a shaky close-up of two people kissing
A still from Autre Fois J’ai Aimé Une Femme (1966). Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

“I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.” —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Just three minutes into Edward Owens’s Autre Fois J’ai Aimé Une Femme (1966), the screen goes dark. It stays that way for several more minutes, with only occasional hints of light flares and specks of illumination to suggest that this darkness is intentional. Owens’s use of black leader in such abundance was considered, even by those who advocated for him, something of a visual nuisance. Per the Chicago Film Society in a lengthy informational post on their website about Owens and the new restorations of his work, he said that “the reason there was too much black was because I was trying to say that the black represented the weight of a man . . . I don’t think I should get rid of the black leader because it makes a great deal of sense.”

It’s a bold move for any filmmaker to embrace darkness as an aesthetic, so antithetical is the technique to cinema. Light is crucial not just to the images, but also, metaphorically, to the implied supremacy of those on whom it shines. “Cinema is light,” notes professor and film theorist Lars Kristensen in an essay for the book Contemporary Cinema and Neoliberal Ideology, which he co-edited with Ewa Mazierska, “but it is a selective light, one which allows certain people or representations to be visible while others remain in darkness, unseen by audiences.”

In Owens’s cinema, however, darkness is the great equalizer. Not necessarily in the political sense, but aesthetically; in the darkness—be it the aforementioned black leader or the stark blackness often surrounding the people and objects onscreen—everything becomes nothing but refractions of the same limited light source.

Owens was a Black, gay filmmaker (likely the only one working within the New American Cinema), yet there are no outright references in his work to any sort of political ideology connected to his identity. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he experimented with 8-millimeter before and during his time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where he studied painting and sculpture. 

Now, in a sense, he’s returning to SAIC, with a screening of each of his four films on 16-millimeter—all restored by the Chicago Film Society in conjunction with the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and the John M. Flaxman Library at SAIC. It’s made possible by support from the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Avant-Garde Masters Grant Program and the Film Foundation, with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. The screening takes place on Friday, April 7, at 8 PM, at SAIC’s Gene Siskel Film Center. 

Owens graduated to 16-millimeter at the urging of experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, who was then a guest lecturer at the school. Autre Fois J’ai Aimé Une Femme, Owens’s first film (made when he was just 17 years old), is dedicated to his mentor. As critic J. Hoberman notes in a 2015 issue of Artforum, Owens’s films bear similarities to Markopolous’s in their “percussive style, elliptical narrative, and elevated notion of cinema.” Specifically, “the impressively assured Tomorrow’s Promise” resembles Markopoulos’s Twice a Man (1963) and The Illiac Passion (1964–67).

Autre Fois J’ai Aimé Une Femme is distinctly opaque, an assemblage of still and subtly moving images set against a stark, black background, which sometimes obscures and sometimes helps to reveal that appearing before it. The performers—seemingly all white, including Owens’s then-girlfriend, Gloria Rich—are beautifully shot, evincing a world of their own to which viewers are not privy. In his influential study of the American avant-garde, Visionary Film, historian P. Adams Sitney wrote about Markopolous’s Gammelion (1968) that “the total lack of incident in the film create[s] the aura of a fiction without elaborating any specific fiction.” Though Owens’s film precedes Gammelion, it’s nevertheless an apt explanation for Autre Fois J’ai Aimé Une Femme and Owens’s three other films, which manifest their own impenetrable prevarications.

Tomorrow’s Promise (1967) is the longest of his films at 42 minutes. It’s also the film he made upon moving to New York City, where he followed Markopoulos after the filmmaker abruptly left his teaching position in Chicago. There Owens was briefly integrated into the avant-garde proper, becoming associated with the likes of Andy Warhol, Marie Menken, and Charles Boultenhouse. Hoberman notes that “Owens attempted to fund [the film] via an ad in the Village Voice”; he also mentions its “sense of belatedness,” owing to the shift in experimental cinema from the expressiveness of his predecessors and contemporaries to the structuralism represented by filmmakers like Michael Snow. Owens himself thought the film exuded a sense of vacantness, which speaks to the privileging of images over any kind of narrative, which is only minimally more substantial in Tomorrow’s Promise than in his previous film. 

Set in part against a soundtrack of classical music, this work plays like a visual symphony. The use of superimpositions (a technique frequently utilized by Owens) suggests, literally, the potential for a subtextual exegesis. Appropriated imagery—including religious icons, newspaper clippings, and the cover of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls—belies this notion of attributing a larger meaning to a deliberately effusive construction. 

The vacantness, however, is evoked in the lack of a specified lexicon. Represented most substantially are a man and woman who appear to be getting married. At one point their faces are situated similarly to the iconic shots from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) where one’s profile obscures half of the other’s face as it appears to look into the camera. I’m not sure if that’s an established point of reference, but Owens’s idle imagery stands stark in contrast to Bergman’s symbol-laden compositions.

Returning to Chicago, Owens made Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967) about his mother, Mildered, and her friends Nettie Thomas and Irene Collins. Though it contains techniques used in his previous two films, it’s altogether different, demonstrating a sense of joy not found in the others. Static or near-static shots of Mildered and her friends are stunning, lit against dark backdrops so that they appear to be glowing from within. A section of the three women spending time together, smoking cigarettes and drinking Budweiser, is set in part to Marilyn Monroe singing “Running Wild” from Some Like It Hot. Portrait-style shots of the women, obfuscated also by superimposition, are then set to “All Cried Out” by Dusty Springfield.

Markopoulos lamented Owens’s use of music here, which is likely why it was initially cataloged as being silent. But, as the Chicago Film Society notes, Owens suggested that it be played first with the music then again without. Also of note is that at the beginning of Remembrance Owens can be heard reading the credits, the most obvious insertion of himself into any of the films. 

Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1968-1970) is a fitting denouement for this quartet, as it contains elements of all those that came before it. Originally titled Mildered Owens: Towards Fiction, it’s again about his mother but here interwoven with more disparate imagery, including that of white women, making this his only film to feature both Black and white faces (of live performers versus appropriated imagery). The affected imagery is dreamlike, with people and objects positioned almost as religious idols via a baroque style of cinematography (this to me feels the most like a painting of Owens’s films, signaling a potential shift never explored thereafter)—figures in a story larger than themselves. It’s silent, though one sees peoples’ mouths moving; the lush imagery and the dearth of sound create a moving juxtaposition that serves as a metaphor for experimental cinema. One sees but very rarely understands such filmmaking so personal to its source.

Gene Siskel Film Center
164 N. State
Friday, April 7 at 8 PM

Owens returned to Chicago for good in 1971 and never made another film, only occasionally screening his work locally. His critical reassessment, however, also began in Chicago, starting when film scholar Ron Gregg undertook a five-part series, “Beyond Warhol, Smith, and Anger: Recovering the Significance of Postwar Queer Underground Cinema,” at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. This prompted a capsule review in the Chicago Reader; critic Fred Camper wrote that the films he’d seen, Tomorrow’s Promise and Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, were “two fascinating if uneven films . . . in which images of characters in static poses are edited and superimposed so that their forms seem to merge with one another.” This write-up prompted further discussion among interested circles. 

The full story of Owens’s “rediscovery” and the heroic digitization and restoration of his films by various organizations is a saga in and of itself, best left to be told by those who have undertaken it. Members of the Chicago Film Society will introduce the screening and contextualize the significance of their efforts. But the best way to learn about the films themselves is, naturally, to see them, especially ones as elusive as Owens’s. In the darkness of the theater, and in Owens’s films specifically, await the roses of uncommon ingenuity.