Elisabeth Subrin

False Document

Josh Kun, San Francisco Bay Guardian

At first, all we see are the empty rooms of an empty house. Dusty showers of light pour through the neglected windows. Walls are stained in abstract patterns of soiled angles and tributaries of dirt. Ceilings peel in brittle flakes. They are rooms in the process of decay and disintegration, bits of their skin and shell pulled back in an architectural striptease, a detached electrical chord here, an exposed beam there. But then we realize we are not alone. We here the sound of footsteps walking on creaky floorboards and the rustle of fabric. There is the snap and crank of a film cartridge and the click of a camera trigger. Someone is taking pictures, but who and of what?

This is how Elisabeth Subrin begins The Fancy, her experimental video biography of photographer Francesca Woodman, who took pictures of herself and other young women in rooms just like these until, at the age of 22, she threw herself from the window of her New York apartment on the eve of Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981. Calling The Fancy a biography is categorizing it by the name of the very thing it most eloquently and poetically disrupts. The Fancy is biography as evocation and regeneration, biography that is, to borrow E.L. Doctorow's term, a "false document" in that it understands that the lie of all biography; we can never tell the true story of a life, only the story as we see it.

In Subrin's hands the difference between an "authorized" and "unauthorized" biography is moot. All biographies are exercises in fancy, equal parts guesswork, mystery desire, and longing. The same disclaimer Geoff Dyer gave to But Beautiful, his 1996 collection of fictions based on jazz photographs, works here: "as a rule assume that what's here has been invented or altered rather than quoted."

Speculative biography is Subrin's favorite territory, and she uses it as a launching pad for a brand of feminist video history that obsesses over the past in order to reconcile it to the present. Her first video, 1995's Swallow, explores depression and eating disorders through the fictional biography of a contemporary Bostonian teen against the footage backdrop of '70s feminism. Shulie, from 1997, is a cover film; Subrin's shot-by-shot re-recreation of a 1067 documentary on pioneering feminist Shulamith Firestone never appears (she is played, '90s Chicago style, by an actress).

Likewise, Woodman is the subject of The Fancy, but we never see her or any of her photographs. We see a gallery of possible might-be locations, rooms that possess what Woodman once called " disordered interior geometries." We hear descriptions of the bodies in the photographs, yet we are left to confront their absence from our sight. We are taken to buildings where she lived and buildings where she was taught, the camera lingering with remarkable ghostly stillness in vacant classrooms, science labs, and art studios. Yet none of these are the actual sites or the actual spaces--or are they? Subrin keeps us guessing because she is guessing, because the proof required for the truth also requires wonder and a hunch.

The Fancy's most powerful hunches come in two of the film's seven sections, "Possessions" and "Enactments." In the former, we see slides of objects seen in Woodman's photographs and objects associated with her life, the same objects over which, near the film's beginning, Subrin hovers with incremental, fetishistic grace. There is a camera, a bottle of liquid paper, an umbrella, an issue of National Geographic, makeup, mending tape. Like Roland Barthes looking for his mother by looking at her objects in his classic photography memoir Camera Lucida, Subrin searches for Woodman the photographer, the adolescent, of the woman, we get intimations of Woodman's objects--possessions that replace the body of the woman that possessed them.

In "Enactments" a cast of young women of different sizes and colors offer their versions of Woodman's images and more about "reduplicating" them, making them new, making them over agin from scratch. Each enacted, reduplicated photograph--each a sort of moving still--is tagged with a season and a date, making them look like evidence, exhibits A through G in the trial of recovering Woodman's significance as a feminist artist whose work continues to be controlled by her family (to this day only 107 of her 500 photographs have been made public).

The enactment of Woodman by young women, many of whom are, as the credits reveal, themselves artists, is part of what makes The Fancy far more than simply an avant-garde exercise in video sampling and historical remixing. Woodman is missing so that other women can be here, her absence the reason for new generation of presence.

'The Fancy' screens in Cinematheque's "The Multiple Personae of Francesca Woodman and Isabel Eberhardt: Experimental Bios by Elisabeth Subrin and Leslie Thornton" Thurs/1, 7:30 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, S.F. (415) 822-2885.