Heavy on Politics, Light on Funby Julia Sirmons
The Heretics, dir. Joan Braderman, Museum of Modern Art, October 9-15, 2009
The term “consciousness raising” may rankle or alienate a contemporary audience. Perhaps it seems like a relic of a bygone age or, worse, calls to mind the worst excesses of politically correct activism. Nevertheless, the impact of consciousness raising can clearly be seen in our society today; our attempts to emphasize and honor diversity trace back to people who gathered together to share their individual experiences. Joan Braderman’s film The Heretics attempts to renew the consciousness raising group by telling the stories of 28 different women and showing us where they are and how they got there.
In the 70s, Braderman joined a collective of women artists and critics. (Prominent members included Joyce Kozloff, filmmaker Su Friedrich, and writer Lucy Lippard.) Together, the women founded and published Heresies, a journal tackling art from a feminist perspective. The film documents Braderman’s quest to find the other women in the collective and interview them.
The specter of the sea of change wrought in the 60s and 70s looms large over The Heretics; only from the font of these heady times, Braderman argues, could a journal like Heresies have sprung. For those of us not there to witness it, this era only exists in its cultural documents and artifacts, which are too often reduced to the most shopworn of clichés. At its best, The Heretics breaks through these preconceived notions and presents, through the prism of its subjects, a complex, more nuanced view of a compelling time.
Heresies was a product of what is called second wave feminism. (For the uninitiated: the first wave was the fight for suffrage; the second Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and their ilk; the third, which we’re still in now, is looser and more “sex positive”; this means that the contemporary feminist can both crochet and watch porn without compunction.) In detailing their involvement with the movement, the subjects make the political personal. To hear their struggles and rage—multiple women were told they were too pretty to be artists—provides a jarring reminder of how far women’s rights have come. More importantly, their recollections of the benefits of collectivity and the possibility of joy they experienced add depth and new interest to the obvious shorthand used to describe these decades of change.
Of course, any documentary with extensive interviews runs the risk of stressing listening over watching, and too much talk of political activism, however inspired, makes for dry viewing. Fortunately, Braderman has a cheeky visual style. As archival footage shows the radicalism of the 60s raging on, tiny inserts shaped like TV sets contain staid commentators who ruminate on the changing world that—here, quite literally—is passing them by. Her heavy use of collage elegantly demonstrates the proliferation of books, ideas, and people that influenced the women and the feminist movement at large. These flourishes ensure the film isn’t bogged down by politically correct earnestness.
Contemporary viewers may need a bit of historical context to situate the Heresies gestalt, but Braderman errs too far on the side of spoon feeding. Her nostalgia bogs the film down; the use of protest footage is decidedly heavy-handed. We also get a big dose of frolicking hippies, along with truisms like “it was a different time” and “anything was possible.” This is both reductive and unnecessary; her subjects’ recollections about their time in the collective are far more evocative and revealing.
The women Braderman interviews—brash and funny, thoughtful and opinionated—are her film’s greatest asset, and she falters most when she fails to trust that they will tell the story themselves. It’s one thing to hear Braderman tell us that feminists fought for reproductive rights and combatted domestic violence, it’s more illuminating to see the various artists address these themes in their work.
Heretics is generally heavy on the politics and light on the art; we get an abundantly clear sense of the milieu that surrounded Heresies, but we’re less clear on what it was or the impact it had. Early in the film, Braderman has women read their writing; it’s a technique she should have used more. She also has a neat trick where an invisible hand flips through the pages of various issues; unfortunately the flipping is too quick and the image too small for us to really know what we’re looking at. Braderman does focus on certain issues dedicated to topics such as lesbian art, racism, and the third world, but we still get only fleeting glimpses at their content. Her perfunctory treatment of this material makes it difficult for us to see what made Heresies so great.
In bridging the gap from then to now, certain issues inevitably arise. We live in more conservative times; the 60s dream never came to fruition. Furthermore, while many of the goals of second wave feminism have been accomplished, some important ones have not. The feminist cause has not inspired young women the way many had hoped, and the old guard often feels (perhaps rightly so) that women today take for granted the freedoms they fought so hard to attain. Braderman touches briefly on the flourishing of feminism in the blogosphere; she even finds some women publishing their own art journal. But her interactions with the new wave are all too superficial. Rather than delving further, The Heretics ends with a cuddly montage of Braderman embracing her subjects. It’s an odd, forced conclusion, one that suggests a desire to crawl back into the cocoon of the rosy past rather than deal with the complexities of reality.
JULIA SIRMONS is sleeping on the couch.