Schneemann is in part renowned for her epochal 1975 performance, Interior Scroll, in which she stood naked on a table, covered in mud, and read from a scroll of text as she extracted it from her vagina. An ultra-feminist paean to the power and mystery of that most maligned organ, the performance helped cement Schneemann’s status as a provocateur to be reckoned with. Schneeman was also, sometimes, a filmmaker, and her most famous film, Fuses, made between 1964 and 1967, documents her and her then-boyfriend, composer James Tenney, getting it on—it was pioneering in the way that Schneeman scratched and drew on the physical film material, sussing out a relationship between the physicality of the film strip and the physicality onscreen. Schneemann will be presenting the rarely screened, feature-length The Hart of London, a film that genius, lunatic, and master promoter Stan Brakhage once called “one of the few great films of all cinema.” And one can see why he was so fond it: the film evinces a love of improvised camerawork and obsessive, milky super-impositions that wouldn’t be out of place in Brakhage’s own oeuvre.
The Hart of London may be a city symphony, but it tends away from the orchestral and towards musique concrete. The film begins with a shot of a deer running in slow motion: the simplicity of the imagery, the way it allows for some breathing room, is much needed, because what follows soon after, in what could be called the second movement in the film, is a full-on frontal attack of superimposed, generic, archival imagery, often in uber-creepy negative. The film slows down about thirty minutes in to contemplate a river and the nature that surrounds it. Chambers captures the lush foliage in gorgeous shallow focus, letting the viewer focus on the nearly imperceptible details written on the leaves and branches. A theme begins to emerge: The Hart of London isn’t just a portrait of London, Ontario, but a piece about the relationship between society and nature. In this, it is similar to a great many other non-narrative films—from the early silent cine-poems of Ralph Steiner through the more recent mega-montages of Godfrey Reggio.
What distinguishes Hart is its indomitable imagery. The film moves through many different sections, each distinct, before its finish. While not all the footage in the movie is appropriated, it is on final analysis a collage film, composed of disparate elements artfully glued together. And like most collage, its meaning is to be found in its overall effect rather than its individual parts. Along with contemplating the delicate balance between society and the wild, the film is obsessed with the fact of death and the blossoming of life; animals are slaughtered and bleed out while babies are born. In this context, the soundtrack, which consists of monotonously running streams of water, suggests the famous images of the River Liffey in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a living body into which all things flow, to die and be reborn anew.
In her program notes for the screening, Schneemann theorizes that were doctors able to analyze which images were burned into your optical memory, “this optical imprint on my inner vision would be inscribed with fragments from the films of Jack Chambers.” That’s no faint praise coming from an artist who herself has produced some of the most searing images in avant-garde film.