On Friday, September 25, Film Independent at LACMA will screen Soft Fiction, a work by trailblazing experimental filmmaker Chick Strand recently restored by the Academy Film Archive with funding from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and LACMA. The screening includes a conversation with filmmakers Amy Halpern and Johanna Demetrakas, moderated by Gustavo Turner.
But who is Chick Strand, and why is now the time to revisit her work?
According to Robin Blaetz, Professor of Film Studies at Mount Holyoke College and author of the anthology Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks (Duke University Press, 2007), Strand played a key role in fostering a community of experimental filmmaking in 1960s California. She co-founded the journal Canyon CinemaNews, which grew into Canyon Cinema, a non-profit film distributor that remains one of the only sources for prints of avant-garde and experimental film in America.
“It is important to note but not surprising that women played this [community-building] role often in experimental film history,” said Blaetz. “It was clearly an essential task but one wonders if their own careers suffered for lack of time and energy, and if their own failure to receive scholarly attention until quite recently was the result of this self-positioning.”
Still Strand was prolific throughout the 70s and 80s, even while teaching at Occidental College. Among her most heralded works was Soft Fiction (1979). Marsha Kinder, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, in her 1980 essay on Soft Fiction for Film Quarterly, said the film “combines the ethnographic documentary with a sensuous lyrical expressiveness more frequently found in independent cinema.” Kinder compared the film to the work of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens because of the way “Strand focuses her camera on people talking about their own experience, capturing subtle nuances in facial expressions and gestures that are rarely found in dramatic features.”
But Strand’s film isn’t merely a documentary of its five female artist subjects, it evolves into something dreamy and sensual as it takes us inside the minds of these women and blends their perspectives with the filmmaker’s. “Strand was an innovator in ethnographic filmmaking,” says Blaetz, “believing from the start that a filmmaker has to manifest herself in a film as a way of indicating her particular point of view, and to make clear that any documentary is also a fiction based in a conversation of sorts between the maker and the subject.” Blaetz said her favorite image of Strand is of her dancing with her camera as she filmed, making herself a part of the work, through the rhythm of her body.
When asked why now is the right time for this restoration and to revisit Strand’s work, Blaetz’s answer was why not now? She spoke of the need to restore more experimental work, particularly the too-often-neglected work of female filmmakers. “Since the films were made on 16mm and often stored in poor conditions, they will be lost to film history if they are not restored,” she said. “I am in favor of restoring everything rather than judging for future film scholars and viewers what is more and less important.”
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger