NYFF 2015: Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction, Newly Restored

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Soft Fiction screens at 3:30pm on Saturday, October 3, in the avant-garde Projections section of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Chick Strand made ethnographic films by setting out to record the everyday. The American, largely California-based filmmaker (who was born in 1931 and passed away in 2009) gathered up people she knew or wanted to know and, with her camera running, paid intimate attention while they talked about themselves. She then edited the results in playful, impressionistic ways that gave senses of inner lives flowing outwards as individuals shared their stories.

The co-founder (with Bruce Baillie) of the filmmakers’ cooperative Canyon Cinema was particularly interested in making what she called “ethnographies of women,” with whom she established close kinships, regardless of whether she was shooting in the United States or on her several trips to Mexico. She included herself among her subjects through depictions of the mutually engaged relationships developing between her and her counterparts. The things she sought to show came out with grace and wonder in her beautiful Soft Fiction (1979), which will screen in a new 16mm restoration undertaken by the Academy Film Archive.

Soft Fiction will screen together with the still-active filmmaker Saul Levine’s short Lost Note (1969/2015), a late 1960s-set autobiographical portrait of a couple’s domestic life. Strand’s nearly hour-long film offers at least five autobiographies (in addition, implicitly, to her own). The film is structured as a series of sequences in which adult women (all of them artists) recount intensely sensual experiences they had that made them more aware of their place in the world. Each encounter with Strand is presented differently. In one scene, for instance, a woman tells her tale while looking ahead within a tight close-up; in another, a female handwriting analyst cheerfully reads aloud another woman’s confessional letter written to Strand; and in another still, a woman cooks runny eggs in the nude while her voice spills over the soundtrack.

Short scenes of other women performing activities like garden-strolling, singing, and dancing appear between moments of storytelling. In connection with the monologues, they evoke a chorus of awakening emotional lives expanding in tandem beyond the frame. The film’s title initially suggests pornography, but Soft Fiction ends with a growing suggestion of deeper, more lasting shared pleasures.

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