Nursery Rhymes: Three Films by Esther Shatavsky

Curated by Christian Flemm

In kindergarten, I learned how to cut, paste and draw. I learned how to ask a question, how to participate and how to use my inside voice; but above all, I learned how to cut, paste and draw. These classroom experiments would begin with my hands, one of which I’d trace onto white paper with the other, before eagerly attacking my creation with scissors, glue and googly eyes, always arriving at a result that was unmistakably and irreversibly my own. My teachers taught me how to use my hands, but now that I am older—now that I realize that the uses of my hands are few, relative to my childhood years, now that I realize I am not cutting or pasting, and certainly not drawing—now I realize the worlds my teachers placed in them. Time to get back to that.

For the last forty years, Esther Shatavsky has taught cutting, pasting and drawing to kindergarteners in Southern Connecticut. But from 1978-81, she produced a handful of personal films that are among the most enigmatic of her generation, a small but vibrant cadre of filmmakers who emerged from undergraduate cinema departments across the Northeastern United States—in particular, from the SUNYs Binghamton and Buffalo, as well as MassArt and Bard College—throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of these filmmakers, like Amy Halpern and Ken Ross, came to involve themselves in the goings-on of the now-defunct Collective for Living Cinema, a fixture in New York’s Downtown arts scene from its founding in 1973 until its closure in 1992. Shatavsky’s films, familiar to members of the Collective, disappeared from public view as the artist-run cinema shuttered its doors*, a sterling reminder of what can happen when a filmmaker loses their context, or chooses to leave that context and return to another one: in Shatavsky’s case, the classroom. 

In ‘Nursery Rhymes’, her first solo show in forty years, Esther Shatavsky returns us to spaces of early childhood play and learning to remind us that these localities are not stable; rather they are active, violent and replete with anxiety. Perhaps this is why the title of Shatavsky’s first completed work is Class Participation (1978), an atom bomb of a debut made with found footage, a hole punch and tape to fulfill an academic obligation. Or perhaps these spaces are not violent but exciting, the way Shatavsky’s stock chemistry teacher might describe the excitement of subatomic particles in After Dinner Science (1978). They are spaces of chance, of opportunity and of discovery, like the woman on the tire swing reflected in the round mirror at the center of Fishs Eddy (1978), the only completed film of Shatavsky’s not made with found footage. 

Taken together, we might view these films as scenes from the life of a child, a child lucky enough to have had a childhood. They are also scenes from the life of a filmmaker and artist, whose films I discovered, as it happens, in a dumpster in the autumn of 2017. My connection to Esther Shatavsky is therefore as found as the materials that compose her films. Four years later, I happened to mention my 16mm prints of Bedtime Story (1981) and Fishs Eddy to writer and programmer Mark McElhatten, who put me in touch with his former classmate Shatavsky via email.

Shortly thereafter, Ultra Dogme editor Malkah Manouel and I traveled to meet Shatavsky at her home, where a framed photo of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin graces the kitchen wall. Upstairs in her modest studio, surrounded by tchotchkes, collages and prints of her films, we conducted a career-spanning conversation—subsequently resumed and revised over email and phone in the last month—which also marks Shatavsky’s first interview. Now, Ultra Dogme presents the premiere of three digitally-restored films by Esther Shatavsky, in addition to four original collages. Let it be known that these are works that remind us to raise our hands, and think of the worlds within them.

– Christian Flemm

*with the notable exception of Bedtime Story, championed by programmer Mark McElhatten and artist Andrew Lampert, and preserved by Anthology Film Archives in 2013 on a 16-35mm blow-up.

Drawing by Armani Dacres for Ms. Shatavsky’s class, 2022

Nursery Rhymes:
Three Films by Esther Shatavsky

Class Participation (1978) — 6 minutes
After Dinner Science (1978) — 2 minutes
Fishs Eddy (1978) — 5 minutes

Total runtime: 13 minutes

These films were streaming from October 7th-17th and are no longer available.

The digital restoration of Esther Shatavsky’s filmography was conducted under the supervision of the filmmaker in autumn 2021, from best-source prints scanned in 2K by MONO NO AWARE. Class Participation and Fishs Eddy are presented at their original projection speed of 18fps.

Editor’s Note: Esther Shatavsky’s Bedtime Story (1981) will screen on 16mm at New York’s Light Industry on October 11th.

Remember to Raise Your Hand: An Interview with Esther Shatavsky

by Christian Flemm

Christian Flemm: You started at SUNY Binghamton in 1974, well after the Cinema Department had emerged as a focal point for avant-garde filmmaking in the United States. American filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Marjorie Keller, as well as international filmmakers like Peter Kubelka and Takahiko Iimura were regularly visiting and showing work to undergraduates, while Larry Gottheim, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr—filmmakers who had built the department—remained as faculty, and had brought with them Saul Levine and Dan Barnett as assistant professors. It was an exciting time to be a student of personal filmmaking. How did you arrive at Binghamton? Were you aware of the cinema department’s reputation?

Esther Shatavsky: My parents were encouraging me to go to a state school, so we took a trip to Binghamton, and then we were going to go on to Buffalo. We stopped in Binghamton, and when we were there, I was like, “this is good enough, we don’t need to go to Buffalo. I’ll go here.” I had no idea about the cinema department. In fact, I was kind of thinking pre-med when I was applying to schools. Then, in my first semester I took Cinema 100 with Ken [Jacobs]—that was going to be my fun class because I liked movies. And that’s where it began: in Cinema 100, watching The Wizard of Oz and seeing how intricate it was. There were a lot of contentious blowhards in the class. They weeded themselves out and the rest of us went on to take more film classes. I wasn’t necessarily going to take another film class, but a friend urged me to: “C’mon, it’ll be great. It’s Ken.” I remember watching Scarface with Paul Muni on the analytic projector, frame by frame. At the time it felt like a mix of miraculousness and tedium. But it was good, really good. Ken was very inspiring. Strict. You didn’t dare laugh at the dialogue in noir movies.

It sounds like you really didn’t know what you were getting into.

No, I had no idea what I was getting into. I felt like I didn’t quite fit in. And in my cinema classes, I was very quiet. I had a few friends in the class and I would talk to them, but I never really spoke up in class. I just took in as much as I could. Sometimes I knew what the teachers were talking about, and sometimes it [went] over my head. I didn’t really know where I was going, or what I was doing. There was a lot of negative noise in my head.

But that changed rather suddenly one day.

I was a junior, I had already declared film as my major. I had fallen in love with this other way of seeing and making film, but I hadn’t made any films. So I’m walking on campus one day, and Larry Gottheim pulls up in his station wagon, sort of cruising along beside me as I’m walking, and he stops the car and opens the window. He says, “get in.” So I get in the car. He starts lecturing me, saying, “you know, you haven’t made any work and you’re a cinema major. You’ve got to produce some work if you want to graduate. You’re not going to graduate if you don’t make any films. Don’t think this is some kind of free ride.” And I said, “well, okay, I get it” and got out of the car really shaken up. So I went home and there was a plate of brownies left on the kitchen table by one of my roommates, Shmike (his name was Mike but we called him Shmike). I didn’t realize that they were hash brownies and got very high, which really didn’t help things at all. In the end, Larry’s ultimatum scared me enough to get moving and make something.

This was in 1977. I was not comfortable using the bolex or any of the other camera equipment. The tech guy was intimidating, so he was of no help. But I did have these glass slides and I was familiar with slide projectors. So I made a sequence of slides with this fruit paper that eggplant was wrapped in, with a purple eggplant printed on each one. I glued these images of eggplant onto the slides and made a sequence that got progressively bigger and bigger and moved across the screen. And there was a very strong afterimage. I showed this slide sequence in one of Saul Levine’s classes and Saul came up to me afterwards, and complimented me and told me he really liked what he saw, and that kind of gave me a little confidence to keep going. And so I went on from there. 

Then after that in my senior year, I started punching holes in black leader, and then I got the idea that maybe I could punch holes not just in black leader, but in, you know, film with images on it. You know how films have hole punches made by the lab, often in a light-flared part of the tail? There was footage laying around the cinema department and I remember it being up for grabs. So I just looked at it, took some of it, and punched holes in some found footage of children in a classroom.

This became Class Participation.

Yeah. And then I found this footage of the physicist, which became After Dinner Science, and for that film I needed a smaller hole punch that would be the size of the physicist’s head. So when I went home for spring break, I looked up a film supply place in Scarsdale and I found the perfect size. I was very excited to go back to school and punch holes in this physicist’s head and have it move around the screen. I punched holes in the optical soundtrack and taped those punched out pieces into the image of his head [too]. You can hear sputtering on the soundtrack where the holes were punched.

I should mention that at this time, on my spring break at home, I was discovering my father’s record collection and tape recordings. He had a mix of folk music (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton), some Django Reinhardt, sound effects, people testifying and refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Usual stuff for a red diaper baby’s home. But what really sent me to the moon, and maybe this was my internal soundtrack while making After Dinner Science, was the xylophone music of Harry Breuer & His Quintet, an album called Mallet Magic

Back in Binghamton, I was very excited to go to school and punch holes in this physicist’s head and have it move around the screen. As I looked at the After Dinner Science footage in my hands, the zig zags of the optical sound track looked so beautiful. [I thought] maybe the sound track could make its way into the image too, so I punched holes in the optical sound track and taped the punched pieces into the holes I made in the physicist’s head. 

After Dinner Science is your only sound film, and with a runtime of less than a minute, it remains one of the shortest experimental films I’ve ever seen, next to Brakhage’s Eye Myth and works, like Kurt Kren’s 42/83 NO FILM, that cheekily acknowledge their own brevity.

And Peter Tscherkassky’s Shot, Countershot, which I just saw at Light Industry. [The title] After Dinner Science comes from a really cool used science book that I found in some bookstore in Binghamton, filled with science experiments you could do after dinner to impress your friends. It had some nice photographs in it and I always liked the title.

So you finished editing, then came time to screen the work for your peers.

Yeah. So I showed After Dinner Science and Class Participation in Ken Jacobs’ class. Afterwards, Ken told me to come up so people could ask questions. One of my classmates asked me some abstract question like, “what’s your feeling about the circle in the format of the rectangle of film?”, and I just sputtered. But fortunately Ken interjected and said, “you know, sometimes artists are not the most articulate about their work, so you just have to figure it out on your own.”

Not the best experience for your fledgling confidence, I’m sure. How did your peers react to After Dinner Science?

They liked it. We all liked it. It was sort of sublime in its shortness.

You spoke before about feeling like an outsider in the cinema department. The classroom space is its own sort of public sphere, and a closed sphere: the work that’s being presented therein isn’t necessarily leaving it. Did screening your work in front of your peers activate a sense of confidence within you? Did it seem to say to you, “okay, that wasn’t that bad. I’ve torn the band aid off. I can make more films now”?

Yeah, I think I was excited about what I had figured out I could do with film, so I was anxious to show it to people. I guess it legitimized what I was doing, but at that point, I felt more confident. I felt like I discovered something. It’s kind of like when young children discover ideas that we’re quite familiar with and take for granted as adults, but they’ve just figured out for the first time. It was kind of like that for me, like I made this discovery.

But the quiet student naming her first film Class Participation, negating and warping the classroom space, and decapitating students’ heads, with a hole punch, seems a rather pointed gesture, to say the least. The resulting film, covered in dirt and splicing tape, is quite gritty. You were making a statement.

I was supposed to participate and contribute, I wanted to, but for whatever reason, it was too hard for me. I was so quiet in all my cinema classes, and class participation was always a thorn in my side. I think a lot of it also had to do with my fear of learning the technology of filmmaking. I felt like I couldn’t understand how to use a camera and light meter. So it was a way of avoiding all that technology. It’s like, well, what can I do? I know! I can use found footage, then I don’t have to shoot my own film. 

The found footage let you out of having to engage in any sort of, let’s say, phenomenal image making.

[But] I think that I was so attracted to the footage as it was. I loved that the kids in the film looked like what I remember kids looking like when I was in first grade. I mean, I think that footage was shot in the early ‘60s. So I loved that about it. Maybe it felt safer to cut it up. But I think that I was just really attracted to the images of these kids, and I didn’t feel that I needed to shoot my own film because I had this pre-existing footage that was already so amazing to me.

Fishs Eddy remains the only finished film for which you shot your own footage. Was that a big step to take? 

When I made Fishs Eddy, I didn’t know where to cut it when I began. I did a first cut of it and there were a lot of long shots that didn’t work out so well, [but] it was getting towards the end of my senior year in Binghamton (around April or May of 1978), so I wanted to show Ken what I had edited so far. We looked at it on a Steenbeck and I wanted him to give me some direction. Of course I was secretly hoping he’d just say, “looks great, brilliant, A+ for you!” He did not. He basically said that there were aspects of it that were cliché—there was a mirror, there was a woman with a mask. I needed to go back and edit, rethink it. He might’ve even suggested more shooting, but I probably blocked it out. 

By this time, I’d already made and screened After Dinner Science and Class Participation, which Ken was delighted by, and that meant so much to me, so his criticism of the Fishs Eddy footage didn’t make me crumble.With Ken’s feedback, I figured I needed to do something to alter the footage completely. So I got a new bunch of energy to rework the film, and I took the footage that I had edited lightly, and treated it like found footage, which was liberating and enabled me to really chop it apart. It was a little scary chopping it into so many little pieces, but I took that risk and it worked out.  

That summer while living with my folks in White Plains, I commuted to Millennium each day and edited Fishs Eddy. I had a moviescope and rewinds there in my cubicle and discovered that I could make edits based on the shapes the mirror was making on the landscape. I chopped it to pieces with a Reevus splicer and the tape lines in the middle of each frame became part of the collage I was making out of the film. 

And what about that title?

Fishs Eddy is a little town—no, a hamlet!—on Route 17 on the way up to Binghamton. I liked the sound of it and my friends and I thought it was a funny name.

Where was it filmed?

I shot it in my backyard in Vestal, NY near Binghamton. This was in senior year after my visit with Larry in the station wagon. I had figured out how to use a bolex at that point and had an idea of how and what I wanted to shoot, so I was ready to film. [We used] this old round mirror I’d gotten at a tag sale. My friend Debbie Feuer rolled the mirror slowly back and forth with the tire swing swinging in front of it. Or maybe we just propped the mirror up, I don’t remember. At one point Sugarbee, the Spaniel dog, goes running by. In the middle of shooting, the wind blew the mirror over, so we had to stop filming and we had to schlep to a glassmaker in Binghamton to get a new mirror made. 

I love mirrors. The way the mirror looked, being pulled back slowly, blocking out the landscape, and then you can see the landscape again. I was crossing my fingers the whole time that it wouldn’t be all black when I got back from the lab, which happened to me once because I forgot to take the lens cap off the camera on the optical printer.

When I was a kid, I remember playing in the dressing room of B. Altman’s while my mother tried on clothes. I loved to stand in the middle of the 3-paneled mirrors and close them so I could see myself to infinity. I still do this sometimes when I come across them.

While Fishs Eddy was made without a hole punch, the hole punch is present metonymically through the use of the tire swing and a large, round mirror. Were you aware of this relationship with your other films as you cut Fishs Eddy?

Not really. I mean, not consciously. But it was nice, where I worked on the film at Millennium. It was a nice environment to work in at the time. It was very quiet, and I could just go in and make my film.

You started working at Millennium before you graduated? 

Yes, actually, I got an extension on my senior project. I was supposed to graduate in May of 1978, but I got an extension, so my plan was to finish [Fishs Eddy] over the summer and show my films, which I did in October. So I went back to Binghamton in October and showed films. There, I showed Fishs Eddy for the first time.

Cut to October 2022 and we are streaming the same films you presented then.

Yeah, and maybe a loop film that I had made. I also played music as part of my thesis show, and showed collages made from postcards, comic books, old first aid book photos, and magazines, because I had made a lot of postcard collages over the summer. We had these desks that could open and close ,so we opened all the desks and put collages on each of them. I had some stuff hanging on the walls as well. It went well.

You’d been making collages for quite some time, right? 

I started collecting images when I was in college.

What drew you to collage work?

Well, right after college, I went to a show of collages by Joseph Cornell with Mark McElhattan, who I knew from Binghamton. He’d already seen the show but thought I should see it, and I was very taken with them. I was already making collages with postcards, but the Cornell collages inspired me to make collages using other kinds of images, mostly from the 50s and early 60s, which was my childhood. I like collage because it gives me something to start with—it’s harder to start with a blank piece of paper. So with collage you just pick an image to start and go from there. And whatever image you pick to start sets limits on what will work with it. I need limits.

It’s all about being able to see things in the context of their own beauty, and putting them somewhere else so that they become even more beautiful. Some of the images I use in collage are not so amazing in their [original] context. But when you remove them, they become something different.

Did you move to New York City right after graduation?

Well, first, I lived with my parents in White Plains for about a year, and I was not making films then. But I moved to Brooklyn in 1979, and that’s when I started working on Bedtime Story. I had gotten a job through a friend at a film production house; they did commercials and produced some memorable films like Velvet Smooth (1976). One of my jobs was to watch Gunsmoke on 16mm and make sure that there were no parts missing. It was very tedious. I was not really paying attention to the plot, but I was paying attention to some of the imagery, and that’s where I found the footage for Bedtime Story. I saw this image of a woman in bed, shooing away this man, James Arness, [who] was peering in from the roof. And I thought, “what a great image.” I’ll just leave it up to your imagination how I got it…

Don’t be a tease!

I didn’t even think twice. It was like, “oh, I gotta have this.” And so I went over to the rewinds and put the film on there and cut out that chunk of film, and spliced it back together and did not report that there were any pieces missing from the film. I stole it, yes.

Around this time, you got involved with the Collective for Living Cinema.

Yes. So I talked to them about showing my films there at Ken’s suggestion. Renee Shafransky, who was the programmer there, said she liked my work but wanted me to have more films, so I made Bedtime Story.

But still, even with Bedtime Story, Fishs Eddy, and After Dinner Science, there wasn’t enough to make a show. Andrea Weiss, the new programmer at the time, had agreed to give me a show anyway, probably thinking that Bedtime Story would be longer. She called me about 2 weeks before the show because it had dawned on her that the entire length of the program was [only] about 15 minutes. She was a little freaked out about this. 

So with Andrea’s anxiety foisted upon me, I came up with the idea of also showing my collages and setting up the Collective like a living room, with vignettes made using furniture from my apartment as well as pieces borrowed from friends. There was a corner that I wallpapered, mounted the mirror from Fishs Eddy, and put in a big upholstered chair and a torch lamp. There were pewter sconce lamps along one wall with framed collages; another vignette in the middle of the room with a striped wingback chair and my old wooden train tracks from when I was a kid. I had also brought an old attic window and attached it near the entrance, so it swung back and forth freely. There were framed collages on the wall and all my tchotchkes were scattered around on the tables, on the floor, wherever I could find a place for them.

So people came and milled around, looked at the collages, sat in the vignettes, and ate candy—all favorites: Mike and Ike, Good & Plenty, jawbreakers. I got a hold of a home movie da-lite screen and we projected all my films on it afterwards. Next, we gave the films a proper screening and projected them on the Collective screen. It took more than 15 minutes.

And was that your first and last solo show, or were there more? 

Yeah, that was it. Bedtime Story was picked up and shown in a lot of different places. 

Bedtime Story reads as a very direct critique of the male gaze. But you don’t necessarily frame it that way, or you didn’t at the time?

Not when I was making it. I think it was coming out of my subconscious. But it was really more about the process of cutting up the film and taping the pieces together. I was not thinking about all these possible interpretations and deliberately trying to create a narrative.

With the exception of Fishs Eddy, which was edited without cutting or pasting materials directly atop a filmed image, your films are based heavily in collage. Can you describe your editing approach?

I’d take some footage and lay it on top of the lightbox, cut out the negative space of a frame with my x-acto knife, and take that little piece of negative space that I’d cut and put it aside. Then I’d find another frame elsewhere in the film and I’d place the little strip of celluloid that was the negative space, and place it over this new frame. Then I’d trace around it to get a similar frame, and insert that in the frame and keep it in place with some splicing tape. Sometimes I’d cut out the negative space and there would be a hole in the film. 

In the case of Bedtime Story, I think parts of it fell apart. I had reprinted it many times, so I had enough footage that I could probably recreate it if something fell apart. It was a little tricky. I’d cut fifteen frames of the woman and place each one somewhere else. I had to use the optical printer to do all of this, which was a major technical feat on my part. I probably lost some frames along the way.

Who taught you how to use the optical printer?

Boris Bode at Millennium. He was very patient with everybody in the class, a good teacher.

How else were you supporting yourself, at the time?

I was mainly waitressing, and I had a lot of free time during the day, so I’d go to a lot of films by myself. 

Were you going to Anthology much?

Not so much. I was mainly seeing films at the Regency, the Thalia, the old Film Forum, Millenium, Rafik, and the Collective. At the Regency, we’d sit in the balcony and smoke cigarettes. The Thalia had these uncomfortable raked seats that were very wobbly. One time, during an Ida Lupino screening, a guy sat near me—I was by myself—and masturbated. The whole row was wobbling back and forth. I had to move my seat. The next feature starts up and another guy sits down and does the same thing. I had to move my seat again. 

At an Ida Lupino film?

Yeah, triple feature.

And you said it was called the Phalia?

[laughs] No, no. The Thalia.

After finishing Bedtime Story, did you have any plans for another film?

Yeah, I had shot some footage with a mirror again, and not a round mirror this time. It was a broken mirror. And I also had a leopard-spotted fur blanket that was in it. I had plans to edit some of that footage and started to, but just never finished it, plus I started going to graduate school to get my masters in early childhood education. At that point, once I started going to graduate school, that was all I could do. I was totally focused on that and learning how to be a teacher. But yeah, that’s the last film that I was working on. It was called Blind Spot.

What made you decide to go into teaching?

Well, I wasn’t working on films. I felt like I had to do something else that was going to be fulfilling in some way, so teaching was what I came up with. I got very involved in early childhood teaching and really liked it.

When I was making films I could only do it in short spurts. I always felt like I wasn’t spending enough time on Bedtime Story when I was working on it. But really that was just how I worked. Soon after showing Bedtime Story, it got to the point where I had to make money to live, and I couldn’t see myself teaching film or working at a production company. I wanted to find a way where I could earn a living while being creative, and for me that was teaching young children. In the end it was a practical decision. By the time I started graduate school I wasn’t working on any films. The music video I made doesn’t count.

You made a music video?

Ken Ross and Richard Levine, who I knew from the Collective, had a production company that made music videos. They knew Bedtime Story and around 1987 they asked if I’d cut some found footage for this music video that they were making for an Australian rock group The Saints, and the song was “Just Like Fire Would“. They were going to pay me, and after some thought I said sure. It was cut over a period of two weeks and it was hard; I slept about two hours each night and I felt totally out of my element. So I showed my assistant Linda Wismath how to cut Bedtime Story-style. We had found footage, chopped it apart, moved things around, and out came footage that they could incorporate into the video. The band’s frontman didn’t like it so much because the found footage took away from the footage of him performing. 

Filmmaking was a totally different part of your life but you’re still tethered to it by the collage work, and by the prints scattered around the house.

Yeah, and even when I’m not making collages, even as a teacher, I’ve always felt more like an artist than a teacher. Just in the way I see things and the way I think. I think about it a lot. 

With 30 years’ distance from it, how do you feel about your work today?

I like my work. I’m glad that I made these films. Maybe I’ll make more. But I don’t know if more will come out of me. We’ll see in another 25 years or so.

Maybe even longer, maybe 50, 60. Who knows?

Well, I said recently to a friend of mine that I’m middle aged. She says, “you gonna live to 120?”

Got anything pithy for us to close with?

“It’s all fun and games till someone takes a snowflake to the eye.” That’s a quote from one of my 6-year-old students. He kept trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue but they were landing in his eyes.

Christian Flemm is a filmmaker and translator. He lives and works in Berlin.

Thanks to Mark McElhatten, Larry Gottheim, Steve Cossman, Malkah Manouel, Justin Kline and to Ed Halter & Thomas Beard of Light Industry for their support, encouragement and generosity of spirit towards the realization of this project. -CF

All images of artworks are courtesy of the artist and © Esther Shatavsky, 2022. Photo of Esther Shatavsky by Malkah Manouel.

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