BREAKING THE FRAME
Space, Time, and a Body of Work

“Carolee is spinning the moon,” whispers Marielle Nitoslawska, speaking over the golden orb dancing in the night. This opening sequence of Breaking the Frame, Nitoslawska’s documentary film about the artist Carolee Schneemann, was shot by Schneemann many years ago. In Nitoslawska’s next clip, Carolee, in dark silhouette, walks before an enlarged 1963 photograph of herself, nude and covered with garden snakes. And the long retired train Schneemann once filmed—its path now jogged by weekenders—continues to whistle throughout the movie on recollected tracks. As this mash of imagery, sounds, and voices collide, as the slicing of the present opens a window to the past, it is clear that this documentary will not unfold in linear time. It is instead a study of Schneemann’s perceptions of and through time.

Carolee with Kitch, Livebook. Courtesy: Possible Movements.
Carolee Schneeman diary excerpts with Fuses image. Courtesy: Possible Movements.

To tap the essence of her art and life, Nitoslawska approaches Schneemann as Schneemann approaches her art, as an open-ended, multi-media memory collage. Much of the film’s veracity lies in the way that it welcomes the viewer-as-voyeur into the filmic process. Nitoslawska allows the eye to wander and snoop, as she did, through Schneemann’s 18th-century farmhouse, to peruse old journals, and to peek into chests and drawers. Memory, that mercurial thing, unfurls as calligraphic diaries spill years of thoughts, and as nature’s changing seasons, framed by a bedroom window, serve as backdrop for waxing and waning love relationships, and new generations of cats. Remembrances flash by with kaleidoscopic energy as documentary poetry, visual fragments of artworks connecting us to fragments of time.

The real secrets in this film have to do with who shot what, and discerning what exactly we are looking at—animated stills, Super 8, 16mm, high or low end media formats? Though it’s easy to spot Schneemann’s early films and dated home movies (they account for approximately 20 percent of the documentary), Nitoslawska frequently chooses to replicate Schneemann’s old Super 8 medium to blur distinctions between filmmaker and artist, and to lend continuity to the film’s frequent dislocations of time and place. The same occurs with voiceovers—Nitoslawska’s words framing an action slide effortlessly into Schneemann’s dialogues about the action taking place. It is this multiplicity—of film, grainy and sharp; interacting voiceovers; infusions of painting; sculpture; performance; and photography—that textures this documentary, making it magical, often terrifying. Take, for example, the sequence beginning with images of shards of Schneemann’s painted and burnt glass constructions; it segues to a series of animated stills of “Interior Scroll” (1975), a performance where Schneemann reads text from strips of paper she pulls from her vagina. The filmic contrasts between Nitoslawska’s slow panning of glass constructions and her jumping montage of still photographs heighten the subliminally painful contrast between glass daggers and nude performer, underscoring the ambiguous connections to beauty, vulnerability, and pain that Schneemann seeks in her art.

Carolee Schneemann in her studio. Courtesy: Possible Movements.

Music by James Tenney, the irrepressible love of Schneemann’s life, drives the film’s action. He strikes a somber note, in one scene a drop of rain falls; in another, birds fly away; and in another, birds are gone. Nitoslawska uses these notes emotively, to intensify Schneemann’s reactions—in her paintings and in her words—to Tenney’s futile battle with cancer. Yet he’s always present—performing with Schneemann in “Meat Joy”(1964), driving with her in their beat-up car. Though the marriage dissolves and he passes on, he remains her muse, as implied by his rhythmic compositions enlivening animated shots of her vibrant paintings. Tenney’s compositions are so compelling that their absence provides a distinctive death knell, a strategy Nitoslawska uses as a silent dirge for “Terminal Velocity,” an exhibition of photographs depicting 9/11 victims jumping from the World Trade Center. Choosing a digital format to sharpen this stark black and white sequence, she filmed art handlers dismantling, then wrapping the slim rectangular panels accompanied only by the ambient sounds of bubble wrap crunching and tape ripping from serrated spools. They then carry them down a dark stairwell, through the door and into the light. The simplicity of Nitoslawska’s construct vividly counters the variegated layers defining most of this film: She here strikes a silent, visual chord that allows Schneemann’s depiction of unspeakable horror to tremble in the mind’s eye.

Nitoslawska’s intricate montages, moving trains, changing seasons, transcendent light permeating lace curtains, and Schneemann’s cat on the windowsill, watching, always watching, advance like stepping-stones along a symbolic labyrinth, navigating Schneemann’s art and life. This film’s complexity reminds us that nothing is simple—that, as Schneemann says, “We make reality by what we can say to one another.”

Contributor

Joyce Beckenstein

Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.

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