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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.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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 wdixon1@unl.edu.

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