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On Film: holding a mirror to the 60s

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Elisabeth Subrin first saw Shulie five years ago when she was doing research for a movie at Kartemquin Films. The half-hour documentary, shot in 1967 by four male Northwestern University students--including Kartemquin's Jerry Blumenthal--follows 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone, then a student at the School of the Art Institute wrestling with her nascent feminist identity. Two years after the film was completed, she wrote the best-selling feminist manifesto The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

Subrin, who had heard of Firestone but hadn't read her book, became obsessed with the portrait, in which Firestone bemoans society's "fertility deal hang-ups" and talks about how it's hard to carry on relationships with men because they don't take women's work seriously. She calls her bosses at her part-time post office job "petty little bastards" and her relationship with her African-American coworkers akin to "being in jail together." The most uncomfortable scene shows Firestone defending her paintings to an all-male review board at SAIC.

"Everything about it felt really familiar to me," says Subrin, who was a student at SAIC in the late 80s and early 90s and taught there from '95 to '97. "For me it was an important piece of evidence of a woman before she came of age and the things she had to deal with--how she was young and confused, and two years later she came out to write this amazingly brilliant book." Subrin, who is currently a visiting film professor at the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts, decided to make a shot-by-shot reproduction of the film as both an unusual homage to Firestone and a gauge of the position of women today. In a way, she's just taking the recent trend of remaking old movies and TV shows to a higher level, forcing women to consider their situation rather than simply giggle at the ugly clothes.

"I wanted to ask questions about what relationships this experience had to the present and to resurrect it in a certain way." Two years ago she began filming in Chicago, using special processes to make the film look old and casting local 60s enthusiast Kim Soss in the lead role.

A few changes were deliberate, like adding an opening montage of Chicago and putting a Starbucks coffee cup in a postal worker's hand. She also substituted a demonstration at the 1996 Democratic National Convention for a 1960s be-in. "At the convention, all of the 1960s politics were in people's fashions and on their T-shirts, although I didn't see much politics going on," says Subrin. "I'm not sure if the scene is hopeful or ironic."

The film is dedicated to Firestone, who Subrin says is aware of the new version but hasn't commented on it. "My feeling before making it, during, and after was that she would not like what I was doing," says Subrin. "It's something I really struggled with, but for me not to make it when I felt it was important historically and culturally, the only reason not to do it would be to be a good girl"--something Firestone herself railed against in The Dialectic of Sex, in which she called for a "smile boycott."

Subrin says she'll allow the film to be shown only when she's present. "I had to create my own ethical set of conditions around showing it," she says. "I think when people see it initially they don't know what's going on. Even though that's a part of it, I think it does require a dialogue afterward."

The original Shulie hasn't been screened publicly for 30 years, at Firestone's request. "She wasn't happy with how she was represented," says Subrin. "Jerry admired and respected her and agreed not to show it." But Firestone may have done a bit of manipulation herself regarding her feminist awakening. While doing research, Subrin uncovered evidence that Firestone was a member of the radical organization the Westside Group at the time the original film was shot--something she didn't share with the documentarians. "When I told Jerry he couldn't believe me," she says. "He said, 'She wasn't radical yet, she was working out her own way of deciding.'...She was controlling her own representation, and in that way it's a fiction too."

Subrin and Blumenthal will answer questions after a screening of Subrin's Shulie Friday at 8 at the Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson (312-443-3737). Admission is $7. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Elisabeth Subrin photo by Charles Eshelman.

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