Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Born in Flames (1983).

Brandon: I first watched Lizzie Borden’s ramshackle punk screed Born in Flames shortly after the historic Women’s March that protested Trump’s inauguration last year. The film’s mere existence is incredible for countless reasons, but what struck me most at the time was how closely it resembled current, compromised news coverage of radical political resistance. Early 1980s protest footage integrated into Born in Flames’s sci-fi narrative could just as easily have been captured at the 2017 Women’s March with just the right Instagram filter to match the film’s low-fi static. It’s not that the Born in Flames’s politics were especially predictive or ahead of their time, either. What’s most striking is not the film’s prescience, but how little the world has changed in the 35 years since its release. Current concerns of respectability politics, White Feminism, Men’s Rights Activism, public sexual harassment, patriarchal rape culture, and dishonest media coverage of peaceful protests are all demonized in Born in Flames as the enemies of true social progress. The film preaches a message of Intersectionality & true feminist unity (across borders of race & sexuality) that still hasn’t been fully achieved to this day, but has become a much more commonly expressed ideal. Its vision of D.I.Y. punk culture, from bicycle gangs to alternative modes of broadcasting & press to dingy nightclubs & ripped street clothes, still feels true to how radical counterculture looks today. This D.I.Y. punk ethos also extends to the film’s form, which is a version of sci-fi filmmaking so lacking in budget & traditional craft that you’d never be able to tell it was set in the future if that weren’t explicitly stated.

Set ten years after a fictional American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

Born in Flames splits its efforts as both a document of its time in D.I.Y. political filmmaking and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to a long-gone, idealized past.  Alli, do you think either side of this divide overpowers the other? From your perspective, does Born in Flames excel more as a historical document or a living, breathing ideological manifesto?

Alli: I don’t think the idea of black lesbian punks running the streets is necessarily part of an idealized past. There are things like Afropunk and many radical Tumblr blogs right now making a lot of waves (Afropunk even has its own festival) and inspiring a lot of kids to just be themselves, loud and proud. Maybe New York isn’t the same, but other places in the country are seeing demonstrations, women trying to take care of each other, and celebrations of these kinds of lifestyles. We can yearn for the optimistic ideas of this era, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while progress is happening at a molasses pace and America feels like a “two steps forward one step back” country as far in its progress, these people are out there and are being more open.

As much as these ideals feel like a past moment looking towards an optimistic future, like every sci-fi book that predicted we’d have flying cars by the year 2000, a lot of the movie actually felt very prescient to me, but also made me feel sad for the radical movements currently at work in the country. The “suicide” of Adelaide Norris felt a little too much like the life and death of Sandra Bland, which should have galvanized many movements into action but instead most of the talk around that tragedy has quieted down. Just as sad as this movie made me feel, it also gave me hope. Radical ideas haven’t died out. Radical people have been fighting forever and are still around and kicking, even though we live in a near police state where any slightly rowdy protest is considered a riot, and the same old lukewarm liberal narrative exists that any major action is just as bad as the oppression. In this way to me, it definitely felt like a living, breathing manifesto. I have never seen a movie embrace so much of my personal ideology while also teaching me a thing or two about direct action and the power of large groups of people acting together even if they have different priorities within their shared goal. The quote about one lion versus hundreds of mice really stuck with me. There are so many teaching moments here. As you said, it’s still so relevant. We can look at the writings of people like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Marx, Engels or Bakunin and still there’s so much to take away from these works. Just because the ideas posed aren’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a call to action and even a proposed guide to how to get change started.

Of course, all the writings I just compared Born in Flames to are essays, works of nonfiction. If I had to compare this to any fiction parallels, it would be the writings of my personal favorite, the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. She, too, looked to future utopias with a critical eye. Her works are filled with critiques of gender, capitalism, tyrannical government, religion, and, even though she identified as an anarchist, anarchy itself.  There was no ideal too perfect for her critical eye, and I think that’s also what I like about this film. None of the activists here have all the answers as to how to get things done. These characters live in a supposed ideal government system, in which people are supposedly taken care of, given jobs and housed, and yet there’s still so much wrong. We’re shown a future that many socialist activists have been working towards for years and changes still need to happen. Movements are shown as hard work worth fighting for, even though you can’t even be sure of the outcome.

Which brings me to the unfortunately dated, open-ended conclusion. Boomer, how did you feel about the ending? Do you wish the movie had shown what happened after that first major strike of taking down the transmitter of the World Trade Center?

Boomer: I think that showing what happens next would undermine the message as a whole. In one scenario of the film’s continuation, there would be sudden and efficient retaliatory action by the patriarchal government system against the Women’s Army (and associates), thoroughly knocking the uprising off its horse and reinforcing the supremacy (not the superiority) of the system in place; which would be a bummer and run counter to the film’s self-evident call to action on the part of the women and allies in the audience. On the other hand, if the film committed to the concept that The Movement would install a newer, truer, more egalitarian utopia, then that new society would have to be depicted. Not only does this lie outside the film’s budget, it also falls outside of what I would like to call its thesis, except that the term suggests a cohesive idea, which I don’t feel the film has. Its various points of views overlap in a Venn diagram of ideologies between different groups, but these groups rarely manage to put up a united front and is fractious when doing so. There’s a lot of discussion in the film about what constitutes right, proper, reasonable, and fruitful action in response to government oppression, with little conversation about what an improved world would look like in comparison to the one in which the women reside now. There are a lot of opinions, and even when there is collaboration, there are still those who are in the oppressed group whose ideals are in conflict with others. Born in Flames is, as am I, a proponent of intersectionality, but there’s no definitive answer as to what the ideal form of governance does, how it treats the members of its society, what it looks like, and how it works.

This lack of singular vision isn’t a flaw objectively; documents of reactionary art, especially those made outside of any studio system and which are iconoclastic but not necessarily reformative or restorative, are often an amalgam of different branches of critical theory that are prominent in academia or highly educated groups at the time of the text’s creation. One could argue that such a reading makes Born in Flames a kind of artifact of a bygone era just as much as the image quality, fashions, and presence of the WTC Towers dates it, and while it is a bit of a time capsule, that doesn’t make its questions any less potent or applicable, even if it never quite gives an answer. The answers, both to the question of what comes next in this world post-revolution, and what happens next in our world after having heard this film’s arguments, are up to you. I had a hard time getting with the film, despite my alignment with many of the philosophical ideals of various characters (and from which other characters distanced themselves). It’s not because it’s not “for me,” which is all-too-often trotted out as a placeholder for legitimate criticism by people who can’t or won’t inspect their preconceptions, and it’s not because of the film-making quality, as I love low-budget films and legitimately enjoy the aesthetics of this one. And I’m not opposed to films counterposing various ideological constructs and leaving it to the viewer to piece together a personal political philosophy from the constituent parts, nor am I simply depressed at how little ground we’ve advanced in some areas since 1983. But, if you put all of these things together into one movie, what remained for me once the movie was over had little staying power, even when I was in agreement with it.

One of the things that kept pulling me out of the film was the music. And I’m not just talking about Isabel’s cringeworthy spoken word/rap, although I was embarrassed for her in the moment; I didn’t care for the title song the first time it was played, and it didn’t grow on me as it was repeated throughout the film. Even when I recall the montages from the film, I mentally replace the music with Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “The Parade”. The DIY aesthetic comes through in the music, definitely, but I wasn’t feeling it. What about you, Britnee? Did the music pull you of the film or help you cement yourself in its world? Would you change anything, if you were able?

Britnee: As I was reading through everyone’s thoughts and responses to Born in Flames, I sang “We are born in flames” out loud each time I ran across the title. I cannot shake this song for the life of me. The scratchy recording with those funky yodeling female vocals were sort of like a less-polished version of a Rubella Ballet tune. It conjures up images of dirty city streets filled with young folk in denim jackets, which is what we see in Born in Flames.  In my opinion, the “Born in Flames” song perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the film. I even felt a bit more rebellious than usual after the first couple of times hearing it. Although I enjoyed the song and its presence in the film, it was a bit repetitive. I want to say that it played over 5 times throughout the films 80 minutes, and that is just way to much for a single song to be played in a movie. Getting other songs may have just been too costly for this low budget flick, but it would have been better to just have less music.

I went ahead and gave Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “Parade” a listen while keeping all of those important scenes in mind. It would definitely be a great theme song for the modern version of Born in Flames. What a modern version of the film would look like is a thought that crossed my mind when I realized that what was being portrayed in the film was supposed to be the future. Progression in our country moves at a snail’s pace, so a “modern” Born in Flames would be almost identical to the original (bicycle gangs included), but with different music.

Speaking of the bicycle gangs, I was disappointed that they appeared once when a girl was being attacked by two thugs. The whole idea of a bicycle girl gang is fabulous, and I wish they would have had just as much screen time as the “Born in Flames” song. Brandon, do you wish there was more focus on the bicycle girl gang in this movie?

Brandon: At the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival, I caught a small documentary titled Ovarian Psycos about an all-female-identifying Latinx bicycle brigade that was dedicated specifically to feminist community-organizing in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s incredible, in retrospect, how much the political tactics & D.I.Y. aesthetics of that film resemble the “bicycle girl gang” that appears briefly (but is referenced often) in Born in Flames. More than three decades apart and on the opposite American coast, the bicycle brigades in the two films feel like they’re of the same cloth, a continuation of a political organization tradition that remains constant in punk culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve already seen the intricacies of exactly how feminist biking crews aim to destroy the social norm of public spaces only being safe for men detailed at length in the Ovarian Psycos doc, but I don’t think Born in Flames necessarily needed more of their presence to strengthen its thematic fabric. I was just appreciative that they rolled into the scene at all, presented as a communal feminist alternative to the police state in cases of sexual assault, as it’s yet another detail to Born in Flames that feels true to what punk-culture-in-action still looks like today.

Most of my appreciation of Born in Flames works this way. Much like the various, ideologically-conflicted women’s movements that populate its narrative, the film itself is a kind of well-meaning, but disorganized political screed that does gradually become focused & coordinated, but starts in total chaos. The messiness of its structure is partly due to an overabundance of ideas (something that I always admire in any film), which means that no one detail is afforded a wealth of screentime (outside the repetitions of the post punk theme song). The bike brigade, the Sandra Bland foretelling, a pre-auteur Kathryn Bigelow’s presence among the White feminism journalists, etc.: Born in Flames is a collage of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details, which is something that makes your head swim in the moment, but also makes for rewarding repeat viewings.

In fact, my favorite aspect of the entire film is a single image included in one of the earliest montages set to the Red Krayola song. A series of images details labor that would be traditionally coded as “women’s work”: dental assistant labor, factory work, childcare, etc. Mixed in with these details is a woman’s hands applying a condom to an erect penis, a sly comment on the sexual labor women are expected to perform domestically. The matter-of-fact presentation of that image is also subversively funny, as it’s juxtaposed with factory workers shrink-wrapping raw chicken (among other menial tasks). I don’t think everything the film has to say about sexual labor is on-point (more on that in the “Lagniappe” section below), but I found that montage to be incredibly clever in visually defining what “women’s work” actually looks like and challenging the way it’s socially undervalued. There’s a lot of thematic power behind that singular condom application, an effect that extends to other barely-seen ideas like the bicycle brigade.

Alli, are there any other minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details in Born in Flames that felt powerfully resonant to you even though they barely appeared onscreen?

Alli: You mentioned the condom scene, and that one stuck with me not because of the domestic aspect but because of the sex work positivity of the film, which is extremely interesting to me given the time period. Radical feminism of from this era didn’t necessarily see sex work as anything more than objectification and oppression, where this movie takes a more updated approach in saying that it’s just a job, which is the view intersectional feminists and what I’m going to call true radical feminists stand by these days. (True radical feminists here meaning those opposed to every institutional system to oppression and aren’t trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary.) It’s just awesome to me to see radical women of this time period embracing other women from all walks of life and not looking down on one another because of their occupations.

Another ahead of its time detail that stuck out to me is the inclusion of women from other countries in the movement. A lot of what’s lacking in modern feminism is a lack of solidarity, a focus on America’s problems (or the problems of whatever country you’re settled in), and even a focus on individual empowerment & declarations. We’ve become fixated on the commodification of self-care, buying bath bombs and the like, and celebrity identification, instead of group acts and collective action. (There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a revolutionary act, but it isn’t about buying things to make yourself feel better while setting the expectation of self-care prohibitively high for low income or houseless women.) The idea of women’s liberation being a worldwide movement is powerful to me, especially in the context of women everywhere freeing themselves and teaching each other things rather than white saviorism.

Other blink and you miss them details: queer women making love without the male gaze, women in what are thought of as traditionally male trades such as construction, and posters identifying men as rapists. Basically, I love this movie, including the Red Krayola song (but I was already a fan of the band).

Boomer, I know you mentioned that this movie had a very “not for me” feeling for you, but are there any ideas that you feel the modern era of resistance could benefit from? Are there any superfluous ideas that you feel would be detrimental to modern activism?

Boomer: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that sex work is presented in the way that more modern (and more true, non-TERF) feminism would, as this is an element of radicalism in the past that can be easily forgotten. Again, this is an unusual situation for me, in that I rarely find myself in a position where I am so completely aligned with a text’s stated and envisioned ideals while also feeling so completely cold about the text itself. I can only conclude that this is the result of the film being so cheaply (if not poorly, necessarily) made. I’ve seen films that are worse, and I’ve seen films that are cheaper, and I’ve still been able to get “on board” with those movies, but there’s something blocking that here for me, and I can only conclude that it’s because this film is just kind of . . . ugly. This is at least in part because 1980s New York was an ugly place: despite being the Platonic ideal of an the bohemian artist’s “New York” that took root the public consciousness before the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole city by stamping out and destroying many of the things that made it truly unique, this film certainly doesn’t highlight anything that makes it beautiful (and not that this has stopped the husk of New-York-That-Was from drawing countless mothlike hopefuls to beat their wings vainly against the searing flame). The philosophical theses are clear, but film is a medium that requires a confluence of different kinds of expression to adhere into a complete whole; the scenes of a woman being attacked on the street are not distinct, visually, from those scenes of women in bed together or vigorously discussing different political ideals while straddling a windowsill (metaphorically and literally): they’re all filmed in an ugly way, which is understandable given that this is an independent feature that took years to make. This lack of difference in the framing of different scenes with dissonant purposes can be chalked up to an evocation of a documentarian’s distance from the subject, but that simply doesn’t work for me here, as it attempts to graft an apolitical (at least in theory) aesthetic onto an inherently political text. As a result, the whole thing is just too muddled for me, like a painting that uses a lot of vibrant colors but mixes them together in such a way that you end up with a canvas of various muddy browns. I wouldn’t claim that any ideals in the film are backward (although there’s a questionable one I’ll get to in a minute here), but since the medium is the message, the overall palate of the film may be detrimental, at least to the general public’s willingness to empathize and get anything out of the movie.

I understand that the intent is to demonstrate that a supposed socialistic democracy can descend into misogynistic policy-making and oppression just as easily as an authoritarian, conservative-dominated society can when the figurehead at the top practices autocracy instead of representational democracy, or when representatives act as advocates for only some voices in their districts instead of all. And I applaud the film for focusing on society’s “lower decks,” as confining the presidential/governmental presence in this world to speeches and television appearances better reflects the world the characters (and we) inhabit, with the implicit distance between the working class and lawmakers made explicit, with TV screens as manifest barriers of this distance and demonstrating that power in this system flows only one way: from orator to spectator. That’s certainly an important part of the discussion of any dichotomy of power.

As I wrote back in my first part of this conversation, the most depressing thing about this movie is how much it demonstrates how little has changed. Thirty years later and wheatpasting is still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal? But with regards to the messages that modern activism can still benefit from and if any are detrimental, I’d like to circle back to your discussion of sex work. (Disclaimer: this is outside of my lane as I am a cis man.) This is an area in which many modern people who consider themselves feminists, men and women alike, consider to be inherently oppressive, which is an understandable reaction given that, historically, sex work has been dominated not only by male interest but also male violence and authority. Different people can find the same thing liberating or oppressive depending upon the horizons of each individual’s lived experience and point of view: hijabs can bring comfort to some while others find them oppressive; pride parades might give some the strength to come to terms with themselves and self-expression while others balk at the commercialization and pursuant capitalism of pride celebrations or feel unwelcome among the sea of twinks and hunks because gay culture can be just as cruel as the mainstream to those whose bodies fall outside of the “ideal” range; testing accommodations for students can make life easier for some while others resent the fact that having to make such arrangements increases attention on them. As a result, I’ve also seen certain discussions descend into angry name-calling and ad hominem attacks instead of mutual edification and respect when it comes to discourse about the topic of sex work and its place in feminist movements. As such, I would argue that the only place where I feel there’s a real disconnect between the feminism of Born in Flames‘ then and the feminism of our now is in response to the president’s proposed policy allowing for payment for domestic work for women. Although its goal is to roll back the clock on progress and push women back into kitchens (as evidenced by the fact that it is explicitly stated as a program for women instead of remaining gender-neutral in indicating who would be eligible for such a benefit), but removed from the context of the attitudes we’ve seen evinced by the men in power, a stipend or paycheck for stay-at-home domestic duties is not terribly dissimilar from modern policies that advocate for a basic universal income or even newborn supplements and allowances like those available in Australia and parts of Canada. It’s presented as a universal ill in the film (and within the context of the film, it is), but the philosophical descendants of those ideals present in Born in Flames would be less likely to reject the concept outright, but if they used the film as a fundamental and cornerstone text of their philosophy, it could be detrimental, at least hypothetically.

Britnee, I too was disappointed that the bike gang only showed up once in the film and then disappeared. Some of the issues present in the film were hammered over and over again, to the point where it felt preachy, while others were given barely a passing mention. Were there other elements that you felt could have born to be repeated more often, and was there anything you felt got more attention than necessary?

Britnee: When I hear the word “revolution”, the image of youthful, energetic beings is what generates in my mind, which is why I completely understand why there is such a focus on young women in Born in Flames. Interestingly enough, though, I really enjoyed the few moments of screen time afforded older women in the movement. Zella Wylie and The Belle Gayle Show are the only times we really see women over the age of 25, and their camera time is brief compared to the rest of the cast. Nothing gets me more jazzed than aged feminists because they have seen and been through it all and still have hope for brighter days to come. I don’t think not having women from different age groups equally present in Born in Flames hurt the film or prevented it from making bold statements; I just think it would’ve made the film a little more interesting.

As for what I felt got more attention than necessary in the film, I can’t really think I of anything. I enjoyed how there were a variety of issues that were addressed, and I didn’t feel like anything was overdone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would have gotten so much more out of Born in Flames if the film’s main ladies saw more character development. Knowing about their background and day-to-day on a more emotional level would have helped me connect with the characters. Instead, I found most of them to be sort of annoying, as they reminded me of the mean crust punk girls in college who made me feel like I was never good enough to hang out with them. Even though Born in Flames reopened those wounds, I did enjoy the film for the most part.

Brandon: I’m going to have to contradict both Alli & Boomer on a couple points here: the effect of the ending and the film’s view towards sex work , which was wholly negative in my interpretation. I understand why someone would find the World Trade Center explosion that concludes this film to feel dated in a cringe-inducing way, but I find it at peace with its larger “All oppressed people have a right to violence” messaging. I’d even say it feels exciting as a go-for-broke call to arms, a continuation of the film’s political organization aspirations at large. What hasn’t aged so well, however, is the film’s attitude towards sex work.

While most of Born in Flames’s radical leftist ideologies feel consistent with modern politics, the way it lumps all sex work in with rape & gendered subjugation does feel out of step with political thought in the 2010s. If this film were contemporary, I suspect it would shift its stance from abolishing sex work entirely to advocating for sex workers’ rights that would protect them from gendered power-imbalances. A film’s political ideology feeling slightly outdated is more of a positive sign of real-world progress than anything, though, so that sex work-shaming attitude is more than forgivable, especially considering the striking amount of the film’s messaging that’s still on-point. Lizzie Borden’s next film, Working Girls, was also specifically about upscale NYC sex workers, so I’m curious to see if expanding on the subject makes her abolitionist stance seem more nuanced that I’m giving it credit for here (as indicated by everyone else in the crew taking away an entirely different interpretation of her views on the subject).

Alli: Discussing and viewing art is entirely subjective. Every person brings their own experiences and opinions to the table. I was predisposed to like this movie as a crazy radical. Sure, it’s not pretty, but neither is oppression or the world these women inhabit. Sure, the same song is repeated like an anthem over and over again, but as cheesy and “spiritual” as it sounds, we all need a mantra to get by in times of conflict. I’m not saying that this is a flawless movie by any means or that these aren’t valid criticisms of it. I just think that this movie lives and breathes its ideals.

One tenet of true punk radicalism that I absolutely love is the fact that you don’t have to be trained or an expert to make art. The idea of gatekeeping art to only include “intellectuals” or those who went to art school is inherently classist and against “the cause.” Many untrained people, children even, have produced movies that are gorgeous and perfectly composed. Some people can make untrained, unpolished work beautiful, like Daniel Johnston or the sisters of the band The Shags.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty to mean something and be good.

Boomer: I saw this film for free on Amazon Prime by participating in a free trial for Fandor as part of Amazon’s services; as of this writing, that free trial is still ongoing, so it’s not as difficult to find as one might expect. The Amazon reviews for the film are unsurprisingly positive or negative on the extreme ends of the star rating spectrum, from such insightful ratings as “Sucked like a lamprey” and “Looks like this was made for a college film class” (which, to be fair, it does) to more positive ratings from more thoughtful viewers like this one or this one. But my favorite simply reads “I am not sure to remember I was watch movie,” which makes me think poor Patsy Johnson had her world rocked so hard by the film that she couldn’t think straight. Nice work, Borden!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August:
Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

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2 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

  1. Pingback: Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Sex Work and Lizzie Borden | Swampflix

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