Wednesday 12 May 2021

The warriors: "Born in Flames"

Hot on the heels of Another Gaze's revival of Marleen Gorris's A Question of Silence, another missing-presumed-lost feminist talking point of the early Eighties roves back into view. Lizzie Borden's micro-budget 1983 breakthrough Born in Flames, revived this week by MUBI, is framed along the lines of dystopian sci-fi, layering the phrase "Ten Years After The War of Social Democratic Liberation" over its opening panorama of Liberty Island. Yet what follows is filmed more or less as documentary: an on-the-hoof survey of New York radical life in that post-punk moment when the perceived advances of the Carter years had run facefirst into the brick wall of Reaganism. Some of it may look and sound familiar indeed. The powers-that-be insist that the hard work of liberation is over, that equal rights have once and for all been secured; the catcalls and harassment Borden's women face at ground level suggest this is, in fact, very far from the case. A further note of unease is struck by having the film's key dramatic players introduced by means of surveillance recordings, narrated by offscreen male functionaries worried that the surviving remnants of the feminist movement - "mostly blacks and lesbians", shown flyposting and forming packs on bicycles to defend their sisters from attack - are gaining a foothold within the wider society. This, then, is New York before the clean-up: grungy, paranoid, volatile. The question raised by Borden and writer Ed Bowes is how much difference any clean-up could make when there are still citizens - all right, men - who are determined to act like scum.

There's a strong element of exploitation cinema in the mix: we're looking out onto much the same scene as Abel Ferrara filmed in The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, and one early, scrappy assault triggers memories of Michael Winner's Death Wish movies. But don't let that necessarily put you off. Borden and Bowes were scratching out a worldview that proves rather broader than Ferrara's nihilism (or Winner's cynicism, come to that), one that touches upon race relations, labour rights and more global struggles besides. The movie flares up at subway entrances, on construction sites and inside TV HQs, where British viewers may be reminded of the time activists invaded the BBC's Six O'Clock News studio; Borden sees New York as potentially the most intersectional of all cities, self-contained enough to force people into crossing paths every few minutes, but she also acknowledges this is exactly the source of the friction and outright conflict she films. In this, the form and content of BIF - the acronym itself suggests violence - are very much aligned. Even in its new restored form, the film retains the uningratiating roughness of turn-of-the-Eighties agitprop, its grainy images and echoey sound capturing emergent and non-pro performers improvising their way around the points Borden wants to land. (Look sharp for a young Kathryn Bigelow as a newspaper editor, grizzled character actor Mark Boone Jr. as a subway harasser and future Talk Radio star Eric Bogosian as a lowly CBS tape operative.)

A fanzine-like juxtapositional editorial strategy smashes together disparate ideas and imagery, fiction and reality, such that the film's speculative future never feels too comfortingly removed from the present tense. The final image is as 21st century as it gets, and may explain why the film itself had to enter into hiding for a while; we might now see Borden as a New Wave Cassandra, her prediction of at least one futureshock proving joltingly accurate. Yet she's also alert to the pleasures that can follow from communal activity, working together in the face of long odds. The glue that binds her vignettes together is an all-woman pirate radio station's playlist of soul, reggae and post-punk 45s - the sort of tunes that might well have been on in the background as your co-operative Letraset aggrieved missives intended for Ed Koch. You may well have had your fill of The Red Crayola's especially angular title track by the time the closing credits appear, but a passing, non-ironic strain of Patrick Juvet's disco anthem "I Love America" used to introduce a mid-movie talkshow indirectly positions Born in Flames as the work of someone who's at least trying to make the hellscape they find themselves in a safer, healthier, more harmonious place. Having poked her head overground, Borden's career hit the skids following 1992's Love Crimes, her attempt to make the erotic-thriller genre more confrontational than either the conservative Adrian Lyne or the snickering Paul Verhoeven would allow. Both of those men, one notes, have been granted comebacks this year. Borden hasn't directed since 1996.

Born in Flames is now streaming via MUBI UK. 

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