Fracture and Assembly: On Lizzie Borden’s “Regrouping”
By Laura NelsonJanuary 26, 2023
This past year, Anthology Film Archives completed a restoration of the original print and Borden agreed to recirculate her controversial first feature. Over a bewildering 80 minutes, Regrouping is a multilayered, polyphonic, and capacious study of feminist groups. Placing multiple voiceovers on top of scenes of women talking, dancing, sharing food, showering, and having sex, Borden’s film offers antagonistic, unstable, and multiple articulations of collectivity, asking: What are the purposes of (feminist) groups? What are the methods and practices of collectivity? And what happens when the group breaks down?
Very few feminists want to come out swinging against collectivity, collaboration, and community. As someone who has spent over 10 years working on projects that embrace and convene around these terms, I know the kind of allure they hold for those seeking radically different worlds. Despite learning from decades of feminist thinkers — Jo Freeman, Miranda Joseph, and the Combahee River Collective, to name a few — who have been critically engaging the complexities and pitfalls of groups, I still feel complicit in embracing the “collective,” the “collaborative,” and the “community-based” without always thinking carefully about how I’m wielding these concepts — how they function in practice, what structures they implicitly rely on, and who is or is not part of the projects (and worlds) I am seeking to build by using them.
So, when I first saw Regrouping last summer in New York, its provocation felt personal. I found it exhilarating to experience a film that was willing to critically explore the negative contours, contradictions, and complexities of feminist groups. In the midst of a resurgent interest in mutual aid, collectives, and nonhierarchical structures, Borden’s first film transports viewers back to the 1970s to open up larger questions of why we make things with others. It viscerally conjured my own muddling through the messiness (and the joys) of collective work, making me want to grapple more deeply with the reasons that I keep exalting collaborative practices despite all that can go wrong. It also made me want to understand better the story behind the film and the things Borden did next after her initial attempts at feminist collectivity fell apart.
Before Lizzie Borden began making Regrouping, she was immersed in the downtown art scene of 1970s New York. She didn’t have a formal film education or background in filmmaking. She worked for Richard Serra and wrote for Artforum, where she covered female artists — Yvonne Rainer, Tricia Cole, Carolee Schneemann, and others — who were experimenting with movement and performance. When her friend Joan Jonas introduced her to a group of art students at the School of Visual Arts who wanted to be the subject of a documentary, Borden was intrigued. The women fashioned themselves as a critical feminist group. Borden was interested in the proliferation of study groups and political groups in the 1970s, and was specifically curious about the purposes of feminist groups as part of larger movements for social change. As she recollects, “I wanted to be a part of a group by studying a group from the outside.” After receiving funding ($3,000) from Sol LeWitt, she agreed to work with the women to make her first feature.
“It wasn’t to be a documentary about them, but with them; a collaboration,” a director’s note at the beginning of Regrouping announces. As Borden and the women embarked on the film, they set out some frameworks for this collaboration: Borden would shoot the women, and they would also film themselves; the final version would weave together their footage after discussions about what should be included. Borden was optimistic about this method: “I really did think we could make a film where we all agreed on what would be in it, that we would all really collaborate.” And as they began filming, mostly at their apartments in Manhattan, there was an initial playfulness in the process. Borden filmed the women having meals, reading, and generally spending time together, trying to understand what the purpose of their group was; in turn, they filmed and contemplated her, trying to make sense of her presence and purpose as the filmmaker.
Yet partway into filming, Borden struggled to find the depth and seriousness she was looking for in the group. She remembers one moment when she was stood up by the women, only to find out later that they were shooting her: “I was waiting on the Metropolitan steps … we were supposed to have a meeting, and they didn’t show up, all they did was film me.” Although Borden recalls this incident as a joke, in the months that followed, the relationship began to fracture. The women refused to cooperate. They did not let Borden into their private conversations. As she puts it in the prelude to the film: “[A]s time went on, I found them mysterious and unbridgeable — I didn’t feel we were collaborating; they weren’t letting me break through their facade, they wouldn’t let me come to meetings, and so on.” When Borden showed the women a first cut of Regrouping in her SoHo loft, “they were totally opposed to” what they saw. In particular, they were upset by the film’s aesthetic choices and experimental style. They were also upset by the way that Borden depicted their conversations around sexuality and portrayed their relationship with a deceased friend.
Instead of dropping the project after that first screening, Borden decided to stick with the film, but she knew something had to shift. In an interview with Christoph Huber, she states: “I had to regroup once the original direction changed.” For this initial regrouping, she brought together friends and acquaintances from the art world — Barbara Kruger, Joan Jonas, Pat Steir, Kathryn Bigelow, Nancy Holt, and others — to do voiceovers, provide commentary, and participate in a second group. Frustrated by the impenetrability of the initial group, she wondered, “What would another group of artists be like, say a decade later?” Assembling a second group of women, all in their mid-thirties and successful in the art world, she invited them to critically meditate on what a women’s group could mean in their lives.
Borden has described how the film coalesced in the editing process, in which she worked to bring out the contradictions and tensions. To “fight against the linear” and generate dissonance, Borden placed discordant sounds and images on top of each other. She wove together footage of the first group, including their critiques of the filmmaking process, with footage from the second group. Atop all of this, she layered a scripted voiceover (read in part by Kathryn Bigelow) narrating the failures and possibilities of groups. As Borden talks about the art of assembling all the pieces of the film, it’s clear this process is another kind of regrouping: “[R]e-editing is rethinking, it’s taking a new set of pieces and putting some kind of boundary around them to look at them because otherwise things don’t hold together.”
In its final version, Regrouping is a destabilizing chorus of voices — a sensorial and wide-ranging contemplation on the purpose of groups. An auditory as much as a visual experience, the dense layering of improvised discussion, scripted voiceovers, interviews, and images creates what Borden calls “the chorale.” In the chorale, the voices of the initial subjects, the women brought on later to the project, and Borden herself collide. The cacophony is infectious, rebellious, and thought-provoking. It sings a variegated portrait of feminist collectivity.
When Regrouping premiered in 1976, the original women picketed the film. Standing outside Anthology Film Archives in New York, they circulated leaflets with a set of demands, inviting people to join for a meeting. “They wanted to discuss what was happening in the film and how they were presented and whether it was feminist or not feminist,” Borden recalls. She doesn’t know if the meeting ever happened, but she thinks the women posed “really smart questions” and reflects that she “would have loved to be there” for the conversation. Borden decided to pull the film out of circulation after only three screenings. As she told film critic Neil Young in a 2016 interview, “I didn’t want to hurt the original group anymore — and I was deeply shaken, although, in its final incarnation, the film wasn’t really about the original group.”
The practice of regrouping did not end when Borden placed her first film in the closet. Instead of giving up on feminist filmmaking, Borden took what she learned in the breakdown of Regrouping and embarked on a new experiment in collaboration. Born in Flames (1983) is Borden’s most well-known feature and a classic of radical feminist cinema. Set in Lower Manhattan in the 1980s, the film depicts New York 10 years after a peaceful socialist “War of Liberation.” While the socialist revolution toppled capitalism, it did not eliminate patriarchy and institutional racism. The film follows multiple women — particularly Black, queer, and working-class women — as they mobilize and join forces to stage a “revolution against the revolution.” As the women figure out how to dismantle oppressive structures, they debate questions around feminist coalition (across race, sexuality, and class) and revolutionary tactics (working inside versus outside the system, nonviolent versus militant resistance).
In making this second feature, Borden approached collaboration from a new angle. First, recognizing the limitations of the feminism featured in Regrouping, which focused on white women in the art world, Borden deliberately recruited women from around New York City, particularly Black and queer women who did not know each other, by scouting places like the YMCA and lesbian bars. Seeing how separated feminist groups were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she wanted her film to create a space to work with different women. And second, instead of striving for consensus around all choices, Borden invited these women (mostly nonactors) to create their own characters. After things fell apart in Regrouping, she wanted to find a way to maintain trust with the women she was working with: “I did not want to be at odds with the people I was working with. I didn’t want to be their enemy, especially because I was working with women of color … I wanted to collaborate in a way that allowed their voices to be heard and also to be legitimately their voices.”
Thinking about ways to earn this trust and aiming to make a film where distinctive (and even contradictory) women’s voices could coexist, Borden returned to the concept of the chorale. The chorale reverberates in Born in Flames as women discuss visions of and strategies for liberation. Like the dissonance of Regrouping, the film poses more questions than it answers, inviting viewers to contemplate the dissension that continues in the wake of revolution. It picks up where Regrouping left off, staging an ongoing renewal of questions: What kind of society do we want? How will we get there? And without privileging specific voices, it presents a chorus of perspectives that gesture in many directions, heralding differences and rejecting tidy resolutions.
There is hope in the messiness, a sense that only by constantly making new formations and creating spaces to hold divergent ideas can any collective action take place. As the pirate DJ Isabel (Adele Bertei) announces: “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.” In many ways, Born in Flames is a “celebration of the rites of alchemy,” of the processes — imperfect and ongoing — that allow people to question and grapple with how to dismantle one world and actively build another. Borden has described her second film as “a reaction against” Regrouping. This later film is also an extension of the practice of regrouping, part of a continuous search for spaces — political, artistic, feminist — to hold a polyphony of voices. Like the revolution, regrouping never stops moving; it keeps inviting others in to work through contradictions, to envision social structures, and to pose new sets of demands.
If “regrouping” is an ongoing process of coming together to think and feel and create with others, the recent screenings of Lizzie Borden’s films are their own regroupings. When Regrouping was restored and rescreened this past year at Anthology Film Archives in New York and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, intergenerational audiences gathered to spend time with Borden’s enigmatic first feature. In Q and As with Borden after the films, it became clear that these conversations — each with a unique audience — are themselves a critical part of her work as a filmmaker.
Borden has discussed how her films, once finished, are constantly recreated by the people who watch them. For example, in a 2018 interview with film scholar Cynthia Felando on Born in Flames, Borden describes how she doesn’t “see the film as ‘mine,’ but as an ‘entity’ I follow around and observe.” Through this dispossession of her films, she allows audiences to find in them the themes and questions that resonate. The recent restoration of Regrouping opens up an exciting space for different configurations of people — filmmakers, artists, members of groups, students — to gather. Borden describes how each of these groups of viewers “bring[s] a whole different set of, not just eyes, but a whole different attitude and a whole different set of beliefs” to what they are watching. And although the film doesn’t change, “it feels like it changes because [these] new audiences have different feelings, perspectives on it, and so in some ways they possess it.”
“Do you think a film about groups is relevant to a younger generation?” Borden asked Zackary Drucker at the Q and A after a recent screening at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles. Drucker, artist and codirector of the forthcoming documentary The Stroll, replied with resounding affirmation, describing Regrouping as a true “model of nonhierarchical egalitarian filmmaking.” Borden had “thought it would be a relic,” and admitted being “shocked that Regrouping and groups are relevant to younger audiences.”
In many ways, Borden’s films, particularly Regrouping, are about creating and cultivating community. Instead of romanticizing community, as theorist Miranda Joseph has warned against, Borden invites viewers to grapple with the pitfalls of community and the challenges of sustaining movement work. Collectives, coalition, collaboration — none of these come easily in Borden’s films. Yet her work is not nihilistic; it dwells in and alongside collective fissures, contemplating what kind of worlds are possible in the inevitable breakdowns that happen when making things with others. Borden’s first film offers “regrouping” as a method. A sensory and intellectual provocation, it invites viewers to feel and think into a feminist collaboration that holds, and celebrates, dissonance. Knowing that things often disassemble along the way, it is about sticking with collaboration and community during and after fracture — about continuing to search for new configurations, new formations, and new habits of assembling.
Laura Nelson seeks to celebrate and co-organize spaces of study and gathering. She is currently a Mellon Humanities and the University of the Future postdoctoral fellow at University of Southern California.
Featured image: Still from Regrouping (1976). Used with permission of Lizzie Borden.
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