in an apple – every parent’s Halloween nightmare.

The Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, make pancakes, as the others chant, “Make it, make it, don’t fake it.” When the twins serve them, Momma claims the food is poison. The old folks then force the twins to eat the pancakes doused in dish soap rather than maple syrup. Eng gives a speech about how nice it would be to live without a head: “Think how much money you would save on shampoos and hats.” He concludes: “And best of all, no one would get dizzy again.” Chang and Eng then tell a brief story about their lives, including Eng’s refusal to be separated by a doctor after Chang died. After Eng expires – his death is conveyed via a sock puppet – Momma yells, “I said make us laugh, motherfucker! That shit was depressing!”

Three women in skimpy underwear bend over on beds with their rear ends raised high in the air, while the old folks slap and feel their asses, all the time grunting and squealing with delight. The women then massage two of the old guy’s crotches while singing “Silent Night.” Someone sings a song about three little devils (“Three little devils jumped over the wall, chopped off their heads, and murdered them all”), as we see a naked and headless corpse in a field. A guy with white hair and a beard, dressed in a cocktail waitress outfit, delivers a poem while the old folks set off fire works. In the next scene, he lies in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. Like the doll earlier, he appears to have been bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Korine has always been interested in scenes rather than entire films. There’s the remarkable one of the young foul-mouthed cowboys robbing, molesting, and gay-baiting the androgynous skateboard hero, Bunny Boy, in Gummo. And when the blue-robed nun falls out of an airplane and flies through the air in Mister Lonely and we hear the incredible whooshing sound of the wind, it offers a visceral jolt that’s not easily forgotten. The episodic Trash Humpers, however, tries hard not to offer much in the way of conventional narrative pleasure, even in individual scenes.

Korine likes to be deliberately offensive. For instance, he includes a bad stand-up comic, who wears a neck brace and has his arm in a sling. He excels at telling very unfunny anti-gay jokes. Korine gives the guy enough rope to hang himself several times over. To mistake either the deranged kid in the suit, lessons on how to slip razor blades into apples, or the bad stand-up comic as speaking for Korine is to miss the point of his provocation. Korine is merely serving up the kind of fantasies that viewers might have of poor Tennessee neighborhoods.

Any interview with Korine, such as the one in Filmmaker with Scott Macaulay, who served as a producer on Gummo, is so tongue-in-cheek that even Korine had to laugh several times. I love it when he describes working together with his nearly blind editor in their underwear because of the intense heat. Korine continues: “He’s 75 percent blind, and we would just take apart the machines and I would always catch him sticking pencils in the VCR to give the footage these glitches.” That’s indicative of Korine’s special brand of vaudeville humor.

Trash Humpers abounds with references to other films and the art world. Besides many of the ones that Macaulay astutely mentions, Trash Humpers will remind viewers of the photographs of Diane Arbus, but even more of those of someone like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician living in Lexington, Kentucky, who made creepy images of kids in masks in abandoned buildings and suburban backyards. Korine comes out of skateboard culture, and his work has been part of a Modern Gothic sensibility that has been in vogue in the art world since 9/11. He shares an obsession with death and the grotesque that we find in works by Banks Violette, Matt Greene, Sue de Beer, Olaf Breuning, and the sculptor David Altmejd.

Korine and Rita Ackermann currently have a collaborative exhibition based on Trash Humpers, entitled “Shadow Fux,” at the Swiss Institute in New York City. In an interview about the show, Korine and Ackermann attempt to invert the normal and the abnormal. Korine, for instance, responds: “Yeah, I mean, I married a woman who can swallow fifteen live goldfish in a single gulp. It doesn’t feel like that’s anything strange to me, it feels like there is a poetry to it. All that my neighbour does is steal yard furniture, he just goes around stealing it. He’s a very old man and that’s his hobby.”

As Jerry Saltz explains: “Indeed, almost all art that could be called Gothic has an ironic edge: It’s aware of its position, even the absurdity of its position, yet it persists with sincere tongue in ironical cheek.” Yet despite the film’s ironic stance, moments of genuine feeling manage to surface in Trash Humpers. In one of the later scenes, one of the elderly guys (played by the filmmaker) drives through the neighborhood and comments: “But sometimes when I drive through these streets at night, I could smell the pain of all these people living in here. I could smell how all theses people are just trapped in their lives, their day-to-day lives. They don’t see much.”

In Trash Humpers, the world may be represented as a weird, violent and crazy place, but it’s instructive to note that Korine’s film ends with a tender lullaby.

Postscript:

Last week, Jim Emerson over at “Scanners” had a post on Trash Humpers. Neither Jim nor his dog apparently cared for the film very much. But I was surprised that he thought that the controversy surrounding Netflix’s initial refusal to carry the film might have been a publicity stunt concocted by its distributor, Drag City. Jim writes: “So, maybe there was a bureaucratic snafu. Maybe Drag City made the whole thing up. I don’t know. But unless anyone has any proof (like a verified letter from Netflix outlining reasons for rejection, followed by another letter of acceptance), I guess I will have to remain skeptical.”

Well, I can’t provide legal documentation that would convince him, but I do have a former student, Mitch Bandur, who works at Drag City, and, based on an email I received from him some weeks ago about the incident, I do believe Drag City’s version of events – it wasn’t a publicity stunt at all. The larger issue has to do with the power and control that the bigger companies like Netflix and Amazon are gaining over distribution, especially over tiny distributors. In terms of Netflix, lately I’ve noticed that my “saved” queue (availability “unknown”) is getting to be larger than my regular queue. To me, that points to the simple fact that it’s getting harder and harder to view the indie films I really want to see.

Posted 16 January, 2011

Face

© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Andy Warhol’s many silent Screen Tests provide examples of his predilection for the close-up, as do some of his other films, such as Blow Job (1964), Henry Geldzahler (1964), and Outer and Inner Space (1965). Made during his collaborative period with Chuck Wein, Face (1965) has recently been preserved, along with The Velvet Underground in Boston (1967), in honor of the late Callie Angell. It resurfaced at MoMA yesterday and will be screened again today after not being shown for forty years. Because Face hasn’t been in circulation since Warhol withdrew his films around 1970 and was screened infrequently at the time it was made, it received little attention from early Warhol film scholars, such as Stephen Koch, Jonas Mekas, or Peter Gidal. As a result, the film comes as a major revelation and provides a crucial link in the phase of Warhol’s filmmaking involving Edie Sedgwick.

In Face, Warhol focuses exclusively on a close-up of Edie’s face for the entire 66-minute film, thereby demonstrating that his most famous superstar had the ability to command an audience’s attention while merely playing music, applying makeup and accessories, smoking marijuana, talking on the phone with a friend, and conversing with Chuck Wein, who, as usual, remains an elusive figure offscreen. According to Tony Scherman and David Dalton in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, “Edie’s dalliances with lipstick and makeup were similarly epic. Chronically late, she could easily spend three hours doing her face to the exasperation of anyone who happened to be waiting for her to show up. Her belated arrivals at parties and openings, hours after she was expected, created a sense of drama and seemed the sign of a true diva.”

Warhol had the idea of filming Edie’s life over the course of an entire day. He claimed: “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie.” Like other Chuck Wein films featuring Edie, Face could be understood in relation to this concept, but it fails to account for the formal choices Warhol makes: the decision to shoot back and white film stock, his use of a fixed camera, the close framing, the careful attention to lighting, and the film’s structure.

If this were simply a recording of a segment of Edie’s life (in this case, shot in a continuous close-up), as Warhol would have us believe, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. The concept behind the film, as was true of all of the Chuck Wein films, was to set up Edie for something unexpected to happen. What actually occurs is that Edie becomes so high during the course of the film, that when she makes a statement and expresses a viewpoint that she assumes Chuck shares, he suddenly plays a “mind game” on her, which alters the dynamics of the film. By having the camera close to Edie’s face, we’re able to view her stunned reaction.

Face might prove to be the best vehicle for displaying what made Edie the greatest Warhol superstar, namely her incredible presence on camera. Her radiant facial features have tremendous visual impact, which is the quality that attracted Warhol to her. As Bibbe Hansen, who appeared in several Warhol films, puts it in Edie: Girl on Fire: “Looking back at me looking at it then – we’re getting very Proustian here – she had the most amazing and wonderful quality to live in the film frame. To live there, to breathe, to inhabit it.” While Edie manages to inhabit an extremely tight frame, it is the final three minutes of Face that prove most riveting. Warhol claimed that all his films were “artificial” because he didn’t know “where the artificial stops and the real starts.” The major interest in Face is in how the film explores this boundary.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Face and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 25 October, 2010

Notes on Marie Menken

As a child I lived only a block from Marie Menken, so that might explain why I always have had a tender spot in my heart for this major pioneer of American avant-garde cinema. Marie and her husband Willard Maas lived in a penthouse apartment at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. Menken is the subject of Martina Kudláček’s documentary, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), a biographical portrait of this largely neglected figure. The film is now available on DVD.

Marie Menken was an extremely tall and imposing woman. There’s a famous photo of her dancing with Tennessee Williams, in which she towers over him. Like Jonas Mekas, she was also from Lithuania. Menken was married to the poet/filmmaker Willard Maas, who was gay. They met at the artist’s colony Yaddo and married in 1937 – it was his second marriage. In Film at Wit’s End, Brakhage tells the story of first meeting the two of them, in which Maas gets into a fistfight with his lover, Ben Moore, and ends up a bloody mess in the snow.

Marie and Willard had a very difficult life together. As a couple of interviewees note in Kudláček’s film, they are reported to be the model for Edward Albee’s well-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – after he had occasion to observe their constant fighting. The couple lost a child and proceeded to torture each other over it for the rest of their lives. Marie was accepting of Willard’s gayness and befriended his many lovers. Together they started Gryphon Films. Brakhage, Charles Boultenhouse, and Gregory Markopoulos were associated with Gryphon, which represented an important early attempt at cooperative filmmaking. Marie supported herself for thirty years by working the graveyard shift at Time Magazine.

Marie was the camerawoman for Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943). She was the technical person, not Maas, which was the opposite situation of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Her first film was Visual Variation on Noguchi (1945), but she didn’t make another, Glimpse of the Garden (1957), for another twelve years. Menken made small, highly personal and lyrical films. Among them are: Hurry, Hurry (1957, Dwightiana (1959) Eye Music in Red Major (1961), Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961) Bagatelle for Willard Maas (1961), Mood Mondrian (1961), Notebook (1962-63), Go Go Go (1962-64) Wrestling (1964), Lights (1965) and Andy Warhol (1965). Many of them are interspersed throughout Kudláček’s richly evocative portrait of Menken.

Menken exerted a major influence on other avant-garde filmmakers. Brakhage acknowledged that he owed her an tremendous debt and claimed she gave him the courage to be completely free with the camera. Menken was overshadowed by Maas (who is now forgotten), even in the early issue of Filmwise devoted to them. Maas apparently ridiculed her filmmaking efforts. She didn’t appear in the first edition of P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film – an oversight he later corrected. Even Maya Deren reportedly only respected Marie as a painter, but not as a filmmaker. Although Menken never received the credit she deserved during he lifetime, her work is included as part of the permanent collection of Anthology Film Archives, which is where I first saw her magnificent films.

Why was she ignored? One reason no doubt has to do with sexism. At the time Menken worked, there were less than a handful of women filmmakers. The heavily symbolic “trance” films were very much in vogue. In the context of the high seriousness of a more literary poetic cinema, Menken’s more playful and painterly films were simply an anomaly. In Notes, Jonas Mekas, who gave Menken her first film show at the Charles Theatre, observes that they contained “no big action, nothing spectacular, no unusual content.” Menken’s work is visually poetic. She pioneered the autobiographical diary film – a tradition that includes such filmmakers as Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Peter Hutton, Warren Sonbert, Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky, Madeleine Gekiere, as well as a host of others.

Menken was also a painter. She had a one-person show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, but we learn from Alfred Leslie in Notes that John Bernard Myers later regretted giving her a show at Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1951 because her work “lacked edge.” According to Roger Jacoby in an old issue of Film Culture, all or most of her work was destroyed by a flood at her loft on Baltic Street, and by theft. Menken and Maas knew all the artists, the beautiful people, including Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright, and Truman Capote. Menken and Maas were notorious for their parties. They would invite all the celebrities, so it’s easy to see why Menken would connect with the Warhol crowd.

In POPism, Warhol says he met Marie Menken and Willard Maas through the surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford, who was a close friend of Parker Tyler, the film critic, who edited View magazine in the 1940s. Ford is the one who suggested Gerard Malanga as an assistant to Andy Warhol. Malanga’s high school English teacher was the poet Daisy Aldan. Through Aldan, Malanga was invited to a party, where he first met Maas, who taught at Wagner College in Staten Island, where, not coincidentally, Malanga wound up a student. At the very end, Marie and Willard were hopeless alcoholics. Marie and Willard died within days of each other.

Both Willard and Marie appeared in Warhol’s films. Willard’s major part was offscreen. He is rumored to be the guy giving head to DeVerne Bookwalter in Warhol’s infamous Blow Job (1964). Marie played Fidel’s rebellious sister, Juana, in the Warhol-Tavel collaboration, The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which cold war politics are portrayed as stemming from family squabbles and incidents from childhood. Marie becomes inebriated during the course of the film, which causes her to rebel against her brother Fidel and having to repeat Tavel’s dialogue verbatim. Menken is absolutely wonderful, as she butchers Tavel’s language, makes snide asides, and manages to epitomize the contrarian personality of Fidel’s sister. Marie also played Gerard Malanga’s mother in a scene in The Chelsea Girls (1966), where Marie puts on a frightening and sadistic display, as she rails against her son, while cracking a whip.

Martina Kudláček’s portrait isn’t really an in-depth scholarly documentary that has unearthed a lot of new facts and information on Menken. It’s more like a primer on her life and films in a similar manner to Jennifer M. Kroot’s homage to George and Mike Kuchar, It Came from Kuchar. Kudláček’s approach actually fits her subject matter in employing its own quiet poetry, such as when she focuses on the peeling paint of the rusty radiator in Alfred Leslie’s loft.

Kudláček has assembled a noted group of prominent individuals to talk about Marie Menken’s life and work. We hear Brakhage lecturing about Menken’s aesthetic in his booming voice. Peter Kubelka demonstrates her technique as reflecting the inherent properties of a Bolex camera in Go Go Go, which he demonstrates for us, complete with sound effects. Kenneth Anger tells about assisting Menken in making the film that became Arabesque for Kenneth Anger. He talks about her uncanny ability to edit in-camera as she filmed, noting that “she had a feeling for movement and rhythm that was like a dancer.” Anger indicates that Menken had a “halo around her head.” Anger also points out that if it wasn’t for staying at her place in Brooklyn, he would have never made his underground classic Scorpio Rising (1964). Billy Name (Linich) compares Marie to the legendary Tugboat Annie.

Gerard Malanga discovers new footage of Marie Menken and Andy Warhol  in which the two of them have a duel with Bolex cameras. The filmmaker and secret archivist in me cringes as Malanga opens an old rusty film can found in storage and uses hand rewinds to run the original footage through an old Moviescope viewer. What could be any harder on such priceless historical footage? Gerard later playfully criticizes Marie for underexposing some footage by not using a light meter.

Malanga is given considerable time in Notes for Marie Menken. He and Kudláček take a field trip out to visit Gerard’s estranged father’s vault and Marie’s grave. Gerard discusses the fact that Menken wanted to adopt him as a son, except that he already had a living mother. Malanga is unsure whether he really wanted Maas as his surrogate father. Kudláček also interviews Mary Woronov, who exudes her usual enthusiasm as she describes the harrowing scene with Marie in The Chelsea Girls, in which Mary plays Gerard’s sullen girlfriend.

The most poignant scene in Kudláček’s film, however, involves Jonas Mekas. To the credit of Kudláček and her editor Henry Hills, they keep the most riveting footage for the end. What’s fascinating is that Jonas, who’s appears to be a bit tipsy from drinking, decides to tell a remarkable story about Marie. First off, he addresses and toasts the filmmaker, Martina, by name. Jonas rubs his mouth, snorts several times, clears his throat, and waves his arms, upsetting the camera placement and framing before he shifts into “interview mode.”

In his heavy accent, Jonas begins, “I do not remember how I met Marie and Willard.” He hesitates, then remarks, “Her films were like . . . about nothing . . . little feeling, little emotion, little image.” He talks about pre-Christian Lithuanians being pantheists. Mekas suggests that Marie Menken’s work conveys a sense of nature – “flowers and trees and moon and the sun.” Jonas talks about how initially he didn’t know Menken’s ethnic origin, but one day he heard her singing a Lithuanian children’s song. Although the lower part of his face is cut off by the framing, Jonas sings the actual song for us.

Jonas then attempts to explain the lyrics. Haltingly, he translates: “Little girl, I’m like a little rose, like a lily in the flower garden.” He rubs his mussed hair and sweaty face, and rocks forward and backward in the frame He comments, “It’s another variation of how to attract [he moves his fingers] a young man.” Jonas suddenly sings in English, “I must know, I must know how to attract a young man. I must know, I must know, how to attract a young man.” Jonas laughs and remarks, “That’s a funny song, no?” As Jonas indicates it’s been a hard day and tries to regain his composure, Kudláček cuts to a shot of lily pads. Jonas laments, “There was so much love there. Poetry, and love, and cinema.” Sadly, he toasts, “Oh, Marie.”

The film cuts to scene where Marie’s nephew plays audio tape of her singing boisterously over footage of a performance involving people with umbrellas on the boardwalk. A hand rewinds Marie’s film footage, leaving the blank white screen of a Moviescope. Most documentaries depend on creating some type of intense dramatic conflict, but Kudláček’s portrait of Marie Menken is rooted in something far more basic. Like Menken’s films, Notes on Marie Menken is infused with intense love for its subject. “Oh, Marie . . .”

Posted 2 July, 2010

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