Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Film Joy: Marielle Nitoslawska on Carolee Schneemann

Breaking The Frame: A film by Marielle Nitoslawska with Carolee Schneemann

Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave., New York, NY 10003

Still from Breaking The Frame: A film by Marielle Nitoslawska with Carolee Schneemann
Still from Breaking The Frame: A film by Marielle Nitoslawska with Carolee Schneemann

At first there’s something ominous about the commentary of Marielle Nitoslawska, director and cinematographer of this fulsome, doting portrait of Carolee Schneemann, intoning rhetorical questions at her subject in her mildly lugubrious Polish-accented voice, repeating Schneemann’s words back to her as she reads from diaries and historic statements.  It smacks of self-indulgent intrusion into what is an already dense and layered oeuvre.  But just when you are ready to call out “enough already” several scenes into this approximately 100 minute movie, the director seems actually to hear you because suddenly she pretty much hands over the mike to Schneemann.  And then you realize why Nitoslawska had to be heard from early on, and identified as the hand behind the insistently hand-held camera: the film is so much about one woman claiming for all women their voice and their place within art HIS-story that conferring authorship on the film as a distinct artifact is an ethical imperative.

Schneemann occupies a unique position in the art of the last half century in part because she is nestled between a late 1950s Happenings sensibility, which was as much a last gasp of abstract expressionism as it was the harbinger of something new, and the process, performance and conceptual art of the 1960s of which Schneemann herself was a pioneer.  Schneemann touchingly recounts her first visit, alone, to the Philadelphia Museum at age 11 (she grew up in rural Pennsylvania the daughter of a country doctor) in which she strays into an art class in the basement and is set up with her own easel.  She hears the word “gestalt” from the teacher, the second big important German word to enter her life after her family name, she says.

A painterly touch underscores everything she does quite regardless of medium even as her art turns upon feminist, ecological, political and diaristic axes.  We get a sense of working and reworking, of finding shapes and teasing boundaries in her photo-based work, her installations, her experimental film work, her moving tribute and act of solidarity in “Hand/Heart for Ana Mendiata” (1986) as she goes out into the snow to paint in blood, and of course in her legendary performances such as the orgiastic “Meat Joy” (1964) and the ritualistic “Interior Scroll” (1974).  While there is little doubt of the scholarly and linguistic depth of Schneemann’s researches she comes across as almost a mystic of feminism, her art a kind of witches brew.

Still from Breaking The Frame: A film by Marielle Nitoslawska with Carolee Schneemann
Still from Breaking The Frame: A film by Marielle Nitoslawska with Carolee Schneemann

Nitoslawska deserves special credit for the way her film is about more than the artist’s oeuvre and impact without resorting to mawkish biography.  The film manages to be, in a very liberated way, romantic.  It is, in fact, a matrix of free-love stories – there is her love for her first companion, the late composer James Tenney, whose music almost forms a second subject, exquisitely energizing the narrative arc of Schneemann’s career; her interactions with subsequent overlapping lovers Anthony McCall and Bruce McPherson, their triangulation being the subject of “ABC – We Print Anything – In the Cards” (1977); her devotion to her cats, from whom she learns so much; and ultimately, and especially, for her house in the Hudson Valley, a failed farm given her by relatives, whose almost haunted decay provides Nitoslawska’s lustrous cinematography its intriguing, sumptuous opening shots.

Still, the film’s occasional excess of “artiness” can feel like a tactical error, as the art it frames is already so visceral and expressive.  It is not that one would want a Ken Burns deal for Carolee Schneemann, but the job of placing her where she belongs in the canon is so much a work in progress that the documentary convention of titles and dates with vintage footing would have served the subject well.  Again, however, its somewhat a-chronological organization is of a piece with the career it chronicles, with its revisiting of earlier efforts, its collaging of old works.  The most painterly of new media artists, Carolee Schneemann constantly dips her brush, so to speak, into her own archive.