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Daughters of Chaos (dir. Marjorie Keller, US, 1980).

Courtesy of Film-Makers Cooperative





Rescuing the Fragmentary Evidence of Womens Experimental Film

Robin Blaetz

I would take the assignment of forming an archive literally and preserve for the future all of the celluloid and videotape with which women lmmakers have worked outside of the lm industry. The completed lms would surely be included, but the fragments never used in nished works due to shortages of time, money, and attention would be as well. These bits of lm collected as notebooks by Marie Menken and Marjorie Keller, to name just two reveal the vision and the thinking of women encountering a particularly felicitous medium for the representation of their experience. The immediacy of the process of lming and the ability of lm to suggest repetition, lacunae, and varieties of pace were ideal for representing the heightened awareness of daily life spurred by feminism. For it was the banal and evanescent routines of life in the home and the garden, of raising children and preparing food, of encountering other human beings whether intimately or at an unreachable distance with which this footage and the nished lms are lled. The images themselves are records of both what and how women saw when they were unenCamera Obscura 63, Volume 21, Number 3 doi 10.1215/02705346-2006-016 2006 by Camera Obscura Published by Duke University Press



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cumbered by fast rules of how lms should be made and look, as lmmakers were in earlier days of 8mm and 16mm lm production. The actual lms by Menken, Keller, and many others often assemble these loose records into pieces that capture experience through elaborate formal play. The resulting documents, experimental in form and profoundly evocative, are lms that I do not want to lose. The reasons that these lms are so little known and literally in need of nding an archival home are myriad. At the simplest level, the products of womens hands seemed literally to fall into the category of craftwork, which was by denition ephemeral and not to be saved as art, despite all that the lms express about what it meant to be human in a given time and place. In addition, the fact that quite a few of these artists were married to men involved in the American avant-garde almost guaranteed that their work would be dismissed as simple home movie like play with the camera and treated accordingly. But more relevant to a discussion of lm history and feminism is the relative disregard of the work by scholars of both avant-garde cinema and feminist lm theory. Historians of industrial cinema can be excused for not acknowledging this work; its aesthetic qualities could not have been further from the clarity of image and linearity of story that narrative lmmaking esteemed. Yet how shortsighted were the scholars of the avant-garde for not realizing that the play with focus, the haphazard framing, the disjunctive editing, and the often abbreviated length found in the lms of Gunvor Nelson, Chick Strand, and others working in the 1960s and beyond were not signs of incompetence but marks of a different vision? It is only in the past several years that Menken has been credited with inuencing Stan Brakhage and others, many of whom have been lionized for half a century for displaying Menken-like qualities, while she was forgotten and her lms allowed to disappear. As if distracted by the apparent ineptitude and perceived opacity of the lms, feminist lm theorists who focused on deconstructing classical Hollywood cinema made only limited attempts to understand the lms that women were making.1 The pleasure and satisfaction derived from elaborating the neat t between the-

Archive for the Future


ories of the gaze and inuential popular lms were understandably seductive. But what of the lms that sought alternate routes to similar goals? Rather than dismantling the familiar structures of narrative cinema in theory or in theoretical lms, these experimental lms made an attempt to disregard the norm altogether. The lms that I want to save did not necessarily repudiate feminist theory, nor did they feel bound to manifest its tenets. Instead it speculated, experimented, and often simply left literal gaps or unreadable density in places in which language that reected womens experiences was lacking. The list of lms and fragments that I would save is far too long to enumerate here; it begins with the work of Menken in the 1950s and would surely include the work of Joyce Wieland, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Barbara Rubin, and Storm de Hirsch, in addition to those mentioned earlier. While the majority of the lms that still exist remain unpreserved and uncataloged, some of them are available. Just go to the dustiest section of the experimental lm distributors Canyon Cinema or Film-Makers Cooperative (in San Francisco and New York, respectively) and follow the scent of deteriorating celluloid. Here you will nd the unstudied and little-exhibited lms made about womens experiences that will be projectable for only a few more years, as the situation now stands. The future, however, is looking brighter. Contributors to my forthcoming anthology of essays, Womens Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, address the work of some of these lmmakers. And I am not alone in actively seeking to preserve the lms that remain and to make them available through digitalization and through projected centers for the study of womens cinema. The Womens Film Preservation Fund has helped preserve the work of Maya Deren, Mary Ellen Bute, Storm de Hirsch, Gunvor Nelson, Anne Severson, and Meredith Monk in recent years. 2 In addition, some of the institutions that have ignored womens cinema to various degrees, including Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and the Pacic Film Archive, have responded to the increased scholarly consideration of the work with greater attention to preservation. The fact


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that it is too late for everything to be saved that the record of womens lmmaking will remain fragmentary should stand as an emblematic part of the history of the cinema.



When feminist scholars considered experimental work, it tended to be by such lmmakers as Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, or Chantal Akerman, whose concerns coincided with those of feminist lm theory. Scholars who have attended to a broader range of women in the avant-garde include Sandy FlittermanLewis, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Alexandra Juhasz. The Womens Film Preservation Funds Web site is www.nywift .org/article.aspx?id=21 (accessed June 2006).


Robin Blaetz is an associate professor and chair of the Film Studies

Program at Mount Holyoke College. She has written Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture (2001) and is completing an anthology titled Womens Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks (forthcoming).