Handsome tribute is paid to the eponymous experimental filmmaker in “Notes on Marie Menken,” the fourth feature by Austrian docu helmer Martina Kudlacek, who previously made “In the Mirror of Maya Deren.” Interviews with various avant-garde luminaries help to excavate Menken’s memory and reputation from the footnotes of film history while clips and entire reels of her rarely seen oeuvre are intercut. Already screened at several fests, pic could chock up more air miles on the fest circuit and at specialty venues in major cities.
Relying on interviews with Menken’s friends and surviving relatives rather than voiceover narration, film works roughly chronologically through Menken’s bio. However, information is sparse about the years between her birth in 1909 and her emergence as an abstract expressionist, specializing in delicate, often glittering collages, in the ’50s.
Excerpts from her work prove her feel for color and texture carried through to her film career once Menken got her hands on a Bolex camera. Menken’s friend, underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, affectionately recalls assisting her while she shot “Arabesque,” a semi-abstract montage, while they were on vacation in Spain. She impressed him with her knack for in-camera editing and energetic movement while lensing. Menken, he reveals, was also with him when they attended the Halloween party featured in Anger’s homoerotic classic “Scorpio Rising.”
A recording of a lecture by another Menken supporter, the late Stan Brakhage, finds the director of “Dog Star Man” rhapsodizing about Menken’s use of light. Beautifully transferred clips from such short Menken films as the animated “Eye Music in Red Major” and the live-action “Go! Go! Go!” support his point.
Second half of “Notes” provides the most interesting material. In the ’60s, Menken got close to Andy Warhol. She was cast in the title role for his “The Life of Juanita Castro” and appeared in “Chelsea Girls.” Warhol collaborator Gerard Malanga is seen viewing long-forgotten footage on a flatbed editing table of Menken giving Warhol an informal tutorial in camera movement on an early-’60s Gotham rooftop.
Pic’s juiciest tidbit is that Menken and her husband, Willard Maas, were the models for the boozy, quarrelsome characters George and Martha in Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Pic also includes extensive interviews with the Jonas Mekas, Alfred Leslie and Peter Kubelka. However, Kudlacek does let some of these grand old men run on a bit. A trim of 10 minutes would make the pic tighter — and possibly more TV-friendly — but otherwise, the tech package is sturdy.
As most of the Menken material was without soundtracks, a fine backing score by jazzman John Zorn adds a smoky, last-century vibe.