Sue Scott Gallery

don't look back

Mikki Halpin
Filmmaker Magazine, January 2004


In 1967 members of the "Now Generation" documented the life of a beleaguered female art student. By painstakingly recreating this film fragment Elisabeth Subrin's experimental video Shulie shuttles back and forth in time to re-imagine the '60s and critique the present.  Mikki Halpin reports.

In the first few minutes of Elisabeth Subrin's short film Shulie, which was shot on Super-8 and transferred to video, a significant dialogue occurs. The on-screen protagonist suddenly says "I've always liked the way films are objective and don't really make you feel the presence of the director. I always like to feel that I'm peeking into things that I wouldn't otherwise see, and I hate to see that violated."

The camera person, immediately proving her wrong, retorts from offscreen, "But isn't there a special problem with a documentary filmmaker?"

Self-aware exchanges between doc filmmakers and their subjects are nothing new. But in the case of Subrin's film, the on-screen subject is not really the subject, the cameraperson is not really a documentarian, and, although it looks and feels like one, Shulie is not really a documentary. Rather, Subrin has produced a frame by frame, line-accurate recreation of a little-known short film about the life of then-unknown art student Shulamith Firestone. By doing so, she's opened up a whole new conversation about filmic representation and the complex artistic and political legacies of the late '60s.

The first Shulie was shot in 1967 as part of a student project profiling some members of the "Now Generation" by four male directors--Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig. Says Subrin, "Watching Shulie struggle to hold her ground throughout a tedious and sometimes downright cruel critique panel with her all-male painting instructors left me speechless. That it turned out this 22-year-old woman went on to publish a groundbreaking and radical treatise on sexual politics [The Dialectic of Sex, Morrow, 1970] three years later only added to the profound nature of the document."

Subrin, who earned her MFA in video at the Chicago Art Institute in 1995, came across the first Shulie while researching her 1996 video Swallow. Casting the shadow of a young girl's struggle with anorexia and depression via voiceover against the backdrop of the second women's liberation movement, and employing both original and archival footage, Swallow is very much a traditionally experimental, artfully fractured take on the chaos of memory and the intricate difficulty of reconstructing events and experiences. By contrast Shulie appears to be a clean, neat suturing of events 30 years apart.

It's not so neat at all, of course. "It is sort of a tease;' says Subrin, noting that while many remakes are held to a high standard concerning the "original" work, in this case, the original is virtually unknown, while her piece will be much more widely seen. Though she initially considered combining original footage with reenactments, Subrin soon decided on a more provocative approach. "Reshooting it allowed me to play with the idea of placing the past right in the present to see how things would read. The process of recontextualizing the work became a sort of time travel, a means of forcing viewers to analyze, shot by shot, what constitutes "now and then" across social, economic, racial, and cultural terms."

Shulie explicitly calls into question the accomplishments as well as the mythology of the '60s. Firestone appears uncannily contemporary as she discusses her views on motherhood, the role of the artist, and her hopes for liberation in the form of technology. This historical wormhole is central to understanding her film work, says Subrin. "The amateur, sexist and slightly self-aggrandizing strategies of the original student filmmakers and their positioning of her in the documentary--as well as how she's treated by her painting teachers, or how she articulates her subjectivity as a white, middle-class woman--this is all evidence of a certain time and culture that hasn't disappeared. It's still around us." Resurrecting this work was a stubborn historiographical act, an attempt to insist that this "minor" experience be seen and heard--and, in the process, throwing its identity as the "past" into question.

The many difficulties of producing and distributing short-form video work are exacerbated in this case because both Shulie's are about a living subject. Subrin's piece is not an authorized biography, and she is very sensitive about how the piece is shown, insisting that she be present at each screening and asking that the work not be considered a commentary on Firestone's life. She insists, "It's not necessarily about Firestone, but more about how she was represented and that she survived, or even conquered, that representation." Whether Subrin can or should succeed in controlling the work's reception is debatable; the reclusive Firestone has not commented on the project.

Both Swallow and Shulie are available from Video Data Bank, I 12 S. Michigan Avenue, Suite 312, Chicago, IL 60603. Phone: 312-345-3550.T