This Mess We’re In: The Personal Clutter of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses

Fuses (1967)

Night and day
I dream of
Making love
To you now baby
Love making on-screen
Impossible dream

 PJ Harvey “This Mess We’re In”

When I was in my mid-20s, I taught ninth grade literature for four years. I taught teenagers how to write topic sentences, how to neatly tie their paragraphs closed like a shoelace. We read Julius Caesar and labeled characters  as ambitious, jealous, loyal. We read the Odyssey and noted how characters like Telemachus move from stasis to action, from boyhood to man. My life was in medias res. I didn’t want to return to my past years of fuckups and heartache. My early 20s were like a skin I was eager to shed. Like Athena, I wanted to break out of the skull of complacency closing in on me.

I yearned to move forward like the masculine protagonists in these ancient texts who rubbed shoulders with goddesses and royalty. I wanted their bald ambition. I wanted a linear narrative to my life that I could chronicle in a clean three-act arc. My final year of teaching high school I applied to Master’s programs in Film Studies. By April of the following year, I was accepted into my top program. That summer I left my job, my partner, and my home state. I moved to the Midwest with only my books, my mattress, and my determination. I was golden. I was ready.

~~~

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered the work of Carolee Schneemann, but it was shortly after I started graduate school. I remember the grainy black and white photos of her 1975 performance “Interior Scroll,” in which Schneemann stands naked atop a table and pulls a scroll of paper from her vagina, one inscribed with a litany of criticisms that men (and Annette Michelson) levied against her over the years. She concretizes the concept of the body as archive, but eschews logos-inspired epistemology. She eradicates the words from her body, unable to hold them in or store them any longer. The performance is a refusal as well as an announcement. I remember the lines she wrote that I wanted to tattoo on my forearm: the personal clutter, the persistence of feelings. All my adult life I had attempted to rid myself of the clutter, of the personal. The messy gestalt. The happenstance. But here was an artist who embraced all the detritus of her life and turned it into art. This skill: an alchemy. She wasn’t afraid to bleed, sweat, and cum, sometimes on the very materials with which she constructed her art objects.

Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney in FUSES (1967)

Schneemann’s ethos of emotional abundance, the naked earnestness and anger of her oeuvre, stood in stark contrast to the stipulations of academia. In a Master’s and a doctorate, the performance and mastery of knowledge is key. We compete against one another, though we would never label our behavior as such, with publications, grades, fellowships, and professors’ preferences bestowed on a select few. One night, while drinking with my colleagues, a woman in the program told me pointedly, “you write from a place of love. There’s nothing interesting about that.” That same winter, this woman told me during a drunken pool game, “I’m better than you. And I’m glad that you know it.” I returned home to my shitty apartment, which had once been a frat’s game loft, and cried on my mattress, still wrapped in all my snowflake-flecked clothes. I felt like I was trapped on Calypso’s island, except I was the woman wanting love, not the warrior trying to escape its embrace.

What I didn’t know that night was that this woman was something of a soothsayer. I would be told again and again that one couldn’t write a dissertation simply because one loved a collection of filmmakers. I would be told I quoted too much, the window-dressing of another writer’s words obfuscating my own. “What’s your intervention?” Professors asked me. “What’s your argument?” I flushed, discomfited that I’d never heeded my colleague’s warning. I chafed at these conditions that one must lead with all head and no heart. Did I really need to, as Schneemann cynically articulated in her artist’s book “Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter,” “[do] away with / emotion intuition inspiration – / those aggrandized habits which / set artists apart from / ordinary people”?

~~~

Schneemann’s underscoring of the “emotion intuition” required of artists appeals to my poetic sensibilities. I’ve written poems since I was 9. When I started I’d sit and write under the Japanese maple in my childhood yard; these days I produce poems on my brown couch with coffee. My poems in college, imitative of my favorite writers, trafficked in the diaristic: romantic anguish, jealousy, betrayal, sexual desire, and the incommensurate distance between loving someone bad for me while wanting someone good for me. I didn’t consider myself apart from ordinary people, but I did take the acuteness of my emotional turmoil and sculpt it into syntax. This poetic proclivity never wavered; and when I finally obtained a copy of Scnheemann’s silent film Fuses, filmed between 1964-67, it both (re)enforced and dismantled my conviction that in graduate school one could wed rigorous intellect to the vagaries of the heart. 

The film begins with a blink of light. Then a scratched frame, a blank image. The title “Fuses by Carolee Schneemann” lists its cast: “with herself, James Tenney, kitch the cat.” While much is made of Fuses for its embrace of heterosexual eroticism and its foregrounding of female subjectivity, Schneemann’s film is also often dryly humorous. The pussy pun is lost on no one. 

Lacerations across the celluloid obscure the title’s lettering. Their brightness: like salt flats. Such broad strokes recall the slats in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho title sequence, slats that echo the drawn shades in the motel where Marion Crane and Sam Loomis rendezvous for lunch, as well as the stabbings Norman Bates’ victims will later suffer. But in Schneemann’s experimental documentary, these lines against the film’s material shimmer and flex, not geometrical, but corporeal. Luminscence’s full flesh. Violence against the body is mercifully absent. 

Next comes a series of abstracted images across the screen: a brief close up of the calvaria’s hair follicles, the fuzzy blur of what might be a quilt, an extreme close-up of an eye, all pupil, black as pond water. So much is out of focus. Her camera’s desire to consume everything possible: an unwieldy hunger. And then an image I can latch onto: a close-up of a nipple. Pink, puckered, it could be a crater, something solar. A few frames later Schneemann shows a close-up of her labia lips. They heave, hedged by hair. “Let Vulva do the talking,” Schneemann says in an interview with Judith Olch Richards. In Fuses, the cunt speaks openly of creativity and consummation, wet with happiness. 

Filmed in collaboration with her then-lover Tenney, Fuses is an exploration of sex, domesticity, the seasons, and the tussle of bodies in various forms of coupling and uncoupling. But the film is more than a stag film or an erotic film, labels foisted on Fuses at various initial screenings, much to Schneemann’s frustration. In fact, when Schneemann first tried to develop the film, the lab would only accept the reels if they were accompanied by a letter from a psychiatrist. Fuses is both messier and more methodical than programmers and lab technicians ever gave Schneemann credit for.

The film is a labor of love, but it’s Schneemann’s very labor that’s often overlooked. There was the labor of scratching, dyeing, burning, and drawing on the celluloid footage, a meticulous practice that experimental filmmakers like Nazlı Dinçel still utilize today. There was the labor of all that fucking, even on the days when she didn’t want to, but the light was good; an artistic opportunity that couldn’t be missed. This film wasn’t solely a “diaristic indulgence,” an accusatory phrase levied at Schneemann by male filmmakers, but an immersive creative experience.

The celluloid’s patina sometimes flushes to a rich red hue, as if an organ, swollen with blood. Due to the superimposition of various images atop one another, it can be easy to misconstrue whose body is whose, the sexual positions, the time of day. Unlike the Golden Age of Porn from 1969-1984, there’s no money shot in this film. Most of Fuses takes place in bed where Schneemann and Tenney fuck, talk, embrace, and kiss. Other shots include the interior of their home, Kitch the cat, foliage outside the window, and Schneemann running across an ocean shore. Which is not to say this film avoids the explicit. There are shots of Tenney’s cock, slick and crimson, in various iterations of hardening and unfolding. There are medium shots of one or both lovers cumming: a grimace, a fence of teeth, an ecstatic smile, a thrash of limbs. The camera, at times, zooms in and out on Schneemann’s face as she nears orgasm. The formal move isn’t one of caution, determining how close is too close; nor is the move mawkish, peddling in sentimentality, the saccharine. Rather, the repeated zooms in and out mimic the frenetic, kinetic reciprocity the two lovers share. 

In Fuses, pleasure is abundant, everywhere. The joy of saying yes, and yes, and yes again is achingly evident. To proclaim yes to pure being, which is to say, to pure belonging, is to lock with another at the moment of climax which obliterates all shape and sensation. Language crumbles away like a plum in your mouth. You don’t need to understand, just to love, ravenous with the want of it. The dyes on the film cirrus from lavender to teal to deep red. The whole heart of the image pumps the film forward: energetic, optimistic with its excess. More is more. Insatiable rapture occludes shame. As a spectator, you sit in darkness, imagining the sounds that have been lost to time. Dynamism’s suction is silent, as are pleasure’s screams. The frame fades to black, then flares again. Light, dark, torso, window: the subjects undulate, never still. 

Unlike so many films of that era, and today, their sex is illustrative of total consent and mutal devotion. One of my favorite moments in the film is a long shot of Schneemann and Tenney diagonal on the bed, their feet close to the camera, their faces upturned. Tenney’s eating Schneemann out and clutching her hips while she grips his hair, his shoulders. Tenney bends from the waist as he buries himself between Schneemann’s thighs, but there’s an intensity, in their reciprocity. Schneemann is overcome, her head bucking forward so that her whole face, her open mouth, center the frame. They wrestle between control and abandon, between giving and giving oneself over. In a series of directions for her bacchanal, 1964 polymorphous performance piece “Meat Joy,” Schneemann stipulates that the actors move, “tenderly, then wildly.” It’s a performance in which barely clothed actors writhe on-stage with various fragments of fish, chicken carcasses, paint, rope, and other debris. But these instructions, like lines of Romantic poetry à la John Keats, apply to the cunnilingus in Fuses, too. 

Reflecting on the filming process, Schneemann wrote, “I will have changed and been changed by working on the film…the processes of filming itself, editing, and more mysterious collusions cannot be imagined as ‘real life’—only as ‘reel life.’”

~~~

Graduate school often feels like reel life, a version of existence that is at once orderly and disciplined, with whiffs of the “mysterious collusions” that make forward momentum possible. Yet graduate school also runs parallel to the cultural constructions of our society, stifling in its patriarchal predictability. While no one has shredded their seats with razor blades (like men did at the Cannes screening of Fuses) when I have given a talk, I have, as Schneemann writes, “[seen] my failings worthy / of dismissal.” Men in my program have commented on my weight, the way my clothes fit my body. At a graduate conference, a man in the audience told me the whole thesis of my paper was “wrong” and asked another woman on the panel to apologize to him, accusing her of making a sweeping generalization about masculinity and violence. I’ve had men miss scheduled meetings or show up 20 minutes late because they needed to “eat dinner” or “do their laundry,” an excuse I could never make as a woman without losing all credibility, without losing face. I’ve listened to men in lecture halls call Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween a “stupid bitch” or men in classrooms call Estelle Parsons’ character in Bonnie and Clyde a “cow.” This is just a sample list of my gendered encounters. In many ways, what dumb luck. If you were to turn me over, you couldn’t find the scars of these violences on my skin. 

Then came the 2016 election and #MeToo and #TimesUp and the existential despair. I took too many sleeping pills on and off that year and wondered more than once if this was worth it. “This” broadly encapsulating both graduate school and the business of being alive. I marched, and I donated, and I wrote with what some anonymous commenters denounced as a glaring bias because of my gender. I stopped writing poetry for a period. I withdrew from social outings often, citing academic work as a deterrent. I wish I had done better. 

Disappointment in oneself, and the constant threat of failure, often invade every facet of a graduate students’ interiority. Imposter syndrome is par for the course within academic institutions undergoing major shifts including an oversaturated job market, budget cuts, the focus on STEM at the expense, rather than the inclusion, of the humanities, and a concerted government effort to focus on job training skills rather than the eradication of student debt or free college education for all. To see ruptures in oneself or in the system is at once cathartic and terrifying. 

An anecdote in Ara Osterweil’s Flesh Cinema reveals just one of the ways in which some of us are hungry for moments of failure, hungry for the aforementioned “diaristic indulgence” which could hold both beauty and disaster in the same palm. While screening Fuses for a class, one of Osterweil’s students complains about the fucking. “As it turns out,” Osterweil writes, “his notion of ‘sexual authenticity’ pivoted upon both the acknowledgment of failure and the departure from ideal forms of beauty…He expressed an earnest desire to see the moments of failed fucking, ‘all the times Tenney’s dick didn’t work,’ and outtakes when Schneemann leapt into Tenney’s standing embrace and didn’t land in perfect position for penetration.” I understand this student’s impulse. I understand the catharsis in witnessing another’s failure when you are in the midst of your own. But Schneemann is the “istorian” (a term she used to describe the female art lecturer and a question she posed to audiences: “Can an art istorian be a naked woman? Does a woman have intellectual authority?”)  the subject speaking for herself in Fuses. She doesn’t owe us anything. She doesn’t have to do it all. If and when she fails, it’s on her own terms, at her discretion, in her own painterly and personal way.

Two years shuffled by as I grappled with the mess of the world and my inability to make meaning both of and in it. Then, in the spring of 2019, The New Yorker published Maggie Nelson’s retrospective of Schneemann: she’d just died at 79 from breast cancer. In the piece, Nelson homes in on Schneemann’s predilection for archiving carcasses of dead animals, some of them former pets. When Schneemann’s cat Treasure was hit by a car, she took a close-up photograph of Treasure’s corpse. At a talk in 2015, Schneemann showed the audience the photograph, stating, “You can all close your eyes, but I can’t.” Schneemann recurrently bore witness to the mess across various media as a way of parsing through ugly truths and beautiful revelations. She, and we, are better for her unflinching candor.

The way forward for me as a thinker, writer, and person is often rooted in the personal clutter, not in the clean-up. I flail, and flail often, in the unadulterated love of a film or a filmmaker whose work touches me in ways that do not always lend themselves to reason. Like the best kind of sex, it leaves you tumescent with sweat, the tinny whirr of dopamine settling under your skin after its crescendo and clarion consummation. “Sex,” Schneemann once said, “is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.” I write about something because I want to get my proverbial hands dirty in the “aggregate of sensations” that do not always fit together in a neat and tidy whole. I’m possessed by the pleasures of the lyrical and the metaphor, not the analytical and the objective. I have, as writer Stephanie Danler discusses in interviews, a “poet’s soul.” When I write my best work, I write it in a fever dream. The irony is that in those in-between moments, when my heart is dormant and mulched-over, I’m doing the dull but necessary work that allows those fevered moments to flourish. Like Schneemann, I work when the light is good, no matter my personal wants or needs. It’s this discipline that allows the final product to appear effortless; the reality is that it’s anything but.

~~~

Carolee Schneemann in FUSES (1967)

Gene Youngblood has described Fuses as “oceanic” and it’s an apt metaphor for a film so densely layered, both physically and psychically. Apt, too, for the moments in which a nude Schneemann runs along the ocean’s shore with ardor, one of the few times in the film when she appears in the frame alone. The stains on some of the frames lap at the rim of the image like a surf. Decades later, PJ Harvey will duet with Thom Yorke, “love making on-screen / impossible dream.” But Schneemann renders the dream here and now. A dream that elides the explicit banality and predictability of pornography, a dream that elides woman as object. Schneemann is like Aphrodite, born in the foam from Uranus’ severed limbs striking the water like a supernova. In this myth, carnage and carnality twin: themes which both circle, and exceed, Schneemann’s work. 

The term “oceanic” also returns us to “Interior Scroll” and Schneemann’s rejection of privileging logos-logic. When Schneemann expels the penetrative piece of paper from her body, she reclaims not just her nude body, but her self. Even her body as an archive doesn’t get to swallow whole experiences. She considers the verbal blows denouncing her work and methodology; but these criticisms aren’t a tide, sucking Schneemann under. They are words she turns over like stones, letting them settle within the audience. We can linger over each one, if we so choose, rubbing it smooth with worry. Or we can skip it westward at the day’s conclusion, unbeholden to certitude or criticisms that foreclose new possibilities. 

The ocean, mysterious and magnificent, carries contradiction within its form: sometimes gently meditative, sometimes horrendously destructive. For Schneemann, the point of work like “Interior Scroll” or Fuses was never to diametrically oppose or embrace the criticism of her (mostly) male contemporaries, nor to master their expectations; the point was to coalesce experience itself into work that was sensorial, haptic, experiential, and articulated by her, and her alone. It’s work that is not static, in form or feeling, but endlessly regenerative, eliding classificatory systems like Structuralism in favor of embodiment and the personalized theory embodiment propagates. 

~~~

While I once taught students how to diagram sentences, I know that life doesn’t follow a linear structure, and it’s the very unpredictability of existence that makes this finite time on earth both so agonizing and so incredible. And I know, now more than ever, that joy ignites for me at the moment when I release the analytical, not when I exercise that singular, objective muscle. While I grapple with the stipulations of academia, I still, somehow, exist within this institution, even if it was initially created without my survival in mind. 

In Women, Native, Other, Trinh T. Minh-Ha writes, “in every corner of the world, there exist women who, despite the threat of rejection, resolutely work toward the unlearning of institutionalized language, while staying alert to every deflection of their body compass needles.” Like Trinh and Schneemann, I am unlearning everything that seeks to undo me. I am alert to my body’s compass, which is to say: I am still living.