Sue Scott Gallery

Time Frame

Kate Haug
afterimage, November 1998

 

Finally the 1960s have hit art cinema. These new films are no nostalgic nods to Stan Brakhage or documentary glimpses of long-hairs seizing university campuses. Instead, the 1960s resurface in two remakes: Elisabeth Subrin's Shulie (1997) and Jill Godmilow's What Farocki Taught (1998). The '90s remake take respectively Shulie (1967, by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy and Alan Rettig) and Harun Farocki's Inextinguishable Fire (1969) and re-shoot them scene for scene. The script, camera shots, costumes, backdrops, graphs, props are all copies. The contemporary versions look, sound and act--as much as they can--like the originals. Given the late '80s art world trends of appropriation and the ever-growing experience of simulacrum, it is not so shocking that an innovative filmmaker would take on celluloid cloning. Yet this radical genre of filmmaking exceeds pat discussions of originality. By circulating replica films of the '60s these filmmakers harness the remake's amorphous quality of time to deftly address contemporary politics.
If the comparison of the two films ended by solely addressing the celluloid clone as a new form of filmmaking, the important differences between the films would be lost. Pulling the original films into conversation with their progeny provokes a range of questions: How does each filmmaker employ the remake? What are the conceptual perimeters of the first films? How does the second film utilize the scope and intention of the first? 
Shulie (1967) is a cinéma vérité portrait of Shulamith Firestone during her final B.F.A. year at Chicago Art Institute. The original Shulie follows Firestone in her daily life: waiting for the train, working at the post office, making art. Inextinguishable Fire, Farocki's first film, is a Brechtian anti-war film that elides any traditional documentary strategies.  It depends on monotone delivery by uncharismatic German actors to relay the cruel and fatal effects of napalm.  The differences between the originals makes a comparison of the remakes more complex: remaking a cinéma vérité portrait directly counters the notion of documentary authenticity and replicating a staged film against the Vietnam War implies a conceptual continuity between the original film and the remake. 
Shulie (1997) consciously plays with the myth of the original; we are not watching the "real" Firestone as we would have in the 1967 version. Subrin masters replication. According to press materials, Subrin's film is an exact copy of the original with several critical exceptions: a six-minute introductory section (the original film is 30 mins., Subrin's is 36 mins.), a quotation by Firestone at the beginning and a closing text. Shulie (1997) is adapted from the 1967 film, but this is not revealed until the end of the film. For the observant viewer, Firestone's words at the beginning of the film, " No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper--from The Dialectic of Sex 1970" and her voiceover (during a visual display of 1990s hippies) about the "Now" generation hint at the historical anachronisms. After the Firestone quotation, a text explains that the financing scenario behind the 1967 film. A patron gave a group of Chicago film students money to make a short documentary on the "Now" generation--Firestone was one of their subjects. After these texts, the title "Shulie" rolls down the screen and the 1997 film poses as the original 1967 version. Subrin's Shulie does not visibly "add" anything to the original. As it is never mentioned in her film , Subrin's relationship to Shulie (1967) remains ambiguous. The audience's relationship to the 1967 film is even more enigmatic. Why did Subrin replicate a film that was never released? 
As the documentary form has been seriously questioned over the last decade (Trinh T. Minhha's Surname Viet, Given Name Nam [1989] to name one), Shulie's (1997) critique of cinéma vérité practice is not as significant as its submission to the original document. The power of Subrin's film is created by the tension between the era from which Firestone speaks and that of the contemporary audience. As a voice from the past, Firestone is relevant to the present-day feminists.
Subrin circulates the story of an important feminist. In 1970 at age 25 Firestone wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1970). When Shulie (1967) was made Firestone was about to take her nascent revolutionary thoughts and produce this important document of political theory. Seeing Firestone before this moment, before feminism hit its popular stride, traces the political ascension of feminism. While feminism and the conception of women's rights have undergone many changes since the Second Wave of the '60s and '70s, it still remains a volatile and often misunderstood political platform. Given feminism's turbulent political path, it seems clear that Firestone's autobiography rather than the 1967 film was Subrin's muse. By producing a replica of 1967 instead of a biographical piece on Firestone, Subrin's recreates an historical moment. The audience, like Firestone, does not know what's coming next. The temporal gap between 1967 and 1997 grants the audience a chance to re-think the future of feminism. By not completing or adding to Firestone's biography, Subrin intentionally leaves the history of feminism incomplete--instead of following Firestone as she matures, Shulie (1967 and 1997) stops before feminism takes off.
According to Godmilow's conception of the remake, it takes one political film to make another. Godmilow consciously employs her film's replica status to connect What Farocki Taught to its genealogical origins. Inextinguishable Fire is a complex treaty on both the documentary form and how corporate structures mask individual contributions to war. At the beginning of What Farocki Taught a narrator states that the film is a shot by shot, "perfect replica, in color and English," of Farocki's 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire. In contrast to Subrin, Godmilow tells the audience that the film is a remake ad why she has devoted herself to this project. Godmilow adds to Farocki's film in several ways: she introduces What Farocki Taught as a remake, she includes an epilogue addressing her motivations for recreating the film, and she superimposes the original black and white film over her color film. By including Farocki's actual film within her remake Godmilow actively links the two works together and highlights their chronological distance. The two films serve as concrete markers between historical events in 1969 and 1998.
In What Farocki Taught, Godmilow promotes Farocki's filmmaking strategies to a contemporary audience because she wants them to see Farocki's film, a fact that she announces throughout What Farocki Taught. As the title suggests, Godmilow sees Inextinguishable Fire as a teaching instrument. Inextinguishable Fire was never released in the United States. Godmilow's remake is both an homage to Farocki and an oblique, conceptually complex form of distribution. 
The non-sensationalist, analytical form of these films rejects documentary practice that literally relies on the blood and guts of their subjects to elicit sympathy. During the Vietnam War American televisions swelled with the burned and the bludgeoned. Since that point many media activists have harnessed those same images to depict the horrors of war and the military industrial complex. Neither Inextinguishable Fire nor What Farocki Taught uses graphic images from the war. In fact, at the beginning of Inextinguishable Fire an announcer dressed as an anchor person states: "How can we show you the use of napalm in action? First you'll close your eyes to the pictures, then to the memory, then to the facts, then you'll close your eyes to the whole story."
Countering traditional documentary images, Inextinguishable Fire traces Dow Chemical Company's creation of Napalm B. The United States government requested Dow to produce a completely fatal chemical weapon. (Napalm in its initial form did not guarantee death.) The film's fictional Dow Test Scientist reads: "The State Department's scenario states: conventional napalm doesn't stick. Many suffer only second degree burns." The scientists work to find the magic ingredient to the ultimate weapon--Napalm B, a jellied gasoline that could be dropped from airplanes and set whole villages and their inhabitants instantly on fire. Napalm B burns at 3000 degrees and is literally inextinguishable.
By following the bureaucratic process of research, the audience, like the film;s scientists, is dropped into the governments production of chemical war.  The film shows how labor is divided; how no single worker is help responsible for the development of napalm. While Inextinguishable Fire is not a conspiracy film, it becomes clear that people working in corporate America do not always know what they are making. They could be making fertilizers used by farmers or herbicides used by soldiers. The scientists harnessed chemicals from some of Dow's 800 other products to make Napalm B. As the Dow C.E.O says in What Farocki Taught, " A chemical corporation is like a set of building blocks. We let each worker have one block to work with. Then we put the blocks together to make whatever out clients request."
In the mock Dow lab, the effects of napalm are demonstrated through weak clinical tests such as spraying herbicide on plants or burning a dead rat. The immense difference between the lab tests and the U.S. governments use of napalm in Vietnam reveals a schizophrenic relationship between the scientists and their work. The bureaucratic structure of production distances the Dow worker from napalm's applied use. In What Farocki Taught, Dow employees watching television become horrified by the war scenes and ask to turn it off. They do not want to see the results of their labor on the evening news. 
In a bland tally of events, the films mimic the staid, methodical development of Napalm B. Godmilow furthers Farocki's strategy in her epilogue by discussing an often cited phenomenon in documentary practice: "pornography of the real." Pornography of the real is a sensationalist practice in which victimized bodies are used to place the audience in a sympathetic position to the documentary's subjects. 
No moral dividing line evolves in What Farocki Taught to separate the "good" from the "bad," to create "us" and "them." What Farocki Taught and Inextinguishable Fire imply that the audience--like the scientist--is intrinsic to, not removed from, the scenes that appear on the evening news. The viewer is part of the war rather than sympathetic to its victims. The scientist, the soldier, the politician, the consumer and the C.E.O all work on the same production line. Some reap more financial reward than others, but who is responsible for the napalm remains unclear. When does a laborers' work reflect their own civic and social limits? Are workers responsible when their wage-earning activities create lethal and destructive products? 
Largely due to the Vietnam War and the ensuing anti-war movement, questions about moral and political responsibility vis à vis labor became a great debate on the 1960s. However, these discussions were culturally subsumed by the 1980s gold rush and the corresponding fascination with wealth. Yet as a western-based multi-international corporations expand, and Americans become more globally involved in economically, culturally and ecologically exploitative relationships, the issue resurfaces. Godmilow points to this economic shift in the epilogue by stating that a shot of a strip mall should replace the Dow chemical plant. 
Both Shulie (1967) and Inextinguishable Fire were unreleased in the U.S. at their moment of conception. The remakes, arriving at the same time, reposed many of the questions evoked by the social turbulence of the '60 and '70s. Their presence has an exhilarating, unsettling effect that confirms the mobius strip quality of history. The filmmakers use temporality and the memory of contemporary history to re-focus discussions around contemporary political issues. Shulie (1997) disguises itself in the vestiges of the 1967 film to make an elliptical use of time. The realization that Shulie (1997) is a remake forces the audience to re-address the history the film presents--the individual and radical origins of U.S. feminism's Second Wave and how that course of events was subsumed and re-defined by the ensuing conservative political culture of the '80s. What Farocki Taught uses the gap between 1969 and 1998 to reveal what was missed the first time around: Farocki's political filmmaking strategies. The films ask contemporary audiences about their commitment to issues such as feminism and the politics of labor that have been superficially addressed by the "woman friendly," "pro-business" politics of the '90s. To some, Shulie (1997) will appear as a document from the late '60s. What Farocki Taught, even though it is a pure 1969 remake, will never be mistaken as such. Through their differing relationships to the original films, Shulie (1967) and Inextinguishable Fire (1969), Subrin and Gidmilow open new discussions about the production of history and the metamorphosis of political platforms through popular assimilation. More importantly, though, the films demonstrate that potent issues will never simply be absorbed by the passage of time. 
 
Both Shulie and What Farocki Taught will be screened at the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival in New York City in November. Shulie will also be screened at Chicago Filmmakers in November. Both are distributed by Video Data Bank, 112 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL, 60603; (312) 345-3550.