#9: Are You Still Watching? Experimental Edition 🌱
A spring special on experimental film: underappreciated filmmaker, Storm De Hirsch, an ode to Michael Snow's Walking Woman, and a round-up of In The Mood's experimental pieces
On Storm De Hirsch
by Brandon Kaufman
The New York underground film scene of the sixties stands as one of America’s most significant contributions to the art of moving images. Despite being a central figure in its organization and development, the filmmaker Storm De Hirsch is often excluded from histories of the movement. In To Free the Cinema, David E. James’ remarkable and otherwise comprehensive account of the New York underground, De Hirsch is mentioned only in footnote. However, De Hirsch was much more than just an organizer of film culture. Mysticism and sex helix through her singular short films, and she is equally at home in abstraction as she is in sensuous fleshiness. De Hirsch’s body of work beguiles and often evades categorization. It deserves greater recognition.
Born Lilian Malkin in 1912, De Hirsch established herself as a fixture of the Greenwich Village poetry scene by the mid-fifties. She wrote columns for Intro Bulletin magazine and in 1955, published her first collection of poems, Alleh Lulled Cockatoo. De Hirsch was a medium, and these incantatory poems reflect her interest in the occult.
In the fifties, De Hirsch’s husband, Louis Brigante, introduced her to Jonas Mekas, a recent emigre and fellow poet who planned to make his first film. He encouraged De Hirsch to take up filmmaking. When she did, in 1962, Mekas became a vocal champion of her work.
“My way of getting into films was simply by association, by knowing so many filmmakers, sitting and discussing with them and wondering what in hell they were making such a big fuss about,” De Hirsch later said in conversation with Shirley Clarke. The best of her early films is A Reticule of Love, from 1963. The short at first seems slight—shot on Super 8, it resembles an old home movie taken at a pretty lake house. Knifelike boughs cut in and out of the frame as De Hirsch probes a lakeside tree. She pans across a small garden of white and red roses that curl around a marble fountain. De Hirsch then begins to find frames for these brief glimpses using her camera’s shallow depth of field. Two wooden planks of a fence in the foreground look like they encase the lake’s ripples in the background. In this way, De Hirsch creates naturally occurring “reticles,” or the measurement lines of an optical device (such as a cross-hair). Her framing provides order for her images and functions like the stanzas of her digressive verse.
Goodbye in the Mirror (1964) is an aberration in Storm De Hirsch’s oeuvre. It is a feature-length narrative film about three women in Rome. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary wrote that it was “perhaps the first full-length American independent film of direct feminist interest.” This was the most directly De Hirsch ever engaged with gender, though The Tattooed Man (1969), with its cryptic images of men locked in enclosures, lends itself to feminist readings.
De Hirsch did not identify as a feminist filmmaker. When making films, she said, “I become both man and woman or either one.” She makes clear it is not “a sexlessness, but rather an awareness of the sexuality involved.” This sexuality is key to Divinations (1964), one of her most abstract films. De Hirsch etched and painted directly onto the film stock, erupting each frame in colour. De Hirsch’s touch constitutes this sensual mode of filmmaking. It eliminates the unfeeling camera and does away with cinema’s mechanical mediation.
There were practical reasons for this method. De Hirsch was less established than her male colleagues—her films did not screen at international festivals, and she did not receive the publicity Mekas and his lawless coterie did—so she lacked the resources to purchase new film stock and pay a lab’s processing fees. Instead, she manipulated “old, unused film stock and several rolls of 16mm sound tape.”
This technique was more broadly an indication of the financial precariousness of non-mainstream art. These financial hurdles of film production, exhibition, and preservation led De Hirsch, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage, and more to form the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. The artist-run organization would preserve and distribute its members’ work. It would also pool funds to help its members create films.
Where those other three filmmakers benefited from avant-garde canonization, De Hirsch has been consigned to obscurity, even among those familiar with her scene. One reason is that De Hirsch retired from film and poetry in the mid-seventies. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the eighties and was unable to work. She died in 2000.
Her withdrawal is not the sole reason for her obscurity. Peyote Queen (1965), De Hirsch’s best-known work, holds a few clues about her uncertain place in the history of American experimental film. The short film consists of four kaleidoscopic images of a woman’s breasts accompanied by African drums, along with De Hirsch’s characteristic painting and etching. It is sometimes cloying in its psychedelia, and there is a linking of nature, biology, and femininity that roots it firmly in the essentialism of white, second-wave feminist discourse.
I am nevertheless a fan of the film. In one sequence, De Hirsch appears to smash jewels into the lens. Some quartz refracts shards of pale orange, the labradorite a cool blue. Elsewhere, she places the kaleidoscope before her face to achieve a perfectly symmetrical round of eyes. She oscillates between the aleatoric and the hyper-stylized in a cinema that seems to play with fate: now she embraces it, now she relinquishes it.
De Hirsch was an occultist, sure, but a poet and filmmaker through and through. She had a painter’s understanding of framing and colour and assimilated her images to this vision. She understood that film preservation is a bulwark against the photochemical process’s ravages, and archivism a refusal to let non-mainstream art slip into obscurity. Her films may be obscure, but her prudence allowed for their continued survival.
Brandon Kaufman is a filmmaker and writer based in Toronto.
On Michael Snow’s Walking Woman
by Gabrielle Marceau
Who are you in love with?
Straight against the light I cross.
—Frank O'Hara, "Walking to Work"
My feet tend to hurt: I dislike practical shoes but I like walking. Well, I’ve learned to like it. I despised it as a young person, nothing exemplified the tediousness of life more than getting somewhere step by laborious step, to only turn around and go back again. It was actually only a few weeks ago that I was telling someone that I hate walking. But yesterday, coming back from a park by the lake, I exclaimed to my boyfriend, without thinking, “I love walking!” I am a woman, so I change my mind.
Speaking of changeable things, Micheal Snow’s Walking Woman, a multimedia project that spans years (but is generally pinned down in the ‘60s), features a woman who both changes and stays the same, that is her charm. Our minds love recognition, to see a familiar face (although our self-consciousness leads us to pretend we haven’t seen them on the street, to avoid conversation). Her materials may change, the context may change, but there is still her unmistakable stride: she’s an icon.
Her stride: We can see her legs, we can see her arms, she’s swinging. The form is static but there’s an unmistakable elan (from lancer, a walk that is also a throw). Now that I look at her, she has kind of a big ass (Snow described the project as “20 years of ogling.”) and her calves are quite muscular (from all that walking!) Sometimes there is the slight flip of a hem at her knee, sometimes she seems bottomless. The Walking Woman has no feet, so she has to be carried from one place to the next (like a queen!) She still has somewhere to be.
Snow would object to my use of personal pronouns. He had a sense of humour, but maybe not a sense of romance. When an interviewer for Toronto Life calls the silhouette “she” Snow was baffled: “It’s not a she, it’s a figure.” Ok fine, but let’s call it something more feminine, let’s call it the silhouette.
I love when the silhouette steps out in the city. I love to see normal women around her, performing the daily duties that the Walking Woman “embodies” (and gently parodies). In a series of photographs, the silhouette “walks” from the subway platform, to the landing of the staircase, to the entrance, and finally the sidewalk, where it waits for the green light so it can cross the street (heading to its next appointment, a drink in a hotel bar, or maybe home).
Ok I can't avoid “she”. Maybe to Snow, the Walking Woman is a figure—cut out of advertisement, pasted onto billboards, welded in steel, captured in photographs, drawn in frottage—but to me she is the woman, enterprising, insouciant, dressed-up: she is fanfic.
When I was 24, my gay roommates and I would go out on Saturday mornings (by which I mean midday) for a walk. We were ostensibly getting coffee, but really we were leaving to stroll down Queen Street, running into acquaintances, ducking into shops, trying on sunglasses. We were like the characters in some Theodore Dreiser novel, going on a promenade in the city. Industry sent women to the city, and to city streets, to walk through parks and sit in restaurants (maybe taking the table at the window to watch the people passing, catching glimpses of her).
One of my favourite Walking Woman pieces is the one where a young woman coming out of a subway station has stopped dead in her tracks in front of the silhouette, she’s in a slight recoil as if she were backing away from a predator. But it is more like she has met her match: the woman also has a big, ‘60s bouffant, and a knee-length outfit, and she is blonde (I always imagine the Walking Woman as a blonde). She herself looks like a kind of archetype, stepped out of the pages of a magazine.
On her birthday one year, my father gave my mother a brushed silver brooch cutout of the Walking Woman (by cutout I mean the woman would be composed of whatever shirt my mother was wearing at the time, another way she becomes changeable). I still covet it, the way kids covet their parent’s things, and I check online for a copy of it, which is always out of stock. It’s probably for the best, I don't actually know how to pull off a brooch.
While writing this, I came across an incredible image of a woman looking up at a massive stainless steel sculpture of the silhouette, a few silhouettes actually, standing in a kind of circle refracted as if in a hall of mirrors. The woman has stopped, her hand still on the stroller she was pushing. I remember that the sculpture is at the AGO, a few minutes away from the library where I am working. So I head over there, hoping to reflect on seeing her in person, seeing myself in her mirrored surface. But the sculpture isn’t up right now, she’s tucked away somewhere. At the gift shop, I bought a print of her given a technical, but nevertheless evocative, title, “Test Focus Field Figure”. Here she is filled out, in a tight black dress with a square neck, a bangle drawn onto her wrist, and her hair drawn blonde.
I didn’t get to respond to her in the flesh, but walking out of the Gallery which houses Snow's archive (dozens of silhouettes lying between tissue paper), I caught a glimpse of myself walking in the building’s glass facade, heading home to put the print into a frame. She’s going somewhere. She’s got somewhere to go.
Gabrielle Marceau is the Editor-in-Chief of In the Mood Magazine.
Ballet Mécanique (1924)
by Nara Wriggs
Somehow in the 2.5 years which have spanned my Visual Studies undergrad so far I’ve seen Ballet Mécanique seven times. That’s an average of 1.4 times a semester. So now it feels valid to claim that “I AM THE OFFICIAL EXPERT ON THIS EXPERIMENTAL FILM FROM 1920s FRANCE WHICH EXPLORES THE EXCITEMENTS OF LIVING THROUGH MODERNITY! STOP CHARGING ME THOUSANDS IN TUITION AND JUST GIVE ME MY DEGREE!”
For some, this abstract work may inspire thoughts of all the artistic possibilities which filmmaking possesses. For me, it’s a frustrating reminder of where it all went wrong, that is, the industrial beginnings of late stage capitalism. The rotating fractals, the spinning machinery, the repetitive cycles of imagery are all threats that I will have to be back here next year, sitting in a lecture hall with the lights dimmed. Words, images, and philosophies being hurled at me faster than I can keep up. And I’m the camera. Sitting by idly, just hoping that I can keep up with it all.
In a way Ballet Mécanique managed to write the thesis of my post-secondary education a hundred years ago. Like contemporary life, academia consumes and overwhelms. And it just gets more annoying and means less the longer you have to deal with it.
Nara Wriggs does most of their writing between serving lattes.
by Nora Rosenthal
I’m revisiting Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation on the eve of making a documentary about my family, searching for insights from someone so unflinching, someone whose mashup of personal archive and collective, cultural archive, becomes a stream of consciousness from which it is impossible to look away.
To begin: one stream of consciousness stream-of-consciousness engenders another, and Caouette’s grandmother gnaws her fingers exactly the same way mine did. I find myself rewatching this moment, this point of connection, over and over again. I know I’m not the first to seek out my own family in Caouette’s, or to see his mom Renee as some flickering protean being: her face becoming that of all the women I’ve met who were also Renee.
If time and space could collapse for just a moment, we might assume Gena Rowlands was embodying Renee when she played Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence, made 29 years before Tarnation. It’s as if one of those three Longhetti kids had been filming at Cassavetes’ knees, had somehow been considering since childhood what it means that Mom’s stories might be half truth and half delusion.
Tarnation is an ethically imperfect film, like any film about one’s family. Love muddies documentary ethics. And when there is love and something else, something darker, as is so often the case in families, then it can be hard not to just throw up one’s hands and scream and give up on the whole venture. When and how does someone with significant mental illness sign off on their own image? If Caouette showed less of himself it might be easy to accuse him of voyeurism, but he is no less laid bare, and maybe that's the best answer I can glean about how to make a no-less-imperfect film about those close to me: to show myself again and again.
Tarnation could simply be a movie about suffering, but it isn’t. Hovering on the margins of the story at all times is Renee, and her willingness to take part, to reveal herself. Once, Caouette calls after her: “Will you just help me with my stupid film?” And she does.
Nora Rosenthal is a writer and filmmaker and the editor-in-chief of Rat Chat magazine.
by Emmalea Russo
That’s winter hovering above the steps.
At its back, the ocean. Blue ground below
red sun above held by its opposite white.
Hands peel eggs, drink from ceramic cups, smoke
cigarettes, tilt, lift, flutter in the film
playing at its entrance. She reads a med
ieval guidebook on how to grow a soul
simply or grow a simple soul. Not easy.
🥚 Read the rest here →
Feeling Audacious? Sarah Fonseca recommends Pink Narcissus (1971)
Relinquishing one’s grip on closely guarded fantasies is a prerequisite for creating enduring queer cinema; yet it remains a hazardous one. Freely convey your greatest desires to the masses and risk being perceived as the sum of your erotic amoralities and little else. But hold these private affairs too closely and risk being seen and portrayed as something far worse: irreversibly impotent and out of touch. Fifty years ago, rather than trying to strike an impossible balance between queer lust and queer discretion, Pink Narcissus dismissed these tedious scales of justice—in favour of a gilded telephone, hat rack, phonograph, and mirrors (of course). By deciding to release his first film anonymously after an editing snafu, Bidgood guaranteed his decadent picture a full life, largely free from pointed intimations regarding his own moral fibre.
As night sets over a garden of earthly delights, a striking fellow languishes in his boudoir above a reconceived Times Square where every pedestrian is a man who beds other men. Played by an unknown named Don Brooks, the gent flows in and out of his own taffy-colored fantasies: a leather daddy here, a belly dancer there, and a torero in-between; all rock hard in every imaginable way. Everything in Pink Narcissus is about sex and one’s hankerings for it; that all-natural, innately pure desire that makes us all as wild as the daffodils blooming in the moonlight.
Sarah Fonseca is a writer and editor based in New York City.
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