Breaking the Frame: Film Review

Breaking The Frame Still - H 2014

Breaking The Frame Still - H 2014

Fringe-y doc works best for those who need no introduction to its subject

Marielle Nitoslawska offers a highly impressionistic portrait of artist Carolee Schneemann.

Playing more like an outgrowth of its subject's work than an outsider's account of it, Marielle Nitoslawska's Breaking the Frame embraces the intuitive, messy aesthetic of visual artist Carolee Schneemann, offering a kind of autobiography for an artist whose unclothed body was sometimes her canvas. While valuable for those who know her work well, the film skimps on context and detail that most newcomers would demand, resulting in a pic most appropriate for museum screenings and video distribution.

Nitoslawska narrates the film in a respectful whisper, as if she were sneaking through Schneemann's farmhouse trying not to disturb an artist whose daily routines and creative output are often intertwined: Diary-films and written journals are a large component of her oeuvre, with lovers and pet cats figuring into landmark pieces like Fuses and Kitch's Last Meal.

Clips from Fuses will pique the interest of avant-gardist Stan Brakhage's fans: The hand-painted film, which includes sexually explicit footage of the artist and her lover (composer James Tenney), uses techniques he made famous. The artists were intimate friends, we learn here, and while Brakhage had been making movies long before Fuses, he has credited Schneemann as an influence.

By the time of that film, Schneemann had plenty of experience fighting for legitimacy in a male-dominated art world. She speaks here of the "art stud club" she encountered while making abstract expressionist work in the '50s. In the '60s and '70s, she made her difference central to her work in performances. For Interior Scroll, she stood naked in a gallery and read from a long paper she unfurled from her vagina. In another piece, Meat Joy, naked performers writhed on a floor while the artist tossed raw fish, sausage, and other squishy materials onto their bodies.

The film offers plentiful film clips and images of these works, with Schneemann providing both biographical context and (sometimes vague) insight into their creation. We rarely sense that the filmmaker is steering these recollections. If they're excerpted from more thorough conversations, Nitoslawska has sliced and diced them -- often letting clips overlap and obscure each other -- like one of the mixed-media collage works we see the artist making. However off-putting this fragmentary approach might be for those who'd prefer a clean chronology of important works and their assimilation into academic histories of art, it's clear by the end that the aesthetic fits the subject like a glove.

Production Company: Possible Movements

Director-Screenwriter-Producer-Director of photography: Marielle Nitoslawska

Music: James Tenney

Editor: Monique Dartonne

No rating, 101 minutes