Lizzie Borden’s debut film Born in Flames (1983) is often labeled with the genre tag science-fiction, but this is misleading. Although the film is set ‘Ten Years After the Social-Democratic War of Liberation”, there’s no reason to think that the events of the film take place in a future world. No specific date is given for the events that take place on screen. Indeed, all signs actually seem to indicate that the newly formed socialist democracy of the film’s present, established after a triumphant fissure of the labor movement from the democratic party, is a uchronia set in a parallax 1983.
Besides the alternative historical timeline and a vaguely dystopic outlook, there are no new technologies, lifeforms, scientific theories, or other tropes that would associate the film with sci-fi. In other words, the film takes place in a world we completely know and understand. The only thing vaguely alien about the plot is the ideology of its citiens. It’s telling that a film from this period would be branded science fiction solely because it imagines a notional socialist framework in the United States (albeit an “actually existing socialism” model). But to a cold war America, nothing could be more outlandish.
Shot documentary style, much of the film’s visual content consists of stock footage of women in the workplace, organized protests, street actions, and police brutality. As the entire film seems to be made guerilla-style on the cheap, it’s unlikely that the B-roll was staged, thus reinforcing the idea that it’s a narrative is actually set in a United States that its audiences know all too well. Born in Flames takes the form of a film essay, the kind of ideas-oriented fictional talkie tract that has been a continual project spanning from Godard’s Week End to Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, despite almost universal repulsion from audiences and critics alike at the style.* As a deep underground picture, the film doesn’t seek to preach to its choir about the flaws of the existing power structure. Rather, it takes aim at failed movements, like the ones that were beginning to dissolve when the film began shooting in 1978 and which were almost remote dreams by its release in 1983.
Born in Flames’ radicalism is rooted not so much in a utopic futurist vision of egalitarianism as it is in a frustration with the then-contemporary tranquilization of the left. In the film, a feminist organization called the Women’s Army is singled out for policing by a paranoid state apparatus. There’s no evidence that the group has been militant in its direct actions. In fact, factions of the organization criticize the decentralized leadership for being too docile and acquiescent. There’s an early scene where the Women’s Army rescue a white collar woman from sexual assault by a couple of toughs, but contrary to media reports they do not attack the assailants. They merely circle them with bicycles and rape whistles until the toughs are intimidated enough to leave the scene.
Likewise, it’s never stated one way or another whether the aforementioned “Social-Democratic War” involved actual combat or was a symbolic struggle. The ten-year TV retrospective that frames the narrative makes the case that power was achieved democratically and there’s no reason to suspect it wasn’t, but whether that power was maintained by votes or seizure is moot. However, one can’t help but juxtapose this timeline to what took place in the nonfictional world during the ten years preceding the film’s 1983 release date.
1973 was a year still deeply defined by the spark of the 60s protest movement. It was the year of Roe v. Wade, the Paris Peace Accords, and the Watergate hearings (which gutted much of the executive branch that year and would lead to Nixon’s resignation in 1974).** It was a year when the left seemed to be gaining momentum, when it still seemed to have the potential to put a stop to the gears of the machine. But by 1983, it was clear who had actually won this civil war; patriarchy, militarism, capitalism, and a corrupt duopolistic political consensus (by ’84 many Democrats would even pimp for Reagan). Labor had never bifurcated from the Democratic party as it should have and it’s possible that the Democrats’ s capitulation to neoliberalism was the nail in the movement’s coffin. Concurrently, Reagan, once SDS’s number one foe, effectively marginalized and delegitimized unionized labor when we fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers.
The film emulates this defeat. Although there seem to have been some inherent post-“war” social improvements in the uchronia of Born in Flames, women, and in particular queer women, are still second-class citizens. Despite being a critical part of the workforce, women in the film still mainly occupy clerical, service, or blue collar roles. They have no relatively little access to power. At one point, several of the provocateurs of the Women’s Army are systematically purged from their jobs. The three female editors at a leading socialist journal*** are also fired for expressing sympathy with the group. Women are still objectified and attacked on the street and a news report talking about one such story interjects callous jokes about police officers picking up phone numbers at the crime scene.
The president’s seeming concession to the revolutionaries, charged by an incidence of prison neglect/abuse, is actually pretty radical- payment for housework, reparation for that final hidden corporate subsidy that a 1995 U.N. report on Gender and Human Development estimates saves the economy $11 trillion a year by its failure to be monetized. However, this is seen as little more than further pacification by the radicals, an attempt to keep female voices contained within the home rather than at the seats of power.
One of the ways that the Women’s Army are able to communicate is through radio, which serves as a kind of homebase for two separate factions of the group, lead by the mild-mannered Honey and the more militant Adele Bertei. On the one hand, radio’s a convenient route to dispense their agitprop, but music is also a liberating force for them as well. Although interspersed with bits of soul, funk, dub reggae, Lou Reed, and a brilliant cover of “No Woman No Cry” that I haven’t been able to identify, the recurrence of Red Crayola’s titular “Born in Flames” and the unreleased song “Undercover Nation”**** by former Contortions guitarist and organist Bertei’s band The Bloods pose this as something of a postpunk film.
Ulimately, the failure of the film’s New Labor (sic?) to accommodate the demands of feminism is indicative of a broader capitulation- an absorption of the terms of class struggle as a means of accommodating the desiring machinations of capitalism. The 10 year celebration itself is posed as a coda by its sign-off speech, which calls for a departure from collectivism into individualism. It’s an instantly recognizable speech that could have come straight from the neoliberal/neoconservative handbook:
“But has it gone too far? Is it time to ask if the politics and programs of yesterday’s liberation have become the stagnation of today? We cannot ignore the monumental inflation with which we are burdened nor can we ignore the widespread abuse rampant in our social programs. At home, we are becoming trapped in bureaucracy and throughout the rest of the world our influence wanes. The management of this station fears that oversocialization has transformed our democracy into a welfare state. If we are to survive our ideals, we must carefully consider their implications…”
* To those critics’ credit, the Born in Flames narrative is compelled by the acting and the acting is extremely flat at times, strung together by loud music over a B-roll that can seem a bit arbitrary. As such, it functions better as a historical artifact than a singular achievement of independent cinema.
** [Spoilers] It was also the year that the World Trade Center opened. Like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the twin towers seemed to be structurally designed to represent a next step in global evolution towards hypercapitalism, making its destruction a common daydream amongst Marxists, Islamists, and particularly Hollywood for the next 28 years of its existence. In the film, the Women’s Army’s final act is to blow up the antenna on top of one of the towers, which was broadcasting the 10 year retrospective. This destruction serves multiple purposes; condemning the decline of revolutionary intent, robbing the TV program of its final declaration of failure (to a project which had never been effectively conceived), removing a mouthpiece that spoke over or in place of the voiceless, and decentralizing media into more independent satellites like the two radio stations run by the Women’s Army protagonists.
*** One of these editors is director Kathryn Bigelow in her more radical days. Bigelow’s student film made at Columbia while studying under Vito Acconci amongst others, had been a literal deconstruction of film violence- two actors (one being Gary Busey) beating the crap out of one another while a play-by-play critique by two semioticians sounds over the on-screen action. Contrary to these polarizing origins, Bigelow has in the past decade committed herself to making what she terms “apolitical” films, which some argue actually celebrate state violence (perhaps unintentionally) by the very nature of their depoliticization.
****Fueled by a riff that more-than-a-little resembles Joy Division’s “Interzone”, "Undercover Nation" features Bertei’s voice before she went Scritti-pop, which sounds uncannily like Kathleen Hanna, who would become the voice of radical feminism for good or ill a decade later.