MARIE MENKEN was six-foot-two and hefty, with a foghorn voice that could silence a room, but she made films whose delicacy was their surprise. “Marie’s films were her flower garden,” wrote Jonas Mekas, in his obituary for Menken, who died in 1970 at age sixty-one. “Whenever she was in her garden she opened her soul, with all her secret wishes and dreams. They are all very colorful and sweet and perfect, and not too bulky, all made and tended with love, her little movies.”
Some of these colorful and, yes, perfectly formed—but never sweet—movies are included in the “Essential Cinema” collection of Anthology Film Archives. Nevertheless, Menken is rarely if ever mentioned in the company of the giants of twentieth-century postwar avant-garde filmmakers. In Martina Kudláček’s Notes on Marie Menken (2006), however, many of those giants not only express their admiration for Menken’s films but also describe the profound influence her work had on their own. Mekas, who gave Menken her first solo film show in 1961, confides that her handheld 16-mm notations of “nothing spectacular, everything usual and daily” was a direct influence on his own work. “She was doing what I didn’t dare.” Stan Brakhage extends the compliment: “If there is a single filmmaker I owe most to for the development of my own filmmaking,” he says, “it would be Marie Menken.” And there are similarly effusive, certainly not unwarranted but nevertheless surprising, tributes from the Austrian filmmaker/archivist Peter Kubelka and from Kenneth Anger, who at the time he discovered the biker subculture of Scorpio Rising (1964) was living with Menken and her husband, the poet and filmmaker Willard Maas, in their Brooklyn Heights apartment.
During her lifetime, Menken’s work was overshadowed by her flamboyant persona and odd-couple marriage, which was the inspiration for the battling Martha and George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Maas was gay, part of a circle of artists and writers that formed an “Alt” salon to the doggedly hetero Cedar Bar. Maas’s sexuality seemingly did not interfere with his devotion to Menken; when she died, he was so devastated that he followed her just four days later. They both held full-time jobs—Menken worked the night shift in the communications department at Time magazine—but on the weekends, they drank spectacularly and fought nonstop.
Kudláček composed Notes . . . largely by intercutting interviews with Menken’s colleagues and friends with clips from her subject’s films. The clips are well chosen, and Kudláček uses longer segments than are usual in this genre of filmmaker portrait. One gets a good sense of Menken’s refined sense of her movies’ internal rhythms—the interplay between camera movement and the dance of color and light. As a painter, Menken often covered the surface of her canvas with sequins and bits of broken glass so that they shimmered into a life in time, but as the painter/filmmaker Alfred Leslie observes, it was not until she picked up a movie camera that she found her true medium. There is not much film of Menken herself, but the bits are choice and include a few seconds of Menken’s turn in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) where she plays Gerard Malanga’s harridan of a mother. Malanga supplies many fond memories of Menken at the Factory. Warhol, who was also one of her fans, is seen in a deteriorated clip (the chemical changes in the celluloid an echo of Menken’s kaleidoscopic color effects) fighting a rooftop duel with Menken, their 16-mm Bolexes simultaneously turned, like weapons, on each other. An audio recording of Menken singing “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye” in her pitch-perfect rough-edged alto provides a fittingly heartbreaking but unsentimental exit.