Blogs Crosscuts

Lizzie Borden Took a Bolex…

“Born in Flames [by Lizzie Borden] is already controversial as one of the least assimilatable films for male viewers (they hate it) due to its assumption of an all-woman nonracist universe.” –B. Ruby Rich, Women’s Independent Film Festival, Minneapolis, 1983 “Anyone outside its target demographic of Trotskyite black lesbian separatists should avoid [Born in Flames] […]

Born in Flames [by Lizzie Borden] is already controversial as one of the least assimilatable films for male viewers (they hate it) due to its assumption of an all-woman nonracist universe.” –B. Ruby Rich, Women’s Independent Film Festival, Minneapolis, 1983

“Anyone outside its target demographic of Trotskyite black lesbian separatists should avoid [Born in Flames] at all costs.” –Nathan Rabin, The Onion, 2002

Onstage at the Walker 25 years ago, critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich read her “Feminist Avant-Garde” manifesto from a handwritten text, including its righteous shout-out to radical filmmaker Lizzie Borden, who only months earlier had brought her then-girlfriend Honey, star of Borden’s Born in Flames, to Rich’s 35th birthday party on the hottest day of summer in New York City. Scorching times, these. Just the night before Rich’s Walker symposium gig as part of the Women’s Independent Film Festival, a screening of Susan Sontag’s movie Unguided Tour had been shut down midway(!) by fest organizers at Iris Video in deference to what Rich, in her book Chick Flicks, calls a “feminist mob.” Rich, cultural historian and coiner of the term “New Queer Cinema,” cites this “abhorrent film exhibition behavior” as the “only case to my knowledge in which boredom achieved the status of censorable content.” Woo-hoo! Let’s hear it for the Minneapolitan mob feminism of 1983!

Now a quarter-century old, Born in Flames–screening Saturday night (7 p.m.) at the Walker’s “Queer Takes” fest, and hailed by former Twin Cities programmer Jenni Olson as “one of the most dynamic feminist films ever made”–also begins by proudly celebrating an anniversary: that of New York’s Social-Democratic War of Liberation, which 10 years earlier had brought equality to all, even Trotskyite black lesbians. Alas, Borden’s movie is a work of futurist fiction, albeit rendered largely in documentary form. “It is time to consider the progress of the past,” says an old white man in suit and tie, addressing the camera on a concrete square near Wall Street–evidence that the revolution has already passed, that only the counterrevolution will be televised. Or will it? Made guerrilla-style in 16mm for a mere $40,000, Borden’s Godardian salvo has her militant Women’s Army taking CBS video techs at gunpoint, forcing them to interrupt the U.S. president’s would-be pacifying offer of “wages for housework” with a special news bulletin from the black radical feminist underground. Sorta like Bolex-toting Borden bumrushing the Reaganist multiplex culture of 9 to 5, no?

Borden (née Linda Elizabeth Borden), who turned the big five-O in February, will never get an Academy Award for lifetime achievement or anything else: Listen closely to the soundtrack of Born in Flames and you can imagine hearing her say, while deejay Honey gets her gun, No sellout, no sellout, no sellout. Akin to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a grainy, galvanizing fantasy of radical action against The Man, Flames is also extremely funny and enjoyably hyperbolic–the sort of movie that verily demands two or three exclamation points at the end of at least three (or four) aptly overblown sentences about it!!! The film’s very stridency, as in vintage blaxploitation, is no small part of its appeal: The white male villains are never more hilarious than when their evil is offhandedly exaggerated, as when an FBI agent surveilling our heroines half-heartedly instructs a colleague, as if ordering pastrami, “Put some pressure on them at their jobs.” At the other extreme, literally whistle-blowing distaff vigilante bike cops come peddling out of nowhere to halt a rape in progress, this before Borden’s even more sharply insinuating montage of female hands equates cutting hair to rolling a rubber over an unseen dude’s stiffy!!! (All in a day’s work!!!)

Interviewed years ago in Women and Performance, Borden claimed that criticism of her movie stemmed not from race and class–or from gender either, one presumes–so much as from sexuality. “People are really upset that the women [characters in the film] are gay,” Borden said. “They feel [the film] is separatist.” Whatever the source of the film’s continued provocation, it’s no minor accomplishment for Borden to have made a film that almost two decades after its release strikes an A.V. Club critic as a “pretentious mishmash of amateurish acting, dialogue stolen from a freshman text on Marxist feminism, bizarre montage sequences set to bad new-wave music, and simplistic leftist propaganda.” Whoa, man, your phobia is showing!!! With all due respect to The Onion, “Gay Pride Issue” included, I’d say Born in Flames is nothing less than a miracle–hilarious and exhilarating, at once angry and playful, a film for the ages. And with all due respect to “Queer Takes,” I’ll venture to guess that not one of its six new features will look in 25 years from now as young and hot as Born in Flames will when it’s 50.

Interview with Sarah Pillsbury, producer of Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo centers on a young reporter who is left partially paralyzed from a car accident early in his life. The catch? His story is to investigate the subculture of able bodied individuals who “wannabe” paraplegic. His journey into this bizarre and perverse world leads him to meet and fall for the mysterious Fiona, […]

Quid Pro Quo centers on a young reporter who is left partially paralyzed from a car accident early in his life. The catch? His story is to investigate the subculture of able bodied individuals who “wannabe” paraplegic. His journey into this bizarre and perverse world leads him to meet and fall for the mysterious Fiona, who owns a wheelchair despite being fully functional. Quid Pro Quo had its debut at Sundance earlier this year to positive reviews and will be premiering this Friday in the Walker cinema. Producer Sarah Pillsbury, whose credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, and The Band Played On, and Oscar winning short Board and Care will introduce the film and participate in a post screening conversation.

How did you get involved in filmmaking and who are your major influences?

I have loved movies all my life and remember so many wonderful experiences: graduating from matinees at the Wayzata movie theatre to Friday nights (almost every one) with the boys sitting in the row behind the girls; taking the bus to town and going to Orpheum; waiting for the next Cinerama movie, which took me to the Cooper for the first time, where I ultimately saw 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia.

But I never thought I would make movies until I was in college and I became a feminist. Suddenly I had to think about what I was going to do when I grew up. I went to Kenya between my sophomore and junior years and realized what I missed most was the movies. Then I met some documentary filmmakers and did some work with them. When I got back to college, I took whatever film courses I could while finishing up a history major, and was influenced by Michael Roemer and Nick Dubb who had done some brilliant documentaries. Both of them along with my professor at UCLA, Bob Rosen, helped me appreciate film even more, and trust my own instincts. They also made me understand the responsibilities of the filmmaker to make every effort to be conscious of what one is conveying on the screen. Even so I am often surprised what people will see or respond to in a movie I’ve made.

It’s hard to think of filmmakers who didn’t influence me. I guess I graduated from musicals, to melodramas and romantic comedies, then began appreciating gangster films and noir. Eventually I became more aware of the vision, social comment or satire of the filmmakers. In college I was introduced to a lot of great European films and was especially drawn to Italian neo-realism and British dramas and comedies, the more romantic French films, as well as some of the more disturbing work. I was captivated by the new American films that Peter Biskind writes about in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. After I got to LA, there were still many great movies being made The Candidate, Chinatown, Coming Home and Missing, that made me believe that I could make movies that were about important issues, but still great drama or comedy.
What factors influence the project you have been or are involved in? What was it about this project that was compelling to you?

I want to go somewhere I’ve never gone before or see something in a new way. It’s about characters whose stories, which almost always involve, personal journeys, whom I want to spend time with – it takes a long time to make a movie. It’s a long term personal commitment to characters you want to bring to life, and see interpreted by wonderful directors and actors. I want to see people mature and find redemption and purpose, and to learn to forgive and accept themselves and others. I want people to see that often what seems unusual is often quite universal and relatable.

Were you apprehensive about how audiences will respond to the films “sensitive” subject matter? What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

I always want people to enjoy or be transported. And of course, I want good reviews – anything to get an audience. But the only time I recall being truly apprehensive was when we made a movie about an adoption and I was concerned that people would interpret the movie as glorifying the decision of the young woman to give up her child as opposed to having made the choice to terminate the pregnancy, and indeed, despite our inserting dialogue supporting a woman’s right to choose, some people still saw the film as anti-choice.

I am not deliberately provocative, but I want people to be stirred up, ask questions and come to their own conclusions. While I don’t think that we’ve every obscured what we think, we don’t want to tell people how to think.

In the end, I want people to have the kind of experience I have always cherished. To be lifted out of their lives, taken somewhere new or see something familiar in a new way, meet some people whose stories, perceptions and dialogue will stick with them for awhile, and then, when the lights come up, they will be set back again in their own life with more perspective and compassion for themselves and others.

Universal Studios Fire destroys prints

A sad update to the news of the fire at Universal Studios over the weekend: Yesterdays reports of there not being any damage to the film archives on the lot appear to be incorrect. I came in this morning to an email from Universal noting that “nearly 100% of the archive prints” stored on the […]

A sad update to the news of the fire at Universal Studios over the weekend: Yesterdays reports of there not being any damage to the film archives on the lot appear to be incorrect. I came in this morning to an email from Universal noting that “nearly 100% of the archive prints” stored on the lot were destroyed in the fire. I’ve seen reports that the elements, meaning original camera negatives and/or interpositives and internegatives, did survive. Hopefully, this is indeed true, and there weren’t any films “lost” permanently, but in these cases it isn’t uncommon for losses to go unnoticed for many years. Another unfortunate part of this is that much of Universal’s back catalog of films will likely remain unavailable in 35mm for many years to come.

Universal Studios Fire

As I’ve had a penchant for posting pictures of 35mm shipping containers as of late (here and here), I felt compelled to post this picture as it caught my eye on the cover of USA Today as I passed a newspaper box on my way in today. The massive fire on the grounds of Universal […]

As I’ve had a penchant for posting pictures of 35mm shipping containers as of late (here and here), I felt compelled to post this picture as it caught my eye on the cover of USA Today as I passed a newspaper box on my way in today.

The massive fire on the grounds of Universal Studios destroyed several sets, one soundstage, and some of the studios video vaults. Apparently, nothing irreplaceable was lost, and despite the image above, their film vaults were not damaged in the blaze.

Click on the photo above for more images from the fire on the Los Angeles Times page.

6.3.08 UPDATE