An Erotic Action
Sep 11, 2012 | 1027 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In 1977, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, a longtime curator and friend of the Telluride Film Festival, invited the media artist, painter and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann to create a program of films exploring the erotic. “The Erotic Woman” included Schneemann’s seminal film Fuses, along with Agnes Varda’s L’Opera Mouffe, Maria Menken’s Orgia and works by Guvnor Nelson and Anne Severson. But the highlight was a surprise performance by Schneemann. Here’s how Brooks Riley of Film Comment described the event:

Experimental filmmaker Carolee Schneemann added a museum piece of her own—a happening (remember them?) which took place on stage during an intermission. Nominally draped in a white sheet, Ms. Schneemann swept onto the stage carrying a bucket of Rocky Mountain dirt, rubbed it all over her soon nude body, and then, as the inevitable hush fell over the crowd, reached into her vagina and began to pull out a very long scroll. What she read from the scroll, pulling it out as she went, was a dialogue between an artist (feminine) and a structuralist filmmaker (masculine).

“Carolee didn’t tell me what she had planned,” said festival co-founder and co-director Tom Luddy. “And, of course, it caused quite a stir.”

Schneemann, a legendary figure in experimental performance since the 1960s, will return to the festival with Breaking the Frame, Marielle Nitoslawska’s documentary about her life and work. She spoke with the Film Watch about her 1977 performance, titled “Interior Scroll.”  

Film Watch: What led you to do this piece? I understand you decided when you were in Telluride.

Carolee Schneemann: I was distressed by the flier for the event. It had a pseudo naked man with his raincoat open and no genitals. It put me in an odd state because I considered it jokey and prurient, adolescent, completely inappropriate for a theme related to the erotic. It was about shame and self-censorship. … And the title “The Erotic Woman.” There is no one erotic woman. The program needed to suggest a multiplicity, something not so narrow. As a woman, I can’t represent all erotic women.

And film itself is conceptually static, so apart from the erotic it was supposed to be about. The audience seemed so static, so undisrupted.

I didn’t think about it in advance. I didn’t want to do it … (but) I felt fiercely that there had to be a living, visceral, expressive body and that I would allow mine to take that position. I felt there was an unquestioning conservatism surrounding the films. That’s why I decided to make an action. (I turned) the concept of film into a scroll—interior knowledge—extruding from the erotic, the forbidden, the taboo: the vagina.

Watch: What happened that night?

Schneemann: At some point I went to the creek and got a bucket of mud. After the films were introduced and shown, I came out wrapped in a sheet, painting myself using brushes with mud so that the body became articulate, somewhere between an actual body and a painted form.  I extracted the scroll, slowly unrolled the scroll and read it.

Watch: What was the reaction?

Schneemann: The reaction was both ecstatic and disturbed. Agnés Varda (the French film director) was enraged and went all over town speaking badly about this event and about me.  The bartenders in town were waiting to see this lascivious woman. That night, Tom Luddy’s wife and Bill Pence’s wife separated from the husbands to protest my free speech. They wouldn't sleep with their husbands, as in Greek mythology.

I didn’t imagine the (performance) would be taken as something so aggressive and so disruptive to the moral values that I believed we were there to reconsider and reevaluate.

Watch: I imagine it will be amazing to return after 35 years, especially with Breaking the Frame.

Schneemann: Marielle Nitoslawska’s film is ardent, structured, nuanced, passionate and completely insightful for the consideration of my work. I’m so happy about that. It will change everything. The male filmmakers, my contemporaries and often friends--they never considered my films to be films. Brakhage would say, oh they are something else. Breaking the Frame gives an appropriate entrance to the range of work. We’ll be celebrating that in Telluride.


Canada, 2012, 100m

Director: Marielle Nitoslawska

Featuring: Carolee Schneemann
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