Disappearing Acts

Nicole Armour, Film Comment

The Fancy, film and videomaker Elisabeth Subrin's latest foray into "experimental biography," lifts the veil of mystery around the life and suicide of photographer Francesca Woodman and her disturbing artistic legacy.

There's a chilling moment in Elisabeth Subrin's new 40-minute video The Fancy when the video's narrator refers to a curator's description of "Girl with Weed," a triptych by photographer Francesca Woodman. The work features the head of an androgynous figure with closed eyes in the left frame and a nude woman holding a weed that's as tall as she is, standing in shadow on the right. In the center panel, a barely perceptible dragonfly perches atop an ambiguous object that Woodman claimed was a bar of soap. The narrator goes on to tell of how Woodman's father explained to the curator that he once told his daughter that "a dragonfly would sew a girl's lips together if she ever lied." The most remarkable thing about this passage is that, even though Subrin never shows us "Girl with Weed," its mere description is enough to make your flesh crawl.

At no point in The Fancy, a somber, eerie, and deceptively simple representation of Woodman's life, work, and death, are we ever shown a single example of the artist's actual work. Instead, we're presented with an assortment of objects that may or may not have been either her personal possessions or the props she used in her photographic tableaux, and a series of empty rooms in which she may or may not have lived or worked. But Subrin's video is more concerned with absences than it is with the facts enunciated by its skeptical narrator. Though the few catalogues published on Woodman's art are exhaustively referenced, Subrin's tape hints at conspiracy, calling attention to the Woodman family's unwillingness to make the bulk of her body of photography available, as if they were intent on collapsing the artist's chosen channel of communication.

Subrin's videos are acute, highly imaginative excursions in precise yet speculative detective work. Drawn to marginal figures, she subjects them to rigorous biographical needling, devising a whole new approach to documentary in the process. In fact, the filmmaker's work to date, Swallow (95), Shulie (97), and The Fancy, are unclassifiable; you could call them formalist experiments in documentary wrappers. Through them, Subrin cunningly insists that all along the wrong people have been asking the wrong questions. Forget what you've read. This is history the way it should have been written.

Having named her new video The Fancy, Subrin qualifies her title by presenting multiple definitions of the word. Two of them -- "to believe mistakenly or without evidence" and "to suppose, guess" -- neatly summarize her unique approach to biography. Although Subrin's affront is never stated outright but only implied, The Fancy is an incriminating tape that brazenly insists that Woodman's family has compromised the record of the photographer's life by effectively suppressing the majority of her work. The tape suggests that, with so little to go on, any appraisal of Woodman's output is necessarily limited and provisional -- and scarcely disinterested. At the same time, The Fancy does not exempt itself from this indictment.

Subrin's video is broken down into a series of sections as in any biography, such as "Possessions," "Education," and "Residences," but the tape remains haunted by absences. The contents of catalogues, including essays, are described in voiceover. In two long sequences Subrin's camera roams exhaustively over collected ephemera, some of it parceled in clear plastic bags, dressed as evidence in an investigation. We see a series of empty rooms that accord with Woodman's affection for decaying environments. At one point, the titles of certain Woodman photos are scrawled across a white screen in handwriting that presumably resembles the artist's, although we have no way of knowing. Descriptions of photos are offered in voiceover and later in a sequence in which people perform tableau vivant re-creations before Subrin's lens. It's unclear if Woodman ever possessed any of the items it's suggested she owned, or produced work in the rooms Subrin invites us to contemplate. The sites and props that she deployed are presented in abundance, but the ideas, the imagination, the artist, and her creations are frustratingly unavailable.

Subrin's decision to chronicle Woodman's life on video is an interesting one. Although the clarity and sharpness of video befit documentary, they're at odds with the often blurred, shadowy textures that define Woodman's art. Subrin uses video to reduce the mystery in the photographer's work -- perhaps a sharpened image would reveal its secrets. But while Subrin painstakingly collects the detritus of a life, she simultaneously conveys the inadequacy of using such material to explain a subject's experience or outlook. If we believe that we can understand Woodman through codified objects and spaces, we're mistaken. As Subrin's dictionary definitions suggest, documenting a life is a game of guesswork. The end result may approach accuracy, but it's inevitably fictional, a fanciful interpretation.

These same definitions resonate with Subrin's other forays into biographical documentary, Shulie and Swallow. Shulie is a shot-by-shot remake of a little-seen film of the same name produced in 1967. The original film was made by four male directors who selected as their subject the future radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, then a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. The 1967 version is an important document, a record of the person Shulie was before her ideas propelled her to the forefront of the Seventies feminist movement she later eschewed, as well as an example of the direct-address documentary approach favored at that time. Subrin manages, uncannily, to reproduce the awkward camera angles and difficult cuts of the original film, and incorporates footage shot at many of the same locations. But despite the care taken to simulate a documentary form, Shulie is a carefully constructed fiction with calculated discrepancies, a lookalike with its own personality and agenda. At one point, Subrin's Shulie (played by Kim Soss) explains that she's "always liked the way films are objective and don't really make you feel the presence of the director." From behind the camera, Subrin interjects a skeptical, "Well ...," immediately contradicting the comment. The impossibility of conveying a life through film is further complicated by this acknowledgment that biography is necessarily compromised by the author's ambitions. But the filmmaker turns this to her advantage by establishing her own offscreen presence, revealing how her reading of Firestone differs from that of the male directors who made the original film. Similarly, Subrin's presence as author of The Fancy is always apparent. Though she doesn't speak, we're constantly aware that we're witnessing her interpretation, which seems like a viable solution to the problems she's outlined. Stripped of its expected objectivity, documentary can become an individual evaluation of a subject, an historical moment, a life. In Subrin's hands, we're made to feel comfortable about the multiplicity of ways of seeing everything around us.

At first glance, Shulie's evocation of the Sixties seems accurate, but the changes that have taken place in the 30 years since the original film's production are subtly registered and reveal themselves upon closer inspection. Shulie's originally impromptu responses are now performed and situated in locations that don't exist in the original film. It's as though Firestone, who eventually retreated from the public eye, has been summoned to comment on the legacy of a movement she withdrew from. Again, a game of guesswork. What if Firestone hadn't retreated? What if radical feminism hadn't faltered? Shulie wills Firestone into being in much the same way that The Fancy summons Francesca Woodman to inhabit its bare rooms. Having both witnessed the progress made by women in the Seventies, Firestone and Woodman were nonetheless dissatisfied, and slipped beyond reach -- never to be heard from again. Determined to figure out why, Subrin resurrects radical feminism even as she acknowledges that the movement was flawed, that it didn't prevent bright, expressive women from falling through the cracks.

Subrin's work is a testament to her fascination with adolescence and early adulthood: The Fancy explores Francesca Woodman's experiences from age 13 to 21; Shulie focuses on a 22-year-old woman's worldview; and Subrin's first tape, Swallow, chronicles the lives of two girls from ages 6 to 19. An ambitious, partly autobiographical account of female adolescence, Swallow is peppered with images of feminist marches, educational films, TV shows and home movies that illustrate how young women struggle with issues of empowerment in a popular culture saturated with the iconography of women's lib. Subrin uses a fictional account of a young neighbor's battle with anorexia as a springboard to discuss her own struggle with young adulthood and to examine the way the mental illnesses silently endured by young girls go unrecognized due to misdiagnosis or discrepant symptoms. Lacking the language to describe their mental states, the fictional Sarah Marks and Subrin herself are left to devise their own methods of coping, all the while wondering if their feelings are normal. Subrin's interest in the failure of language to adequately represent emotions and experiences is a key link between Swallow, Shulie, and The Fancy. Woodman chose to express herself cryptically, through enigmatic images and brief, occasional accompanying texts, until she committed suicide, eliminating the possibility of explication. The titles of selected Woodman photographs, scrawled out of context across the frames of Subrin's tape, are no more capable of describing the images to which they belong. In Swallow, Subrin and her fictional stand-in are confused, as incapable of adjoining words to states of mind as they are of integrating contemporary feminist progress into their own lives. From the vantage point of adulthood, Subrin reconstitutes her youth through documentary techniques and pop-cultural collage to speculate about what went wrong, insisting that the difficulties experienced by young women are real and matter, even though language doesn't adequately describe them. In doing so she legitimizes a history we missed the first time around.

Subrin's formalist approach, however, does limit the impact of her work. Although her tapes evoke feminism's glory days, their formal construction refers to the feminist film theory and filmmaking practices that emerged from universities in the Seventies. Subrin has inherited academia's aversion to personal, emotionally direct methods. She seems more comfortable operating at a safe distance, constructing opaque profiles of successful but relatively obscure female artists whose backgrounds mirror her own -- like Firestone and Woodman, Subrin is a product of art school, and she leaves herself open to the accusation of having conflated her experiences with those of the women she represents. Problems associated with spectatorship plague Subrin's videos -- the work's reception is too dependent upon the viewer's familiarity with subjects and texts that seem relatively obscure beyond the confines of academia and the art world.

In the end, Subrin's films and videos always return to the sober realization that there are innumerable obstacles to any attempt at understanding ourselves and our place in the world. Her efforts to express the fluidity of truth are vital in an age when new methods of recording experiences and information abound. All too aware of how flawed approaches taint memory, Subrin invents new procedures for chronicling history. At the same time, uncovering misrepresented subjects, she's hell-bent on settling scores.

Nicole Armour is FILM COMMENT's assistant editor.