“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.