Clotheslines

Essay

Roberta Cantow’s Intimate
NYC Portraits

BY NELLIE KILLIAN

On the award-winning director’s short works Clotheslines and If This Ain’t Heaven, whose subjects of isolation and domestic chores feel extra prescient these lonely, housebound days.

Roberta Cantow
Roberta Cantow

A look inside the world of an isolated man and his cat, women talking about the drudgery of household chores—has there ever been a better time to discover (or revisit!) the films of Roberta Cantow? For cinephile crate-diggers who plumb the depths of sites like archive.org and Folkstreams or scour the catalogues of educational distributors, Cantow might be a known quantity: an award-winning filmmaker whose work crosses between anthropological film, autobiography, folk art, documentary, and feminist practice. For the uninitiated, Clotheslines (1981) and If This Ain’t Heaven (1984) provide a perfect introduction to her uniquely intimate style.

Clotheslines, in particular, has been at the forefront of my mind these last few months. Years after first encountering the 32-minute film, I found myself using my fire escape as a makeshift quarantine drying rack, a process that made laundry day an actual daylong affair. As I spoke to friends with small children who were trying to work from home, I heard the same resignation and resentments voiced by the women Cantow interviewed nearly 40 years ago. I thought about the woman who bragged about the ribbons she tied around her linens to impress nosy neighbors while trying to identify the books on a colleague’s shelf during a Zoom meeting.

Clotheslines is a perfect city symphony, jettisoning feats of architecture and engineering for the delicate ephemera of clothes hanging on a line. Cantow captures the lines reaching across tenement yards and rural lawns, often signaling more than the women who hung them would have liked to reveal. For all its contemporary resonance, it’s a movie that preserved a world of knowledge, aesthetics, and feeling as it disappeared. Made as washers and dryers became increasingly ubiquitous, Cantow’s film records an oral history of doing the laundry by hand. Passed from mother to daughter, it was a labor of love and/or necessity invisible to anyone who wasn’t involved.

The invisibility and underappreciation of women’s domestic labor hardly ends with the laundry, but there is something especially galling about the erasure of what was (and still is) a quintessential element of the urban landscape.

Cantow crafts a soundscape of overlapping voices, chimes, woodwinds, children laughing, gossipy whispers, a woman crying, and a round of applause. The breeze is palpable as the clothes sway on the line. The women talk not just about the tedium of washing clothes but about the neighborhood scuttlebutt the clotheslines generated, the pride they took in a tidy arrangement, and the way their mother’s hanging style elevated the endeavor to an art form. Cantow makes a good case for clotheslines being a form of folk art with each beautifully composed shot. The beauty of the lines and the vividness of the women’s testimonies create a nostalgia, even as they paint the laundry as an endless and all-consuming chore. As one woman says, “When I hang clothes on the line, I think of my mother. When I put clothes in the dryer, I never think of my mother.”

The invisibility and underappreciation of women’s domestic labor hardly ends with the laundry, but there is something especially galling about the erasure of what was (and still is) a quintessential element of the urban landscape. Clotheslines aren’t hidden, they weren’t something women did in the isolation of their own homes, but something completely in the public sphere. The clothesline thrusts a family’s private life into full view, something many of the women talk about with either insecurity or brazen disregard. While the scrutiny could be catty, or cruel, it also speaks to a cohesive community, where people didn’t just know their neighbors’ names, but the color of their underwear.

This urban familiarity is largely absent in the 28-minute If This Ain’t Heaven, at least between the human inhabitants of New York City. The film focuses on Mr. G, who introduces himself as “the man in number 4,” and his cat, Africa. There is an anonymity to Mr. G, a solitary figure who wiles away the hours by talking with Africa. A fan of ventriloquism, Mr. G supplies both sides of the conversation. He asks Africa practical questions (“Want a piece of ham?” “You going to sleep with me tonight?”) and Africa rhapsodizes about his affection (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want anything but these fingers.” “Mr. G, you sure you ain’t got no cat in you?”)

If This Ain’t Heaven
If This Ain’t Heaven

Africa, like Mr. G’s previous cat Gideon, seems to have just appeared in his building one day. She follows him into his apartment when he comes home from work and leaves with him each morning. He talks about his work in the barest of terms (“I sell my time for dollars to sustain myself”) and his love life in bleak ones (“I am a born loser… I feel like this is a handicap.”). Aside from a few excursions, including a trip to Coney Island and a walk around the Upper West Side, the film stays in Mr. G’s apartment, where his love for Africa blunts and remedies the realities of the world outside.

Cantow shot much of the film close-up, focusing on the textures of the tropical plants and lush mosses in Mr. G’s garden, Africa stretching out on a shag carpet, Mr. G’s hands stroking the cat or his own chest as they recline on the couch. Cats have a storied cinematic history, especially in the avant-garde, where filmmakers from Carolee Schneemann to Chris Marker have cast them as living symbols of the unspoken quotidien pleasures of home: coziness, intimacy, sensuality. As Jean Cocteau said, a cat is the visible soul of a house, and Africa is no exception.

Mr. G calls Africa his soul sister and posits that she’s black like him, he calls her his wife, he professes his love for her and his belief in her love for him. Their conversations are rapturous, with Mr. G repeating loving refrains in soothing tones and Africa rolling onto her back for more affection. Cantow balances the melancholy of Mr. G’s lonely existence with a real respect for the bond he and Africa have forged, allowing these one-sided conversations to be silly, sad, and tender all at once. What’s amazing about Cantow’s approach is how genuinely private Mr. G’s dialogue with Africa seems to be. It’s the type of thing a person might do unconsciously when they are alone, but would be too self-conscious to replicate on camera, that is, if a documentarian even recognized the utterly disarming beauty of what they were seeing.

Would another director have noticed Mr. G and Africa? Or known that interviewing women about doing the laundry would crack open a world of domestic pride and pain? One of the pleasures of watching personal cinema is the feeling that you are watching a movie that only one person ever would have made. The sensitivities and predilections of the filmmaker provide a singular perspective, not just in terms of their style but in the details of the life that led them to make that movie at that time in that place. Roberta Cantow lived in New York in the 1980s and made Clotheslines and If This Ain’t Heaven. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a miracle.

Nellie Killian is an independent curator. She has recently programmed series for Criterion Channel, Metrograph, the Quad Cinema, and the Museum of the Moving Image. She is currently a visiting professor at the Pratt Institute, the co-programmer of Screen Slate’s weekly screening series, and a contributing editor at Film Comment.

If This Ain’t Heaven
If This Ain’t Heaven