Fire Starter: Lizzie Borden’s First Films Still Light Up (and Burn Down) the Left


Like her namesake, the filmmaker Lizzie Borden took an ax…to cinema conventions and tidy political resolutions in her 1983 landmark Born in Flames. This unruly, unclassifiable film — perhaps the sole entry in the hybrid genre of radical-lesbian-feminist sci-fi vérité — premiered two years into the Reagan regime, but its fury proves as bracing today as it was back when this country began its inexorable shift to the right. Now, thanks to Anthology Film Archives’ restoration efforts, begun in 2003, Borden’s Molotov cocktail of a movie looks better than ever: A new 35mm preservation print of Born in Flames, blown up from the original 16mm, plays February 19–25 at the East Village rep house. This week-long run also includes a screening (on February 20 and 21) of the director’s rarely shown first film, Regrouping (1976), a chronicle of women’s collective fissuring and reassembling. Both works are essential studies of opposition.

In fact, the last line heard in Regrouping — “But I don’t agree with you” — underscores just how much dissension and division animate each film. Like William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), Borden’s debut is as much about the splintering of a group as it is the breakdown of the filmmaking process itself. The meta-conceit leads to a destabilizing, but always fascinating, experience for the spectator. Regrouping begins with a disclaimer about the risks and rewards of collaborating with one’s subjects; while watching, I was often uncertain as to which scenes were “real” and which were staged. Shot in 16mm black-and-white, Regrouping centers on a cadre of four white women artists, none older than 25, who say of their coalition, “This is the beginning of sisterhood.” But who exactly is delivering that utterance is never clear: An unidentified offscreen voice, one of many in a voluble chorus of commenters, makes that declaration, typifying the disjunction between sight and sound throughout the film. (Among the most radical imagery of this protean project is the footage of two women languidly having sex.)

That sorority eventually unravels, owing in no small part to Borden’s criticism of the group. But the acrimony that I thought had been dramatized solely for the sake of the project was, I later learned, all too real: According to the filmmaker, Regrouping‘s central quartet picketed the movie when it first screened at Anthology in late November 1976 and handed out flyers to the audience. However, the tensions, arising within the film and without, prove instructive, not destructive: Regrouping illuminates both the liberating and confining possibilities of the credo “the personal is political” — the rallying cry of second-wave feminism — in a way that few other works from that era ever dared.

Shot over the course of four years beginning in the late 1970s in locations throughout the five boroughs, Born in Flames serves as an invaluable document of cruddy Koch-era New York. But, in the three times I’ve seen it during the past decade or so, I’m always left with the feeling that I’m watching a bulletin from an anarcho-utopian matriarchy that exists light-years and galaxies away. As it happens, Born in Flames is set in an unspecified future, “ten years after the social-democratic revolution,” an uprising in which women are still second-class citizens. To right the imbalance, the Women’s Army mobilizes the various distaff factions; the organization “appears to be dominated by lesbians and blacks,” in the affectless words of Wooster Group troupe member Ron Vawter, playing an FBI agent investigating the insurrectionists. “It’s time to work some voodoo on these motherfuckers, sisters!” exhorts dyke DJ Isabel (Adele Bertei) of pirate Radio Ragazza as newsrooms are taken over and the antenna atop the World Trade Center is bombed to prevent further transmission of patriarchal communiqués.

Motored by irrepressible punk energy (and a terrific soundtrack, epitomized by Red Krayola’s title song), Born in Flames boldly takes on the blind spots that plagued New Left ideologies — namely, sexism, classism, and racism, obtuse attitudes that still dog today’s “progressive” movements. The sisterhood is far from unified, at least at first. Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), an African-American adjutant in the Women’s Army under the tutelage of elder Zella (played by the late, great activist lawyer Flo Kennedy), must be especially strategic in stirring the interest of the lily-white editorial board of the Socialist Youth Review, which has been reluctant to cover the militia’s demonstration in Washington Square Park: “If you’re not going to write about it, at least come out of class guilt,” she says. (Look for Kathryn Bigelow as a member of that magazine staff; her offscreen voice is also among the more recognizable heard in Regrouping.)

This discord signals not the end but the beginning; Borden’s faith in the necessity of argument, of infighting to advance revolutionary ideas, may be the most hopeful aspect of a far-out movie. The filmmaker will be present for several Q&As at Anthology (February 19–21), colloquies that are sure to shed some light on — and maybe offer hope for — our grim political moment.

‘Re-Visions’: Lizzie Borden

Anthology Film Archives

February 19–25