Elisabeth Subrin

Trashing “Shulie”: Remnants from Some Abandoned Feminist History

Elisabeth Subrin

Shulie uses conventions of direct cinema to explore the residual impact of the 1960s, and to challenge the parameters of historical evidence or material. The project was initiated upon my seeing an obscure 16 mm documentary portrait of a young Chicago art student, shot in 1967 by four Northwestern graduate film students: Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Allan Rettig. Their subject was a young Shulamith Firestone, months before she moved to New York and tried to start a revolution. Other than a few screenings in 1968, the film has sat on a shelf for thirty years.

My Shulie (let’s call it #2) is a scene-by-scene recreation of the original Shulie (#1), reproduced with actors in many of the original Chicago locations. In it, a 22-year-old woman, looking strangely contemporary, argues confidently and cynically for a life on the margins. She willingly performs for the young directors, allowing them to film her waiting for the train, photographing trash and workers at a dump yard, painting a young man’s portrait in her studio, working at the U.S. Post Office, and enduring an excruciating painting critique with her professors at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In shadowy medium shots, she discusses her views on religion, language, art, relationships with men, institutional power structures, motherhood, and race. Because the original filmmakers had a mandate to document the so-called Now Generation, questions about time, generations and what constitutes the “now” recur throughout the text.

Watching it and subsequently remaking it, I was amazed by the intense sense of prescience and longing the film evoked in me. In the ironic nature of style cycles and the repetitive rituals of post-adolescent malaise, Shulie’s fashion and attitudes were uncomfortably familiar. But I yearned to inhabit her reality, to feel this moment of pre-1968, before the haunting political and social revelations of her era, to say nothing of my own. Beyond this nostalgic impulse lay a more troubling observation. Having attended the Art Institute as an undergrad in the late 1980s, and having taught there in the mid-1990s, I recognized her experience as if it were my own, literally. Her lack of belief in meaningful experiences other than creative achievement; her cynicism about men ever truly tolerating her as an equal, her hilarious observations about the limitations of motherhood; the classically patronizing thesis review in which her own desires and impulses are repeatedly dismissed; her sublimated depression: these were experiences most of my female students, classmates or colleagues could have shared.

Why, if we had reaped the benefits of second-wave feminism, should Shulie’s life seem so contemporary? Similar to experiences of 1990s-style racism in its insidious and subtle forms, contemporary experiences of sexism and misogyny often result in eye-rolling, get-over-it responses that imply that such concerns are paranoid, unresolvable, and, frankly, dated. In representing history so that audiences would have an ambivalent relationship to its status as “past,” I found a stronger method of argument.

I was two years old when the original film was shot. Resurrecting it thirty years later triggered complex questions about how one generation inherits and processes the residual representations of its predecessors, particularly of a generation whose legacy is so critical and mythic. The process of remaking the work in 1997 became a act of conceptual time travel. In both its production and dissemination, I hoped to compel viewers to scrutinize, shot by shot, what constitutes the historical present versus the securely located past, and to do so across cultural, economic, racial, sexual, generational and formal lines. It looks like the 1967, but was that a Starbucks cup? In turn, both the audience’s knowledge of (and inexplicable resistance to) the work's status as a remake pushed the interpretive stakes: why would one reproduce with such obsessive precision such a minor document? Why should I care about this girl? Why represent a key figure of Women’s Lib without telling us anything meaningful about her life? Both the production and reception of Shulie (#2) has been shaped by these issues of legibility and value, in turn triggering other questions about translation, biographical practices and the representation of history and heroes.

To explain how these issues played out in the film, I offer as example a particular scene that takes place about early. Shulie is photographed waiting for the subway on her way to work at the U.S. Post Office. In voiceover, she confesses that even though her salary is decent, getting up so early in the morning and waiting alone on the tracks makes her feel like a derelict. There follows a sequence of vérité shots inside the post office, where we observe Shulie sorting mail, surrounded by white male supervisors and black coworkers. The scene ends with Shulie taking a coffee break with two young, female, black coworkers. Over the interior shots we hear her voice-over:

“The percentage of Negroes there is very high, which would automatically make you wonder about the kind of job it is...uh, well, first of all, Negroes can't get anything except for a federal job; that would account for the high rate of Negroes. If you meet a Negro and you want a subject of conversations, the first thing you ask them is: how long have you worked at the post office? and then you have something to talk about! You know it’s like this giant fraternity of people who work at the post office at sometime or another and once you’ve worked with them it’s like having gone to jail with them; you know, it’s a kind of a brotherhood.”

Sitting with audiences, one can feel this scene as a turning point. Up to this moment, Shulie (as a character) is perceived as a benign, alternately interesting, precocious, understandably naïve, but passionate post-adolescent “droning on” about her life. Some viewers may have empathy for her self-reflexive and gendered discussion of language, or may experience some vague confusion about what the film is about. Some others are still simply trying to determine if what is onscreen is past or present. But suddenly we get very specifically dated racial and social signifiers, through the use of the word “Negro.” A viewing tension is stressed, relieved and then restressed. At first there is tension because Shulie no longer is an uncomplicated documentary subject. She said the “N” word, and we hate her (ourselves) for it. But we also feel relief because we can now locate the scene clearly as the “past,” right? - because we don’t use “that word” anymore, and (I suspect) because suddenly the film might have a “purpose,” in its exposure of racism.

But then for feminist viewers there is another discomfort in hearing Shulie discuss race, as we are reminded of the problem of exclusion within the history of American (white) women's lit movements. It’s embarrassing and disturbing. And whether Shulie’s voiceover was originally taken out of a larger context that might render a different meaning, or not—whether she’s being ironic, or not—doesn’t eliminate the hauntingly familiar representation we witness. A similarly symptomatic fact is that I, as a white filmmaker, initially planned to cut this scene from the project. The scene felt so problematic, and yet ultimately speaks most powerfully to the fundamental bind in this film. How do we locate something as the past? Are we secure in its status as an outdated discourse simply because we don't say the word Negro anymore? In both formal and discursive terms, Shulie's well-intentioned efforts at an analysis of race relations will reek of white privilege to some viewers, and not only as history. To others it will painfully evoke the preconsciousness of the early sixties.

And to others it will simply be another example of a boring scene, where time moves slowly: Shulie's observations aren't groundbreaking and nothing happens. Many viewers will still wonder why we should be watching these banal, daily routines of a twenty-two-year-old woman. Why should we care?

By reshooting this scene thirty years later, even with the coded vintage discourse, I am forced to ask myself, what has really changed other than discourse? Obviously eliminating racist discourse hasn’t solved the problem. As Firestone later would write about the problem of sexism, no matter how deep you go, the problem only goes deeper. Questioning what has actually changed exposes me as prototypical “Gen X,” cynical about my inheritance and ignorant about the complexity of historical cycles. I have neither the knowledge or perspective to truly interrogate the legacy of the sixties. Furthermore, as a fake documentarian who was a barely conscious in 1967, I am an unreliable participant observer. What do I gain by producing a fake document, rather than just resurrecting the original? On what grounds can I offer this remake as evidence? I will try to answer.

Throughout the shooting process, I found myself constantly negotiating all sorts of historical and biographically specific signifiers. The most subtle deviation from the "original" text triggered self-reflexive shifts in meaning, reflecting back on the thirty years of history that has passed, whether after noting a subtly placed contemporary prop, observing an historically implausible notice on sexual harassment, or registering the substitution of a beatnik gathering with a post-grunge scene of counter-convention activists during the 1996 Democratic Convention. In the 1990s version, 1960s politics endure mostly through style: on the t-shirts of the twenty-something activists, in the performance of alterna-cultural activities in Chicago's ultra-hip Wicker Park, or contrasting, in the outdated modes of political protest. The tedious and sometimes insensitive critique panel that Shulie endures from her (all male) painting instructors, and the problematic analysis of race relations I described above, are other moments that reverberate between past and present, refusing to lie still. While we can understand the film as a "fake," recognized as performed from an "original," creates the effect of viewing two films and two time periods at once: a doubling, a haunting, a generational negotiation. Shulie (#2), filtered through thirty years of history, performs as a repetition of a quiet emotional trauma that has yet to be healed. Like any compulsive act, it resurfaces from a lack of resolution.

Much of the most confusing generational slippage comes from actress Kim Soss's impossible task of rendering a vérité 1960s identity in a 1990s body. Often I am asked if I see her stellar performance as acting or simulation. Was she mimicking Shulie through repeated viewings of the original, or did she inhabit the character as an actor would? Like any performer, Soss knew the purpose of her character's role and where her actions would lead. On the other hand, Kim Soss was performing as a documentary subject (Shulamith Firestone) herself performing her own "authenticity" for the camera. Yet Soss's performance was significantly altered by her undeniable awareness of her character's future life: as groundbreaking activist, successful writer, poet, and, later, feminist missing in action. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in a 1998 review in The Chicago Reader:

"It's not a commentary on Soss's skill as an actress that her manner of speaking is colorless and more guarded than Firestone's and that she conveys a certain emotional vacancy. But it's difficult to pinpoint how much this is a matter of the differences in everyday speech and body language now and 30 years ago and how much this is a matter of existential authenticity. (Subrin describes Soss's performance as an "interpretation" rather than an attempt at duplication, but this is no way prevents Soss's behavioral tics from reeking of the '90s.)"

While I can't speak for Soss, my motivation for casting her and my experience directing her were informed by my sense of her deep connection with Firestone (Soss also attended the Art Institute, is an assertive, verbal, Jewish woman artist, etc.). This identification was filtered through thirty years of history by an actress who had inherited both the gains produced by feminist activism and the psychic trauma that in part defines our generation: of change promised but not yet delivered. It wasn't mimicry, but empathy and identification, that shaped the performance. In order to actually channel such emotions, undeniably Soss's own "behavioral tics" would surface and, as subtle as they were, perhaps contribute to the strange dual time frame the film evokes. As Rosenbaum adds:

"The paradox is that even historical hindsight isn't enough to give an actress playing Firestone 30 years later the kind of emotional urgency Firestone conveyed in the original film through her own shyness and confusion; Soss projects the kind of contemporary coolness we tend to identify as normal. Yet it's only through this juxtaposition that we begin to see the petrifying fear that describes our present moment - the kind of fear that makes the very notion of a remake seem like a logical response."

As a film, Shulie communicates in strikingly different ways for different viewers. For some, depending on their relations to feminism, female subjectivity, concepts of difference, Firestone, and film form, the film generates the vertical and lateral layers of meaning I have suggested. For others, it is completely opaque. We often forget that experimental form is as susceptible to conventions and canons as is dominant cinema. That people get fascinated with the formal issues of Shulie is only interesting to me if its feminist purpose is considered. I want the audience members to ask themselves: why does the film concern this moment in her life? Why this moment before the Moment - i.e., the period when Shulie became actualized as a feminist, activist, revolutionary, best-selling writer? Why this woman? She's certainly no sexy downtown Edie Sedgwick or Nico icon, certainly no Left Bank Marguerite Duras. For some viewers, hints of Firestone's emerging conceptual and intellectual work press to the surface. For other viewers, watching Shulie talk on about her life is frustrating. I've been accused of "ripping off" viewers by not giving the "true" story. One filmmaker commented that she "couldn't understand why anyone would ever want to copy such a bad film with such an uninteresting portrayal." Another dismissed the subject on the grounds that she "sees students like this every day" and that the discussion of Shulie's work is interesting but not "in the film". My sense from these viewers is that, although the subject is to be celebrated, this is not the right representation. In other words, if I am to honor the life and struggles of a dedicated feminist writer and activist, I should represent her in recognizable cinematic forms.

My compulsion to repeat is certainly not groundbreaking. Yet I relate this impulse to an increased, perhaps even perverse, need within my generation to recreate struggles we did not physically experience. Or did we? Why would one repeat, fetishize, or desire a historical moment if there was not an intimate connection, if one was not somehow a product of (or participant in) that time period? The year 1967 can only exist as myth to me. Questioning who and what merits historical preservation, and why we crave this history, is what provoked the particular repetitive strategies of this project.

If we are to create histories that recognize difference, we also need to preserve moments that don't look like history with a capital H. We need to record and analyze minor, awkward, multiply coded, and irreducible representations. Why should the life of a groundbreaking intellectual who sought to transform consciousness be presented with the mind-numbingly reductive and repetitive format of the Biography Channel (or other overly familiar hagiographic strategies)? Shulie (#2) is not a traditional portrait or a PBS documentary or a lyrical collage, but an experimental film masquerading as a case study and submitting itself as evidence: of daily, unremarkable, but excruciatingly familiar female negotiations with language, performativity, subjectivity, and power relations. I would propose that the phony Shulie is not necessarily about the young Firestone, but about the conditions of a woman's cinematic representation, with the privileged recognition that she, and many other women of her generation, survived, or even conquered that representation, often at enormous risk and sacrifice. My generation is utterly indebted to these women, even if we identify with them from radically different vantage points. In the compulsion to remake, to produce a fake document, to repeat a specific experience I never actually had, what I have offered up is the performance of a resonant, repetitive, emotional trauma that has yet to be healed.

Had I simply screened the original, Firestone's experience would be understood as the antiquated post, with all its romance, flaws, and faded logic. As a fake that blurs its own location in time, Shulie may also speak to the present. How she is treated by her painting teachers; how she articulates her subjectivity as a while, middle-class Jewish woman, her alienation as an emerging feminist: such moments represent critical and problematic evidence of a time that has not necessarily passed. Resurrecting Shulie (1967) is stubborn (yet illusory) historiographical act, an attempt to insist that this trash (this minor, flawed, and nonheroic experience) be seen and heard, and to throw its identity as the past into question.

A version of this essay was published in F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing (eds. Alex Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, University of Minnesotta Press, 2006).