Registering the Registry 2019: My Name is Oona (1969)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, amongst the experimental crowd gathered round the Bay Area in the late 1960s, we find Gunvor Nelson filming her daughter and ruminating on this ‘n’ that in My Name is Oona. Let’s take a look!

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Gunvor Nelson rejects conventional labels. Not in the sense of her films being so far beyond description or sensible language as to evade any name or box, no issue with figuring the content and calling it what it is. The Swedish artist, trained as a photographer, moved to the United States to study film, and prominent as a voice in the San Francisco experimental art movement of the 60s and 70s, simply expresses discomfort with the limiting vagaries applied to her work and that of her colleagues. “Experimental” implies something incomplete, “avant-garde” lacks definite quality, “feminist” ties her pieces too closely to a particular movement and moment beyond the self. “Personal” films is her preferred nomenclature – by, of, reflecting an individual eye’s truths, an ear’s realities, a mind’s conceptions about all it is given and all it feeds back to the world. Of course, we know even at the humblest independent level, film remains a collaborative effort with helping hands and crew members and all the good things other people can do to shepherd your picture along, and indeed the Nelson films available on Fandor do credit other artists for their contributions. We take her meaning readily, though. Whatever’s in a Gunvor Nelson film is something drawn from deep inside, mixed with singular intent, prepared in large part by direction from a single pair of hands. A voice, directly from her throat to your senses, communicating an exact impression, no need for grander paradigms to dictate how it fits within the mood of the day or the oeuvre of her movement. She creates on a personal level, you receive on the same grounds.

To be sure, one can look on the other two Nelson films presently available through Fandor on Amazon Prime, and readily identify her with the philosophies and groupings of the day. In the way Take Off twists the stag film of a woman dancing and shirking her clothes and shaking it all for the camera by allowing the images to presage and intrude on one another, before the dancer begins to remove body parts and becomes startlingly alien to the point of transcending amongst the stars as the footage groups choppier and the lights strobe all round her, we find a filmmaker in conversation with how far a performer can stretch their limits in pursuit of truth before the audience rejects it as not at all what they wanted. Moon’s Pool presents extreme close-ups on the naked human figure, male and female alike, dancing and bathing through sparkling water as a whispering voice questions the nature of the body, prefacing a midway digression into fire and lava on the seas, threatening to trap all in rigid stone solidity. The subjects can escape, however, and once more transcendence springs to the forefront as something primal and pure comes from the human form twisting and loving and thinking upon the waves. Other works, which I cannot watch but find described in June M. Gill’s Film Quarterly article, “The Films of Gunvor Nelson,” imply a filmmaker concerned with motherhood and femininity as they existed in her modern time, Schmeerguntz absurdly contrasting the polished images on TV with a pregnant expectant’s actual daily struggles, or Kirsa Nicholina depicting natural birth as an act beautiful for its pain and the closeness between partners required to lessen the ache, personalize the moment. Discussion of how she overlays images in contrast to the Brakhages or Baillies contemporary to her earliest works, or else how she embraced visual concepts common to second-wave feminism without ever embracing the movement itself, even inspiring one of the organizers on the 1968 Miss America protest with her debut, these are all possible analytic avenues with respect to My Name is Oona.

A personal approach, though, seems best fit. My Name is Oona is nothing if not immensely personal, a nine-minute short capturing Nelson’s then-young daughter at numerous states of play. Oona Nelson skips and prances down a darkened sidewalk with her mother’s hand in hers, she wrestles with an equally shirtless friend, she brushes her horse and rides it bareback across the fields, she exists within wooded spaces and atop glaring white backdrops, smiling or contemplative depending on the moment. The whole thing is defined by Nelson’s daughter, moments she thought worth capturing and interrogating and presenting for posterity, mixed with her characteristic eye for flickering images in conversation with one another, and especially her ear for meaning from the cacophonous. We shall, thus, try to treat Oona as Oona, as the child whose singular cinematic moment we observe for a short while, and leave her untouched by whatever the world at large might say or think about her activities. She is, within her own film, not representative of any coherent ideology, or philosophy, or perspective, or anything else you might please. She is Oona.

She is Oona to the point of near exclusivity, in fact. As anyone who’s watched will know, the soundscape in My Name is Oona is simply the title, first presented as the quotation from Oona on its lonesome atop the image of her smiling face. “My name is Oona.” This statement of identity quickly sheds any cumbersome extra words, down to a mere repeated, “Oona, Oona, Oona, Oona, Oona,” which in turn doubles on itself. At first in perfect time, then slightly out of step, so the one Oona increasingly lags behind the other, till what was echo becomes stereo, Oona to the one side, Oona to the other, Oona left, Oona right, Oona here, Oona there. Beneath, the individual syllables become their own chant, a -na -na -na -na -na -na -na -na chorus on an irregular beat, so close to one another as to produce a ringing noise amidst the song. Oo-‘s enter briefly, deepened and reverberating every so often far back in the mix, such that the -na -na -na -na -na -na -na backing to the overlapping Oona Oona Oona Oona Oona Oona Oona occasionally goes “Ooo” for an additional shuddering. Slowly, the disparate elements begin to coalesce again, the splintered syllables sinking below auditory range, the alternating Oonas realigning as an echo, and then a single voice once more. And into all this, Oona breaks in, reciting the days of the week in an infinite loop.

At one point, Oona hesitates in her recital, seemingly unsure of where to go next, and we hear a man’s voice, instructing her on the proper manner in which to use the microphone and proceed with her exercise, to which Oona complies. Despite the intrusion of another’s voice, the Oona chant has not ceased, merely taken a backseat to the Monday, Tuesday… Wednesday, Thursday, Friday…. Saturday…. Sunday, Monday loop, which in short order breaks again for the man to deliver similar instructions. This time, however, the Oonas begin to take prominence again, and return to their original, full sentence state, with more of a sing-songy vibe. Rather than, “My name is Oona,” nothing more nothing less, we turn playful, to the tune of, “My naaaame is Oooona, mynameisoona. My naaaame is Oooona, mynameisoona,” a vibrato in her voice. As the days recital fades, a counter chant appears, this one stretching out the final syllable for, “My name is Oonaaaaaa~,” a lilting ascension as of pride or jest. To meet it, a more certain voice with the same proclamation, taking its time on each individual word, to give us, “My. Name. Is. Oona.” All these variations intermingle, new ways on perceiving the idea of “My name is Oona” singing across each other, sometimes in perfect step, other times completely out of time, and once more the ringing starts, a meaningless new contribution born from too much of the same notion reflecting off itself and back onto itself and towards yet another self, all my name is Oona my name is Oona my name is Oona my name is Oonaa a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a… until once more, we fade into an adult’s voice. Gunvor Nelson, softly singing to her daughter in Swedish, and then, nothing else.

In such isolation from all things save Oona and her name being selfsame, I find my read on Nelson’s point, or at least that which resonates most profoundly for me amidst her collage. Paired with the images of a carefree childhood which are themselves transparently married to film of light filtering through the leaves and dark spaces amongst the branches, the selfmade verbal dance of “My name is Oona” shows what is important to a child. The self, the freshly found identity, known vaguely to be imposed by another, but so completely central and essential to knowing and distinguishing one’s own place in the world, it becomes more important than any single idea to the adult mind. It can be broken apart, reassembled, duplicated a million times over, said in new and exciting ways, sung in the same inflection to the point of meaninglessness, combined in all imaginable facades, and still it is true, still it means I am Oona, and Oona means me. Oona can mean “my name is” without needing the “my name is,” individual components of Oona can imply Oona without needing their partner, the feedback from too much Oona all at once will produce the idea of Oona all the same. So supreme in meaning and importance is, “My name is Oona,” it washes right over simple temporal realities and outside authorities, such things allowed mental space and focus long as is necessary, but always the mind returns to preferred activities and the centered idea of Oona. It’s unshakable, it’s everything, it’s the underlying idea to making play and riding in the woods and speaking in the first place – all things return to reasserting, on some level, that my name is Oona, and all things are, in some way, shape, or form, a reinforcement of this idea. Only her mother’s voice can break in for a spell and not fall before a statement of identity, for it originated and guards and cares for that identity day and night. There’s something special in this outside voice and idea and lyricism… but all else is of less interest and less vitality than, “My name is Oona.”

We know this state cannot last. Much as “My name is Oona” dominates the soundtrack in My Name is Oona, My Name is Oona is not a purely auditory experience, and though the visuals are primarily focused on Oona, outside elements and influences already exist: within, a friend to wrestle, a horse to brush and ride, a mother to lead down the path; without the boundless nature which surrounds and envelops her, the abstract beyond of ideas and feelings not readily expressed in words or images. Her mother can bring the reverie to an end with her song, her instructor can halt the chant for a time to educate and shape her, so even in purely aural form, things outside the being of Oona matter and touch her life. The simple, pure childhood egotism of the self as undoubted center of all things must one day give way to other children, other figures, other cares, other interests, other institutions, an infinite array of others to whom “My name is Oona” only matters a little, if it matters at all, and Oona must grow up, as Oona Nelson has done these last fifty-one years. Living simply demands one look beyond the self from day one, and no matter how long it takes to acknowledge and internalize ideas more complicated and distant from your person than, “My name is Oona,” they will eventually take root and bring nuance and perspective all their own. A little girl, framed against the sunset, not a care in the world save how all this is perfectly tailor-made for her to enjoy and relate back to the being of Oona, can only exist on this earth for so short a time. The personal can only encompass the person and nothing else for the briefest of moments, before it must also acknowledge and mean at least a little of society at large.

In the cinema, though, in the little frames of celluloid flying past a beam of light to cast their shadows upon the wall at twenty-four a second, we can capture and preserve some of it. The result is doubtless unnerving to a degree, for in the confines of a single ten-minute reel, we’ve so much boundless, endless assertion and reaffirmation of the self’s dominance, the limited space will produce a disorienting effect if framed just so. The internal loop must coexist alongside the image of childhood alongside the double framing of of all-surrounding nature alongside an acknowledgement of impermanence, and so the conversation between sound and vision will overlap, doubletalk, murmur its song in so many voices the voices merge into something subvocal as the pictures mix girl into girl into world into abstraction and form something the eye can’t readily dissect. Through it all, one thing remains certain: for a moment in the 1960s, down in San Francisco’s Bay Area, in and around the home of Swedish film artist Gunvor Nelson, “My name is Oona” was true as could be, just as for me, “My name is Gil” was the only truth that mattered for a time, just as a variant on the same was for you the reader, as it was for all before complex knowledge and meaning entered into our lives, as it can be again for any who form or discover new or long unacknowledged identities in adulthood – “My name is Jill.” And in the personal confines of My Name is Oona, one mother’s portrait of her daughter, one artist’s snapshot edited to extract internal meaning in addition to physical reality, we find a childhood, loving and specific in its particulars, readily expanded and applied to the lives of all who watch. The tyranny of having to learn the days of the week will always win out as we progress through our days, but on some level the truth represented here remains, the first fact we consciously know, the last to leave our heads, pregnant with meaning at the end, bursting with possibility at the beginning, perhaps the only statement about ourselves free from falsehoods for having birthed and determined itself amidst nothing.

“My name is Oona. My. Name. Is. Oona. Mynameisoona. My naaaame is Oooonaaaaa. Oo. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Oo. Na.”

So it goes.

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Would enjoy hearing any alternate thoughts from those who were able to watch! Next week, we head back down south to watch Madeline Anderson’s half-hour documentation on a Charleston hospital worker’s union strike and the role of black women in the fight for labor equity with 1970’s I Am Somebody. MUBI and Ovid both offer the film on subscription, and Amazon has it on rental, but the film’s also up on YouTube at present, so whatever works for you. Catch y’all then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.