Elisabeth Subrin

The Shock of the View

Bill Horrigan

In 1967, four young Chicago filmmakers, attempting cinematic purchase on the then-'Now Generation,' turned camera on a 22-year-old student of drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Result: a half-hour documentary, Shulie, an eponymous portrait of an emerging artist, shown in the studio, at her job in the post office, in interviews with the off-screen male filmmakers, and weathering an appalling crit session as her paintings in progress are glared upon by a jury of five male instructors. The figure of Shulie emerges from this as thoughtful, discontent, 'alienated,' a 22-year-old art student: "I just generally identify with minority groups as opposed to, you know, the large masses, the large homogenous mass of people. I just automatically feel a bond with people who aren't exactly in things. But I'd just as soon connect with the ones that are perceptive to see through things, and not just outside of them."

The finished film made not much of a mark in its time; or, at any rate, it was still not marked in the mid-1990s. In the mid-1990s, the filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin (coincidentally, also a product of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then in 1997 a teacher there), while doing research on Kartemquin Films (the Chicago-based left-wing quasi-collective that some of the original filmmakers would later form), came upon Shulie. For Subrin the film bore surpassing force, available via the historical luxury of being able to identity "Shulie" as Shulamith Firestone, who three years after the film's completion would author The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Radical Feminism, a key radical text in North American modern feminism (reprinted to imprecise effect in 1993) yet a text unlikely to be imagined as having come from the alternately hesitant and blunt young woman seen in/as Shulie, a personality more pre-feminist than proto-feminist. (Subrin's additional research yielded the information that Firestone was at the time of the film's shooting a member of Chicago's radical Westside Group, an affiliation and an aspect of her identity not evident in her film portrait because it was not disclosed to the original filmmakers.)

Subrin's Shulie is for most expressive purposes a shot-by-shot remake of the 1967 film, shot on Super-8 and transferred to video, producing an uncannily exact visual evocation of the original, casually confounding to the eye even of native Chicagoans: in Godardian terms, "a film from 1967," precisely; but made in 1997. Second viewings offer numerous more or less deliberate signs of 1997, ranging in register from the additional skyscrapers on the city's skyline (an altered post-Miesian profile), to occasionally ambiguous markings of "acting" in the performance of the re-played Shulie (enacted by Kim Soss), to the critical acoustic effect of director Subrin's own off-screen voice interviewing Shulie replacing a male voice in the original.

For all that, the intent to is to keep visual faith with the 1967 record, to play it straight, despite the original film remaining literally unseeable and hence hardly functioning with the authority sometime commanded by an original in the face of its remake (par excellence, the current, utterly conviction-free Psycho stunt, which has far less to do with director Gus Van Sant's application of what he overheard as a RISD student about 'appropriation' and Duchampian gambits than it does with the genius of Hollywood's capacity to profit from 'postmodernism'). It's only in a written title's coda that Subrin discloses the subject's historical identity, only at that point providing viewers with the knowledge hence forcing them to replay the film they've just seen, and in that replay to reckon with the fact (a fact at once shocking and moving) that the 'distance' of thirty-plus years between the original artifact and Subrin's resurrection of it seems like no distance at all; the poignancy comes from realizing that this 1967 X-ray of the "position of women," even when enhanced by a knowledge of the depicted subject's imminent production of a literally life-altering text, should continue thirty years down the road to register to us within a world so seemingly unchanged from this would-be "past."

It's a wormhole in some fashion, or an argument embracing paradox. Writing about Subrin's project last year, B. Ruby Rich noted, "She has created a document within a document that makes us remember what we didn't know, [and] makes us realize all over again how much we've lost." Therein lies the project's odd pathos, one perhaps reaching out only to those old enough to be able to recall the lived memories of what Subrin terms "the mythos of the late 1960s," now apparently consigned to a realm where "remembering" consists of retrieving "what we didn't know." Surveying the material -- these elements, this task, this act of witness and ethical responsibility -- from a subsequent generation's vantage (a vantage of both privilege and deprivation), Subrin honors Firestone and the generation from which she stood out even within certain feminist circles; The Dialectic of Sex did not then and does not now go down sweetly, arguing a specifically socialist vision but one in which the claims of gender outpaced the dual juggernaut of capital and class. Firestone called for an end to the tyranny of niceness, to an abolition of the empire of smiles, to a renunciation of submission allied to the inarguable impossibility of domination.

To approach the subject of Shulamith Firestone at all is to announce a participation in a debate based in, yet not trapped in, a political realm. The distinction Subrin brings to this subject stems from her decision to "re-make." Sometimes regarded as intertextuality in extremis, the practice of the remake has in some, in most, cases a purely novel and expedient character. But in other circumstances, it can claim kinship with the linguistically superior realm of translation. Subrin's project confronts face-to-face the notion of translation in its almost theological dimension wherein the slightest alteration within that linguistic order bestowed in Eden is tantamount to defilement and betrayal -- where actual translation, that is, is impossible, since it impiously claims that one word can be exchanged by or filled by another. "The task of the translator," here, then, is evident: the translator/artist bears witness to the text by recitation, by rendering it again, not by subjecting it to "transformation" or "interpretation" but through the sanctifying practice of repetition. In Subrin's luminous project, the only betrayal (it is, however, the necessary one) comes in the coda, when her film says what the original film did not (lacking the prescience) and could not (lacking the omniscience) say, which is that Shulamith Firestone wrote, would soon write, The Dialectic of Sex, a book figuring in her making and in the making (Subrin's question: but how?) of 1997.


Bill Horrigan is Director of Media Arts at The Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio