Film 

Inside the Ghost Elisabeth Subrin's Haunting Feminism

As much as anything can, Elisabeth Subrin's work has haunted me since I was first exposed to it three years ago. In her videos, there is something real, contrived, critical, and personal. They haunt me in their subject matter, their structure, their execution of ideas. Subrin's videos, although intensely critical and academic, appear as many genres--personal narrative, documentary, and structuralist experiment.

Subrin's first work, Swallow (1995), is an examination of clinical depression, anorexia, and language through the framework of an experimental narrative infused with documentary elements. In relation to her newer works, Swallow is noticeably less refined; however, this roughness is in no way detrimental to the video. Its narrative bounces between first and third person, imparting an introspective take on "biography" and filmic representations of personal stories.

With Shulie (1997), Subrin continues this thought by exploring the life of a specific character in history: Shulamith Firestone. Beautifully shot on Super 8, it's a shot-by-shot recreation of a 1967 documentary portrait made by four students in Chicago. At the time, Firestone was in art school, but a few years later would go on to become a significant figure in '70s feminism, authoring the manifesto The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

Subrin's newest work, The Fancy (2000), is a restructuring of catalogued information on the life and work of the young photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Her photographic career (beginning at the age of 13 and ending with her suicide at 22) consisted primarily of nude self-portraits. Subrin recounts her life without any real documents--instead, we see empty and emaciated spaces that resemble the interiors of Woodman's work, a table of cataloged evidence that supposes itself to be the belongings of the artist, or a cast of women reenacting Woodman's physical positions from the photographs.

Much like in Shulie, Subrin addresses not only the life of the subject, but how we perceive that life--how we document and remember. The Fancy stands not as a chronology of a life; rather, it asks us to critique the very notion of biography, suggesting that any attempt to document a life will unavoidably fictionalize it.

Subrin's craft is impeccable and her ideas, although influenced by her predecessors (Yvonne Rainer in the '70s and Trinh Minh Ha in the '80s), are intensely original. It might sound "formal" and "academic," but alongside the intellectualism comes something else--a persistence of form and concept that will haunt your thoughts and change the way you perceive history, feminism, and film.

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