“If you put it on tape, you can’t erase it” — Majorie Keller

Writing in Artforum in 1981, Amy Taubin praised Marjorie Keller as “perhaps the only major filmmaker that the American independent film has produced since the end of the Sixties.” At the time of her sudden death in 1994 at age 43, she would leave behind twenty-seven 8mm and 16mm films; tonight, Light Industry presents two of her most important works, Misconception and Daughters of Chaos. Built from small-gauge diary footage, both films are at once lyrical and anti-romantic, meditations on female experience that render their subjects through radically nonlinear editing and complex experiments in sound-image correspondence. Like Stan Brakhage, one of Keller’s great influences, she transforms her subject matter—a birth, a wedding—from the stuff of home movies to an adventure in perception. Yet she forgoes the self-mythologizing of her predecessor, offering a more earthbound, though no less poetic, take on the subjective nature of memory.

Keller also produced a substantial body of writings, including a book on the role of childhood in the work of Brakhage, Jean Cocteau, and Joseph Cornell, as well as notes towards a proposed study of women’s experimental cinema that would have charted a trajectory from pioneers like Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Carolee Schneemann through to a younger generation represented by Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton, among others. In addition to her achievements as an artist and critic, Keller played a crucial role in the Collective for Living Cinema, serving on its board of directors and editing the Collective’s publications Idiolects and Motion Picture. She engaged in the evolving debates around feminism, film, and the avant-garde that ran from the 70s through the 90s, vigorously defending a tradition of highly personal, formally rigorous work that some had rejected as irredeemably masculinist, while at the same time subjecting that tradition to a nuanced critique through her own scholarship and filmmaking. Though highly skeptical of the ways in which feminist film studies had, ironically, come to ignore some of the considerable accomplishments by women in the American avant-garde, Keller was nevertheless one of the key figures of her era to synthesize theory and practice at the most advanced level.

Misconception, Marjorie Keller, 16mm, 1977, 43 mins

   

“I was asked to film, for posterity, the birth of my niece. My primary concern was to work with sync sound. I had made a political documentary on welfare cutbacks in Chicago in 1972. While editing it I kept having to repress the desire to experiment with the sound the way I had been experimenting with rapid cutting of images in my personal film work. When the opportunity arose for me to shoot freely with sync sound equipment, I was delighted…

The sound drove the film. During the editing of Misconception I made several other films in which wild sound (not synchronous) was used as if it were synchronous on some other level of consciousness. Editing for tone allowed the sound to meet its own requirements for aural harmony and independence. And combining that with attention to the sound content as a critique of the image forced the soundtrack to serve the film. These lessons were the foundation on which Misconception was built. This is why the film easily moves between lip sync, out-of-sync, and other sound.

The birth is the crisis of the film and its center. What was once an event in life passed, and the trace of that event which was left on the film and tape recordings bore a constantly fading resemblance to what that event became in memory.But the one sequence that had the aesthetic quality of what Stieglitz once called ‘equivalence’ was the camera roll of the birth itself. Those moments of panic when all emotional response to what is before the filmmaker must be funneled through the eyes to the camera; those three minutes of film seem to be the one natural event I had that was a film event, too. The film extends in both directions from that roll, finding its visual and aural tone there, explicating the struggle of the couple viscerally played out there.

I emphasize that the film is a struggle. It is not a polemic against men’s misconceptions or men’s participation (or lack of it) in the childbearing process. In engaging our minds, in considering an event that captures our imagination, in conceiving, we misconceive. In thinking and talking before and after childbirth, no truths were spoken, no preparation prepared for the event, no conclusions accounted for it. Men are incapable of understanding it, certainly. But so are women, who have, after all, only biology as advantage over their equally LaMaze-trained partners. And filmmakers are the least likely to understand, being always half-tuned out to attend to their mediating tools. In so far as I am a feminist, the film reflects my perception of a man and a woman trying to be equal partners in an unequal situation. I tried to reveal that tension.” – MK

Daughters of Chaos, Marjorie Keller, 16mm, 1980, 20 mins

“The footage of the wedding is of my niece’s wedding. I had shot it from outside the church looking through the windows. I wanted to use the wedding to form a kind of continuity in the film. It’s the one stable narrative element. I used it as the back-board for the different adolescent fantasies and experiences to playoff against, and also as a way for me to retrospectively look at adolescence. I had four older sisters who married, and I went to a lot of weddings and participated in many. I thought it was the greatest thing that could ever happen—that it would be the culmination of life experience. Yet there was a way in which I remembered and observed the kind of cynicism of pre-teenage girls about this event which they knew to be basically disgusting: that what was going to happen when these people got married was that they were going to have sex. And why anybody would ever do it—they just couldn’t fathom.” – MK