Friday, March 5, 2010

Chick Strand Loose Notes

I’m late in compiling these loose notes on Chick Strand (1931-2009) after presenting two of her films, Cosas de mi Vida (1975) and Soft Fiction (1979), in a tribute that filmmaker Scott Stark and I curated for the Austin Film Society Avant Cinema series. The screening was a week ago. The films generated a conversation between audience members, and I had a sense of the importance of going home and writing something down. The next morning I highlighted quotes from some texts about Chick Strand, but then when it came to organizing my thoughts I succumbed to a severe head cold. Here’s another go on some loose notes.

Beverle Houston’s recounting of a sense of merging with an inanimate object, a curvilinear metal banister at the Pasadena Art Museum, captivated Strand so much that she embarked on the making of Soft Fiction. Upon hearing about her project, other women also shared stories integral to their sexual selves with her. The end film makes clear that Strand allows the filmmaking process free reign, and that she puts no stock in an outcome of any fixed meaning. Soft Fiction is intricate just as a multi-celled living organism is intricate; tiny parts as well as the composite always retain a sense of mystery beyond what can be defined.

Watching Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction, I already mourned its loss. Knowing that soon the 16mm black-and-white print would literally be out of my hands (and traveling home to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative), I anxiously tried to resolve how I could possibly re-encounter this stellar title of her oeuvre. In my head, I was already posting to Frameworks about a Chick Strand summit—or swap. It would happen in 2011 in Los Angeles, and a group of us experimental filmmakers “in the hole” (to quote Strand) would gather to watch each and every movie the filmmaker had ever made.

Funny—or perhaps not—that thus far the Strand films I know I myself have programmed. This circumstance speaks to one of my primary conceptions about curating avant-garde cinema: sharing the work with “the public” is an act of self re-education. In order for me to glean this “hole” of cinema history, I must create the terms of its visibility. – Caroline Koebel

Chick Strand in her own words/excerpts of an interview with Kate Haug:

Kate Haug, “An Interview with Chick Strand,” Wide Angle Femme Experimentale (Vol. 20, No. 1), Ohio University, 1998

“I have no idea what my films mean when I’m doing them. That is boring to me to figure out…If I knew what the meaning was, there would be no reason to do it.” (p. 110)

“Other people love to work with a script and the whole thing but not me…” (p. 113)

“[Soft Fiction] is a film about women who win…What I mean by winning is that they don’t become victims, and they don’t become survivors. They carry on. They take the responsibility for having had the experience and carrying it off and dealing with it and carrying on and becoming more potent, more powerful, more of themselves.” (p. 114)

“The end one, Hedy, means it is never trivial. It is all going to get us in the heart and the gut. She just comes to a blank when she gets to that hill where bad things are going on. She gets to a blank. She’s had a hard time, obviously. And that was the first time that she told the story to anyone….in a sense the film itself acted as an exorcism for some of these things. These stories are what the women told me….” (p. 115)

“I make films. I don’t make films for a living. It’s out of pocket most of the time. And I damn well do what I want. I have no responsibility to the Women’s movement, to liberal politics, to international workers of the world, or to anything or to any political correctness, none at all. I’d be bored. It’s all going to come out. Let the people speak for themselves, the incidents speak for themselves. When I first started showing Soft Fiction, I’d get shit from some feminists as if I wasn’t supposed to show it—as if I was supposed to lie about it somehow.” (p. 117)

“All of us experimental filmmakers are in the hole—the guys and the women, too. We’re the last anybody ever thinks about and the first to go. But then our own boys don’t pay any attention to us. Well, they do but…that’s pretty hard. But that’s okay, because the biggest hole is experimental film…We’re all in it as experimental filmmakers. So that’s the part of me that ends up going to these shows and speaking—just in case one or two people might be interested enough to pay the fee to get in and keep things going.” (p. 126)

“I shoot documentary style…And Soft Fiction, no. I don’t know to this day whether one person’s story is true or not. I mean, it has to do with memory. I am much more interested in how it is related to Alain Resnais—to Last Year at Marienbad (1961)—than I am interested in whether it is related to Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, 1969). (p. 129)

“I like a lot of movement. I like to make my own special effects. I like to put the viewer in a position they would never be in: really close in, for a length of time, like they’re flitting around the feet of the dancers.” (p. 133)

Maria Pramaggiore on Chick Strand:

Maria Pramaggiore, “Chick Strand’s Experimental Ethnography,” Women’s Experimental Cinema, Robin Blaetz, ed., Duke University Press, 2007

“Although hardly well known, Chick Strand’s films endure because…they suggest that the significance of images derives from their cultural context (hence her frequest use of preexisting images and sound) and from the personal context of filmmaking. As such, her films refuse to obey the conventional distinctions between traditional documentary realism, with its implicit promise to present rather than represent reality, and avant-garde film, as a highly personal art form that creates an aesthetic experience wholly distinct from everyday concerns. Her work speaks two languages, refusing to observe the distinction between an ‘objective’ examination of the real world and the expanded consciousness of the visual artist. As each of her films suggests, Strand’s work draws upon the real world—a source for found objects and for her connections with other people—and transforms that world at the same time.” (p. 191)

“Strand left Northern California in the early 1960s, abandoning her second marriage and ‘running off’ to Mexico (as she put it) with pop-surrealist visual artist Neon Park. In 1966, they moved to Los Angeles and Strand began studying ethnographic film at UCLA. She experienced anger and frustration, however, because the films she saw were ‘made with cold indifference to living, breathing people…In a scientific attempt to present what is perceived only by what the anthropologist sees, all nuances, sensibilities, aesthetics, emotions and human drama in the culture are lost….The films lack intimacy, dimension, heart and soul.’” (p. 192, Strand quoted from “Notes on Ethnographic Film by a Film Artist”)

David E. James on Chick Strand:

David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinema in Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005

“Her oeuvre heroically epitomized the personal feminist cinema launched by Maya Deren, and her recapitulation of feminism’s overall itinerary from documentaries about women’s lives to the search for specific if not essential forms of women’s film language made her one of the most generative filmmakers of her time. But for most of her filmmaking career, the integrity of Strand’s vision lay aslant of prevailing fashions, so that only belatedly did the full significance of her radically pioneering work in ethnographic, documentary, feminist, and compilation filmmaking—and above all, in the innovation of a unique film language created across these modes—becomes clear….” (p. 358)

“By the late seventies Strand had full mastery of her signature style. She abandoned the early multiple superimpositions and solarizations for very long takes of her subjects in motion, frequently back-lit and shot with a hand-held telephoto lens in extreme close-up that all but eliminated depth of field. Magnifying the somatic responsiveness that Maya Deren had claimed as the great potential of the body-as-apparatus, she discovered an extraordinarily sensuous lyricism, simultaneously wanton and disciplined. She made the play of light and shape, of textures and reflections that erotically caress the eye as they dissolve in and out of abstraction, the vehicle for the investigation of intuition and sensuality in both iconography and the medium itself….” (p. 362)

“In Soft Fiction, Strand allowed several women—friends and colleagues in the independent film and art worlds of Los Angeles, people whose experiences might well have been her own—to tell their own stories through her medium, through her as medium. The first, film scholar Beverle Houston, describes an occasion in an art museum, when her perception of the sensuous curves of a large beautiful metal banister generated an overwhelming wave of desire to identify with its shape; the second recounts a frightening but finally triumphant sexual encounter at a rodeo in which she fellated several cowboys; another woman describes how her grandfather repeatedly had sexual intercourse with her when she was a child; in another, filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas describes how she moved out of a period of sexual promiscuity by deliberately becoming addicted to heroin; and the last describes living in fear of the Nazis in wartime Poland. The first and final two of these are recounted in real-time, lip-sync direct address to the camera, the second is read from a letter, and the third is an offscreen narration accompanying visuals in which a naked woman, art historian and filmmaker Beverly O’Neill, cooks and eats breakfast, again in a semirural Los Angeles home. These stories are enclosed in material with its own proto-narrative implications and textural suggestiveness. Framed by the sound of a distant train, the film is introduced by an extended sequence of initially abstract tonalities of shifting black and white that eventually clarifies itself to reveal the face of a young woman—filmmaker Amy Halpern—in extreme close-up before the window of a speeding train. In the next shot, she anxiously circles a bohemian house of a recognizably Los Angeles type, knocking on the windows but failing to gain entrance. In the middle of the film, Halpern leaves the house, carrying a suitcase that falls opens and spills out a pile of women’s clothes. Between other sections, there is an interlude of a naked woman dancing and one of a woman singing Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden.’ And the film ends with further close-up abstract sequences, first of a woman in a shower and finally of a naked woman riding a horse.” (p. 363)

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