Whatever Happened to Lizzie Borden?

By Christoph Huber

This fight will not end in terrorism and violence. It will not end in a nuclear holocaust. It begins in the celebration of the rites of alchemy. The transformation of shit into gold. The illumination of dark chaotic night into light. This is the time of sweet, sweet change for us all. —from a pirate radio broadcast in Born in Flames

The revolution has been victorious, and the Social Democrats have been governing the US for a decade under the banner of equality for all. But sexism and racism still run rampant, leading to the foundation of a Women’s Army comprised of divergent groups that have to unite their different perspectives under a common cause…and they do. The revolution will be transmitted by pirate radio. The fantasy premise of Lizzie Borden’s feminist guerrilla classic Born in Flames (1983) may not exactly evoke the current situation in the US, but it still speaks to our moment, as proven by the successful tour of Anthology Film Archives’ recent 35mm restoration. Born out of anger and shot over five years in the streets of New York with cheaply rented 16mm cameras on a budget of $30,000, Borden’s witty and energetic punk-spirit agitprop wake-up call has stood the test of time. Ominously ending with the blowing up of the World Trade Center (actually, only the transmitting antenna at its top), its protest agenda is still valid—maybe even more so—in the age of Trump. But whatever happened to its maker?

Following her breakthrough with Born in Flames—the film even made the front page of The New York Times upon release, where it was attacked as an example of the wastage of government arts grants—Borden scored again with Working Girls (1986), another study of female group dynamics and notions of solidarity and resistance, but one pitched in a completely different register. In Working Girls, Borden’s feminist sensibility plays out in a restrained, slyly subversive study of a day in a middle-class New York brothel, turning clichéd notions about prostitution on their head and focusing the all-round-rebellious spirit of its predecessor on issues of economy and exploitation: sex labour is treated as a valid, even positive option, crushed by the inequalities of the capitalist system.

When Borden then embarked on her first studio project, Love Crimes (1992), she was taken aback as the shoot quickly descended into disaster. Although even the compromised end result bears enough traces of Borden’s demystifying feminist agenda—basically tackling the then-popular, male-centred erotic thriller genre from the opposite perspective—it left her artistically disappointed, as did her contribution to the 1994 omnibus film Erotique (a telephone sex-worker short that makes for a fascinating sidebar to Working Girls, but which was also mangled in production) and her for-hire television work, including some interesting items for the Playboy Channel and Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries. While she has no official credits after 1998, Borden has kept writing (and doing script-doctor services) and trying to develop television pilots and film projects; one of these, Rialto, about a female abortionist in the 1950s, nearly got off the ground when Susan Sarandon committed to play the lead, but then 9/11 happened and negotiations were put on hold.

Quite recently, however, Borden’s forgotten first film Regrouping (1976) re-emerged after nearly four decades. Originally intended as a collaborative portrait about (and with) a group of New York women artists trying to form a feminist collective, it changed considerably once the group started to break up, and an antagonized Borden decided to refashion the whole enterprise as a “subjective statement, a manipulation” (per the opening titles). A fascinating documentary-essay hybrid shot in sometimes-luminous black-and-white 16mm, Regrouping interweaves the initial material with more hopeful scenes about a second female group. Yet all assumptions are constantly questioned, not least through a layered voiceover, the multitude of voices intensifying the sometimes puzzling but artful arrangement of divergent material. A great document about the utopian hopes (and blind spots) of second-wave feminism, Regrouping emerges as a study in contradictions both in form and topic, best summed up by two conflicting statements that bracket it: “This is the beginning of sisterhood,” says one member of the original group near the start, whereas the last sentence is simply, “But I don’t agree with you.”

Picketed by the infuriated original protagonists on the occasion of its Anthology premiere, Regrouping showed once more at the Edinburgh Film Festival, then was shelved by Borden in light of the melee. But, reminded of its existence a few years ago, she decided to dig out her only print, showing it again at Anthology in tandem with the restoration of Born in Flames and on a few more occasions, including Edinburgh and most recently at the Austrian Film Museum, where Borden attended as a guest on the occasion of the retrospective “Bigelow & Co.” The idea behind the series was to showcase Kathryn Bigelow’s work in a different context, presenting her not as standalone action auteur but in the company of other notable female filmmakers—Susan Seidelman, Amy Heckerling, and especially Borden—who had similarly started out in other artistic disciplines, then got bit by the movie bug as they delved into the bustling (proto-) No Wave scene of ’70s New York. Like Bigelow, Borden had started out as a painter, and the two became close friends: they helped out on each other’s early film work, and have remained in contact (“We still go hiking once a year,” says Borden).

Another point of the retrospective was to demonstrate how, in the ’80s, opportunities for female directors coming from independent and art backgrounds opened up at the mid-range level of studio production, only to disappear again in the ’90s when the increase of blockbuster movies (which were hardly ever assigned to woman directors) effectively dried up the well of more modestly budgeted assignments. That niche was subsequently taken over by television, which is where Seidelman and Heckerling have since relocated almost exclusively; Bigelow was the exception who proved the rule, though her stint as one of the only women entrusted with large-scale, action-oriented studio pictures derailed with the failures of Strange Days (1995) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) and necessitated some TV interludes as well, until she rebounded with her independently produced Oscar triumph The Hurt Locker (2008). Surely the most radical of the quartet, Borden also had a devastating experience with Hollywood, and has been almost invisible for the last two decades. But she maintains a positive outlook, as attested to in the following career interview, which also discusses the background of Regrouping, whose upcoming Anthology preservation will hopefully refocus attention on a singular female filmmaking voice.

Cinema Scope: You started out as a painter. What kind of paintings did you make?

Lizzie Borden: I always wanted to be an artist. New York was the epitome of bohemianism for me, but my parents wouldn’t let me go there, considering it too dangerous even though they were from Brooklyn. I was painting and drawing, but they wanted me to go to an all-women’s college instead of NYU. It didn’t have a painting major, so I studied art history and hitchhiked to New York all the time. One of my teachers said I should write for an art magazine, so I started at Artforum. My painting, which at school was figurative, turned abstract when I moved to New York five years later. I had learned so much about art history that I saw everything as derivative, because I was in the thick of it as a critic. Knowing too much about art destroyed painting for me. At one point I painted my entire loft. I only have one photograph left of what it looked like: I filled big, yellow geometric shapes on the ceiling and on the floor. But other people were doing that, so I don’t think I made one original thing—so much was a response to other stuff going on. I felt my work was really bad, which was part of what attracted me to a Godard retrospective. There I saw a way of putting together an essay—what I was doing as a critic—and storytelling. Not linear storytelling, but agitprop. I had become very politicized. The radical experience for me was seeing all of Godard’s films at one time, and his concept. It wasn’t about loving one particular film—some were really boring and just went on and on. So I really did enter filmmaking very much outside the realm of school.

Scope: A completely autodidactic approach.

Borden: Yeah. I also stopped reading art theory because of my dilemma—I’ve become interested in that again only recently. And I was aware of the corruption in the art world: so much was about money and power, which I was rebelling against. I just wanted to be done with it. So there was a kind of innocence in my first two films. I really tried to approach things the way I experienced them and not as I knew them to be, especially in Born in Flames, where I was rejecting many other things like whiteness and middle-classness—even my own—and also reacting to the milieu of Regrouping. Still, seeing its thank-you credits again, I was surprised to see how many artists had contributed. Barbara Kruger came by my place more than once, appearing in the film and commenting on it in voiceover. I had shared a loft with Ross Bleckner, who owned the Mudd Club building. Everything happened at the Mudd Club just around the corner. I wasn’t a big party person, but everybody came by—people like Nan Goldin, who would later do the still photos for Working Girls.

Scope: It sounds like a community where people helped each other out, which is probably the only way Regrouping and Born in Flames could be realized.

Borden: Totally. The atmosphere was so creative. Near the beginning of Born in Flames, I made a big effort with a scene at this idyllic loft on the third floor of the Mudd Club building. I had the Women’s Army hanging out, lying around in a decoration of Roman tapestries, and I shot for eight hours—a total waste of film. I used maybe 20 seconds of it, but Ross was so helpful; everybody was. Back then, you could rent cameras for $25, then get people to help. I always had big old American cars—Cadillacs, Lincoln Continentals—and a fake film permit so I could park on the streets. For Kathryn Bigelow’s student short The Set-Up (1978), we put my car in the alley where those two guys beat each other up. In turn, Kathryn did voiceover on Regrouping and appeared in Born in Flames, although I think she looks bored all the time; she was probably doing the shot list for her next film in her head. There was an amazing crossbreed of people on Born in Flames: downtown theatre groups—Ron Vawter was in The Wooster Group, and a real actor, whereas so many of the others were not—Eric Bogosian had his first film role and was annoyed just sitting there, and there were downtown punk singers like Adele Bertei. But I felt Born in Flames was not part of the No Wave aesthetic, being more political. It was a conscious step away. I thought many of those films were unnecessarily stretched out, so I aimed for a faster tempo.

Scope: That’s part of the reason Born in Flames has retained this raw energy. But there’s also an astonishing sense of freedom already present in Regrouping, even though restrictions were imposed during shooting. Both films are characterized by openness, movement into many different directions.

Borden: Regrouping came together in the editing: it was like a film inside the film. In the finished version, you see the projection of the first version on the wall of my loft, with a lot of people milling around because it was the first screening ever. That’s where all the trouble started, because the original group of women complained: “You can’t do this.” It was too raw for them, and we drifted apart. So editing the material became the thing for me. It’s like writing, and I loved it: working on a Steenbeck was hypnotic. Every time you make an edit, you see the magic that happens. By editing you start to throw out, the opposite of what I was doing in essays. You start to intuit, building your intuition through editing, and somehow your intuition then builds a structure. You know what works and what doesn’t work. I wasn’t concerned with screenplay structure back then: I only studied that after Working Girls, once I got in trouble with Love Crimes, when they threw away the script I had signed on to shoot. But in those freer days I really worked from the centre out: watch the footage already shot, which would tell you where to go. In Regrouping, at first I really just tried to follow this group of women, hence the title: I had to regroup once the original direction changed. So I created another group, and many regroupings followed throughout the film. It became a sociological study, a story about creation and falling apart.

On Born in Flames, I didn’t want that to happen again, which is hard, because betrayal of trust can happen so easily. How to go from trust betrayed to regrouping to trust again? Because that’s what has to keep happening: trusting again, finding new ways to negotiate. That kind of communication is so important right now, politically. It’s what I tried to show in Born in Flames. The groups are always negotiating their positions: from the two radio stations in the centre to the three female editors, one of whom is played by Kathryn Bigelow. All were playing versions of themselves, creating their own arguments and dialogue within the film’s context. Sometimes we would do improvisations over and over.

Scope: Your first two films organize the material as collage: the Godardian influence shows, down to the very layered soundtracks.

Borden: The method was foremost born out of necessity, but then used intentionally to create density and achieve things impossible in a linear narrative. You need layers to convey many voices at a time. In Born in Flames, the strategy is also a statement of politics. And I wanted music at all points, so even if people didn’t want to listen, this martial beat would grip them. Just be radical—think radical! After the film, people often ask if I believe in violence. I don’t, but if it got that far…what would it take to lead a group, any group, to open rebellion? And what would be the result? In my experience, it’s usually not worth it, even as I used The Battle of Algiers (1966) as my model and borrowed a scene: when Ron Vawter draws on the blackboard to explain the resistance structure of small cells. Let’s call it an homage. Born in Flames depicts an escalation of effort—let’s try community talk, let’s try leaflets, let’s try peaceful demonstrations, let’s try radio appeals, let’s try more—until the agreement: “OK, we need armed struggle, what gives?” Then it’s about getting on the airwaves, taking over the media. The only bloody body you see in the film is when the cops are hitting this guy over the head…I can’t even remember where I got the footage from. But you don’t see the Women’s Army bloodying a person. There’s a common goal in Born in Flames, whereas in Regrouping there’s a lot of doubt, with those sayings contradicting each other over and over, analogous to a self-consciousness-raising group. It’s a hall of mirrors that ends up not going anywhere.

Scope: Born in Flames has become an underground classic, and its recent restoration has travelled quite a bit.

Borden: It’s been taught a lot in universities and written about. When I go somewhere, usually somebody says, “I studied that,” which to me always sounds like, “I saw it in preschool.” And it’s always been on YouTube in some weird way. But it all got to another level, probably because the restoration coincided with Occupy Wall Street and this total Trump thing. After all, it is a resistance film, an angry film. The Q&As were almost like town-hall meetings with people able to talk about what they felt went wrong and how things haven’t changed. I’ve gone to some of these places to see how young people think, and there’s always this interesting combination of people who had seen it when it first came out and millennials relating to it. Because bizarrely, it mirrors the way things are now in the US, stirring up the same emotions. Though I get similar feedback all over the world. Yet the fact the film is relevant today actually makes me very sad: these issues aren’t solved.

Scope: Focusing on a group of women, the question of solidarity and what constitutes freedom, Working Girls follows through on many of the same themes. But style and tone are completely different: Born in Flames is hot and angry, Working Girls is cool and slightly bemused. The johns are portrayed satirically, but they are also pathetic. Interestingly, the villain is not male: rather, it’s the brothel mother, exploiting the other women for profit.

Borden: Actually, the greatest compliment I ever got for Working Girls was when some guy said to me afterwards, “I had a boss just like that.” It really is about capitalism. After having made something that took so long with Born in Flames, I wanted to do something really contained to focus on some of its themesexploitation and labour—via sexual politics in the sex industry. It’s almost a play, taking place almost exclusively on one set. So collage was not an option: I needed restraint and visual clarity. I wanted a female DP. Some of the other camerawomen I considered came from documentary films and might have gone for a rougher look, but I chose Judy Irola, who really believed in a pinned-down camera. It’s puzzling to me that some people still think it’s a documentary. I mean, it’s all based on a real brothel and I wanted the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall, but so many shots are obviously set up, with weird angles. Maybe people have become so used to the high-tech look of what they call Hollywood films these days, which just means movies that cost a lot. Clearly, my film is not like that.

Scope: As a portrait of a day in a brothel, it has a Wiseman-like quality. Not the way it’s shot, but the casualness of its everyday observations, and its structure as a procession of rituals: preparations, clients, negotiations, sex (mostly as role play), downtime breaks. What emerges is a meditation on the commodification of sex.

Borden: That’s a great compliment—Wiseman is such a genius. And there is a direct cinema connection: D.A. Pennebaker was helpful to me in getting grants, and Ricky Leacock played one of the clients in Working Girls, the one who wants to get tied down. He was great, and said, “I hope to be fired from MIT on charges of moral turpitude.” Otherwise, the acting is all over the place: some women were real working girls, and the Asian johns I had to get from Screw magazine, buying an ad when I couldn’t find actors. It was a welcome change for me to have a certain amount of money: $100,000, most of which went into building the set, so we couldn’t afford to pay the actors union salaries, only $75 a day. We were lucky, as when the Screen Actors Guild read the script, they said: “This is pornography. We don’t regulate pornography. So you can pay the actors whatever you want.” It’s quite hilarious they thought it was pornography.

Scope: The sex scenes are decidedly unerotic, but there are your typical funny touches.

Borden: I always say that anybody who gets turned on by this film really has a problem. No raincoat guys. Still, others might still think it’s erotic in a way. But the humour is very important for my films. Dark humour.

Scope: The ending of Working Girls adheres to a typical story arc in films about prostitution, but the implications are different.

Borden: My problem with films about the sex industry is that there are only two endings: the woman leaves or she dies in some way. Only now, working on a book about strippers, I’ve realized there’s a third option: she brands herself and sets up a business, which has become such a viable choice for women, even into their 40s. For Working Girls I had to create a reason for the lead character to leave that wasn’t just her being abused or hurt by the men, yet was logical within the framework of the story. She knows what she can handle: she can take one shift, that’s how she finances her work in photography. When the madam begs her to stay on, she actually lies, already intending for her to do a double shift. In the second shift, the lighting goes from bright to dark and she has clients who make her feel bad, especially the guy from Kalamazoo who calls her a whore, whereas she’s able to deal with the funny clients during daytime. The madam assigning the double shift makes it a labour issue; additionally, the clients make her feel bad about herself, so she quits because she’s been exploited. I wanted to emphasize that her leaving is based on work exploitation. And it’s just one day, so the ending couldn’t have been as dramatic as in Jeanne Dielman (1975), with the heroine killing someone. Chantal Akerman’s film was more a psychological portrait about how the title character’s daily life is set off by one thing going wrong; it’s about the psychic toll on her. There’s also a statement about prostitution, because it’s treated like peeling potatoes. Whereas my protagonist can handle her routine, but not a woman so clearly selling other women. It’s offensive to her.

Scope: It’s a film about labour, something you hardly see anymore in mainstream cinema.

Borden: It’s true, and if people work it’s at fantasy jobs. Recently I saw Girls Trip (2017), in which the jobs the female characters are supposed to have won’t make them enough money to have these apartments and so on, and it’s symptomatic. And films aren’t really dealing with the drudgery of work. I’ve had this crisis as an artist: what do you do so you have time to do your own work? So many people say they wish they’d had time to write a novel or do a painting, and inevitably name Bukowski or one of these geniuses who can work as a postman while writing 70 books. But in truth people get so worn down by their work, and more recently, people with education don’t find jobs when they finish their studies. On my stripper project I’m working with a woman who writes for The New York Times and five different magazines, like Bust; she also did a book called Spent. She also teaches at UCLA, but once a week she drives to Palm Springs to strip, and another day she works as a waitress to make ends meet. Such an amazing person, she looks like an Amazon, and has tattoos all over the place, and she can really work the pole—she’s an amazing dancer. But she’d like to write and teach all the time. The idea of gratifying work, especially for anybody who wants to be creative, gets squashed by most jobs. Job problems make you dread going to work everyday. You need freedom, silence, and quiet. In Working Girls I basically ask, what is worse? Forty hours a week in some boring office job, or eight hours in a brothel? It depends on what you can handle. Some people can’t deal with it, but is renting out your body for eight hours really worse than renting your mind for 40 hours by, say, working at Kinko’s?

Scope: I know you don’t consider Love Crimes as your movie, but one can still see the subversive approach, even if it doesn’t quite amount to a feminist deconstruction of the erotic thriller. What went wrong?

Borden: Well, on the first day of shooting it turned out our lead Sean Young had never read the script, and she had committed only through her assistant. I had this really interesting screenplay by Allan Moyle, who had made Pump Up the Volume (1990), and originally I wanted different actors. Isabelle Huppert and Natasha Richardson wanted to do it, but Harvey Weinstein insisted on Sean Young—by now we know why. So Sean showed up, only having read the script just then: “It sucks. This is the worst script I’ve ever read. Forget it.” So the original screenplay went out of the window, and instead I got notes every day, both from Miramax executives and the European distributor, and they were completely contradictory. Literally pages of conflicting advice. I was frozen, constantly asking myself, “What will we be shooting today?” Sean hated every moment of it, and said things like, “Come to my trailer. The only way I’ll talk to you is if you stand on your head in this yoga pose.” And I wasn’t even doing yoga back then! It was just awful.

Scope: You wanted to take your name off the film?

Borden: I should have quit right then. As a director who’d always edited her own stuff until it was ready, I thought that I could always make something out of it given enough time. But this was not how it worked. The European company hired Kit Carson to direct flashbacks, thinking that would fix it. I guess what you still can see are merely some ideas of Allan’s original script, but unfulfilled. When I wanted to take my name off the film, Harvey basically said, “If you do that I will destroy your career.” He didn’t let me have final cut, and threatened I’d be out of work because I was “difficult.” With Erotique, again the producer changed my music, changed my cut. So I thought I’d write to find my way back in, because starting with Love Crimes I had been only been offered other people’s scripts, erotic thrillers and other really stupid stuff. I’d already realized that Harvey really could do that: sending out the word I was difficult, even as I was being trod upon. After that I had a very hard time. I was in movie prison. I did a little TV after that, but when I asked my agent, “Can’t I do an episode of NYPD Blue?” she’d answer: “No, you have to do a Baywatch.” And I just couldn’t do that.

Scope: So what has happened since then?

Borden: Well, I kept on writing, but as time passed without anything getting off the ground, I told myself that if I came back, it had to be with something I really believe in, something like Rialto or some pilots I wrote about citizen journalism or Ana Mendieta—things with real substance. Whereas most stuff that comes along just isn’t worth doing. If people haven’t heard of you for a while, they think you aren’t doing anything, but you have to stay optimistic. Use that Susan Sontag “aesthetics of silence” argument, and stay quiet until you have something to say.