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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The flaming feminisms of Lizzie Borden

Screen Grabs: The flaming feminisms of Lizzie Borden

The director and her trilogy at BAMPFA. Plus: 4-Star shines on women directors, American tragey in. 'Sansón & Me'

Recent years have seen notable upticks in the number of women directors represented at film festivals, and even in the Hollywood mall-flick mainstream, where an ever-increasing emphasis on supposedly “masculine” genres (action, horror, superheroics) had kept that glass ceiling in place. But not that long ago, feature filmmaking was almost exclusively a boy’s club. It was hard enough for a woman to make a first feature. The odds against her securing a second seemed astronomical, even as many no-more-acclaimed debut movies served as expedient industry “calling cards” for male colleagues. It’s only very recently that anyone could even imagine a female director getting the kind of jet-pack career boost Bay Area native Colin Trevorrow got a decade ago, when his modestly successful indie Safety Not Guaranteed—made for about $750,000—led directly to his being handed Jurassic World, whose budget was a cool $150 mil.

The farther you go back—unless you go all the way back to the medium’s first two decades, when its very lack of prestige allowed greater gender equity—the more unicorn-like women directors become, at least outside specialized, low-profile realms like experimental and (to an extent) exploitation. So it’s particularly impressive now to look at the output of someone like Lizzie Borden—a monicker that, yes, she adopted from the notorious alleged axe murderess, though it wasn’t far from her actual birth name—who managed to get her ambitious singular visions onscreen four decades ago, more or less. She’ll be present for all of “Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy,” Fri/17-Sun/19 at BAMPFA in Berkeley, discussing each of the films shown.

Two have been restored and re-released fairly recently, and are considered landmarks in the fertile U.S. independent landscape of the 1980s. There had been nothing quite like 1983’s Born in Flames before it: A queer-feminist dystopian sci-fi fantasy of unabashedly didactic political content, its quasi-documentary narrative chronicling the attempts of radical women’s groups to overthrow a patriarchal order.

Offering a more microcosmic, present-day critique of gender roles was 1986’s Working Girls, a look at a fictive Manhattan house of prostitution whose uptown location offers a veneer of discreet respectability for clients and safety for staff. There’s nothing lurid about this strictly-business operation, even if the “girls” (all of whom labor here strictly to finance outside interests) have mixed feelings about their chosen profession. The film came about partly from Borden’s realization that some Born in Flames participants supported their artistic endeavors via sex work.

First in the “trilogy” but last to be shown this weekend, on Sun/19, is a real rarity: 1976’s Regrouping, an experimental documentary that was Borden’s first feature. She became interested in a group of four women artists who had formed a kind of consciousness-raising collective amongst themselves in 1972, and a couple years later agreed to be filmed. But this “attempt at collusion,” a written prologue explains, gradually fell apart during the process itself. While originally the group members expected to “criticize, make suggestions, [and] have final say as to what was used in the film,” they eventually became disengaged and ambivalent. Borden admits up-front that as she assumed more creative independence, the end result became a “manipulation, a subjective statement,” which was “I suppose, what I had wanted all along.”

Though its effect is more discordant than celebratory, Regrouping fascinatingly encapsulates the endlessly self-questioning aspects of a peak Women’s Liberation moment, as filtered through the idiosyncrasies of personal avant-garde cinema. Their voices often disengaged from images, the four subjects debate intimacy, trust, oppression, gender roles, art, privacy, the film itself. Once well past a mutual “honeymoon period” (during which some abandoned heterosexual relationships for lesbian ones), they began to find “ideological differences are taken as betrayals,” such conflicts ultimately leading to the group’s dissolution. Yet undeniably they’ve all evolved as individuals in ways that might never have occurred without this prolonged collective experiment.

A restive B&W collage more evocative than explanatory, Regrouping hasn’t been seen for aeons—Borden withdrew it from distribution because the subjects objected to their depiction. (They even picketed its original showing at the Anthology Film Archives.) Now it feels like a missive from a distant epoch, when feminist principles were still a recent-enough revelation that no one took them for granted. Today we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of a culture in which many successful women do take that era’s political gains for granted, yet treat the term “feminist” as a slur to be rejected. It is indeed a frightening form of progress that feminism laid the path not just for the likes of AOC, but for MTG and Lauren Boebert—women who climbed up a ladder to the “boy’s club,” yet would gladly shut the trap-door behind them in the name of “family values.” For full program and schedule info on Lizzie Borden’s New York Feminisms Trilogy, go here.

The 4-Star in SF happens to be programming several days of well-loved features by women directors this week, starting off Thurs/16-Fri/17 with Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Czech New Wave classic Daisies and, a half-century later, Anna Biller’s campy retro-exploitation homage The Love Witch. Fri/17-Sat/18 there’s Sofia Coppola’s first (and still best) feature, the 1999 Jeffrey Eugenides adaptation The Virgin Suicides. Things take a sporty direction Sat/18-Sun/19 with Penny Marshall’s all-star 1992 baseball comedy A League of Their Own, plus Gina Prince-Blythewood’s 2000 romantic comedy Love & Basketball. For the full schedule, go here.

The imaginative expansion of documentary form that Lizzie Borden made use of even in her above-noted fiction narratives is echoed in the work of Rodrigo Reyes, whose latest feature opens at the Roxie this Fri/17. Sanson and Me is about his long-term association (over the last decade’s course) with one Sanson Noe Andrade, a Mexican immigrant who at age 19 was sentenced to life without parole in a California courtroom where Reyes was his appointed interpreter. The case is a strange one, as he got convicted of murder for (he claims) simply giving a ride to an underage brother-in-law he had no idea would leap from the car to fatally shoot others for gang-related reasons.

The director was haunted by this severe judgement, as well as by the similarities in their backgrounds. Barred from filming his subject during the rare prison visits allowed, Reyes decided to use an actor to re-enact their conversations, then Andrade’s own relatives and neighbors in his Mexican hometown to portray scenes from his past. It was a childhood beset by further tragedies after his father died. Even though his life got much better after relocating to the US, Sanson seems unsurprised at the cruelty that fate has dealt out to him, musing “There is no peace because the devil’s got the whole world in his hands.” He placidly tells Reyes about the relative plusses of prison, like fermenting alcohol in the toilet and making tamales from crushed Doritos.

While inventive, Sanson and Me is hardly the exhilarating conceptual leap the director’s prior 499 was—that film mixed fantasy, reenactment and documentary elements to encompass five centuries of a murderous colonial legacy. But it’s still an exceptionally vivid capture of how the system (on either side of our southern border) seems to ensure some lives prosper, while others are deemed throwaways. More info on the film, showtimes and tickets is here.

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