The disjunction of filmmaker Mary Helena Clark

Headroom Screening Series Presents: Mary Helena Clark

FilmScene — Thu., Mar. 31 at 6 p.m.

Mary Helena Clark
A still from Mary Helena Clark’s “And The Sun Flowers,” one of her short films screening Thursday at FilmScene.

On Thursday, Mar. 31, at 6 p.m., the Headroom Screening Series (which, according to it’s website, is a “roving microcinema that collaborates with local venues to curate screenings and other media-related events and performances”) will be hosting a free screening of the work of Mary Helena Clark.

Based out of upstate New York, Clark is an experimental filmmaker whose short yet visually and aurally striking works have been exhibited at such prestigious film institutions as The Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and The Swedish Film Institute, as well as festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival. Little Village talked with Clark about the screening, working with film in an experimental way and how perception and disjuncture play a role in her oeuvre.

Little Village: What can you tell us about the Headroom Screening Series and the films that will be shown on Thursday?

Mary Helena Clark: Headroom is run by the marvelous Jason Livingston and Mike Gibisser of the University of Iowa. I’m very grateful that they’ve invited me to screen my films as a part of their spring program. I’ll be showing work from 2007 to the present, and, despite the fact that all the films are made by me, I think it’s a diverse show, many of the films having been made in response to the last.

What would you say are some of the artistic advantages of working in experimental film?

Experimental filmmakers are lucky to have a complex medium to wrestle with. We can develop the component parts of cinema (duration, image, sound, montage) to poetic ends instead of being used simply in support of a narrative. 

Your films, particularly something like “Palms,” seems concerned with perception and the relationship between the various elements which make up our world. Can you talk a bit about how this plays into your work?

I like the poet George Oppen. He often includes lines of overheard conversations, snippets of text in his poems. As a filmmaker often making work that requires going out into the world with a camera, I’m approaching filming as excerpt. “Palms” is constructed of mundane images that are shown in a stylized way. The film’s view of the world is monocular, and this particular vision allows the images to remain “of the world” but also
to become strange.

On a similar note, disjuncture, especially in “The Dragon is the Frame,” also appears to guide the relationship between the formal elements of your work. Would you agree?

I agree, but I can forget how disjunctive that film can feel to others. It covers a lot of territory temporally and geographically, and lots of the images were made to feel like discrete moments. When I edit I try to build new, impossible spaces where cuts are held together by visual rhyme and where the viewer might feel the fragility of the film structure. “Dragon” deals with loss, depression and evocation, so the film’s structured something like the image-language equivalent of cognition. 

Who are some of your strongest influences, either in film or other art forms?

I always return to the work of Leslie Thornton, Nathaniel Dorsky, Anne Charlotte Robertson, John Smith and Michael Snow. I’m curious to see new work by Dani Leventhal, John Paul Kelly and James Richards. My new favorite film is Pasolini’s Teorema and I like riding my bike to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” 

The program on Thursday is a mixture of works filmed digitally and on 16 mm film. What would you say are the main differences between the two on the production side, and what are some of the challenges of interpreting them into a single work?

Economy and an aesthetic of immediacy are the main differences for me. There are very practical restrictions put upon the filmmaker working with a Bolex. The camera has a spring motor restricted to 30-second shots and a roll of 16mm film that totals less than three minutes. You shoot more deliberately. There is higher commitment. There is room for technical error. Film also gives a mediated feeling to the image. We see the medium as a subject of the work. There are times when our attention shifts but the texture and micro-movements are always present.

Since I’m an advocate for disjunction (as you’ve pointed out!) I find it less of a challenge to move between the two formats than another opportunity for juxtaposition. It seems like one more textural shift, in the same way that I move between hi-con black and white and color film stocks. 

For people unfamiliar with the form, what would you say is the best way to get into the medium? To put it another way, how should you watch experimental film?

It takes some adjustment of one’s expectations. There’s so many things a movie-going experience can be, so it’s not just synonymous with entertainment, closure or a contrived sense of accomplishment from conflict and its resolution. So having an open mind and willingness to sit with feeling that then might influence perception at large is how I would suggest one approaches this kind of cinema.

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