by Jon Dale in The Wire , 1.01.2009
One of the key developments of mid-20th century American underground cinema was the diary film, which privileged the spontaneously captured moment, thus highlighting the lyrical possibilities of everyday life. This diaristic impulse found its most vocal advocate in Jonas Mekas, whose films are central to the form, and who acknowledges in Notes on Marie Menken how much the diary film trope owes to the pioneering work of this Lithuanian-American visual artists and film maker.
Indeed, watching Martina's Kudlacek's gracious, poised and times heartbreakingly beautiful documentary, you're left wondering whether Menken will ever fully receive her posthumous due for services to underground cinema. It's easy, for example, to focus on her connections with Andy Warhol's milieu to the detriment of her various other activities. After all, Menken introduced Warhol to his assistant Gerard Malanga and shared her knowledge of the Bolex handheld camera with the factory entourage. She also became a Warhol film star through her turns in Chealsea Girls and The Life of Juanita Castro, and footage from the former appears in Notes on Marie Menken, to hilarious effect. Outside of the Factory, she was instrumental in the early careers of American film makers Stan Brackage and Kenneth Anger.
But while Menken was one of the underground's key facilitators, Kudlacek wisely focuses this documentary on her actual work. When her marriage to bisexual poet and film maker Willard Maas is explored, most notably their explosive, borderline-comic drunken arguments, which inspired Edward Albee's Whos is afraid of Virgina Woolf?, it doesn't distract the attention from Menken's paintings and films. Her canvases shimmer with spectral grace, while her best films fully focus her feel for colour and light.
Discussing the impact of her work on his diary films, Mekas recalls, "Marie Menken was making little, very, very invisible films. The had no action; there was nothing spectacular, just little flowers, some lines, some colours." But there is great attention to the synaesthetic possibilities of these 'non-spectacular' (not unspectacular) moments: one of her films is named Eye Music In Red Major, and her visual patterns correspond well with music in general, either when soundtracked by Teiji Ito back in the day, or with John Zorn recent compositions for this documentary.
Early in Notes On Marie Menken, Anger recalls Menken was "dancing with her camera, she had a dancing eye... She moved like a dancer and she had a feeling for movement and rhythm that was like a dancer." Kudlacek's film captures this movement and its fluid direction, but it also shows the flipside, the episodic languour of Manken's proto-diaristic films, perfectly seen in the rich, colourful flora in Glimpse Of The Garden. From films like this, and the streaks and patterns of phosphorescent, blazing illumination in Lights, Menken's true gifts emerge, as a musician and architect of everyday cinema, and a poetic calligrapher of light.
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