“Photography evades us,” wrote Roland Barthes, “What the Photograph produces to infinity has occurred only once; the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” And the same could be said of cinema.
What a vertiginous, existential quest then, to try to repeat a cinematic event through non-mechanical means, which is exactly what Elisabeth Subrin does in Shulie, her 1997 meditation on history, feminism, youthful ambition and a complex knot of related issues (on view at the Jewish Museum until the 30th).
Shulie is a near-shot-for-shot remake of Shulie (1967), an obscure and undistributed documentary about radical feminist Shulamith Firestone. The film was made before Firestone was the author of The Dialectic Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution—she then was an undergrad at the Art Institute of Chicago, chosen as a doc subject merely as a representative of the “Now” generation. The original film provides a kind of choreography that determines Subrin and her actors’ dance.
The re-staging asks questions both about how much the past can be recouped and about how much has really changed. The film revolves between the poles of the inaccessible and the uncomfortably familiar. Firestone’s ambition reeks of ‘67 idealism (“I want to somehow catch time short,” she says), but it would be naive to think that her discomfort in showing her art to a condescending, all-male critique panel speaks simply of the past (that particular scene really makes art school look like a site of humiliating initiation rituals and politburo-style interrogations, not necessarily off the mark for those who’ve attended art school). Period signifiers engage in constant lateral slide: what means now and what then? When we see a Starbucks cup it’s an obvious nod to the present, but in a time of constant postmodern recycling, fashion is harder to decode. (Actually, as someone who was not yet in my teens in 1997, and who knows 1967 only through books and movies, I was consistently confused as to what clothing belonged to what era.) Likewise, when Firestone complains about dating, we might as well be reading Jezebel.com in 2011; “Many men have these strange standards, and they’re not very rational.”
Anchoring the work is the lead performance by Kim Soss, whose Firestone is a real motormouth, flummoxed around her professors, but more often ready to talk about whatever’s on her mind: the nature of documentary truth, her early experiences with religious doubt, the dangers of living in the moment. She seems ready to perform, uninhibited in that disarming way that both attracts and repels us, and that we associate with the young and hungry. In light of some of her remarks, the film might be unbearably tragic without the dramatic irony brought on by Firestone’s later success as a writer. Speaking of nothing less than the nature of reality, the 22-year-old says, ““I want to give it some form. You see, I think reality is a little chaotic and meaningless, and unless I give it some form, it doesn’t have enough static control.” She continues, “I hate the shapelessness of it.”
Shulie opens with an epigraph taken from The Dialectic of Sex: “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper.” The quote, of course, offers not just a glimpse of Firestone’s future thinking, but a way to think about Subrin’s film. On the most abstract level, Shulie is an interrogation of the dance between presence and absence; Firestone’s not there, only her double, but then her double’s not there either, only her image. 1967 appears to be so much like 2011, but of course we’re really looking at 1997, dressed up for the camera. But considering that this was a documentary about the “Now” generation, how much was 1967 itself dressed up for the camera?
The show at the Jewish Museum includes four photographs—stills from the film—that continue this game of doubling and absenting. We see Soss-as-Firestone frozen in the act of performing for the camera the actions that Firestone was no doubt self-consciously performing for the camera. As Roland Barthes put it, “Photography has something to do with resurrection.”