You can watch the whole movie here.
The uprising is set in the future, and it follows a successful socialist revolution. At a moment of deepening crisis, when progressive movements are confronted by a cacophony of claims that we have reached the end of history, of ideology, of utopia, [Born in Flames] is significant in its juxtaposition of the shortcomings of traditional left politics with the ongoing dream of a better future.
I don't want to tell a story. I have no story to tell. I have problems to figure out.
It remains difficult to settle on any one particular scene or moment in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film, Born in Flames, with which to open a discussion of the film. Marked as it is by its fragmentary nature—its resistance of narrative structure and commitment to representing multiple plots through varied standpoints—Born in Flames neatly refuses to be summarized through any of its constitutive parts. In an interview with Anne Friedberg, Borden attests to the film’s difficulty: “Two things I was committed to with the film were questioning the nature of narrative…and creating a process whereby I could release myself from my own bondage in terms of class and race” (43). Its take on both categories—narrative and collectivity— remains its internal strength.
Two questions that we can answer rather quickly about the film are the where, we are in the socialist democracy of the U.S.A.; and the when, ten years after a peaceful revolution. True to its form, the film opens with a celebratory voice-over detailing the victories of the socialist state followed with a series of scenes in which poverty and destitution sublate the speaker’s jubilation. A program accompanying the film explains this sublation: “The Social Democratic Party that the women had supported had not fulfilled its promises. The women in the film are not anti-socialist. In fact, they see themselves as the true socialists, whose hopes for an egalitarian society have been destroyed” (qtd. in Friedberg 37). It is the repeated and continuing process of sublation that marks both the film’s importance to a history of feminist cinema, described by Teresa de Lauretis (155), and the continuation of a Marxist-feminist project of abolishing gender, as much as abolishing capitalist social relations, articulated by Maya Andrea Gonzalez (223).
A quick gloss of the film, which took five years to make on a budget of $40, 000, is best accomplished by discussing particular spaces and groups within the film, rather than by summarizing its series of events. There are several dominant groups from the punk-poetic Radio Ragazza to the empowering Phoenix Radio—these two stations merge later in the film operating out of stolen U-Haul trucks—to the educated female editors of the Socialist Youth Review, to various striking organizations—secretaries and women out of work—and then of course there is Women’s Army itself. These groups are represented in a sometimes sporadic and rapidly cut way almost always with music playing in the background—The Crayons’ “Born in Flames” being a near constant presence throughout. In this way the film generates the outlines of a set of relations which are heavily represented, yet not narrativized.
Often operating in what Alexandra Juhaz and Jesse Lerner describe as a “fake documentary” mode, the film does not account for the origin of some of its shots. In particular shots of the Women’s Army and intimate moments between its organizers are often grainy and blue, implying a security or spy camera capturing the shot. While the origin of the footage remains unclear, this formal element resists the impulse to read this film as a singular narrative about the struggles of one political entity and encourages a reading that takes the social totality, in a Hegelian sense, into account. For instance, in a series of scenes that raise the specter of internationalism by taking place in North Africa, one organizer goes to learn about the struggle of women. In these scenes the film is a very fuzzy blue with a strange overlay print. This footage seems to come from some sort of spy network, but on a practical level it is clear that the particular appearance of these shots are a budgetary solution to shooting these scenes off-location—that is somewhere in New York rather than on location in Africa. Still, the film never claims to be documentary in form, insisting rather on being read as a specific configuration of scenes and events rather than as a particular filmic genre.
The turning point of the film, a moment when the Women’s Army moves from a marginal group interested in a politics often pushing up against its own limit—anti-rape bike squads, home care, child care, women’s advocacy, etc.—to a moment when they take up arms in the cause of radical equality, comes with the death of organizer Adelaide Norris. Norris stands as the closest thing the film has to a central figure. A butch, homosexual, black woman, who grew up caring for her younger siblings, Norris is laid off from her construction job, making her a central race, class, and gender contact point for the Women’s Army to rally around. Her death, a deeply allegorical moment of the film due in a large part to its interpretation as suicide by the state and as a political assassination by the Women’s Army, marks the film’s struggle against standard narrative forms—in a sense Norris was too representative to continue within the anti-narrative frame of the film. Born in Flames posits that the individual subject should not and cannot be the central force or focus of a feminist-cinema or of anti-capitalist, feminist revolutionary action.
The set of historical conditions that gave rise to Born in Flames do not limit, but extend, its political import to the present. Similarly, de Lauretis is not surprised by the emergence of the film at this point in history—“a time when severe social regression and economic pressures (the so-called ‘feminization of poverty’) belie the self-complacency of a liberal feminism enjoying its modest allotment of institutional legitimating” (166). She argues that the success of a swash of commercial “woman’s films” at the time was won at the price of “reducing the contradictory complexity...of concepts such as sexual difference, the personal is political, and feminism itself” (166). It is crucial to note that Born in Flames arrives on the scene after two successive moments of feminist film culture: one of “affirmative action in behalf of women as social subjects” and the other of negativity in the form of “radical critique of patriarchy and bourgeois culture” (154). For de Lauretis, this echo resounds through conversations surrounding feminism and cinema in the mid-to-late 70s, where one side called for “immediate documentation” and “positive images of women” the other side “insisted on rigorous formal work on the medium—or better,” suggests de Lauretis, an understanding of “the cinematic apparatus” as a “social technology” (155).
According to Laura Mulvey, the first period was “marked by the effort to change the content of cinematic representation” i.e. realistic portrayals of women engaged in real-life activities, and the second, a moment much more focused on forms of representation and the “use of and interest in the aesthetic principles and terms of reference provided by the avant-garde tradition” (qtd. in de Lauretis 155).Still following Mulvey, this second moment deemed that in “foregrounding the process itself” the spectator’s attention would be drawn away from a now disrupted aesthetic unity towards the “means of production of meaning” (qtd. in de Lauretis 155). But, as de Lauretis shows, were we to take this imperative to intervene on a formal level seriously—that is to extend this intervention—we would encounter yet another level of mediation, a new contradiction. Namely, that to consider feminist cinema or feminist aesthetics in the first place is, according to de Lauretis, “to remain caught in the master’s house” (158). Rather than take this as an aporia, de Lauretis insists that “feminist theory should now engage in the redefinition of aesthetic and formal knowledge” (158). For us, the question then becomes how Born in Flames organizes a symbolic space in such a way that it addresses its spectator as a woman, regardless of the gender of the viewers, and how this aesthetic and epistemological question extends from gender to race and to class? (160).
I have already indicated that the answer to this question lies in the film’s formal apparatus with its near constant sublation of what is represented. The film’s form is due in part to its production—a collaborative process between Borden, actors, and feminist community organizers who largely played themselves in the film, often improvising their lines and discussions (Lane 127). Largely self-aware, if not self-conscious, Born in Flames takes up the question of feminist representation by resisting both the purely positive and entirely negative formal categories detailed by Mulvey. This is not to celebrate the film’s approach to production and cinema as a set approach, or as a one size fits all political strategy, rather it is to highlight the specific historical situation that produced this film, and to begin to ask question about how it unfolds dialectically. According to Christina Lane, in Feminist Hollywood, Born in Flames found Borden as a “self-identified feminist interested in pushing the representational limits of women’s experiences” (128). Lane describes the film as “a kaleidoscope of women’s perspectives” (128) and de Lauretis argues the film posits a radical form of difference, elsewhere too often plastered over by liberal discourses of multiculturalism and the celebration of difference for difference’ sake, that is, difference as a solely positive term.
Difference, both in the film and for de Lauretis, becomes a crucial term here. She answers the central question of the female spectator, asked above, arguing that the film holds “the spectator across a distance, projecting towards her its fiction like a bridge of difference” (165). This “bridge of difference,” for de Lauretis, is built through the film’s “barely coherent narrative, its quick-paced shots and sound montage, the counterpoint of image and word, the diversity of voices and languages, and the self-conscious science-fictional frame of the story” which leads me to ask what she means by difference in this context (165). de Lauretis claims that what gives her a place in the film is the contradiction of her history and the political-personal difference within herself (165). Difference here is meant not in terms of liberal, multicultural tolerance, but as an intensely dialectical and laboriously negative term: what de Lauretis identifies in the film is that capital no longer organizes the proletariat in terms of identity so a negative definition of difference through exploitation and domination becomes the way towards collective struggle (Gonzalez 220). Born in Flames, I argue, represents both sides of the feminist aesthetic divide—activism and rigorous critique—not as separate approaches, but as intimately related ones. I do not mean to suggest that they can simply be held together, forced to remain still, but rather that it is in the process of their antagonism that something like politics can hope to emerge. This emergence, or rather these emergences, mark utopian moments in the film. Moments where we begin to glimpse not only the next set of contradictions, but how even those might be sublated.
Utopia itself as a category stands as the most radical form of difference, a negation of the present set of social relations and an overturning of political-economy. What is at stake here, in thinking about the radical difference at the heart of Born in Flames is its deep commitment to holding open the possibility of utopia. It is very clearly not utopian in its imagination of the future—only the rampant gender and racial inequality need be mentioned here—instead it contains that, to me endlessly more interesting, form of utopia Fredric Jameson calls the utopian impulse, which can only be posited as a “radical, even unimaginable break…that unimaginable fulfillment of a radical alternative that cannot even be dreamt” (“A New Reading of Capital” 13). As early as Marxism and Form (1971) Jameson’s own intellectual project was deeply interested in imagining this radical difference: "The Utopian moment is indeed in one sense quite impossible for us to imagine, except as unimaginable; thus a kind of allegorical structure is built into the very forward movement of the Utopian impulse itself, which always points to something other, which can never reveal itself directly but must always speak in figures, which always calls out structurally for completion and exegesis" (142). Born in Flames does not follow any particular subject as an exemplar of its moment, but instead patches together fragments of narrative in order to present the coming into consciousness of a revolutionary movement—which “calls out structurally for its own completion.” It registers this most sharply with the death of Adelaide Norris, which enables a new form of collective practice to emerge. Again, I argue that this moment needs to be read on an allegorical level as the death not of Norris herself, but of a certain mode of politics and agency. What emerges in the wake of this moment is a radical collective and revolutionary agent—the women’s army itself.
The utopian impulse of the film imagines radical equality not only in terms of the utopian horizon of the future, but as an act that must be made in the present through the embodied actions of daily life. Two montage scenes in the film depict a variety of seemingly incongruous activities, what Lane refers to as a “disjunctive collage of women’s individual and collective work” (129): cutting hair, caring for children, putting up posters, wrapping poultry in a grocery store deli, placing a condom on an erect penis etc. This montage maps out a portion of capitalist production that appears to be outside traditional sites of value production, but is actually constitutive of it. In her recent essay in Communization and Its Discontents, Gonzalez argues, “the relations between men and women form an essential element of the class relation and cannot be thought as a separate ‘system’, which then relates to the class-based system” (italics in original 225). So, actions from feeding and clothing to cleaning, caring for, and cooking, to bearing children are all constitutively connected to the production of capital. Gonzalez continues, “In capitalism, the lives of the surplus producers are constitutively split between the public production of a surplus and the private reproduction of the producers themselves. The workers…continue to exist only if they take care of their own upkeep. If wages are too low, or if their services are no longer needed, workers are ‘free’ to survive by other means (as long as those means are legal)…Here is the essence of the capital-labor relation. What the workers earn for socially performed production in the public realm, they must spend in order to reproduce themselves domestically in their own private sphere” (227). Born in Flames, through these montage scenes, formally makes legible snap-shots of social reproduction too often depicted as separate from the sphere of production. The Women’s Army becomes a powerful counter to the gendered division of social reproduction by embodying anti-capitalist or post-capitalist social relations in the present. Members care, feed, clothe, house, and educate one another, which should be considered a starting rather than a limit point for radical politics.
Rather than polemically presenting violence or pacifism as viable solutions, Borden outlines a number of rhetorical, activist and political positions and approaches, allowing them to play out their antagonisms in the representational space of the film. This positions the fantasy at the heart of Born in Flames closer to a formal or structural fantasy than to a dream of the perfect revolutionary movement: Borden stages not a set of relationships but the very possibility for those relationships in the first place. She asks, ‘what if the barriers to collective action typically encountered between women who are also feminists and activists were far more easily transcended?’ That is, rather than a moment where contradiction is masked or worked through prior to the film, Born in Flames posits a filmic space where disparate groups can work through antagonisms, where the conflicts within and between categories of race, gender, and class are not washed over by liberal, multicultural ideology. Lane points out that Borden was “accused of ignoring the material, economic, and racial problems that keep the kind of coalescence she envisioned from actually coming about” (133). However much this may be true of the film on the level of content—no characters directly engage these problems and at times they surface symptomatically, like in a talk show interview, to quote a long example in the middle of a sentence: “I think statistics will show you that percentage of rape and prostitution at this point is significantly lower than in it was in pre-revolutionary society and obviously this is an advancement; it’s a step forward. It’s impossible to talk about complete abolition, because this is not the nature of this government, they don’t abolish. . .because it’s about a gradual move towards something and I think this is leading up to the point where those things simply fade away”—it works through them on the level of form. How else are we to read the montage sequences but as the stitching together of disparate workers performing the labour of both production and social reproduction? The form itself brings groups typically antagonistic to one another together slowly and not without conflict—for instance there is a conflict between the women’s army and radio raggaza or the Socialist Youth Review women and the child care workers etc. In the end, the film posits some interesting and radical alternatives, for instance the free floating combined Phoenix-Ragazza radio station stands as a marker of utopian hope for the Women’s Army. It remains a challenge to select a single crystallizing scene or moment within Born in Flames, indeed its dialectical form, a form that maps a spacial resistance to singular narratives and an insistence on collective agency, remains its political lesson. It is not the question of how the film accomplishes this, but of how we might begin thinking about jumping registers ourselves, from the aesthetic-epistemological register of the film to the collective register in our own cities, our own social relations that constitutes the limit today.
Born in Flames. Dir. Lizzie Borden. Film. Perf. Honey, Adele Bertei, and Jean Satterfield. First Run Features, 1983. Film.
Fitting, Peter. “What is Utopian Film? An Introductory Taxonomy.” Utopian Studies. 4.2 (1993): 1-17. Print.
Friedberg, Anne. “An Interview with Lizzie Borden.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 1.2 (1984): 37-45. Print.
Gonzalez, Maya Andrea. “Communization and the Abolition of Gender.” Communization and Its Discontents. Ed. Benjamin Noys. New York: Minor Compositions, 2011. 219-234. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. “A New Reading of Capital Vol. 1. Mediations. 25.1 (Fall 2010): 5-14. Print.
---. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Print.
Juhaz, Alexandra and Jesse Lerner. “Introduction: Phony Definitions and Troubling Taxonomies of the Fake Documentary.” F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006: 1-35. Print.
Lane, Christina. Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000. Print.
de Lauretis, Teresa. “Aesthetic and Feminist Theory: Rethinking Women's Cinema.” New German Critique. No. 34 (Winter, 1985): 154-175. Print.
* - Originally presented at a panel of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association “Realism and Utopia in Cold War Cinema” on 27 May 2012
Labels: Born in Flames, capital, film, marxist feminism, science fiction, social reproduction, utopia