Male Viewers Handle With Care |  Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine September 2020 | www.scene4.com

Male Viewers Handle With Care
40th Anniversary of the Multimedia Show:

In the Beginning… of the End: A Voyage of Women Becoming

Renate Stendhal

My Danish lover Maj and I had both worked in the theater in the 1970s. Maj was a painter and I a writer. The feminist movement in Paris and all over Europe was in high swing, and by the end of the decade we planned to create something new: a theater play with and by women only. We worked out the project, a series of tableaux vivants in the style of Robert Wilson, each scene based on one color of the rainbow (the symbolism of the rainbow flag had not yet been established.) We called the play In the Beginning…of the End as we were dreaming up the end of Patriarchy. The subtitle, "A Voyage of Women Becoming," indicated women's becoming whole, independent, empowered.


We put our savings into renting a country house in Denmark and invited a crew of 25 women from different countries to prepare and rehearse the play. We also invited a Parisian woman who was already familiar with the brand-new technology of operating several slide projectors in dissolve. Adding Super-8 projections would make the play "multimedia."


Our brave collective fared no better than most collective work projects launched at that time by women under the auspices of equality: no boss, no hierarchies, everybody having a say. It was a disaster. It did not matter that it was our concept, our text or our invitation.  Maj and I had no more say than any of the members of the team who turned out to disagree with our ideas. As we all served the same utopian ideals Maj and I could only argue, try to convince and inspire. To no avail. Our teammates did not believe that our critique of Patriarchy was talking about a system of oppression and not about their particular father, brother, husband or lover. Our critique was too disturbing, too radical. A striking example was their passionate refusal to show a woman on a cross—a fresh idea back then, in the late-seventies. 


The disagreements about feminism, patriarchy, religion, and men led to chaos, endless discussions instead of rehearsals, and sabotage. At the end of the month Maj and I were left wit the bill and with some 5000 slides of useless tryouts of scenes. We were devastated. Our fiery ideals of woman power and sisterhood were a pile of ashes. "I will burn my apartment," Maj declared, "take the insurance money and move to Bali.  Forever."  "We can't just let them get away with this," I objected. "We can learn these audiovisual techniques ourselves. Let's do a purely audiovisual version of our ideas. No need for a stage, no need for a crew.  And then let's make it much more radical. That will be the best revenge."

Maj agreed. We got a $5,000 Franc loan from artist Meret Oppenheim, for whom I was working as an assistant, and started over. The sad bounty of our collective dreams went into the garbage except for a few dozen pictures and two film sequences. But we still had our "protagonist," the major icon of the theater play: the golden mask of a woman (designed by Maj), a Sleeping Beauty of no particular skin color or ethnicity, a symbol of all the sleeping beauties we hoped to awaken with the kiss of our show.



We spent a whole year in Copenhagen, in a back room of Maj's bohemian collective that became our studio., researching history and art history for the images we needed. I took a trip to a medical archive in Braunschweig, Germany, the only place to get hold of documents on Chinese foot binding that I needed for an uncensored version of the  Cinderella tale. I wrote to Kodak about our project and got four brand new slide carousels almost for free: Perhaps our project promised a new market of women users of multimedia. As the storyline progressed, a good friend of Maj's, Iben Haa, who was planning to work in the Danish movie industry, joined in as our sound technician. Now we were a trio, spending many days and nights in Iben's sound studio. We got permission  for artwork and music and every woman artist and musician we could reach: Meret Oppenheim, Ana Mendieta, Mary Beth Edelson and Judy Chicago, ,composer Kay Gardner and French vocalist Tamia, to name a few.


We had a 35-minute section, our first part, ready just in time to apply for the so-called "Summer University of Women" in Berlin, in 1980.  It was the first major gathering of feminists in Germany. Several thousand women flocked to Berlin University for lectures, round tables and workshops. In the Beginning… of the End was the only media event at the month-long gathering. Luck had it that the auditorium was huge, seating 2,000 women, and the screen was as big as a house.


Maj and I had built up our equipment in the 20th row: four slide carousels with dissolve units, a Super-8 projector, a heavy Revox tape recorder, an amplifier, and two powerful speakers. With our dissolve units in hand we followed the cues of the sound track "live," letting each slide appear, dissolve, melt into the next and fade away. Our choreography of moving images intended to tell a film-like story in stills, like Chris Marker had done in his iconic film La Jet茅e

At the last image, the awakening of our Sleeping Beauty, a thunderstorm of stomping, hollering and clapping rained down on us. The mass of women went on jumping up and down and shouting for minutes on end. We were stunned. Many women came up to us , some in tears, some with spontaneous gifts and symbolic tokens of recognition. Most of them said they would never be able to describe what they had seen (and none of them did). They were "just blown away.". Some said it was like a drug trip. Others commented that the technique of blending, melting images was so "feminine" and allowed us to slide through 5,000 years of history and religion without a break. One woman gave me her card from the Canadian Film Board, Studio D. She asked to be in touch when the entire show was ready.


The word of mouth was the proverbial wildfire. While we worked on our Part 2, we followed many invitations to women's centers and study groups in Germany. Each time we packed our old Renault to the brim with our equipment and went on the road. We unrolled a big white sheet for the screen, fumbled with the woman center's rudimentary sound system, and sweated to bring all five images projectors into perfect alignment on the screen. Women everywhere now also wanted to learn how to use audiovisual tools and techniques, so we added workshops to the tour. We usually stayed with one of the organizers, talking until late in the night, sleeping on a living room couch or sometimes on the floor, and the next day the show would be back on the road. In between our engagements, May and I kept our freelance jobs going颅—she as a decorator, me as a journalist and translator. Our show was a nonprofit enterprise; to get some expenses paid we usually passed a hat around.



By spring 1981 we had completed the whole one-hour show. Our Part 2 tried to envision a women-loving alternative to the patriarchal tale of oppression. Our sponsor, Meret Oppenheim loved to call this part "the Lesbian propaganda." We didn't mind one bit–it was a good joke from an artist whose love life had never known gender limitations, but who had kept this fact under wraps all her life. We loved our "propaganda," our mythical vision of Natriarchy, the romance and passion of woman-loving. I realized an old vision of mine: two waltzing dancers, each clad in half a woman's evening gown and half a man's tuxedo. I sewed the costume for myself and another dancer and we mixed film and slides for the scene, set to Karajan's languid version of Valse Triste by Sibelius.


Traveling with the show became easier that year, when Studio D of the Canadian Film Board produced In the Beginning…of the End on 16mm film. We flew to Montreal, where we projected the show onto a transparent movie screen that allowed the simultaneous recording on film. There was no editing option and no room for mistakes: we had a one-shot chance of getting as close to perfect timing as luck would have it.

Now Maj and I could travel light, each with a couple of large rolls of 16mm film under her arm. Maj focused on Scandinavia, I on the German-speaking parts of Europe and of course Paris. We had produced a booklet with the complete text for audience members without much English. We played women's festivals in Amsterdam, London, a few gay and lesbian film festivals (New York) and the French Women's Film Festival in Cr茅tail. In Paris I received a stipend from the Women's Minestry to get the show subtitled in French and archived at the Centre Simone de Beauvoir.

In view of the large success of the show it remined a puzzle to us why not one of the thousands of women spectators in ten countries wrote a comment, a review or analysis of the phenomenon. Was the work too radical, too challenging after all? Wherever we went, there would be fiery discussions and sometimes strife after the presentation. Usually an enthusiastic majority of women would be confronted by the same outrage, fury and aggression that had tanked our initial theater project. The clashes culminated when I was invited by the Swiss Paulus Academy for Religious Studies in Zurich. The audience of a hundred church women split into two camps: one accusing me/us of witchcraft and evil, the other taking on the defense of freedom of thought,  arguing that the church had always despised and oppressed women and that the show said squarely what many women never dared to say or even think. 


Maybe we were lucky not to be burned at the stake. We got a handful of fair reviews in the mainstream press, but none in the women's press. I understood only later that the reluctance of women to step back and analyze a powerful emotion was both a willful affirmation of gender difference, of not being like men, and also the result of gender oppression. Women of our generation were not encouraged to dissect and intellectualize our feelings. We, like all the women back then, had the dream of creating a women's culture, but there were none able to receive our creation. The huge experiment and adventure of feminism lasted about a decade –a decade of high creative, erotic, intellectual enthusiasm, before the backlash began. The fire of radical feminism was squashed and, like brooding, embers of discontent, lingers underground.


You can watch the show on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiSlT4TTUDMcV42nUB-wAyA 

If your country has blocked it because of copyright restriction, you can access it on my website: https://www.renatestendhal.com/multimedia 

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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2020 Renate Stendhal
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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