Originally posted in December 2011. I actually read The Dialectics of Sex shortly after writing this, and used it as the critical basis for an insane paper I wrote my last semester of grad school concerning the Twilight films.
Dir. Elizabeth Subrin || 1997/2000 (?) || USA
I am in the process of making up the viewing and work for my Experimental Film class this past quarter. It was the only class I had to completely stop attending because the films tended to cause relapses with bad headaches and nausea. Since my professor tended to show films that were actual film prints, some of the films I will never be able to see. So she gave me an alternate list of sorts for anything that was not on VHS or DVD. Shulie was one of the alternate films. In this class, I have tended to enjoy the films made by women or LGBT people more than the other films. Looking at my journals I had/have to keep for this class as apart of the coursework, I occasionally made or make the correlation between some experimental films and my old medium of zines. When I made, read, and distributed zines I tended to prefer ones made by women and LGBT people. Both mediums tend to be done as art for art's sake, and not to make money...although some experimental film makers like Kenneth Anger wanted to be mainstream and never totally got there. Not too different from some people in zines, although those people tend to be frowned upon, if not downright shunned. Both have their own distribution networks or similar set-ups. Another theme of my journal entries tended to be varying levels of indifference towards the films, which is basically my attitude towards zines for the past five or six years to the point where I rarely read them now. I owe a lot to (post-riot grrrl) zines for helping me develop critical thinking skills, but it's those same skills that kind of make me unable to read zines much now.
[SPOILERS AHEAD...although you can probably only find this film at university libraries...which are open to the public, I might add]
Shulie is an odd film. Its set-up is that it is a found-footage documentary on feminist Shulamith Firestone that was shot in Chicago in the late 1960s while Firestone was about to receive her BFA in painting. This hearkens back to the idea that a lot of women's creative work has to be found or re-discovered, which was a big part of the second wave feminist movement that Firestone was a part of. In turn, at least in literature and sometimes in art, this allowed more women to become a part of the canon. This film may also be pointing out that this needs to be done with Firestone...which while I have heard of her occasionally, I admit to have never read her work. After watching this film, I would like to, but her most famous book is out of print and used copies on Amazon cost anywhere from $35-500.
But eventually, the found footage concept has some holes poked into it. When Firestone is being asked about being apart of the "Now" (NOW? Is this a play on words/later organizations, perhaps?) generation, and she gives an indifferent answer about how she only occasionally stops by protests; there are shots of people in the park putting on facepaint and they look somewhat modern and a bit crust punk-y. Subrin then has a shot of a kid playing basketball in a very modern Chicago Bulls jersey. I am not totally sure what this scene is supposed to convey. Firestone never speaks of feeling alienated from the protests in the film, so I am not sure if this a commentary on the romanticizing of the 1960s that went on in the 1990s or what. I cannot think of or remember much of what people would protest in the 1990s except the WTO...but then again, I was a teenager in the 1990s.
Another issue as that time goes on, you notice how charmingly, then oddly self-aware Firestone is. Like any young person, she kind of hates where she currently lives. She speaks early in the documentary about wanting to move to NYC to live with the other outcasts. She speaks of art school making her more inarticulate at the age of 22 than she was at the age of 18 (I strangely feel the same way about grad school). But there edges of radicalism that likely became more pronounced when she published The Dialectics of Sex at the age of 25. So perhaps this is an attempt to make her more human and relatable, since there is this tendency in feminism to mistakenly think that the more popular or famous feminists are not really human or to treat them as if we own them (not too different from any fandom really). I had an English professor who freaked out when Gloria Steinem got married. Ten years ago, people were more freaked out that Kathleen Hanna* of Bikini Kill/Le Tigre** was dating a Beastie Boy because the Beastie Boys second album was sexist. But anyway, self-awareness was a 1990s thing, no?
Then there is the scene where Firestone's artwork is critiqued by a group of her (male) professors. There is something odd and uncomfortable about this scene, and it hearkens back to the scene earlier in the film where Firestone explains her current inarticulateness. Part of me wants to claim that this scene is over the top, but perhaps it is not, given the time period. Another part of me is sympathetic to Firestone in this scene just because well, similar scenes are in my future as a grad student.
And then there's the twist...that this entire film was a recreation of that documentary. I still have not decided how I feel about this. Subrin does a remarkable job with making much of the film look like it was shot in Chicago circa the late 1960s (all hail the Super 8!), and if it was on purpose, gradually pulling the curtain behind the fact that it was a recreation. It is only in the last 15-20 minutes of this 37-minute film that the issues start to pop up. But I am still trying to work out this "twist"...
* Kathleen Hanna is given a shout out in the credits of this film.
** Sadie Benning, ex-Le Tigre band member, makes experimental films as well and worked on this film. I consider her the Matt Sharp of Le Tigre, since the band suffered on a few levels after she left, including music-wise.