One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.
For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.
As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).
Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.
Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.