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Posts Tagged ‘Experimental Cinema’

A Few Words on Marie Menken

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Marie Menken was a someone whom I knew in the 1960s; when I was working at the now-defunct Life magazine as a contributor in the late 60s, writing on experimental cinema, Marie was working there too, watching the teletype machines on the night shift to see if anything important came in — it wasn’t her passion in life, but it was a living.

Her real life was the cinema. She’d been making experimental films since the 1940s. In this, she is one of the pioneers of American experimental cinema, along with Maya Deren, whom I blogged on earlier. As critic Jonas Mekas observed, “The realist sees only the front of a building, the outlines, a street, a tree. Marie Menken sees in them the motion of time and eye. She sees the motions of heart in a tree. … A rain that she sees, a tender rain, becomes the memory of all rains she ever saw; a garden that she sees becomes a memory of all gardens, all color, all perfume, all mid-summer and sun.”

Some of her key films include:

Notebook (1940–62, in which she collected her favorite shots and scenes in a sort of moving scrapbook); Hurry! Hurry! (1957); Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958–1961); Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945); Dwightiana (1958–59, a stop motion animation film made to comfort a sick friend); Glimpse of the Garden (1962, one of her most lovely films); and Andy Warhol (1965), in which Menken compressed a day at the factory into 22 minutes, through the use of single-frame photography, so that everything moves by in a blur of ecstatic motion.

Marie Menken dancing with Tennessee Williams at The Factory

By that time, Marie had drifted firmly into the orbit of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and appeared as an actor in a number of his films, most memorably The Life of Juanita Castro (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966). But it was in her own films as a director that her spirit shone forth most brightly. All of Menken’s films are very short; they’re really cinematic poems, in which Menken becomes one with whatever she’s filming. A superb documentary has been made of her life, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), by Martina Kudláček; recommended viewing.

Here’s a link to her film Arabesque for Kenneth Anger.

John and James Whitney

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The Whitney Brothers at work on an early film. Photo: Carl Machover.

John and James Whitney were pioneering artists and experimental filmmakers; here’s a link to an excellent survey of their work, and of abstract imagist filmmaking. The Whitney Brothers were among the very first, and the most inventive, in harnessing the power of computers to create images of dazzling, trancelike beauty, as in James Whitney’s Lapis (1966). I’m also partial to their earlier works, such as John Whitney’s Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952), an abstract animation set to a popular song of the period.

As this very interesting website notes, “In the early 1960s digital computers became available to artists for the first time (although they cost from $100.000 to several millions, required air conditioning, and therefore located in separate computer rooms, uninhabitable studio’; programs and data had to be prepared with the keypunch, punch cards then fed into the computer; systems were not interactive and could produce only still images). The output medium was usually a pen plotter, microfilm plotter (hybrid bwn vector CRT and a raster image device), line printer or an alphanumeric printout, which was then manually transferred into a visual medium. [The] two main centers of computer art activities [at the time were]: The Murray Hill lab, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, us (now AT&T) and Technische Universitat Stuttgart, de (Max Bense).”

Click on the image above to see James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) in its entirety.

Jerome Hiler

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Jerome Hiler in 1970

Jerome Hiler might be called the phantom of the cinema. I have known Jerry since about 1965, when I borrowed his Bolex to shoot a film of my own at St. Theresa’s Church across the street from his apartment, and even then, living on the lower East Side in a small flat, he had already amassed many hours of gorgeous 16mm footage, all neatly edited into related segments on large stacks of 400′ reels; I sat there, entranced, for hours, watching his work, all of it silent, which knocked me out then, and does still.

But Jerome is a very private person, and doesn’t really feel like sharing his work with the world — at least for the most part. I may be one of perhaps 100 people who have seen several hours of his work; in the mid 1980s, I sent him several thousand feet of outdated 16mm raw stock, Ektachrome reversal film, and he promptly went out and shot several brilliant short films with it, including one called Acid Rock, so named because near the start of the film, the camera passes over a trolley car with the words “acid rock” scratched on it.

The film consists of three rolls of film straight out of the camera, with only three splices in the completed film, to put them together to make a 9 minute silent film of almost indescribable beauty. To my knowledge, this was the first film he exhibited publicly, sometime in the early 1990s; and, at this point, Jerome had been making films for nearly forty years. Since then, Jerry has changed the title of the film to Gladly Given, and expanded it “a bit from three rolls at this point.”

When I wrote about Jerry’s work in my book The Exploding Eye, I did a long interview with him for the book, and then asked him to send some stills from his work. He laughed, and responded, “that’s like saying to a poet, ’send me a word’ — I can’t do it.” I laughed too, but on a certain level I understood. At 24 frames per second, one image can hardly capture the essence of an entire film, no matter how evocative it might be.

Lately, Jerome has been into stained glass rather than film, although he recently completed a feature film, Music Makes a City, and he also teaches and lectures from time to time, but of course, I wish he would hold a marathon screening of his work, just as it is — pull out any ten or twelve 400′ reels, and run them for an unforgettable evening.

Lloyd Michael Williams

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Lloyd Michael Williams was one of the many experimental filmmakers working in New York during the 1960s; his most complex and personal film is Line of Apogee. However, he also made a series of delightful shorts, of which Wipes (1963), winner of the Grand Prize at the Canyon Cinema Film Festival in 1964, is perhaps the most accessible, and at a running time of one minutes, easily fits into nearly anyone’s schedule.

You can view it here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or Visit him at his website,

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