From: Chuck Kleinhans (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Jun 26 2009 - 20:00:48 PDT
A few days ago, Chicago filmmaker JoAnn Elam died following a
struggle with cancer. JoAnn lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio and San
Francisco before moving to Chicago around 1970. She helped found
Chicago Filmmakers and was active in its early years as a center for
experimental film screenings.
Her early films were short 8mm films, often with a whacky sense of
humor, such as CHOCOLATE CAKE which showed the process of making the
cake. It also commemorated an occasion in which her domestic labor
and love in making the dessert was ignored by a group of males. The
final shot shows her boot smashing the sweet treat. A cake was
always served at screenings of the film, and those screenings were
often in homes and lofts. The “home” in home movie interested her,
and she thought domestic space was an important arena for artists.
She supported alternative screening spaces and had a healthy
skepticism about the formal artworld establishment and its often
patriarchal attitudes and activities as well as a number of male
figures of the New American Cinema avant garde she had seen at
Antioch College, the School of the Art Instiute of Chicago, and
passing through Chicago Filmmaker’s weekly screenings.
JoAnn could be quite stubborn and cantankerous about matters which
she felt strongly and very loyal and dedicated to friends and
political causes. She was also very dedicated to improving the
world. Her mother was a leader in the League of Women Voters, often
organizing voter education events. Her father was a famous
anesthesiologist who developed several devices used by doctors and
who also originated the modern artificial respiration technique. He
made a film to promote it, RESCUE BREATHING, which includes a staged
drama of very young JoAnn using the technique to save the life of a
playmate. Although she was later estranged from her father, her own
films have the same commitment to examining an urgent issue and
teaching audiences new ways of dealing with the world.
She became best known for RAPE (1975, 16mm b&w/so 35m) a feminist
investigation of the issue with three women telling their stories.
"Short but very sharp, JoAnn Elam's film RAPE has three victims
discussing their emotional, physical and intellectual responses, then
and now, highlighted and commented upon by a series of visual
interpolations, sometimes metaphorical .... In just 35 minutes the
film manages to examine root causes, analyze attitudes, suggest
alternatives, and firmly confront conflicts which make the usual
finite conclusions so simplistic .... It's excellent, quite literally
the best of its kind, and should be seen by everyone." - Helen
Mackintosh, Time Out "RAPE is a rare film for its refusal to co-opt
a feminist subject with a reactionary patriarchal form ...." - B.
She also made LIE BACK AND ENJOY IT (1982, 16mm, b&w/so, 8m) which
combined optical printing and titles with a conversational soundtrack
for a political analysis of the “male gaze.” "JoAnn Elam's LIE BACK
AND ENJOY IT is an absorbing eight-minute dialectical film about the
politics of representation. More specifically, it examines the
politics of filmic representation of women under patriarchy .... An
undergraduate male student paid it a true compliment in declaring
that he can no longer look at a woman in a film without thinking
about the consequences of the filmmaker's use of her as a person and
as a spectacle .... The film is endowed with remarkable structural
and rhetorical lucidity .... Its image track consists of
technologically manipulated images of women, and some printed titles.
Its soundtrack consists of a dialogue between a Man (a filmmaker) and
a Woman (of whom he's going to make a film) .... Everyone who watches
movies with women in them ought to see it." - Claudia Gorbman, Jump
Cut. Both films are available at Canyon Cinema and the NY Filmmakers
JoAnn had a strong lyrical sensibility and WELLINGTON AND WOLCOTT
captured a late afternoon in Chicago looking out the second story
window at Kartemquin Films as snow piled up on frozen streets. Kids
in the residential neighborhood began “skitching” automobiles:
grabbing onto the rear of a slow moving vehicle while it attempted to
navigate the ice and thus skating along with a free tow. The
combination of improvisational daring, crazy and slightly dangerous
behavior, adaptation to urban environment was set along a late
afternoon turning into twilight.
In the 1980s she began working on EVERYDAY PEOPLE, a film about
letter carriers and the working conditions of the Postal Service.
Elam was especially influenced by Harry Braverman’s analysis of
working conditions under capitalism and the film illustrated both the
attempts of the USPS to control workers and the workers’ endless
inventive ways around the “rules.” Herself a letter carrier for many
years, the film combined a social/political realist topic and an
extremely experimental, Brechtian, form. In repeated screening of it
as a work in progress around the US, it was clear that postal workers
and union members who attended the events had no problem with the
“radical” form because they found the subject matter compelling. The
film remains unfinished.
Elam left the post office after many confrontations with postal
managers, and she learned tax preparation to support herself,
eventually deciding to get a BS in accounting. She specialized in
bookkeeping and tax preparation for nonprofit arts and political
organizations and artists and activists. She also expanded her love
of gardening and attained a Master Gardener status and then helped
communities, particularly in the inner city, develop gardens and
landscape neighborhoods. She often spoke of a fantasy of letter
carriers also being master gardeners, delivering the mail and seeds
and gardening advice to their neighborhood. A perfect evening for
her was a gathering of friends, meal of fresh fruits and vegetables
from her garden (supplemented by her husband’s Southern style
barbeque), and rhubarb pie or chocolate cake followed by several
people screening past films and work-in-progress.
Elam is survived by her husband, Joe Hendrix, and her siblings.
For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.