Influential women directors at the Newcomb Museum

Still from “Meshes in the Afternoon” by Maya Deren

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for NolaVie about the Newcomb Museums show, “Unfamiliar Again, Contemporary Women Abstractionists.” This past week, the Newcomb Museum offered, in collaboration with “Unfamiliar Again,” a film screening of influential women directors. Of course, for me, these directors are unfamiliar, but to more educated film buffs, they are most likely old friends.

In this collaborative venture, the Newcomb Museum featured the films of Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Joyce Wieland, Shirley Clarke, and Chantal Akerman; all new names to my unrefined ear, so I’ll give a little bit of background on each.

Maya Deren was a Russian-American filmmaker. During the 1940s and 1950s, she was deemed a great promoter of the avant-garde, and she is now seen as one of the most influential American experimental filmmakers.  

Germaine Dulac was a French filmmaker, film theorist, journalist and critic. She is known for her impressionist and surrealist films, La Souriante Madame Beudet “The Smiling Madam Beudet” (1923) and La Coquille et le Clergyman “The Seashell and the Clergyman,” (1928), are seen as her most influential.

Joyce Wieland was at the forefront of Canadian art during the 1960s and 1970s. Wieland was a woman of many mediums, but as a filmmaker she is known for work that challenged the boundaries of avant-garde film.

Shirley Clarke was an American experimental filmmaker noted for documenting the current events of the day and the cityscape of New York. She was intrigued by abstract expressionism and that perspective of art became an enormous influence in her films.

Finally, Chantal Akerman was recognized for her influence on avant-garde cinema and is considered to be one of the most influential feminist filmmakers of the 20th century. Her work focused on the mundane and stifling aspects of the domestic space.

As I approached “Unfamiliar Again” with openness, I did the same in viewing the films of these five notable women, and many of them—if not all of them—were difficult to make sense of.

This, of course, is intentional.

These feminist filmmakers were not following a narrative or Hollywood tradition. Most of the films were made on extremely low budgets, and it has been estimated, that Maya Deren spent less than two hundred and seventy five dollars on her short film ‘Meshes in the Afternoon” (1943).

The film is strange, surreal. It is a dream, in a dream. She used the camera to distort. I found myself uncomfortable at times, but unable to look away. The film is now considered to be the first American avant-garde film.

Deren’s work was sharply contrasted with that of her contemporary Shirley Clarke. While “Meshes in the Afternoon” had some semblance of a narrative arch, Clarke’s had none. She experimented with the altering the actual film. She painted it in shades of neon pinks, greens, and yellow in her film “Bridges Go Round” (1958) and actually etched into the film in her anti Vietnam War film, “Butterfly” (1967).

Chantal Akerman seemed to be the most coherent to me initially, but within a few minutes of the short film I was again, bamboozled. Saute Ma Ville, “Blow Up My Town” (1968) follows a young girl, going through her daily routine in her small apartment. But her routine is so un-routine. She hums madly as she shoves pasta into her mouth frantically, dumps water all over the floors, lights paper on fire, and finally, rests her head beside a gas stove and lights a match. What a strange experience it was to hear the audience laugh—myself included—at something absolutely mad, and, at times, intensely dark.

There was a thread of the strange and the experimental that ran through all of the works, but they also rang so true as individual pieces of entirely unique work, much like the artists featured in “Unfamiliar Again.” It is a space and environment where you can sink into your consciousness.

When I left the theater that evening, I had a message waiting on my phone: “How was it?” a friend had asked.

“Bizarre,” I texted back and quickly followed with, “But Great!”




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