Notes on Marie Menken Review
Who is Marie Menken and why is Martina Kudláček – a Vienna-born associate of Jonas Mekas whose previous subjects include Maya Deren – making a film about her? To answer the first is to understand the second, for whilst little-known Menken nonetheless managed to thread her way around the US underground of the fifties and sixties. Not a quite a key player, but also far from being a Zelig-type figure, she falls somewhere in-between. An artist and a filmmaker in her right, Menken also proved influential to Kenneth Anger, acted for Andy Warhol and is said to have been the inspiration for the Martha character in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. To further her kudos and significance Kudláèek has also assembled a fine roster of talking heads – Anger and Mekas among them, plus Alfred Leslie, Mary Woronov and Gerard Malagna – to offer individual testimonies, whilst the likes of Ken Jacobs and Paul Morrissey gain thanks in the closing credits.
It is these testimonies which comprise the bulk of Notes on Marie Menken. Shot on high contrast black and white DV they serve to both highlight the abstract and expressive use of light and colour in Menken’s own films (rushes, excerpts and entire shorts all appearing throughout) and to document her colourful life. The structure is largely chronological taking us through Menken’s early tactile collages, her cinematic experiments, association with Warhol, and so on. Yet by talking to her close friends and colleagues – no matter how well-known they may be – Kudláèek is also able to give a sense of this “strong woman” who made “gentle, fragile art”.
What this leaves us with is a happy situation whereby it is hard to pick a highlight. Do we opt for the fact that Kudláček has brought all of these faces together? Or perhaps the sheer wealth of trivia – such as Menken’s odd little career excursion into making instructional films for the Army Signal Corps? Or maybe it’s Menken’s movies themselves? Certainly, had the latter not possessed some quality then it’s likely this entire documentary would have struggled to justify its existence. But thankfully they’re an intriguing set, whilst Glimpse of the Garden has recently been added to the U.S. National Film Registry list of preserved titles. Admittedly there is a transparency to Menken’s work – you can quite easily discern just how she achieved her results – but also a beauty nevertheless: the grave-digging monks of an unfinished short; the Christmas lights of Lights rendered soft and expressive courtesy of cheap film stock; the innocence of Notebook in which what we are really seeing is Menken documenting her own experiments with the form. All offer their own little delights even if the overall result doesn’t quite live up the oeuvres of her contemporaries or other female experimental figures such as Maya Deren. (There’s also some terrific home movie footage seen throughout, such as Menken engaged in a “duel of the Bolexes” with Warhol, though sadly her 1966 Screen Test for him is represented only by a still image.)
Kudláček’s own contribution is primarily to hold the enterprise together, to build the cohesive whole. She allows herself the occasional digression or idiosyncratic touch – the moon bouncing about the frame in homage to a moment from one of Menken’s own films; some strange business involving Leslie and a radiator – but for the most part this is Menken’s film. And more importantly, it is the one she deserves: a portrait of a woman and an artist who has earned her place alongside the Angers and the Warhols. Now all we need is Kudláček’s documentary on Deren to be released on DVD in order to have the perfect companion.
Presenting the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Index have done a fine job in handling Notes on Marie Menken’s transition to disc. The black and white footage is as crisp and clear as we should expect, whilst the archive footage is similarly presented to a high standard. Of course, issues of age and quality have arisen here though it does appear that Kudláèek had access to the very best materials. The soundtrack is simple stereo – as per the original – and this does just fine with the talking head material. The footage from Menken’s own shorts was all intended as silent, though John Zorn has been composing scores for them of late and this is how they appear here. Once again the DD2.0 has no problems in handling them.
The highlight of the disc, however, is the inclusion of four Menken shorts as additional features. Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), Glimpses of the Garden (1957), Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61) and Lights (1964-66) are all present in their entirety and with the aforementioned scores. As with their presence in the documentary all appear to have been sourced from the best materials and as such look really quite terrific. No further additions make in onto the disc, though we do find the expected bilingual booklet (German-English) from Index, in this case 18 pages devoted to various articles, filmographies and biographies for both Menken and Kudláček.
For further information on Index DVD and details on how to purchase their releases, please visit their website at www.index-dvd.at.