BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 01 JUN 11
Featured in
Issue 140

Elisabeth Subrin

The Jewish Museum

BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 01 JUN 11

Elizabeth Subrin, Shulie Looking Back, 2011. Video still. 

One of the most memorable experimental films of recent decades, Elisabeth Subrin’s Shulie (1997), was also one of the most elusive; a scene-by-scene remake of a once-forgotten 16mm documentary made in 1967. The original followed a Chicago art student, Shulamith Firestone, who would soon move to New York and develop her ideas about radical feminism into an imaginative, incendiary manifesto before fading again into obscurity. Presenting Subrin’s faux-documentary alongside recent digital stills, ‘Shulie: Film and Stills by Elisabeth Subrin’ also summoned another vanished time of hope and disillusionment, the 1990s, with its Riot Grrrls and bad-girl artists. Shulie is a portrait of one young woman, but it ripples with ghosts and reflections.

Firestone’s brief time as a feminist activist was feverishly productive. Between 1967 and 1969 she organized the New York Radical Women, the Redstockings and the New York Radical Feminists. She was only 25 when her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, was published in 1970. Beginning ‘Sex class is so deep as to be invisible,’ it argued that women would not be free until they were liberated from bearing children, and proposed accomplishing that through new technologies including cybernetics. Unsurprisingly, it attracted ire from both conservatives and feminists. It also became a bestseller, but Firestone had withdrawn from view, only to reappear when Semiotext(e) published Airless Spaces (1998), her collection of grimly deadpan vignettes involving mental illness, inspired by the ‘airless space’ she found herself in after she wrote her manifesto.

Firestone was an intense, dissatisfied student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Four male grad students had been assigned to make a series of films on the so-called Now Generation (a label that in Shulie seems painfully inane), and Firestone became one of their subjects. They trailed her as she engaged in typical art student activities: photographing gritty urban scenes, working at a tedious job in the post office, painting from a model, watching Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966). They also shot her answering questions posed by an off-screen interviewer (in the original the interviewer is male; in the remake Subrin asks the questions, as if she were able to project her own uncertainties into the past).

In Shulie we see the actress (Kim Soss), wearing a heavy dark wig that undermines the film’s vérité style. With her intent gaze and unhappy smile, Soss is a compelling facsimile of the young Firestone. We see her remarking that she is determined to create art to escape what she anxiously envisions as ‘having a meaningless life.’ We also see her attempting to explain and defend her work to a panel of condescending male professors. She mentions her concerns about the demands of raising children in the interviews, but Firestone never said, at least on screen, that she was already involved with feminist activities. She later requested that the film not be distributed.

Subrin filmed Shulie, which is full of haunting doublings, in many of the original Chicago locations. It powerfully captures a transitional period in Firestone’s life while dropping hints of its counterfeit nature, such as a Starbucks cup, a sign alluding to sexual harassment or mid-1990s protestors that stand in for supposed members of the Now Generation, from which Firestone felt a certain impatient detachment.

Four digital frame enlargements highlighted Shulie’s unsettling, mediated tension between past and present, evident from visible grain and scan lines (Shulie was shot on Super-8 and transferred to 16mm and video). In the most arresting image, Shulie Looking Back (2010), Soss strides forward on a train platform, glancing over her shoulder at something unseen, perhaps an oncoming train. Her pigtails, trench coat, tote and Oxfords seem even more strangely contemporary now than they did in 1997 – the Riot Grrrl heyday may have passed, but nostalgia for ‘60s culture has deepened. In channeling Firestone, did Soss see a past that was not so different from her present? Shulie is a tribute as well as a reminder of feminism’s disappointments. Paraphrasing The Dialectic of Sex’s dedication to Simone de Beauvoir, it concludes: ‘For Shulamith Firestone, who has endured.’

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.