The artist comes to resemble one of his mechanical reproductions.
The machine of daily life emerges in the (assembly) line of a graduation ceremony…
... faceless, identity-less debutantes ...
... and uniformity at a body-building competition.
The quickened view of Ripley’s meticulously potted plants in glimpse of the Garden offers an impression of the work that has gone into the garden.
Carving out her own garden, Menken visually reorganizes Ripley’s work through close-up. Menken’s camerawork guides us to realize the regular maintenance required for “natural” beauty.
Menken acknowledges Ripley’s work before her.
The sun never sets on the modern cityís stage.
The absurdly miniature figurines of Menkenís world view.
Keeping himself busy ...
... Maas just canít stay still.
Menken finds her double in the city, another woman at work and play behind the machine.
The work of experimental filmmaking becomes personal and dedicated to “people I love” (close acquaintances such as Kenneth Anger).
Until the next (work)day, Menken waves exuberantly to her audience.
Labor becomes the ends as much as the mean. As Ragona suggests, Menken mainly demonstrated an “interest in the structural possibilities of art making, a decided focus on process over content.” [open notes in new window] It is the in-between rather than the A or B endpoint of any trajectory that takes precedence, as it is the stage that not only proves most prevalent but also comes to determine the motion of modern life. As Menken’s filming of Manhattanites emphasizes their strangely gliding uniformity and repetition, the filming of Warhol also reflects this impression. He passes in front of his serial reproductions of Jackie Kennedy, rapidly moving forth and seemingly flattened in front of his work. As a result, the structural processes of his artistic production are what come to define him. He becomes a mechanically perpetuated image like his mechanically created images—a repetitive machine as much as his Factory and his creations are sites of mechanical reproduction. Even when Menken turns her attention in Go!Go!Go! to other happenings besides that of construction and creation, such as the rituals and ceremonies of graduation, debutante balls, and body-builder competitions, the machine-like manner of leading daily life also emerges. The black-robed graduates file in an orderly line to collect their diplomas, virtually clones of one another. The debutantes line up in their similarly-toned pastel dresses, facing away from the camera and basically unidentifiable. And the men in the muscle competition come up to the stage one by one, only to repeat the same gestures over and over again. Hence, although those involved in such rituals and ceremonies may strive towards affirming their uniqueness, the process of attaining such distinction is rendered almost entirely uniform, which in turn renders these individuals’ identities almost entirely uniform as well.
As a result, one of the tensions of modern life appears to lie in the struggle between differentiating oneself yet acknowledging one’s participation in the on-going machine of modern society. Menken uses the film medium to foreground this tension and it displays what Tinkcom describes as
Her exposure of the repetitive nature of individual activities as well as her own oscillation between detachment and involvement demonstrate this continuous conflict of distinguishing one’s identity caught in the upkeep of the collective system. It’s an inconclusive struggle that encapsulates our situation as mere humans aboard the moving train of society.
In effect, it is a vehicle and machine that has long been in motion, too late to stop. All we can and know to do is to keep the structures and processes going. Our surroundings can perhaps only be captured in medias res—already aboard a moving train, in flux, interminable, and a constant work-in-progress. After all, we begin our journey into the city on a vehicle that is already in motion. Also, when filming other views besides the city, Menken is often concerned with the organization that has already been set in place, heightening our awareness of the pre-existence of this order as well as her own contribution to this reordering. In filming her late friend Dwight Ripley’s garden in Glimpse of the Garden (1957), she puts on display that this is a nature that has already been worked over, long before she has come around to film it—the ubiquitous flower pots, pristine pond, and carefully-tended flowers. As MacDonald explains,
That is not to say that Menken is being critical of this structuring; on the contrary, she acknowledges that such construction can certainly be beautiful. But its maintenance is hardly natural. Simultaneously, through the speed, close-focus of her camera and added soundtrack of chirping birds, she is in the midst of reorganizing the space with her own hand, bringing forth the notion that work thus invites more work.
In the end is there anything left that has not already been reworked (and can only be, in a way, re-reworked), and does our contribution to the material world not just perpetuate the cyclical nature of such work? Even though the sunset at the end of Go!Go!Go! signals the end of the (work)day, instead of offering a sense of closure, Sitney describes how it in fact displays “the rhythms of human temporality that project into a repeating future,” offering only a temporary intermission in the daily spectacle, implying that the show will continue again the next day, everyday. This endless cycle brings to light a certain absurdity that makes up an intrinsic part of modern existence. Despite the grandeur and seriousness of our efforts and clamors for carving out our own special places in the world—our own work, our own gardens—we are all ultimately just one out of many involved in the maintenance of not only our surroundings but also the overall structure of labor itself. As Menken declares that Go!Go!Go! aimed to put on display “the ridiculousness of [human] desires,” this emphasis on and revelation of a certain ridiculousness implies that the world, or at least Menken’s view of it, ultimately resembles a theater of the absurd. With humans taking on and bringing upon themselves the performance of labor, we become miniature figurines dotting a transitional stage on which we are just busy, busy, busy with no real finale in sight. The manner in which her camera brings forth such ideas echoes Benjamin’s claim of cinema’s capacities to enlighten:
Indeed, Manhattan still looks like Manhattan and the people still look like the people—just faster, stranger, more repetitive, ridiculous, and perhaps hilarious. As Maas’s procedure of writing comes to resemble a sort of self-inflicted suffering that takes on almost cartoonish proportions through Menken’s sped-up view, we are then able not only to see but also to understand the likely (tragi)comedy at the heart of human existence. Ultimately, what keeps us so busy is, simply, ourselves.
Moreover, through the almost comical rendition of Maas’s laboring, Menken seems to suggest that if we really must be part machine in order to get the job done, then the least we can do is let go of any pretenses of self-importance, maybe even poking fun at ourselves in the process. In effect, she largely displayed irreverence towards her own practice of filmmaking as a mythologizing or theorizing realm à la Brakhage and Deren, which, according to Sitney, has often hindered her from being considered an artiste par excellence. However, by shedding pretensions of artistic illusion and vanity, she is equally engaging in a self-reflexive act concerning the capacities of film, exposing its ability to visualize the motion of the processes and mechanics that regulate both the creation of film and the running of the material world, as well as the fact that despite its seemingly independent existence as a mechanical entity, the camera still needs a human to use it—to work it. There is still forcibly a heartbeat behind the machine, a hand behind the apparatus, and, as a result personal, multi-faceted sensations behind the experience of work. It could be tiring, but it could also just as likely be enjoyable and, surprisingly, fun.
Labor of love
Ultimately, it would be too simplistic to deem Menken’s portrayal of labor as just tedious, repetitive, and absurd. By filming a wide array of individuals at work, and by both detaching and involving herself alongside their routines, her film not only provides a larger impression of these structures but also a more multifarious experience. That is to say, not only can there be different modes of working but also different ways of experiencing work. As Menken once claimed: “All art should be fun in a sense.” Therefore, while the task of filming is often laborious, occupying those several hours that are then projected onscreen in just minutes, she declares that the practice and the resulting product also could be and actually should be a pleasurable experience. This offers the idea of a different sort of work at play that offers an escape from the numbing effects of standardization. Indeed, for Menken, filmmaking would have provided a respite from the demanding office shifts that occupied much of her time. Brakhage recounts:
Thus, Menken’s preoccupation with the repetitive, organized structures of modernity likely stems from the permanence of the act of work and process of labor that governed her own life. Subsequently her filmmaking is also reflective of a search for a different mode of work or a more self-gratifying way in which one could exert oneself towards reaching an outcome. In her diaristic work Notebook (1963), she makes raindrops fall from a tree branch faster than they normally would have fallen, revealing the brusque interference of her hand. She therefore not only exposes her impatience and physical effort but also a certain pleasure in being able to make nature run faster and breaking the onscreen illusion. In fact, this kind of engagement with work could be contemplated in terms of Tinkcom’s description of “work-as-play,” referring to the creation of products unattached to material, economic gains yet all the more personally satisfying because of its seeming inutility. By putting on full display the workmanship involved in her craft and art as a whole and by waving her hand exuberantly in front of the camera, Menken is in fact celebrating her conscious effort to film for the sake of filming, to play with aspects such as light, exposure, aperture, and transport speed that are all part of this machine she carries around so willingly with her, and to continue doing all this for something other than (and bigger than) money.
Also, in conveying this willing performance of labor and the extent to which this task defines her work (her films), she is simultaneously meditating on her role as a filmmaker, artist, and voluntary worker. As Tinkcom states:
Effectively, as part of the U.S. underground scene, her filmmaking was not what would be bringing in the cash. The night shifts were the requisite work(-for-money); the filmmaking was the conscious choice to work(-as-play). However, referring back to Tinkcom’s aforementioned claim on labor being essentially tied to worth, there must be another value attributed to this latter form. And indeed Menken claimed that her main reason for creating her films was for “people I love, for it is to them I address myself.” Clearly then—or consciously, rather—her main motivation was an intangible, invaluable sensation removed from the constraints of economic measurement. The resulting sense of liberation that so often emerges from her films could therefore come from not only the energy of her camera movement but also the notion that this work provides us a glimpse of what work looks like when free—not from labor but from monetary-valued labor. Liberated yet structured; fun yet tedious: Menken emphasized these lasting incongruities with respect to her filmed subjects and her own position as a filmmaker. Lastly, with her initial, immediate attraction to the mechanics of the apparatus, she did not film only for her intended spectators, but also out of her awareness of and love for the components of the camera, taking pleasure in revealing, contemplating, and above all embracing her role as an active, experimental filmmaker by day—as well as by choice.
Sadly, many of Menken’s works have fallen into disrepair following a flood in her apartment, and she also rarely made definitive versions of her films. As a result, her works often seem to display a rough, unfinished quality, implying that there could always be more work to be done. Not only is contemporary life viewed as a perpetual work-in-progress, but all of Menken’s films could also be deemed as works-in-progress, caught in the middle of their course. Often choosing to leave in what would normally be seen as “mistakes” in her films, she also indicates that perfection is just a myth. There is never really any polished or definable beginning or end but just a middle or a never-ending sprawl emanating infinitely outwards that we have to work for. And yet herein lies a little slice of time and space that we can also work on, and where all the movement—all the toil and all the joy—emerges.
Moreover, it is this middle where camera meets environment, filmmaker meets subject, and individual meets world that Menken foregrounds in her constant balancing act between observation and imposition, passenger and worker. Consequently, she exposes and celebrates the medium at its most exuberant, even its most fundamental, as a fruitful encounter between her camera and her subject—between the apparatus and the environment caught in a mutual process of reshaping. As such, a certain empowerment behind her portrayal of work emerges. Despite the minute nature of our existence, perhaps it is one of the main methods we have of carving out a place for ourselves in our surroundings—even if it is only for an instant before it is reorganized and rethought by someone else, by many others (again and again and again). And thus it follows, armed with her tools Menken becomes The Woman with a Movie Camera, heading into the city and the heart of her subjects whilst bringing both the banality and beauty of modern existence under the twitters of her cinematic machine.