I attended the film program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where there is a heavy emphasis on the experimental film. Consequently, I got to experience a perpetual flow of avant-garde 16mm cinema. Our syllabus’s were replete with titles throughout its history – I had gotten more than familiar with the genre.
So, in watching Martina Kudlacek’s “Notes On Marie Menken,” an insightful tribute to the life and career of the esteemed mid-twentieth century experimental filmmaker (Menken initially was a painter, turned filmmaker then as an aside, an underground actress), I got a chance to journey back in time a little bit to those bygone university days. And Menken shot with the ubiquitously famous Swiss-made 16mm Bolex camera, the most respected spring-wound, go-to camera for shooting quality silent footage, the same camera we used in film school after we moved up from the Bell and Howell 70-DR. It was nice to see an old companion back in action.
At the onset of the film we follow Marie’s nephew, Joseph J. Menkevich who leads us down a narrow hallway in an indoor storage facility and discovers heretofore unknown footage of hers. Rusty cans of 100 and 400 foot rolls of film are uncovered and subsequently opened, a revelatory testament to forgotten work.
And in one fascinating reel, a rooftop cinematic jousting match between Menken and Andy Warhol is revealed, both prodding the other with a camera back and forth. They are clearly having fun, two avant-garde idealists having a go at each other, entwined in a rare aesthetic understanding few others could share. And Andy took a huge liking to Marie, he put her in some of his films and she inadvertently became an impromptu actress. Menken also shot fascinating fast-motion footage of Warhol producing silk-screens and followed him out and about on the street as well. Oh, and she also caught Andy wrapping up those infamous Brillo Boxes. That’s some history in and of itself.
Menken’s camera roamed the terrains of her instincts, capturing her filmic musings on people, places and things. She was fascinated by movement and the architecture of space and time that that movement created. She was also enthralled by light and liked what it could do when altered in time for delirious effect. Menken was also interested in sped-up flirtations with the outside world, street scenes, beach scenes, gardens, sculptures, the world was her canvas. It becomes obvious how that experimental ethic of vagabond imagery from underground filmmakers bled into 1960’s psychedelic films and other assorted B-pictures.
Musician John Zorn and company provide an enchanting score to “Notes On Menken,” further enmeshing us into her dreamlike world. Many of Menken’s contemporaries contribute insights into her illustrious career as do many Warhol colleagues such as Billy Name, who designed Warhol’s silver factory; Gerard Malanga, who collaborated on Warhol’s three minute screen tests; and actress/artist Mary Woronov who was one of his “Superstars.” Woronov subsequently became an actress in a slew of B pictures and some Hollywood fare but what was most enchanting was finding out she had roles in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” and Ti West’s “House of the Devil.”
San Francisco experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger of “Scorpio Rising“ fame (his biography is a fascinating read) furnishes memories along with Jonas Mekas (his “Movie Journal” is an equally fascinating read and an exemplary diary of attending underground films). We also get to see Kenneth Anger physically etching into film frame by frame as he weighs in as well.
But for me, the most compelling part of this documentary is the revelation that Marie Menken and her husband, poet Willard Maas, were the basis for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That I did not know. Or at least don’t remember knowing. Before I lost track of it, I was reading a fascinating book on the history of that classic play and now I wonder if that amazing fact was brought up in the book. Marie and Willard were notorious weekend bingers, going steady from Friday into Monday. Often times they would be at college faculty cocktail parties and Mr. Albee would be there, enthralled by the couple’s intoxicated sparrings while making judicious mental notes to himself. Marie/Martha. Kenneth Anger confirms that, “They expressed themselves by drinking and shouting at each other.” Well, we got a hell of a play from it. Ironically Menken and Waas had a child that died. And the dramatic subtext of “Virginia Woolf” is an imaginary child. Albee was a voyeur of a real-life psychodrama and subsequently turned it into a revolutionary work on the stage. Amazing.
Menken’s films remain a cultural time capsule seen through the prism of an avant-garde lens and included on the DVD are three of her works: “Visual Variations On Noguchi” (1945), “Glimpses of the Garden” (1957), and “Arabesque For Kenneth Anger” (1958-61). Elsewhere, seek out “Notebook” (1962), her most famous film of her prodigious career.