Gunvor Nelson: most Swedes probably don't know the name. Even within Swedish film circles there has been a troubling lack of knowledge about Gunvor Grundel Nelson's importance to the medium. The University of Karlstad's 2002 hosting of an international conference and retrospective of Nelson's roughly twenty films and videos thus offered a welcome chance to introduce anew someone who is a leader within the international avantgarde. Nelson's work is deeply rooted in her homeland (and not least in her home town, Kristinehamn)-witness trace elements in many of the films she made even during the years she worked in California.
The (characteristically bilingual) catalogue, Still Moving-I ljud och bild (Still Moving-In Sound and Image), published by Karlstad University in conjunction with the conference, with John Sundholm as editor, presents Gunvor Nelson's work from several points of view. It's clear how much in her life, as in her work, was unplanned, beginning with her study of art in the U.S. that led to her marriage to a San Francisco artist. Her work in film began almost accidentally as well: together with her friend and neighbor Dorothy Wiley (also married to an artist), Gunvor collaborated on the prize-winning Schmeerguntz (1963) (the title comes from her father's nonsense language: it's a homemade, German-sounding word for sandwich). Some argue that this film is an example of early feminist filmmaking; Nelson herself maintains that the film had no origin in feminist consciousness. For her it simply shows-sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes almost grotesquely-the physical experiences of women: we see pregnancy, morning sickness, the "schmutz" wiped from a baby's bottom, a discarded sanitary napkin, all cut together with advertising images of models and beauty contest contestants. At the time, San Francisco cinematheque curator Steve Anker wrote that Schmeerguntz "created a rapidfire attack on the most cherished of all American icons: motherhood and the home."2 Nelson and Wiley's next collaboration resulted in Fog Pumas (1967). This film was also, in many ways, an attack on established conventions of film narrative, through characteristically surrealist images that undercut logical narrative connections while the film simultaneously conveyed a healthy, quotidian sense of comedy. The images joined together, tentatively, loosely, dreamily, absurdly. . . .
Nelson begins to explore her own method of film expression in her next films (though she would also return to collaboration with Wiley). At first the results were uneven, as Nelson herself admits: " . . . as I jumped into different projects I had to find what that particular film needed."3 Some viewers may have found her constant searching for new means of visual and auditory expression "schizophrenic or a bit unstable."4 But the fact is that, over the years, this casting about has resulted in an impressive plainness and clarity of expression able both to cultivate repeating traits and to find new, unexpected, forms.
My Name Is Oona (1969) is one of the most memorable of her early films. Here Nelson's own daughter and a horse play leading roles. The sound track lingers in the mind, combined with the image track's dreamlike mystery: the insistent, rhythmic repeating of the title sentence, "My name is Oona, Oona, Oona." Sound plays a key role in Nelson's later work as well, often in the form of peeled-off, dissonant resonances-vocal, instrumental, or everyday sounds-that either work together with the images or simply overpower them. With Nelson's films there is no clear hierarchy of expressive registers. The ten-minute film Take Off (1972) became a success: an obviously mature stripper is seen, first going through her anticipated routine, then stripping off her own body. One body part after another disappears as if in a Méliès trick, calling silent film to mind. Take Off became the biggest success since Nelson's debut: clearly here, as in Schmeerguntz, she had brushed up against several touchy subjects and accurately sketched a portrait of the comparatively exposed position women occupy in commercial visual contexts. …