Sue Scott Gallery

Cases of Mistaken Identity

Amy Kroin
The Valley Advocate, August 1998
Cases of Mistaken Identity:
Elisabeth Subrin explores history and Silence in two acclaimed films
It's a classic, almost cartoony study in gender hierarchy: A female art student stands by while an all-male panel of teachers attacks her work during a end-of-semester critique. The men interrupt the student and smirk at her abbreviated responses; they tell her she's too young to make decisions about her work, that she should forget painting altogether, and in response she loses her ability to articulate any kind of defense. 
The scene, captured on super 8 in Elisabeth Subrin's brilliant faux documentary Shulie, is actually a re-representation of a 30-year -old event. In 1967 four Northwestern University students--all male--produced a series of 16mm documentaries on the "Now" generation. One subject, the then-22-year-old Shulamith Firestone, went on to write The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, a radical analysis of the "sex class" system that emerged as a seminal work for those resisting the "good girl" principles espoused by mainstream feminism. Friestone forbade public showings if the documentary, which Subrin has now resurrected as a shot-by-shot, line-by-line recreation, reproduced with actors in almost all of the original Chicago locations.
The film, which has screened internationally and will be presented next March at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is a commentary as much on the present as on the overly mythologized moment in which the documentary first appeared. At once a faithful adaptation of the original and a revolutionary re-envisioning, the film questions notions of what it means to document the experience of a once anonymous person who has since--outside the confines of film--achieved recognition as one of the foremost feminist thinkers. 
"Every shot involved a negotiation between the original text and the new," said Subrin, who once taught at Firestone's alma mater and now holds a Five College appointment as an assistant professor of film/video. "There's a deviation in every frame, whether  it's connected to the way someone's standing or to something more pronounced."
The opening sequence, built on shots of a washed-out cityscape, has a distinctly '60s feel but was actually created as a "sound collage designed to carry the viewer in," said Subrin. Drawings on sonic bites from such disparate sources as Bullit, Eyes on the Prize and Medium Cool, the scene is meant to evoke the widening division between suburbia and the inner city--a gulf that connects to tensions within the feminist movement itself, which historically has provided a forum mainly for white, middle-class concerns. 
The film positions Firestone (powerfully portrayed by doppelganger Kim Soss) as the quintessential art student; cast in shadow much of the time, she reveals an inward focus and dramatic sense of urgency in nearly every frame. Whether expounding on religious doubts, artistic creation or the preponderance of "Negroes" working for the U.S. Post Office, Firestone comes off as alternately perceptive and unformed--a young woman given up to grand statements and romantic gestures. She's someone who wants to "transcend ordinariness," who plans an escape to Manhattan because "New York is the place to go when you don't belong anywhere."
Subrin identifies with Firestone's sense of yearning, her desire to "command her own discourse," and reflects that the original film trapped Shulie. "It made her appear naive, flighty, acquiescent," said Subrin. "It represented the wrong moment of her life--a moment before her moment , before she'd arrived as a person." 
An interest in questions surrounding language --an alternately, silence--defined Subrin's approach to the film. In it, Firestone remarks that she's been labeled as too "verbal," that in response she's "made every effort to shut up..[and has become] immeasurably more inarticulate in the past four years" she's been in art school. This self-censorship--which comes back to haunt Firestone during her critique--connects to Subrin's belief that women are not given the means to fully describe their own experience.
The documentary's self-reflexive debt underscores the way Firestone's personal issues intersect with Subrin's interests as a filmmaker. At many points Firestone seems to speak directly to Subrin's own process, most blatantly in the scene where she suggests that as an artist you "can go too far in using people's situations as subject matter."
"Everything she says seems to comment on the re-making," Subrin said. "Her comments on the documentary form are instantly problematized."
Shulie's linear structure and deceptively simple documentary style initially give the viewer a false sense of familiarity, one that belies the film's complex set of stylistic and political concerns. Subrin's ability to layer narrative, to connect historical and contemporary texts in a way that allows an audience to see the timelessness of the film's concerns, is one of Shulie's most compelling qualities. 
Subrin's concern with language also informs her acclaimed film Swallow, released in 1995. Desiring to create a "compacted, layered text," Subrin here uses collage in a way that echoes the disorienting experiences of anorexia. The 28-minute video, shot in eight different film and video formats, explores the constructions of female identity in its tale of a 6-year-old named Sarah Marks who suffers from anorexia. In form the film recalls Todd Haynes' Superstar, a brilliant biopic that uses Barbie dolls to tell Karen Carpenter's story and considers eating disorders from social, historical and political perspectives. Swallow reveals that same sense of context but also narrows to a more personal focus in its exploration of how the narrator's world collapses with Sarah's. 
The film's fractured narrative questions the way girlhood has been celebrated in American culture, the way, as Subrin noted, girls are to be "happy, performative," to deny the complexity of their own experience (this is expressed most provocatively in a shot of Shirley Temple performing "Good Ship Lollipop" to a train full of interested men). All too aware of the hierarchy of victimization, Subrin decided to perform the voiceover in Swallow herself because she felt "too humiliated" to ask anyone else to do so--because she recognized that others might not consider anorexia a "valid subject to explore," that as an illness it still connotes privilege. 
Swallow comes off, more than anything else, as a horror film,--as art that conveys a sense of emptiness, of invisibility, of despair (it's telling that a brief clip from Poltergeist makes its way into the narrative). Subrin see anorexia as a "communication disorder" and exposes the way it fits into broader cultural patterns that confine women, erase their voice. To that end, snatches of dialogue from Broadcast News, Absence of Malice and Network--films ultimately critical of women journalists--weave into the story, offering a context for the experience of Sarah, who as a schoolgirl can't stop vomiting all over herself in the lunchline. All of this commentary is presented obliquely; the film arrives at no easy conclusions.
What's most compelling is the way Sarah's experience intersects with the narrator's--a narrator who functions, on one level, as Subrin's alter ego. The narrator regards Sarah as the authentic anorexic and herself as "an impostor in Sarah's country"--and the film reveals how, as Subrin noted, a "pathology of niceness" traps both girls. 
It's a pathology that, in the film, stands in contrast  to images of liberation embodied by the women's movement. Subrin delineates a tension between the promise of feminism and the sense of hopelessness so many daughters of the movement feel--a critique that arises from the narrative, without any preachy affect. 
"Being told you're free doesn't always translate," said Subrin, who juxtaposes emblems of '70s feminism--Ms. Magazine, Free to Be You and Me--with expressions of sterile, Reganesque careerism. 
Swallow explores ideals of perfection in deliberately cryptic fashion; it's a film that challenges pat theories about the origin of eating disorders, that offers a more complex psychoanalytic reading. Sarah's problem is, as the film suggests, something that can't easily be fixed; it's removed from us, as though, Subrin said, the "visibility of anorexia [lends it] immunity from criticism." The film continually seeks to throw the viewer off, to subvert expectations--through humor, through a half-heard phone conversation, through quotes from The Big Sleep.
Subrin, who is now in pre-production on a triptych of critical biographies, said she recognizes that as she finishes each project, her particular "obsessions" as a filmmaker become more focused. 
"Evidence Acquired Without Consent is the name of one of my earlier films, and I've noticed that 'evidence' is a word that keeps on cropping up for me," she said. Subrin, who originally planned to pursue a career in journalism, said she's interested in exploring "secret histories," in unfolding what, until now has been kept half-hidden.
Shulie and Swallow will soon be available at Northhampton's Pleasant St. Video; call 584-6762. The films are also available for educational and theatrical distribution through the Video Data Bank at (312) 345-3550.