Eve Tushnet / April 1, 2020
I’m talking about Lizzie Borden the film director, and the bomb that goes off at the top of the Twin Towers is the final image of her punk feminist film Born in Flames. (It’s safe to say that the shock of the ending has not been diminished by the passage of time.) Born in Flames is a loving—or at least, love-hating—tribute to the lower-rent sectors of early ’80s New York, and to the fractious feminist movements that tried to carry ’70s militancy into the era of the “career woman.” It’s beautiful and funny, and the most punk thing about it is that it’s the rare political film that exposes contradictions rather than purporting to solve problems.
The film takes place in a near-future America ruled by democratic socialists. It’s a dystopia! No, that’s a cheap shot—the movie’s point isn’t that socialism is bad, but precisely the opposite: that the better the idea, the more useful it is in the hands of entrenched power. Most things we wish were political solutions turn out to be clown cars from which spill far more political problems than you ever could believe would fit inside. And yet that doesn’t make Born in Flames a cynical movie. It refuses cynicism as wryly and as adamantly as it refuses propaganda.
Even the film’s title suggests that the movie will transform mere political ideology into something stranger and more challenging. It was named after a song by the Red Crayola, which in turn was named after a 1929 Soviet film celebrating the triumphs of the Red Army. With each iteration the words get weirder, as the gasoline smell of propaganda dissipates. The USSR origins of the phrase make it not solely an inspiration to the film’s feminists, but a reference to the professed socialism of the government they’re fighting. Every political statement in the film carries within it at least one contradiction, at least one hint that the future born in these flames won’t be what anyone intended. The things you want done won’t be done the way you want them, partly because they won’t be done by the people you think should do them. The song plays throughout the movie: a jangly, urgent anthem, featuring saxophone by Lora Logic of Essential Logic (and the early X-Ray Spex) and vocals by Gina Birch of the Raincoats. Birch’s voice fits the mood of the film, with its quick shifts from proclaiming to muttering to shrieking; her English accent adds an unexpected touch of displacement, and a feeling that the narrative, in spite of its strong sense of place, reaches far beyond 1983 New York City.
Born in Flames rambunctiously follows several competing women’s movements. There’s the Women’s Army, which chases off would-be rapists and is advised by a radical mentor played by real civil rights lawyer Flo Kennedy. There’s soft-spoken street-level militant Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield); the art-punk radio station led by sly Puck-faced agitatrix Isabel (Adele Bertei); her semi-rival at the black radio station, Honey (played by a woman of the same name); and the party-line women of the socialist movement, who dissipate their radicalism in academic arguments (Borden’s friend Kathryn Bigelow plays a journalist with the Socialist Youth Review). Music and violence intertwine as equally invigorating, equally obvious aspects of radical feminism.
An FBI agent surveilling these women notes, “The Women’s Army seems to be dominated by blacks and homosexuals.” These also happen to be the kinds of women Borden’s camera most loves. Born in Flames has the quick cuts and intimacy of a documentary film, and the performers—who were not professional actors—talk as if they’re coming up with these ideas on the fly in response to the real socialist future America they live in. They ramble and grouse and talk over each other. The FBI agents, by contrast, are more stagey. They’re following well-worn roles; they know their lines and their blocking. The women, whether they’re squabbling or orating or kissing, always look like they’re figuring it out as they go.
Perhaps for this reason, the plot peeks only intermittently from the vivid shelter of the dystopian setting. In a New York City of boomboxes and pay phones, catcalling and bralessness, a Women’s Army emerges not only to protect women from rape but to propose a feminist political program. As the FBI tries to catch them in illegal acts, and the socialist President of the United States tries to entice them away from radicalism with concessions like “wages for housework” (a left-wing proposal beyond the dreams of our current politicians), the underground feminists progress from pirate radio to arms dealing to terrorism. They aren’t a unified movement—the FBI notes that “it’s impossible to say” who their leader is. It’s not always easy for the viewer to keep track of the alliances and figure out who’s going rogue. But they’re united against the government, and after the staged jailhouse “suicide” of one of their leaders, there’s no chance they’ll disavow militancy.
This is a passionate movie without the self-righteous certainties of so many passionate movies. Feminists attack the “Rape Rehabilitation Center,” which seems to offer (coopted?) restorative justice to rapists. “There’s no such thing as a bad boy,” a defender of the center says. “These are sick people.” The white cop has a MOM mug and the feminist militant has a pink t-shirt saying GANJA FARMERS UNION.
The satire of hyper-theoretical socialist feminism is still funny but also somewhat expected. Less expected is the depiction of radical feminism as the servant of the corporations—all these women lined up to shake the locked gates of the construction sites are fighting not for profit-sharing or a reorganization of the economy, but for jobs at companies that seem (despite the government’s nominal socialism) indistinguishable from the worker-exploiting companies out here in nonfictional America. “We want a J-O-B so we can E-A-T,” the protesting women chant, right after a terrific montage of all the j-o-b’s a woman can do, from paper-pushing to chicken processing to hairdressing to sex. Another woman complains of spending “three years with no opportunity to move into a managerial position”; some might argue that making management women’s work is not the best form of feminism.
There’s a taking of sides here that’s familiar to contemporary arguments about subsidized day care vs. Canada-style child benefits. The film’s feminists fight for abortion access and child care, the two feminist proposals that make women’s labor more accessible to employers. In the movie’s sketched-out backstory, affirmative action for women has led to a backlash in which men demand preference for male heads of households; the government then offers “wages for housework” as a compromise measure, offering financial independence to homemakers and jobs to men. “Wages for housework,” which really would require a radical reshaping of the economy, is portrayed as an anti-feminist ploy to get women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen—but how many women would mind, if the alternative is a chicken-processing montage?
In spite of the brief child-care discussion, it’s noticeable that in a science fiction movie about possible political futures, none of the characters has children. This childlessness may even be linked to the movie’s adolescent energy, which is its greatest strength. This is a sexy movie; it captures the thrill of political arguments with pretty women. Borden’s camera shows every character at her most beautiful. (The film’s major aesthetic weakness is the decision to film scenes of paramilitary training in a smeary style I can only call Sand-o-Vision. The grainy color footage of the rest of the film is warm and lived-in; and, you know, intelligible.) The fleeting moment of actual erotic embrace between Norris and her lover is a synecdoche for the intimate connection these women find in solidarity—and, at times, in conflict. The film’s music, especially the title anthem, adds to the feeling of smoldering, unstable dissatisfaction about to burst into gleeful violence. When Norris says, in gorgeous close-up, that violence is “already here. It’s happening,” there’s a hint of resignation but more than a hint of promise. These are women on the verge of a societal breakdown.
When the women become violent, holding television broadcasters at gunpoint so they can send out their own message, a man-socialist explains that their violence is a reaction to “terror of their own may-soh-chism.” After the “jailhouse suicide,” Isabel puts on a music show, indulging in the tambourines and beer of helplessness: “This is for all the dead heroes out there… Yeah.” Isabel promises that their fight “will not end in a nuclear holocaust”—and as she’s writing that particular check, the feminists’ bomb goes off at the World Trade Center. Is this an unhappy ending, a misstep into complicity, an own-goal? Is it desperation turned septic, or the bitter result of the prior peaceful revolution’s betrayal of its promises? Is it just smart tactics? Is it a thrill?
It’s a taste of power. And Born in Flames is among the rare political films that doesn’t yell at you about whether that makes it right.
Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.