Post Road Magazine #21

For the Love of New York

Asad Raza

I first moved to New York at the tail end of a Downtown era, when David Dinkins had heeded Phife Dog's (of A Tribe Called Quest) call: "Mr. Dinkins, would you please be our mayor?/You'll be doing us a really big favor. . ." At the time, you were personally welcomed to the city after emerging from the Holland Tunnel: in the ensuing Canal Street traffic jam, your car swiftly received the attention of the "squeegee men," itinerant car-washers equipped with buckets, rags, and old car wipers they would use to wipe sudsy water off your windshield, for which you duly handed over a buck or two. Waving them off was useless; they had sociopathic persistence. Such encounters immediately demonstrated New York's difference from the suburban USA. Its aggressive street capitalism was more in tune with Karachi or Mexico City than with Chicago or Houston. There was a Time magazine cover story around that time on the global megacity; it was illustrated with pictures of the slums of Bombay, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, and the South Bronx—that about sums up what New York City signified to mainstream America circa 1990.

Squeegee men; the shanty town in Tompkins Square; fresh heroin vials littering tenement stoops every morning; Ukranian women staring warily down from third-floor windows; prostitutes and their pimps congregating on Sunday mornings: for a generation of provincial, suburban Americans, downtown New York City had a sheen of anti-glamour. Life beneath 14th Street remained relatively untouched by big-box retailers, drive-through chains, supermarkets, corporate franchises. Square straights and professionals lived on the Upper East and West Sides, while downtown was for self-identified Others and their fellow travelers. The city didn't count as America. As Born in Flames' director Lizzie Borden once said in an interview "New York is an exotic place to Europeans as opposed to New Yorkers or Americans, for whom New York is just a dirty place."

Note that she separates non-New Yorkers into two types: "Europeans" and "Americans." New York City was a place of garbage strikes, blackouts, and rent-stabilized squalor, a city other Americans were afraid of, a city for freaks, the place the very President of the mainland told to drop dead. In this interstitial zone, perhaps a phoenix culture was rising from the ashes. . .this is the culture that Born in Flames (1983) imagines and visualizes.

I wax nostalgic about the dirty bohemia that was downtown New York City for two reasons: first, because it is the setting and the lifeworld of Born in Flames; second, because the movie's great virtue is that it avoids, even transcends, exactly such nostalgia. Today, we're used to fetishizing downtown grit—we all know, these days, that the presence of one of Jean-Michel Basquiat's SAMO tags would significantly raise the price of a condo on the Bowery. Lower East Side galleries, neo-No Wave rock bands, street artists and commercial stylists all pay tribute to the fragments of the early 1980s that survived gentrification. But even back then, the movies tended to treat the city preciously. It's a treasure chest of ethnic and cultural particularity and a lovable dystopia in Annie Hall, Beat Street, Escape from New York, Taxi Driver, or After Hours. Movies about New York portray it as the city where reality happens: while suburbanites watch television, New Yorkers live life.

Born in Flames makes most New York movies seem like sentimental fawning. Here's its scenario: ten years after a socialist revolution, things are going wrong. The government increasingly fails to protect its citizens, women especially, from crime, harassment, and loss of work; condescending social programs such as "wages for housework" as its publicrelations friendly but inadequate pretense of redress. In response to this climate, a group of feminist activists forms the Women's Army. Its vigilantes come to the rescue of women in trouble in the city's streets and subways. Mainstream news outlets denounce them as terrorists, and the state spies on and plots against them. Unrest and dissent go unvoiced by the official channels, while two pirate radio stations, Radio Regazza and Phoenix Radio, are the only voices that don't heed the party line. After federal agents assassinate one of their leaders, the Women's Army executes a radical plan: to blow up the radio antenna atop the World Trade Center.

From its opening sequences, Born in Flames asks us to distrust moving images, or at least suspect them. Its first images are classic tourist vistas of New York City. A particular kind of male voice, an announcer's voice, jubilant: "This week in celebration, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the war of liberation, is a time when all New Yorkers take pride in remembering the most peaceful revolution the world has known." The announcer walks into frame, continuing his shallow, TV- news boosterism—the shot itself is so square, so straight, that we know he is canned, stiff, not to be trusted. We see footage of the World Trade Center over the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty; then, highlighting a move from the real to the representational, a shot of the Statue as represented on a digital LED display on a signboard. Now back to the Trade Center from ground level; the camera twists sideways grotesquely, turning the image on its side. The image is Born in Flames in a nutshell: familiar New York City seen from a perspective that's dryly bizarre.

We cut to a casual young woman at a microphone. "Hi there, this is Isabel from Radio Regazza," goes her slow, dry delivery. She is, unmistakably, too cool for any school, with a flirtatious leer that invites our gaze and defiantly meets it. "Bringing you a little tune, that you'll be hearing an awful lot of these days, from the makers of our revolution. You might not be hearing it here, but you'll be hearing it everywhere else you go." And then, extra-sardonically, "Happy Anniversary!" And which tune, exactly, is playing during all this, which tune represents for the film the sound of false revolutionary triumphalism? "Born in Flames," the movie's own theme song, by the anti-commercial art-rock outfit The Red Krayola. From the beginning, the movie does not exempt itself from the suspicion of producing propaganda.

Next we see slides of a young black woman, who turns out to be the closest thing this movie has to a protagonist. We hear the projector's magazine rotate and reload, and FBI agents discuss the woman's biography: "Homosexual?" "Yes. The Women's Army appears to be dominated by blacks and lesbians." The chilling voices over the slides emphasize a darker form of media representation: the familiar irony of a revolutionary government conducting preemptive surveillance of the next wave of revolutionaries. The film's first three sequences summarize its narrative, a conflict between types of media: the superficial and misleading TV news, the secret recordings of the counterrevolutionary state, and the unpoliced, underground radio stations that hold out the possibility of authentic speech.

For all the movie's detachment, watch Born in Flames today and you will begin to turn a wistful eye towards its asphalt and cobblestones, its fire escapes and boomboxes, its lesbian punk performativity, its stoop-sitters, its fierce activists, its dancers, its strutting gaits. You will become, at the remove of twenty-five years, in thrall to the power of its devastating outfits. It will be difficult to stop admiring the denizens of what is supposed to be an unspecified future, ten years after the revolution, but what is so clearly a mythical New York at its apotheosis: the great, lost, wished-for, sometimes temporarily regained, bombed-out, drug-addled, graffito-illustrated Downtown of 1978 to 1983. The temptation is to watch it nostalgically, rather than see it as something that speaks to us directly. Luckily, the film's major theme is resistance to passive, complacent consumption of film and video, which works against this idealizing tendency. Born in Flames is a warning against sentimental media manipulations; that message is nostalgia-proof.

Borden, its auteur, made the movie living in a fermented creative milieu, where a generation of post-Conceptual artists were crossing between film, video, and music. A graduate of Wellesley, she worked as a painter and critic before deciding to take up filmmaking. Another artist and critic, Kim Gordon, took up music in order to perform in a gallery show at the request of the artist Dan Graham; soon after, Sonic Youth formed. Lawrence Weiner was making experimental films at the Kitchen, often featuring Kathryn Bigelow (later the first female director to win an Academy Award, for The Hurt Locker), who plays a journalist in Born in Flames. In the pioneering video work Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, to which Born in Flames owes a debt, Dara Birnbaum observed how TV shows render human beings as collections of behavioral tics. Borden, meanwhile, worked as a video editor for the artist Richard Serra.

In addition to the downtown art-world, Borden was a member of New York's intrepid activist community. It suggests something about her political consciousness that, at age twelve, she changed her name from Linda to Lizzie (a macabre homage to the 19th century Massachusetts woman suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet). Two charisma-saturated feminist non-actors found their way into the film: Adele Bertei of The Bloods and political activist Flo Kennedy—said Mayor Dinkins at Kennedy's funeral: "If you found a cause for the downtrodden of somebody being abused someplace, by God, Flo Kennedy would be there." Despite its science-fiction premise, the movie preserves a snapshot of the particular mettle and grace of a generation of feminists.

But it's also more. Born in Flames conducts many thought experiments. The revolution it imagines is failing: in the ensuing ten years, the inevitable retrograde sliding has begun to occur, and socialist promises of equality seem as empty as the capitalist ones they replaced. Or perhaps the problem is that patriarchy spans both. Women in the film are in a state of siege, and the state isn't helping them. They resist in various ways: through radio shows and journalism but chiefly through the formation of the Women's Army—which you might say is a more direct rephrasing of the humorless term militant feminist.

More than anything else, the film celebrates women's solidarity and the joy of struggle. In an early scene, whistle-blowing, bike-riding Women's Army vigilantes come to the aid of a woman being sexually assaulted. They come from all directions, wearing ungrim expressions of determination. To its credit, however, the movie doesn't imagine its activist, musical, and writerly subcultures as merging seamlessly—the radio deejays aren't political enough, at first, to want to join the Women's Army, while the upper-middle class journalists are too prim to mix with the rest (perhaps in Borden's mind they graduated from Wellesley?). Indeed, if the various worlds did cohere too easily, one senses, they would represent a dangerous conformity. The settings of the film, thus, are all in-between spaces where new forms might emerge: sidewalks, plazas, parks, windowsills, and the great circulatory system, the subway.

Formally, the movie rejects most of the pieties of narrative cinema. Compositions cut off people's heads or half their bodies, four-fifths of some frames are darkness, close-ups of women speaking straight to the camera often feel completely non-diegetic. "I couldn't use some really gorgeous shots; they were too pretty!" said Borden in an interview. The editing, obsessed over for four years, breaks off scenes abruptly, constantly cuts between parallel strands, and advances the narrative amidst a series of disconnected story-vignettes that gradually coalesce. By using a wide variety of stocks, grains, and shooting styles, the film implicitly asks us to question and criticize the authority of any one visual style. Like Godard, Borden rejects traditional film language as a form of political critique; Borden, however, also rejects Godard's sometimes banal use of beautiful women as decorative objects.

Men do not come off well in the movie: they include attempted rapists, subway perverts, and condescending newspaper editors. In an echo of the civil rights era, male FBI agents abduct and murder one of the leaders of the Women's Army as she returns from a coalition-building trip to Africa. A TV station is staffed by professional drones, exemplified by Eric Bogosian, who plaintively delivers his first career line: "What the fuck?" A psychoanalyst on a talk show droningly opines that women are "essentially masochistic." A memorable early montage of women on the job includes a calmly observed shot of a female hand unrolling a condom over a penis: sex as just another form of women's work. But two things leaven this potentially simplistic portrait of gender domination: first, the women's efforts to strike back at a culture that imprisons them are not simply heroic in the way of a melodrama. Things often don't go as planned or work at all. Second, the men, just like the women, are shown to be at the mercy of the larger political economy. Jobless men on the street employ themselves in aggression and harassment—implying that their misogyny is misplaced frustration caused by hard times.

Born in Flames's ending—featuring counter-hegemonic radicals attacking the World Trade Center—will of course seem more controversial, even distasteful, today. Honey and Adele, however, inflict no human violence; their target is the antenna, the iconic symbol of the official story. So, a film which shows the power of mass media to manufacture consensus and marginalize resistance ends by destroying the source of broadcasting. Obviously, the climatic scene is also a metaphorical destruction of the phallus. Yet Borden isn't so simplistic as to offer this climax as a unequivocally liberating victory. She stages the final explosion with a Pop coolness that leaves the viewer in full command of her faculties. You process the moment, rather than exult in it, which is typical of the film's refusal to over-invest in the power of revolutionary violence.

Born in Flames asks its viewer to question the intent of images, not excepting its own. It's a celebration and a critique all at once. By depicting a group of women, brave, flawed, and human, imagining new configurations for living, it finds beauty in the everyday and avoids ideological prescriptions. Socialism isn't the answer to capitalism—it's how it's practiced that matters. The movie is a celebration of small powers, small resistances which can be organized into larger ones. It also loves and understands the unimaginary New York City, not a postcard or a set-piece or the charming home of "character" (as in character actor)—not, in short, as a fetish. Borden's movie doesn't want to freeze in place a perfect New York—which makes it perhaps the most New York, the most forward-looking, of New York movies. Born in Flames's downtown is a place of becoming and of struggle, projecting itself into the future rather than attempting to preserve and edit the past. Because of this, it lives.

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