When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
CLOTHESLINES (1981)

Documentary Film experienced a sea-change during the 10-year period from 1980 to 1990.  As video cameras entered the mass-retail market, many who felt they had something to say quickly embraced video as the medium for getting their message to a large audience.  The result was an exponential number of offerings, voices never allowed cultural space were free to articulate and disseminate:  Palestinian organizers, Native American fishermen, at-risk teenagers, and other social groups documented and compiled their words and images which were screened in venues large and small around the globe.

Yet, while the voices and issues proliferated, the craftsmanship of documentaries went into contraction.  These new works, taped with home video cameras by meagerly trained videomakers, repeatedly used the template of the most common storytelling device of the last 35 years:  the story package for the six o’clock news.  Didactic voice-over narration, processions of talking heads and rudimentary shot sequences were the benchmarks of these works. 

So the Documentary form, which blossomed in the 1960s as an alternative medium of artistic innovation and discerning, focused voice, had simplified by 1990 into a means of confessional testimony, guerrilla video, and personal archive.

One of the last great works of that first wave of innovative and focused independent documentaries was Roberta Cantow’s 1981 Emmy®-winning CLOTHESLINES.  It enlightened, informed, and engaged the senses and emotions; yet it had no narrator, no talking heads, no didactic shot sequences. 

The film is an audioscape of 21 women’s voices, all talking of their relation to laundry.  The visuals onscreen are a progression of beautifully crafted shots of laundry, and of women and their laundry:  ethnographic images of Eskimo women, American housewives, Chinese women, Bengali women washing and drying clothes, delicate and elliptical images of clothes hanging out to dry, women ironing.

The women’s confessions are expansive in insight and emotion.  “I hated laundry with a passion you cannot imagine,” stated one.  Another woman talked of how she loved doing her husband’s clothes, of drying her man’s shirts and socks in public, and of how that told the world she was connected.  Commenting on the fastidiousness of some homemakers, one philosophized:  “Women who don’t consider themselves artistic put a lot of themselves into their household tasks.” 

Very few of the movie’s shots are edited into anything resembling a sequence (there’s one tender scene of a woman with her daughter climbing the stairs and hanging laundry on the rooftop of their apartment building).  Instead, this 32-minute montage of rich visuals (shot on 16mm film) heightens the emotional content of the film.  Since none of the 21 women are ever seen talking onscreen the mind imagines their physical characteristics and attempts to recognize recurring voices, leaving the eyes to respond emotionally to the images.

Documentary film still has not regained the assurance of voice that it had at the time of CLOTHESLINESBORAT, RELIGULOUS and CAPITALISM:  A LOVE STORY all have the formal shape and means of message-delivery that evolved in the Camcorder Era.  Since the motives of story and argument are missing from CLOTHESLINES, the film due to the craft of its maker becomes one of the most intimate and human works ever made, regardless of the medium. 

An intensely intimate bond can evolve between the audience and these faceless women as they confess.  One told of the growing hatred of her husband due to his incessant demands for clean clothes.  Another revealed she devised a way to do ironing lying down.  A woman disclosed her feelings of peace and security in the routine of washing clothes, while another bitterly saw the waste of her youthful ambition and potential due to the duties of housework. 

And a good piece of advice is revealed:  if a woman hangs a black brassiere on her clothesline, other housewives in the neighborhood are sure she’s foolin’ around with another man.

At the film’s core is a penetrating, humane spirituality.  In examining a universal and traditionally female action, this documentary on women and their laundry reveals the eternal emotions found in our everyday lives.  One contemplative offscreen voice ponders an idea that the cleaning of clothes has a feeling of renewal that can’t be found in any other household task.  “I feel connected to all other women. It’s something we have in common; it’s something we share together.”

Fortunately, this landmark film is available directly from the filmmaker, by contacting Ms. Cantow at rcantow@originaldigital.net.  (DISCLOSURE:  I receive no kickback from this post, just satisfaction from spreading the word…).

Doug / PoMo Joan

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6 Comments to “CLOTHESLINES (1981)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    This is such a lovely review of a film I MUST see now. When I started reading about the women’s reactions, my own feelings about laundry pushed to the forefront, and I recognized immediately how my attitudes toward it reflect my own personality. This film is also a marker of a particular time and place, of women before second-wave feminism and the roots of that movement.

    I, too, lament the contraction of the documentary form. We need more fly on the wall moments, or the hand of an expert to shape amateur videos (like Deborah Scranton and The War Tapes. But there has developed a new documentary-like form – the video essay. Mainly practiced by film scholars and critics, it reached its height in Los Angeles Plays Itself. Idiosyncratic in the way the essayist expresses his or her personality, it captures just a tiny bit of something we’ve nearly lost in newspapers, magazines, and documentaries.

  2. Doug says:

    Marilyn, we’re even now. I MUST see *Los Angeles Plays Itself.* The few essay films I’ve seen (such as Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL) have been revelations. Thanks for guiding me to this genre.

  3. Marilyn says:

    Doug – You might have problems finding it. It samples from about 150 films, so it will probably never get out on DVD. We tried a BitTorrent download, but it cut out at the 90-minute mark. Still, that’s quite a lot of the film. Matt Zoller Seitz does these kinds of film essays all the time.

  4. […] I accidentally caught the last ten minutes of a award-winning 1981 documentary on cable titled “Clotheslines.” The filmmaker, Roberta Cantow, had interviewed several New York City women about their views on […]

  5. Kate Grillet says:

    When this film first came out, I showed to a women’s group I was leading; it helped to open up all sorts of discussion about women’s relationship to domestic work, and family life. I’ll never forget the comments about the status women get from ‘pulling men’s socks’ in the launderette, i.e as a signal that they had a man in their lives.
    A film full of insight and touching comments on modern life.
    I didn’t expect to find that it is still available, but am glad that it is.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for posting, Kate. I heartily agree with your thoughts on the film. CLOTHESLINES is a film you can view and review and always come away richer.

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