Lights in the darkness

In 1966, US filmmaker Marie Menken issued one of the most rapturously beautiful of her lyrical short-form works. Simply entitled Lights, its six-minute run time belies the great effort in its making, as Menken described:

Made during the brief Christmas-lit season, usually between the hours of midnight and 1:00 A.M., when vehicle and foot traffic was light, over a period of three years. Based on store decorations, window displays, fountains, public promenades, Park Avenue lights, building and church facades. I had to keep my camera under my coat to warm it up, as the temperature was close to zero much of the time.

Following Menken’s first film, a study of pieces by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi released in 1945, her major works were concentrated in the decade between 1957 and 1967, and include Glimpse of the Garden, Arabesque for Kenneth Anger and what may be her masterpiece, Go! Go! Go! Menken had an extensive association with Andy Warhol, to whom she was introduced by poet Charles Henri Ford. In 1965 she captured the artist in one of his most productive and celebrated periods, and the following year she appeared in his film Chelsea Girls alongside Warhol adjutant Gerard Malanga to whom Menken and Maas were substitute parents.

Her drunken performance in that film indicates the qualities that inspired playwright friend Edward Albee as he wrote the character of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with academic husband Willard Maas supplying the contours of George (as described in this story from Wagner College, where Maas taught). While Menken was universally described as a warm and generous presence, the pathologies that drove the couple’s epic drunken fights were all too real. In 1970 they ended up in the same psychiatric hospital; Menken for her alcoholism, Maas for a long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder exacerbated by experimentation with LSD.

Marie Menken died 50 years ago today. At the funeral two days later, filmmaker friend Jonas Mekas witnessed Maas “bent and beaten by grief”. Willard Maas died another two days later.

I will sign off for the year with Lights and look forward to seeing you on the other side.

Further reading
Look back with Anger
Go! Go! Go!
Circles: Charles Henri Ford
Menken on Warhol

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