JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Shot of placenta in Misconception

Shot of placenta in Window Water Baby Moving

Chris on the phone after giving birth

Chris’ happy eyes bounce back and forth

Chris holds the newborn while talking on the phone

The Super-8 blown-up to 16mm gives an extra-grainy quality to the image

Stan and Jane kissing in Window Water Baby Moving

Window Water Baby Moving title in handwritten scrawl

The filmmaker’s signature

The only shot of Marjorie Keller in Misconception, from first section during myth of childbirth conversation

 

This refusal to take sides is further reflected in the complex relationship between Keller and Brakhage. Keller herself is always hesitant to describe the relationship in harsh or polarizing terms. Despite attempts on Taubin’s part to categorize Keller as a feminist filmmaker who sees male filmmakers “as distinct as Joseph Cornell, Stan Brakhage, and Michael Snow” as “shar[ing] a common central theme — ‘putting women in their place,’”[38] [open endnotes in new window] or her film as “clar[ying] some of the overwhelming and inarticulate rage which many women have felt in relation to these and other films by Stan Brakhage,”[39] Keller has always been respectful and appreciative when she speaks of him. In 1987, the Millennium Film Journal published part of a speech she had given at a screening hosted by the journal that focused on her relation to Brakhage. In the beginning of the quote, she states:

“I don’t know that there could be an avant-garde filmmaker in America that is not in some way indebted to Stan Brakhage, has not studied his films, has not thought about them and taken them seriously. And I certainly don’t consider myself an exception. In fact, I consider myself somebody who really knows his films well and looks at them a lot and really enjoys them.”[40]

“I think we have different world views. I guess that’s what I would say. I would say that I am a student of [Brakhage’s] filmmaking, but once we apply ourselves to the content something really different comes out.”[41]

And this was far from the first time that she made such statements, simultaneously distancing herself from him while aligning her filmmaking practices with his. In her 1978 interview with Taubin, Keller describes Misconception as a “loving critique of Window Water Baby Moving”[42] and definitively states that its creation was only made possible due to Brakhage’s previous experimentation with the subject. She also repeatedly insists that the film was not meant to “criticize the man in the film and valorize the woman”[43] but to capture the complications that come about when two people approach such a difficult process together though from distinctly disparate positions.

But the differences between Keller’s film and Brakhage’s do not lie solely in their depictions of the sexes, their treatments of the female body and the functioning of sound or the lack thereof therein. Whereas Window Water Baby Moving was shot from the start on 16mm, Keller originally shot Misconception on sound Super-8, blowing it up to 16mm only later for distribution purposes.[44] This technical choice accounts for the extra-grainy quality of the image and the constant visibility of splice-marks throughout the film. By choosing to shoot on Super-8, a low-budget system designed in the early-seventies for amateur use, Keller created an aesthetic resembling that of a home-movie, which, as B. Ruby Rich has noted, emphasizes the film’s “sense of intimacy and sympathy.”[45] This effect goes hand in hand with Keller’s insistence on including material of the everyday, incorporating interviews with Chris and Lee weeks before the birth as well as shots from their home life — the painting of their house’s interior, the mother and son bath, the house next door being torn down by construction workers. While Brakhage also included shots of the pregnant wife in the bath, they are much different in nature, serving to further mythologize the birth rather than to establish setting or provide realistic documentary evidence. In fact, in Brakhage’s film, the pregnancy and birth have been wholly de-contextualized from the world at large. Other than a few shots of passionate kisses between Brakhage and Jane taken earlier in the pregnancy, the viewer is not provided with a glimpse into their life as a couple, where they live or what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Keller’s de-romanticization of the birth event is further emphasized in her use of typed note cards to introduce the title, filmmaker and sections. Its frequent repetition, with the intermittent numbered section announcements, leaves no doubt that the simple, matter-of-fact aesthetic was intended to counter Brakhage’s usage of the exact opposite — the romanticized hand-written scrawl. Prior to 1974, when Brakhage switched to copyrighting his films, each film, no matter how short, included a title at the start and a signature, “By Brakhage,” at the end. He created the title and signature by tediously scratching at the film stock, frame by frame, a process that often took hours.[46] Since then, Brakhage has stated that he did so in order to make a personal statement and in order to distinguish his films from those of anyone else, especially those of Hollywood.[47] And it worked, “By Brakhage” becoming a symbol for the touch of the artist’s hand. In the mid-70s, Keller was well aware of this and chose to counter in a subtle but noticeable manner. Thus, Keller would make such statements as,

“I would say that I am a student of [Brakhage’s] filmmaking, but once we apply ourselves to the content something really different comes out.”[48]

She is correct but also seems to be understating the fact that such differences were often direct results of a purposeful reaction on her part to his earlier content and aesthetic choices.

While I do not care to endorse the general methodological strategy of privileging authorial meaning or intent, in this particular case the filmmaker’s language appears particularly apt. Keller was not only a filmmaker but a film historian as well, and she regularly re-thought her opinions on and position in relation to Brakhage from her days as his student in the early-seventies through her years as a professor at the University of Rhode Island, where she wrote about and taught his films in the late-eighties and early-nineties. Throughout the process of studying her films, returning to her extremely articulate and poignant words has been of recurring benefit and delight. It is for these reasons that I find it relevant to keep her language so at hand when conducting my own formal analysis. In addition, the fact that past critics have for the most part ignored her own language, both in written and spoken form, bodes ominously now that she is no longer living and capable of defending her own intentions in person.

In February 1994, at the age of forty-three, Keller passed away, survived by her parents, husband, twin daughters, two stepchildren and six siblings.[49] Since the time of her early death, her films have unfortunately been written about even less than they were when she was alive. Her work has, however, continued to be appreciated and loved by a close community of filmmakers and historians with whom she had regularly associated with at such organizations as Anthology Film Archives, where her films were frequently shown, and the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative, where she served as president from 1986 through 1989.[50] In 1981, Keller had been included in the exhibition Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films curated by J. Hoberman at Anthology Film Archives, and in the winter of 1998-89, she would be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films curated by Steve Anker and Jytte Jensen.[51] The small but substantial file on her located at Anthology Film Archives as well as the recent DVD compilation of her films by Canyon Cinema and the restoration of three of her films by the New York Public Library of Performing Arts are testimony to the continuing appreciation for her work.

In 2007, Robin Blaetz’s edited text Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks was published by Duke University Press. Blaetz’s essay, “Amnesis Time: The Films of Marjorie Keller,” returns to Keller’s films approximately twenty years after they received regular public attention. The essay is extensive, informed by interviews with P. Adams Sitney, Keller’s husband, and Saul Levine, Keller’s close friend and early film teacher, as well as Keller’s unpublished manuscript on women’s films. Blaetz provides a section of thorough biographical information before establishing her interest in Keller’s exemplar position as a woman who was raised with traditional notions of femininity in the 1950s and yet matured as a professional after the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies. Due to this interest, the focus of Blaetz’s analysis is on the functioning of what she terms “amnesis time” in a few of Keller’s films — Ancient Parts, Foreign Parts, Private Parts, Daughters of Chaos, Misconception and Herein — spanning her oeuvre.

This article seeks to join Blaetz’s essay in re-awakening attention to Keller’s films. In conducting a formal analysis of Misconception particularly attuned to its complexly-edited image/sound relationship, I have woven into my analysis the filmmaker’s own language as well as past critics analyses and their comparisons to her predecessor’s film. I wish to release the film from past binds to do so in a manner that opens it up for further inquiry. As Keller’s friend and fellow film historian Maria DiBattista wrote in an article for Film Culture upon the filmmaker’s death, “[Keller] was by all estimations a myriad-minded woman — a filmmaker and a film scholar, a teacher, a wife and mother, a daughter, sister and friend,”[52] and a similar range can be found in her films as well. I have focused on the intricacies of a single Keller film but with knowledge of the breadth of her oeuvre. While material for her films tended to come from within a tight radius surrounding her own personal experience, the tone and texture of each piece range in their explorations of familial relationships, old home movies, a death of a close pet and the pleasurable labor of gardening. She made silent films and sound films. She made films on 8mm, Super-8 and 16mm; they range from three to fifty minutes in length. Unfortunately, critical reception of her films has not yet been fully brought to term but has experienced an extended period of gestation. If serious film historians, academics, critics and cinephiles begin to put in the appropriate labor, films such as Misconception could experience the jubilant attention that they deserve — better late than never.

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