Documentarian Marielle Nitoslawska approaches Carolee Schneemann in Breaking the Frame much in the same way that the avant-garde artist refracts life experience through a kaleidoscopic prism of fragmentation. Instead of presenting a simple survey of Schneemann’s life and oeuvre, Nitoslawska draws on the essence of the artist by constructing a kinetic collage that incorporates voiceover, video art, interview, and assemblage. Oppressed by the patriarchy of the art world, Schneemann often felt like “a guest in the house of male culture.” Paving her own style, she evolved as an artist most interested in body, gender, and movement, working in various mediums such as painting, video, and performance art. In pursuit of capturing the eclectic aura of Schneemann’s history and work, Nitoslawska lenses interviews with her subject with overlapping imagery and a dizzying fusion of sounds and images, such as ecstatically edited montages of the artist’s cat-and-trinket-filled Hudson Valley home.
Schneemann explained in her writing, “where the frame breaks—the edge, the fracture—you paint, and you write. You perform, you film, and you write.” The documentary’s title alludes to this transcendent consciousness that comes from artistic inspiration, and Nitoslawska forges a deeper understanding of Schneemann by shattering the conventions of a biographical portrait. The rhythms of Breaking the Frame fluctuate between the subject’s relationships and art, and how one informs the other, much like the varying rise and fall of Schneemann’s memories. However, Nitoslawaska’s experimental approach sometimes wanders down uncontextualized paths and obfuscates the subject with filmic affectations, such as echoing audio and oblique imagery. Thankfully, Schneemann’s lucid prose keeps the doc on track. Appropriated from her diaries and read in a whispery voiceover, her philosophical observations on spatial theory, nature, and politics of the human body illuminate the process and execution of her most well-known pieces, such as Meat Joy and Interior Scroll, 1975.
As homage, Breaking the Frame is an admirable meditation, more spiritually representative of its subject than simply about its subject, but it lacks a cogent arc necessary to shape its insights. It’s only apt that the film closes on Schneeman doddering around a studio, struggling to curate her works in the space and, like subject like filmmaker, the exasperated sigh she lets out could also be that of the audience. Despite the vaunted theory of gestalt present in Schneeman’s successful pieces, Breaking the Frame could have benefitted from more cohesion, as it more successfully resonates in fleeting moments more than the sum of its parts.