Notes on Marie Menken
2006Director: Martina Kudlácek
Cast: Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol
t the risk of hyperbolizing myself out of the realm of credibility, I would like to say that Marie Menken’s short films are some of the most beautiful works of art I have experienced in some time. Ms. Menken worked primarily with a Bolex (a camera with the ability to snap one image at a time, frame by frame). With an impeccable eye for offhand compositions and naturally occurring psychedelia, she animated her way through strange environments, pointing, pirouetting, and documenting with the grace and rhythm of a ballerina. You can imagine the results.
So in a sense, it’s a shame that Martina Kudlácek’s documentary Notes on Marie Menken does not chronicle the life of this little known artist exclusively via the copious amounts of now rusted celluloid she left in her wake. There is a credible chunk of Menken’s oeuvre incorporated into the film, interspersed between often pleasant and sometimes insightful interviews with the artists with whom she kept close company, including fellow experimental filmmakers Kenneth Anger (Magik Lantern Cycle), Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man), and Jonas Mekas (founder of the invaluable Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan). Mr. Anger was a regular at the Menken household, and his accounts of her legendary quarrels with poet-husband Willard Maas are quite entertaining. In fact, upon witnessing the jousts, playwright Edward Albee was inspired to write theatrical heavyweights Martha and George of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The documentary has a few shortcomings. It is a little indulgent, not necessarily while exploring the life and work of Menken, but certainly so when Kudlácek tries in vain to channel Menken’s spirit with her own ‘artful’ segues. They bog down the film’s pace and pale in comparison to the subject’s work. Kudlácek also has a strong tendency to meander, and not in the good way. Near the end of the piece, she follows Menken’s surrogate son Gerard Malanga as he visits his biological father’s gravesite. The trip is a distracting sidetrack and draws our attention away from the person we care most about. No offense, Mr. Malanga.
What is most inspiring about the documentary is how seamlessly Menken integrated her art into her every day life. It was neither a chore nor an obligation to consistently generate output, but rather a lifestyle. Menken carried her camera everywhere she went, and was hardly strapped for interesting material, thanks in part to the crowd she ran with. The documentary includes some utterly phenomenal footage of Andy Warhol creating the legendary screen prints in his 87th St. studio. These pieces have ubiquitously infiltrated pop-culture and are so iconic that it is something of a relief to be reminded that they were, in fact, created by a human being.
The highlight of the film is the Dueling Bolex piece. Enchanted by Menken’s work, Warhol asked if she would teach him the mechanics of operating the camera. Menken agreed and the result is a staggering 101 sequence atop Menken’s apartment building. As the sun sets, she and Warhol play, each artist exuding delight. The sister pieces are frivolous, euphoric, and disarmingly candid. The shock of seeing Warhol so unguarded is alone worth the price of admission.
I suppose that what Menken’s career ultimately boils down to is a convincing plea for “Art for Art’s Sake.” Kudos to Kudlácek for managing to contain this vital aspect of the subject’s work and double kudos for introducing Ms. Menken to a larger audience.
Notes on Marie Menken is currently playing in limited release.
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-03-06