New York

Marjorie Keller

Collective For Living Cinema And Millennium Film Workshop

Marjorie Keller has been making films for over a decade; Daughters of Chaos is her most recent work. With it, she is established as a major filmmaker, perhaps the only major filmmaker the American independent film has produced since the end of the ’60s.

At this critical moment, a part of the feminist movement feels the need to avoid the solidification of a stable or cohesive position. Instead it favors strategies of negation, contradiction, opposition, disjunction; of making visible the invisible, the barely visible, the repressed, suppressed, overlooked. In this these feminists neither claim the possibility of a language outside patriarchy nor accept the terms of patriarchal discourse in defining their own practice.

Because of the possibilities film editing offers in the juxtaposition of image with sound, image with image, sound with sound, and because of the capacity of single images to allow multivalent readings, film is uniquely suited to the articulation of this project, and it is here that Keller’s work is located.

Daughters of Chaos is shot in 16mm, color, partly with a hand-held, partly with a fixed camera, partly in sync sound, partly not. It is approximately 20 minutes long. Its central concern is female bonding; the event it describes is a wedding. This is the powerful contradiction of the film. How, within the institution most repressive to women—marriage—can the practice of female bonding be articulated, when it is necessarily repressed by the patriarchy in the interests of its own authority?

Daughters of Chaos is not a polemical or discursive film. It is highly fragmented, built on rapid and multiple contradictions and shifts of meaning achieved primarily through the juxtapositions and displacements of image and sound. The wedding, of one of Keller’s relatives, is filmed from a peculiar angle—the camera barely makes it through the opening of the tent in which the ceremony is taking place. From its marginal position the camera sees the line of bridesmaids that blocks the groom from view. Keller then surrounds this skewed ceremony with material that builds multiple linkings of women, preadolescent to mature, in peer groups and across generational lines. Two ten-year-olds giggling on a Circle Line boat ride are paired with home-movie footage of Keller, age ten, with a friend on a trip to the Statue of Liberty. A repeated image of a young girl dancing into the water is set against the more restrained movements of a mature woman. A woman singing “I’ll be down to get you in a taxi honey” is played off against the patronizing voice of the wedding minister. There are images of the clear blue sky above the roof of the house, fields of flowers, horses in a meadow. Is it an incredible day for a wedding—or simply an incredible day? And if it is necessary to renounce the wedding, must one then renounce the beautiful day because the two have been inseparably joined in our conditioning?

As the film progresses, the images break down more and more. The voices of the little girls—“No, no, that’s not her”—their laughter, the honking of the boat horn, all cut through the minister’s sermon. At the climax the minister reaches the point of his text, “Man must not divide,” and we see the bride pulled from the line of her attendants (divided from the other women) by the now visible groom.

Keller openly acknowledges two debts to the patriarchy. The first is to her own family. Early in the film we see some home-movie footage, refilmed in slow motion, of a little girl (Keller?) doing cartwheels on a lawn similar to or the same as the site of the wedding. We realize that Keller’s strongest gifts as a filmmaker, the subtlety of her awareness of gesture and the extraordinary fluidity and assurance of her editing, are grounded in her position not as a “daughter of chaos” (that came much later) but as a specific daughter who experienced the security of a large and specific patriarchal family.

The second debt is to the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to the radical innovations achieved through the combination of his hand-held camera and disjunctive editing practice. But Keller challenges the visionary ideal on which Brakhage’s work is based by using sound to condition, contradict and call into question the meaning of images. This is no small accomplishment—to have reworked the principles of one of the most patriarchal of filmmakers to make a feminist meaning.

I do not ordinarily consider as a measure of a film’s success that it “made me cry.” However, my reaction to Daughters of Chaos was so particular that I think it is worth noting. Smack in the center of the film, just before things begin to break down. Keller tries one instance of exact correspondence of image and sound. The congregation is singing a hymn, “Field and flower/hill and mountain/flowering meadow/flashing sea.” On each beat Keller cuts to a corresponding image. My immediate reaction to this “mickey mousing” technique was laughter, and at each viewing of the film this laughter, without my knowing it, changed to tears. Keller’s strength and importance as a filmmaker lies in her articulation of our ambivalences and contradictions.

Amy Taubin