Bute, Mary Ellen (1906–1983)

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Bute, Mary Ellen (1906–1983)

American avant-garde filmmaker. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1906; died in 1983; attended the Pennsylvania Academy and the Sorbonne, Paris; married Ted Nemuth.


Rhythm in Light (1934); Synchrony No. 2 (1936); Evening Star (1937); Parabola (1938); Spook Sport (1939); Escape (1940); Tarantella (1941); Polka Graph (1952); Mood Contrasts (1952); Abstronics (1954); The Boy Who Saw Through (1956); Passages from Finnegan's Wake (Finnegan's Wake, 1965); The Skin of Our Teeth (unfinished, 1983).

Mary Ellen Bute was one of the most original avant-garde filmmakers of her day. Trained initially as an artist, she found the traditional frame too confining and turned to musical composition to augment her painting. To this end, she became an experimental filmmaker.

Working with musician and electronics engineer Leon Theremin, in an effort to create "visual music," Bute began to experiment with optical devices that projected color and images synchronized to musical compositions. She made several films using drawings photographed at differing speeds of light. Rhythm in Light, shot in black and white in 1934, is scored to Edvard Grieg's Anitra's Dance. Her color film Spook Sport, shot in 1939, was animated by Norman McLaren, another well-known experimental filmmaker of her generation.

In the 1950s, Bute collaborated with her husband, director Ted Nemuth. Together they choreographed images with a beam of light using a custom made oscilloscope. The result was the film Abstronics, which was based on music by Aaron Copland.

In the early 1960s, when she decided to direct live-action features, Bute chose as her first work, Passages from Finnegan's Wake, also titled Finnegan's Wake, adapted from a play by Mary Manning . Bute had long been attracted to the work of writer James Joyce. "Considering the impossibility of translating what is essentially a literary mind game into filmic terms, the picture is a triumph," wrote Nash and Ross. At the time of her death in 1983 at age 77, Bute was working on an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.


Aker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Kuhn, Annette, ed. with Susannah Radstone. The Women's Companion to International Film. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Nash, Jay Robert, and Stanley Ralph Ross. The Motion Picture Guide. Chicago, IL: Cinebooks, 1986.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

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