Celluloid Heroines


“If you enjoy you understand if you understand you enjoy,” replied Gertrude Stein to a hapless interviewer in response to the ostensible impenetrability of her Four Saints in Three Acts. Like Stein’s opera, the rich programming in the second half of the Whitney’s “The Color of Ritual, the Color of Thought” series is ambitious, ample, and ecstatic. Highlighting the work of 50 filmmakers (including Voice film critic Amy Taubin), the Whitney series triumphantly validates Stein’s credo, offering a point of entry for those who might usually shy away from such programming.

Repeating the structure of Part 1, the latter installment of “The Color of Ritual” showcases the work of four featured directors: Mary Ellen Bute, Marie Menken, Yoko Ono, and Chick Strand. There are fewer feature-length films in the second part, which allows for a wider array of bold, short works. In her kaleidoscopic Synchrony No. 2 (1935), Bute, a pioneer in abstract film, assembles a multitude of animated optical treats, including spirals and staircases that would make Busby Berkeley green with envy. Menken’s compositionally simple, black-and-white Sidewalks (1966) extols the virtues of looking down, while her Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1960), ablaze in the reds and blues of mosaic tiles, celebrates the florid (appropriately enough for the auteur of landmark homo fever dreams). In Go Go Go (1962-64) Menken, using time-lapse photography, creates a mini-city symphony, adroitly capturing the quotidian rhythms and rituals of New York, ranging from couples making out on the beach at Coney Island to her cranky husband Willard Maas’s attempts to write from their Brooklyn Heights terrace.

Strand’s ruminative films range from the fractured, poetic study of bullfighting in Guacamole (1976) to the austerely shimmering Holocaust allegory of Kristallnacht (1979). Ono’s Fly (1971), a haunting feminist essay on the fragility of the corporeal, renders a woman’s body (via extreme close-ups of the titular insect’s meandering) as a landscape of flesh, hair, and nails. To the sound of Ono’s increasingly agitated vocals, the camera opens out to reveal the sleeping woman’s figure in full, now more ominously ridden with half a dozen flies. Rarely has the body’s vulnerability been depicted so candidly.

Of the remaining 46 filmmakers, several have made work as extraordinary as that produced by the consecrated four. Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim (1990) seamlessly blends the autobiographical (a daughter’s complicated relationship with her anthropologist father) with the rigorously formal. Friedrich’s film is no parent trap: Enhanced by the pitch-perfect delivery of its young girl narrator, Sink or Swim forgoes the easy vilification of Dad, opting instead for the far more challenging task of chronicling how an adult daughter negotiates acceptance and forgiveness.

Peggy Ahwesh’s Martina’s Playhouse (1989) also features a remarkable daughter: a four-year-old who possesses, in her storytelling style and domineering presence, a nascent Steinian sensibility. Another Ahwesh offering, 1994’s The Color of Love (part of a bill called “Desire,” which also includes such must-sees as Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth, Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses, and Jennifer Reeves and M.M. Serra’s Darling International) recycles an anonymous Super-8 porn movie yet places far more emphasis on the decay of this found footage than on the writhing of its performers. The Color of Love keenly expresses the anxiety that cinephilia—not just love of film but also of celluloid itself—may soon lapse into necrophilia. “Everything that you do is already accompanied by a little ghost of some kind of nostalgia,” filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery laments to Ahwesh in Martina’s Playhouse. Uniting some of the most beautifully fleeting and flickering images of the last 70 years, “The Color of Ritual, the Color of Thought” resists nostalgic impulses, declaring that film refuses to give up the ghost.