I saw Born in Flames, an ultra-low budget film made by the radical feminist Lizzie Borden — her real name — all the way back in the late 1980s on PBS. I liked a few of the performances, especially the charismatic turn by the rock musician Adele Bertei as a militant DJ named Isabel. But I couldn’t quite get by the premise, a feminist rebellion against an already existing social democratic state in New York City. Socialism in the late 1980s? We had just lived through eight years of Ronald Reagan.
Nevertheless, the film’s rough, ultra-low budget aesthetic had made such an impression on me that when I saw it on YouTube, I decided to check it out again. This time it made more sense. It was a dramatization of the rebellion of second wave feminism against the new left. The main flaw I noticed back in the 1980s — it blew a conflict more suited to a small activist group or to a graduate seminar up into a nationwide rebellion — became its main selling point. Born in Flames overreaches so much and fails hard that it will remind you of a great punk band made up of musicians who, while they can’t quite play their instruments, sing with so much passion and commitment that you wind up loving them anyway.
The “socialist” New York City portrayed by Born in Flames, set 10 years after the “war of liberation,” looks suspiciously like the plain old liberal Democratic New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s. That Manhattan and Brooklyn are now gated communities for rich, that nobody under 40 can quite remember the United States before 2001 when it did have traces of liberalism left over from the New deal, gives Born in Flames the look of a grungy, alternative universe. Compared to the New York City of Michael Bloomberg, the New York City of Ed Koch might just as well have been socialist. Thank God Lizzie Borden didn’t have the money to build sets. There it is, on film, the dirty old, pre-Giuliani New York in all its glory. Astor Place didn’t even have a Starbucks. TV news hadn’t yet become cable TV news. Koch had gotten rid of the graffiti on the subways, but they’re still dirty and run down.
If the governments of New York and the United States in Born in Flames are liberal, social democratic monoliths, the rebels look strangely like Occupy anarchists. We’re introduced to four groups of radical feminists. Two are centered on radio stations, “Radio Ragazza,” run by the above-mentioned Isabel, a little bit of Patti Smith’s fiery personality in the body of a young, gamin-like Cat Power, and “Radio Phoenix,” led by an earthy black woman named “Honey.” Think Tracy Chapman. There’s an anarchist society — I won’t say organization — led by the real life radical feminist Florence Kennedy and her young protégé Adelaide Norris, played by an excellent young actress named Jean Satterfield, who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Finally, there’s the “Socialist Woman’s Youth Review” — think “Jacobin” — run by three grad-student types, two played by unknowns, and a third by a young Kathryn Bigelow in her very first and only role as an actress. She’s a terrible actress. It’s easy to see why she found her success behind the camera.
It’s not necessarily the plot that makes the film work, the acting — which ranges from quite good to laughably bad — or the cinematography. Any 20 year old kid on Youtube could do better. What makes Born in Flames compelling in spite of its obvious flaws is how Lizzie Borden chooses the subject of an anarcho-feminist rebellion against a socialist government and takes it through to it’s logical conclusion. That conclusion looks pretty much like a radical feminist version of of Occupy without Zuccotti Park and Anonymous without any men.
After Adelaide Norris is fired from her job as a construction worker and transforms herself into a full-time organizer, she becomes so successful, her principles of “mutual aid” and grass-roots vigilantism such a viable alternative to the social democratic bureaucracy, that the government decides to get rid of her. The FBI kidnaps her in Penn Station. She’s sent to The Tombs. The police murder her, and it’s all made to look like a suicide. This brings Radio Ragazza together with Radio Phoenix, and unites the theretofore pro-government Socialist Woman’s Youth Review with the anarchist Woman’s Army of Liberation. They come together, get weapons training, and steal a shipment of M-16s. Then they take over a TV station, interrupt the President’s State of the Union Address, and broadcast to the world that Adelaide Norris had been murdered.
If that all resembles the Anonymous hack of MIT’s web page on the first year’s anniversary of Aaron Schwartz’s suicide then perhaps it’s because Anonymous has partly been influenced by Act Up’s famous takeover of CBS’s Evening News. During Operation Desert Storm, they briefly cut into Dan Rather’s broadcast and chanted “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” There were “hacks” before they invented the Internet. But Borden stages more than just an Anonymous hack. I loved the final 5 minutes of this film. Some other people who were in New York on 9/11 may hate it. Isabel, in the now mobile Radio Ragazza — they started broadcasting out of a van after the government burned down their studio — reads a free verse poem. The poem isn’t a earthy shatteringly great work of art, but it hasn’t aged very much, and Adele Bertei is a gifted enough reader to make it work. The choice lies ahead of us. Do we chose Eros or do we chose Thanatos? Do we save the environment or destroy it? Do we chose freedom or hierarchy? While Isabel is reading, we flash to a mainstream, corporate reporter standing in front of the old World Trade Center. As he blathers on in the style of a Tom Friedman or a David Brooks or a George Will or a David Broder or a (insert your corporate hack here) the camera draws our attention to the radio antenna above Building Number 1. What happens next? Let’s just say that if Condoleeza Rice saw Born in Flames — and there’s no reason to think she did — she would have had no excuse. Nobody could have predicted? Someone did.