Sue Scott Gallery

Fanning the Firestone: Elisabeth Subrin's Shulie looks back with envy

B. Ruby Rich
The San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 1998

It might not be obvious, given the inordinate amount of attention paid to Bill Viola/Gary Hill/Nam June Paik trio but the most interesting video of recent years has been made by women. The performative in-your-face videos of the '80s by Joan Braderman, Vanalyn Green, Sherry Milner, and Martha Rosler defined a brand-new genre--"stand up theory," Braderman once called it. Gritty and frank, devoid of high-tech polish, their work created a new video vernacular for true confession and social critique

Now a younger generation has shown up to reinvent the game all over again, retooling the low-budget end of the spectrum to tell modern stories in a post-modern style. Case in point are Elisabeth Subrin's two videotapes being presented by Cinematheque this week at Center for the Arts. They reveal the nature of her particular obsession: the woman's movement of the '60s and 70s, the fabled era that produced her generation but necessarily denied it membership. Her 1995 tape, Swallow, strategically examines anorexia and the language of women's experience, from the '70s to now, alternating between pop culture and private meditation. Its Pixelvision shots and deadpan monologues are reminiscent of Sadie Benning's work, while the subjects matter bring Vanalyne Green's tapes to mind (both are thanked in the credits, so I'm not going out on any limbs here)--cannily hybridized and reshaped. 

Subrin's new tape, Shulie, is something else altogether. This time around, neither the conceptual base nor the stylistic execution owe any debts of influence. Actually, Shulie is strikingly original because it's a copy.

Here's the setup. The year was 1967. The place, Chicago. A group of film students got a comission for a TV documentary on the now generation and decided to focus on a young woman then finishing up her degree in painting and photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her name was Shulie, she was 22 years old. In their black-and-white 16mm documentary, Shulie, she worked in her studio and at her post office job, shot photographs on the Chicago streets, and endured a brutal graduating critique at which her professors urged her to abandon art making.

The woman was Shulamith Firestone. In 1970 she would publish her groundbreaking book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for the Feminist Revolution. Firestone became one of the premier philosophers of modern feminism, and also its prophet. She predicted not only changes in gender and sex roles but also the cybernetic future (which she called "cybernation") and ecology movements.

Subrin learned of Shulie's existence from one of its makers, Chicago documentary filmmaker Jerry Blumnethal, and was horrified to learn it could never be shown publicly because Firestone forbade it. With the wildly fetishistic reverence of a true believer, Subrin bravely decided to rescue it with a remake. That's right: shot for shot, cut for cut, with an actress uncannily adept at reproducing the original protagonist's rebel-art-girl essence, this Shulie is an exact replica of the original. Shot in super-8, inventing contemporary parallels when the original could not be duplicated, Subrin's Shulie conveys simultaneously the '60s and contemporary obsession with it.

It's a fascinating tape, not a clone in the end but a brilliant rethinking of history. Shulie completes a cycle: the first generation of feminist theory as revisited, fetishized, and worshipped by the new generation. The clothes look damn good, those eyeglasses are fresh all over again...and oh, the angst of that confusion, that searching for something that was not yet there, just a dim glow on the horizon that made you feel you were crazy if you didn't know you were right. Subrin has created a document within a document that makes us remember what we didn't know, then makes us realize all over again how much we've lost. Subrin turns the past into an amusement-park-attraction for the present, strapping us playfully into our seats, and in the process gives us a glimpse of the video of the future.

'Swallow and Shulie: Recent Works by Elisabeth Subrin.' Subrin appears in person. Thurs/26m 7:30 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, S.F. $3.50-$7. (415) 588-8129