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Facing Human Expression: Women & American Experimental Cinema

June 26, 2010

Chicago is an exciting place to be right now for viewing experimental cinema, both old and new. Namely, the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival has just ended, and the Chicago Underground Film Festival has just begun. Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure to attend an Onion City screening at Chicago Filmmakers that paid tribute to three amazing women who passed away in the last year—JoAnn Elam, Chick Strand and Callie Angell. The Elam and Strand were both filmmakers, working out of Chicago and San Francisco, respectively, and Angell was the curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The screening was a compilation of a number of short titles, including Elam’s Lie Back and Enjoy It, Strand’s Cartoon le Mousse and Warhol’s Shoulder and Four of Andy’s Most Beautiful Women as well as newer works similar to these classics in both structure and subject matter. One common thread that ran through a number of films was the choice to focus in on women’s faces, drawing attention to their slightest physical expressions for the purpose of subtle social commentary.

Now, in mainstream cinema, it would seem that we see this all the time. The close-up shot, as opposed to the medium shot, full shot or long shot, has been used for almost a century to illustrate the emotions being felt by characters on screen. Today, the amount of attention and detail that goes into capturing this emotion just right—through make-up, lighting, framing and acting—is exorbitant. The difference in the use of close-ups between these more typical examples and in these experimental films, however, is manifold. Namely, they are there to be appreciated in and of themselves, rather than as catalytic sources of information within a narrative. This isolating of the image of the face of a woman allows us to look closely and carefully at what is there and see more clearly what is being conveyed, whether consciously or not, through the brief twitches of the eyes, mouth and cheeks of a woman’s face. This, in turn, causes us to recognize before us an unique individual and a shared human means of expression.

Andy Warhol’s Four of Andy’s Most Beautiful Women (1964) demonstrates this perfectly. Though not as slow as some notoriously long Warhol films, this film spends fifteen minutes closely examining the faces of four women, one after the other, thus devoting almost four minutes to each face. The film is in black and white. Each woman is facing the camera head-on, at just a slight angle. The shot, which is steady and constant for the entire time, frames each of their faces, capturing just the top of their shoulders and most of their heads and hair. For four minutes a blonde stares into the lens of the camera and the viewer stares back, then a brunette, then another blonde, and finally another brunette. And at first glance this is all that we see, a stereotypically attractive, sixties styled woman. We note how much make-up she is wearing, our eyes linger on her hairstyle. But after long, we cannot help but to see more. She isn’t blinking much, she’s barely moved, she must be incredibly uncomfortable, in fact, it can almost be seen in her eyes. She now seems vulnerable, no longer the intimidating mask of beauty but an exposed individual. The cutting to the second woman confirms this, as two minutes into her shot, we see tears begin to form in her eyes and first one tear from her left eye and then a second from her right slowly drop and roll down her cheek to her chin. We are forced to confront two more women in such a manner, and afterwards cannot think of them as gorgeous models but women, raw and exposed under the humiliating glare of the camera. They have not been stripped or abused, but almost might have well been, the subtlety of Warhol’s camerawork carrying with it such an unimaginable poignancy.

Jesse McLean’s Somewhere Only We Know (2009) puts an interesting spin on this motif. For her film, McLean has not shot her own footage but borrowed that of recent reality TV shows, bringing together through editing tens of clips of contestants’ faces as they await to hear whether they’ve been eliminated or not. The film, as described on the Video Data Bank website, “distill[s] moments of sincerity from perhaps insincere sources.” No matter what one thinks about reality TV and its hallmark shallowness, in watching these short clips brought together in rapid succession, we see the same gestures, the same shrugs, the same movement of the eyes, and human qualities of expression are revealed as inescapable. Like in Warhol’s film, many of the woman shown are dolled up beauties but become, this time through editing rather than framing of lengthy single shots, exemplars of emotion and affect. Somewhere only we know (excerpt) from Jesse McLean on Vimeo.

JoAnne Elam’s Lay Back and Enjoy It (1982), however, provides a nice contrast to these two films, taking up in its dialogue-heavy soundtrack and appropriation of soft pornographic images reproduced through optical printing the feminist mantra that films objectify women. As framed images of a woman’s face scroll by, we hear a conversation develop between a man and a woman. He is expressing his desire to make a film about their relationship and she is arguing that doing so would be an inherently sexist act. He would become the active creator and she the passive muse. He tries to explain that all he wants to do is make art, while she raises serious questions as to why for men this always means filming the beautiful women in their lives and reducing them to an image. Witty and hard-hitting, the film is an impactful extrapolation on feminist thought of the time. Paired with the Warhol and McLean films, it develops our reading of them while simultaneously demonstrating the limits of its own argument. Sure, Warhol’s film turns four women into flat, black and white pictures of themselves—it doesn’t give us their names, tell us what they do, what they like, we don’t even get to hear them speak—but it also does more than that. The time in which we are asked to look upon them forces us to see them in detail and in effect to relate to them; each is not just a stereotype but an individual, sharing her thoughts and her emotions through the most subtle of expressions. In McLean’s case, women that we might otherwise think of as practically fictional and/or judge for their life decisions—they chose to be on this silly show—become in these collected brief glimpses real and relatable.

Last night, Chuck Workman’s documentary about the founding and sustaining of the American avant-garde film scene, Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde, opened at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. I had the pleasure of seeing it early and reviewing it for Chicago Art Magazine and enjoyed it so much the first time that I went and saw it again in the theater last night. While, like most spheres of cultural production, the American avant-garde has tended to be dominated by men, it has also provided a space for some extremely creative and politically engaging work by women to be made and seen, and the documentary features Su Friedrich, a contemporary filmmaker whose work addresses patriarchal family structures, body issues and lesbian sexuality, as well as Maya Deren, the “mother” of the American avant-garde, heavily. In the name of appreciating female bodies and recognizing their constant struggles with oppression, I would like to leave you with the apt words of Maya Deren as quoted speaking about her work therein:

“That is, it is what is happening that is important in my films, not what is at any moment. This is a woman’s time sense. The strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. And a woman’s is to wait. She’s had to wait.  She had to wait 9 months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness. And she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming.”

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