“a doubling, a haunting, a generational negotiation”
– Elisabeth Subrin on Shulie
The brilliant radical feminist Shulamith Firestone died this past year at the age of 67, though she essentially withdrew from public life four decades ago, as if let down by the movement she helped build. I first heard of her work via feminist band Le Tigre, and promptly read her bestselling book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). Years later, I found out about the 1997 film Shulie by American experimental filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, which has become a classic of the avant-garde and an object of passionate study for scholars interested in non-fiction cinema, memory and historical re-enactment; and queer and feminist temporalities. Queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman calls Shulie “feminist history’s outtakes.”
In 1967, as a BFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Firestone was featured in a short documentary made by four male film students: a portrait of an emerging female artist of the so-called “Now” generation. Discovering the long-forgotten short in the 1990s, Subrin decided to remake Shulie shot by shot with an actor playing Firestone and with the thirty years of hindsight that knows this unremarkable young woman featured on film would go on to become one of the most articulate and boldly original voices of 20th-century feminism, soon moving to New York and then completing The Dialectic of Sex a mere three years later. (At the time of the shooting, Firestone was already a part of the radical feminist organizing in Chicago, though this remains unspoken in the film.) Shulie asks us to scrutinize Firestone in art school for the traces of who she would soon become, and the radical theories she would evolve. (And not only this, but to do so at a remove – through an actor, in a remake.)
Subrin wanted to investigate the “residue” of the late 1960s and, identifying strongly with Shulie, she asks, “Why, if we had reaped the benefits of second-wave feminism, should Shulie’s life seem so contemporary?” Part of the contemporary power of the film is the awkwardness of the 22-year-old woman as she goes through the painfully familiar machinations of art school – including a torturous critique by her male painting professors – and the other small indignities that attend a life on the margins (which have not changed much), as well as having to unwillingly articulate her place in a “generation.” It is precisely these “minor” historical forces – and not just great political events and movements – that compel individuals to take on certain identifications and positions in the world.
Artist Sharon Hayes has pointed out: “we become political … we become artists in deep relation to precise locations and precise historical conditions. And … these singularities, these precisions linger with us, they are carried along in our bodies.” Shulie was performed in 1997 by Kim Soss, and it is only through her body that we can access the original Shulie from 1967, many years before Soss was born. Subrin notes that her own identification with Shulie 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.” One does not have to live through a charged historical moment to have an intimate relationship with it, and Soss is the touchstone for this dynamic.
The film is particularly poignant because the most radical aspect of The Dialectic of Sex was Firestone’s call to move beyond essentialism and the prison of biological sex, and embrace cybernetics and other technologies that could liberate women from reproduction and the gendered division of labour in favour of socialism. With Soss stepping into her place thirty years later, it is almost as if Shulie had “reproduced” through the technology of cinema, Subrin creating a cloned offspring for her. Shulie is also so affecting because of the singularity of Shulamith Firestone as a visionary who provoked other feminists rather than taking up the role of an iconic figurehead. Post-1970, she took leave from activism (though kept painting), struggling with mental illness and dying as a recluse. This film could not have been made about a Jane Fonda or a Gloria Steinem – a star image – but only about someone whose persona is in conflict with the mainstream herstories that arguably didn’t go far enough. Shulie’s ongoing presence refuses herstory’s closure, haunting us: a radical road not taken.
In Shulie, I search for an inchoate and emerging articulation of her radical feminism, which would find form soon after. But a work of documentary provides no tangible “truth” and Shulie must always remain a cipher. She resists our desires for a heroic feminist role model, and the very banality of her day-to-day life makes the real subject of the film the (false) distance between then and now and the fantasies we project onto this radical period – which remains a raw, open wound ¬– and all its searching young women.
“I guess I’m afraid of getting trapped in a kind of day-to-day living, I want to somehow catch time short and not just drift along in it. The essential reason for anyone to make an artistic creation is to surmount the fact that they’re constantly an animal organism that’s just sort of going along in time and growing older, with a past and a future and so on, and to somehow transcend that.” – Shulie in Shulie
Shulie was distributed by Video Data Bank, Chicago until 2012. After Shulamith Firestone’s death it has been withdrawn from distribution at the request of the artist.
Elisabeth Subrin’s notes on the film are here.