Notes on Marie Menken
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Charles Bernstein

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There is one more Tribeca Film Festival show — on May 2 — of Notes on Marie Menken.. Martina Kudlácek's documentary recounts the life and work of one of the most remarkable independent, Bolex-wielding filmmakers of American alternative film. Marie Menken (1909-1970), a second wave modernist, was a direct influence on Stan Brackage — in the film he says she was his most important immediate influence — and you can see the traces of her work in the 16mm movies of Henry Hills, Abigail Child, and Ernie Gehr (especially their early work). Notes on Marie Menken is a kind of sequel to Kudlácek's previous, equally marvelous, film, In the Mirror of Maya Deren. Menken is not nearly so well known at Deren, but fully as interesting. Kudlácek includes tremendously appealing clips from a number of Menken's films and also a beautiful homage to Menken in which Kudlácek turns shots of a turning of Ferris Wheel into kinetic flashes of multicolored celluloid paint-strokes. The beating heart of the film is a a close-up interview with Jonas Mekas, shot at Anthology Film Archives. There are also fascinating interviews with Alfred Leslie and Kenneth Anger, both of whom place Menken and her husband, the filmmaker and poet Willard Maas, at the heart of New York gay culture in the late 1950s and 60s. The surprise for me was Menken's close friend, Gerard Malanga, who never seemed more engaging or thoughtful than in the extended sequences in which he appears, in part talking about Menken's association with Andy Warhol. At one point Malanga screens, on a flatbed in his loft, some deteriorating footage of Warhol and Menken jousting with one another on a New York tenement roof, with Bolex cameras for swords. Malanga also explains that Menken and Maas were the models for George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Menken definitely comes off as, well, as large as life, and overflowing with aesthetic verve and indomitable personality.

Notes on Marie Menken was edited by Henry Hills and has a musical score by John Zorn. As with many of the greatest works of American cinema, Menken's films can be rented from the Film-Makers' Coop.

The Tribeca Film Festival provides a trailer

[May 1, 2006]

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