Is This What You Were Born For?
Directed by Abigail Child
Some time in the mid-1970s, the painter Lee Krasner began cutting up old charcoal drawings she had produced as a student of Hans Hofmann over 30 years before. Those drawing fragments would later serve as the material basis for a new series of large-scale collages she called Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See.
In 1983, filmmaker and poet Abigail Child cut up old footage from Between Times, a documentary profile of high school girls in Minneapolis which she had produced for WNET/PBS back in 1975. That footage would then be integrated into work of a drastically different kind: The film was called Mutiny which, by its very name, signaled her abandonment of the humanist documentary tradition to which Between Times belonged, to become, in her words, “a prismatic rhythmic pinwheel” born of the artistic and political necessity to radically rethink form. Mutiny, in turn, stood as one of the most densely woven in a series of bold experiments that came to be known as Is This What You Were Born For? This cycle of seven films, completed in 1989, has now been released on DVD by Geneva-based MetisPresses, along with a book of critical essays edited by François Bovier. Included are insightful contributions by Tom Gunning, Melissa Ragona, Redell Olsen, and Thomas Zummer, along with an extended interview with Bovier and Ricardo Da Silva.
The Born For cycle has been described by film scholar P. Adams Sitney as “one of the most important and original sequences in the American avant-garde.” Quite right he is, and yet it’s many other things as well: a cinematic corollary informed by, if not identical to, the work of the Language poets; a direct challenge to the prudish misapplication of feminist film theory, especially that laid out in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”; a paean to the sights, sounds, and artistic spirit of the 1980s Lower East Side; and a collaboration with some of the leading lights of that neighborhood’s musical scene, itself a truly golden age within the larger history of American music.
And just as a curiosity about language and ideas is reflected in the very title of Krasner’s series (far beyond the bounds dictated by the Gospel According to Clement), so too was the Born For cycle marked by Child’s commitment to rigorous thought, all the while refusing to be pushed into any form of essentialism regarding her chosen medium. Embedded within the beauty and boldness of both artists’ gestures is the question of whether it’s necessary to destroy certain aspects of one’s past in order to truly move forward; aside from the actual material salvaged from older work, there too is the issue of strong women working within such typically man-handled fields.
With its title suggesting that of a lost Ozu film (but in truth derived from a print in Goya’s Disasters of War series), Is This What You Were Born For? kicks off with Prefaces, a dazzling and impossibly dense montage that Sitney has suggested is a parodic response to the rockymountainfeverdream of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. Swish pans, graphic matches, mad ricochets of collisive disjuncture: This is no-holds-barred filmmaking with disparate materials fused in surging, continuous trajectories. Much the same can be said for the soundtrack: Amidst the shards of speech, music, and sonic manipulations, Hannah Weiner’s voice rises above it all and gives the film its anchor. The next film in the cycle, Mutiny, is nearly comparable in its intensity, the fundamental difference being its deployment of synchronized sound. Here, Shelley Hirsch is (as always) a captivating presence, appearing on camera (along with Polly Bradfield, Sally Silvers, and the aforementioned documentary material), with her inimitable vocal work contributing so much to the overall antic spirit. Melissa Ragona’s essay gives a necessarily detailed reading of the sound artistry involved throughout and, along with the book’s concluding interview, the intricacies of process unique to each film.
The combined energy of these first two films makes for an astonishing, non-stop jack-in-the-box of sound and image. Next up, Both serves as a moment of repose, its scenes of grooming and languid love between two women filmed in starkly lit black and white. This film reiterates what Mutiny first suggests: that the Born For cycle is concerned with women on their own terms as creative, political beings and, yes—contra Mulvey—even as objects of desire.
With a mise-en-scène derived in part from strongmen movie stills of the 1930s, Perils opens with a series of character close-ups not unlike the beginning of Feuillade’s Fantômas. Shot on an abandoned Lower East Side lot where D.W. Griffith’s studio once stood, Perils comes at us like a series of unedited rushes, a point reinforced by the repeated appearance of camera and tripod. Its metacinematic concern with the actor’s pose harks back to Warhol’s Screen Tests, but the film extends beyond portraiture into character interaction and narrative reminiscent of, as Tom Gunning’s essay points out, the arrested tableaux of 19th-century stage melodrama. What may appear as existing within a single fictional frame is complicated by the repeated reaction shots of Diane Torr, which suggest unscripted, on-set jealousy amongst her fellow actors. As Thomas Zummer so keenly put it, “It is the story whose story is the story of a story.”
Zummer’s words might well be applied to the film that follows, too. Constructed from anonymous home movie footage, Covert Action extends the notion of a shifting or indeterminate point of view by way of offscreen voices. Do their remarks concern the images before us, or in reference to other matters? At times they’re like actors discussing gestures and motivations; at other moments it seems like conversation we don’t hear from Perils transposed to this other soundtrack—such is the multivalence of potential readings.
At just over 16 minutes, Mayhem stands as the longest film of the cycle and the sixth in sequence. With a mix of appropriated footage and material she shot on her own, Child raids the warehouse of noir imagery, with its Venetian blinds, bound-up wrists, dutch angles, and shadows of every size and shape. Prison stripes and polka dot dresses come together with the same graphic verve as the best of old Marvel, and the street burlesque of Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs is evoked as well. The plot thickens in a literal sense, as multiple strands of narrative are cut together across time, stymied, and reintroduced. Several of the actors from Perils reappear here, one more way that the two films talk to one another. The film concludes with the integration of vintage pornography, a climax for both the protagonists and the film itself. Taken together, Perils, Covert Action, and Mayhem display an abiding love of cinematic genre—Gunning’s essay documents Child’s intensive engagement with film history and her insistence on its treatment as living material—while remaining astutely critical of its attractive power.
Concluding the cycle is Mercy, a film Child has described as “dissecting the game mass media plays with our private perceptions.” A seeming reprise of Prefaces, this is the most inscrutable film of the group. It embodies something of its title in the way it slows down from the previously established pace of its companion film; despite that, it’s every bit as demanding as the other films of the cycle.
These brief synopses barely scratch the surface of the rich complexities of these films and their moving targets of meaning. One problem with classical narrative film is that we’re led to believe that if we know the story being told, then we “know” the film itself. Is This What You Were Born For?, for all the reasons it offers to want to know it, never for a moment lulls one into such a false belief.