Its a Womans World
In Chick Strands 1979 Soft Fiction, female subjects talk directly to camera on topics ranging from the desire to become a curved railing in a Pasadena art museum to the simultaneous pleasure and terror of delivering backroom blowjobs to cowboys at a rodeo. Not all of the films chapters carry an erotic connotation: Near the end, there is a harrowing account of Holocaust survival, followed by a moving performance of Schuberts Death and the Maiden, and there are occasional flecks of an unresolved narrative involving a woman (fellow filmmaker Amy Halpern) making a journey by train. But regardless of subject, almost every frame of Soft Fiction overflows with women expressing their fears, dreams and desires with an emotional and sometimes physical nakedness rarely seen in movies.
Some of Strands speakers draw upon personal experience; others appear to be actors. Yet it hardly matters. For as the film progresses, it deploys multiple dissociations between text and speaker and text and image in one scene, a Golden Age of Radiotype program accompanies the image of a woman cooking breakfast in the nude that threaten to vaporize the films already liquid barrier between fact and fiction. The startling candor of Strands meetings with these remarkable women, be they real or imagined, remains the unassailable constant.
Soft Fiction, along with Halperns own Falling Lessons (1992), concludes a seven-week screening series inspired by film historian David James new book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles. And like the programs that have preceded it, this final installment reminds that the word minor in James title shouldnt be taken as a measure of merit.
Though it premiered some 13 years after Soft Fiction, Falling Lessons had in fact been in various stages of production since the early 1980s, when Halpern began filming friends and colleagues in what can best be described as a series of portraits-in-motion. The camera continually tilts up through the frame (and across a subjects face), making you feel as though the cinema itself is rocking back and forth. Like many Los Angeles avant-garde filmmakers since the dawn of the studio system, Halpern a founding member of the late, lamented Los Angeles Independent Film Oasis has spent her career moving in and out of the Hollywood signs long shadow, taking industry jobs (as a gaffer and electrician) as a way of supporting her personal projects. The 186 faces of Falling Lessons are partly a record of that journey, encompassing a whos who of experimental-filmmaking contemporaries (including Strand, Pat ONeill and Halperns husband, David Lebrun) and elder statesmen (Michael Snow, Shirley Clarke), with even a few representatives of the more mainstream American independent cinema (Alex Cox and Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore) added in for good measure.
As in Strands work, narrative fragments here eerily prescient of Los Angeles police corruption scandals to come pierce through Halperns sleek, structuralist surface. But Falling Lessons is, above all else, a meditation on that relentless enigma of which Picasso said: What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its makeup? ... That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest? ...
THE MOST TYPICAL AVANT-GARDE: MINOR CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES | At Filmforum at the Egyptian | Sunday, December 4, 7 p.m. | www.lafilmforum.org
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