Part social survey, but mostly celebration, “! Women Art Revolution — A Secret History” is more of a “herstory” of the art birthed by feminism in the late 1960s; helmer Lynn Hershman Leeson filmed her principal subjects over 40 years and distilled the footage into this entertaining docu. Anyone seeking a dialectic, of course, can look elsewhere, but Hershman Leeson’s film is a valuable resource on a movement whose issues remain relevant. Pic will likely get wide play on festival and educational circuits.
A provocateur du cinema, Hershman Leeson views docu conventions with the same contempt she does the line between fiction and nonfiction (see “Strange Culture,” which more or less defines the hybrid doc). But she takes a relatively straight approach in “! Women Art Revolution,” which plays fast and loose with style but not story: In the late ’60s, when modern feminism was manifesting itself (no pun intended), art was a prime target for reform. Women suffered as second-class citizens particularly in museums and galleries; the work of female artists was routinely dismissed by fellow artists, as well as by curators and, consequently, the public. As the film strives to emphasize, the situation is hardly perfect today, but advances were made, many of them captured by Hershman Leeson’s camera.
Where “! Women Art Revolution” disappoints is in its avoidance of critical confrontation. There’s no correlation made between “feminist” and presumably “nonfeminist” art made since the ’60s, and no commentary on how the two might have influenced each other. For all the discussion of the negative responses that greeted the work of, say, the late Ana Mendieta or Howardina Pindell or Yvonne Rainer, we don’t hear any critical voices; it’s unclear whether the art was critiqued for its form, its content (for being antiwar art, for instance) or for its status as pure provocation, which in some instances it certainly was.
The exception is a sequence covering the creation, installation and excoriation of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” which even drew the attention of Congress; footage of the latter represents a highly refined form of blather and could have been filmed yesterday. But as art criticism goes, it’s burlesque. Real critics taking to task some of the work Hershman Leeson extols would have made for a more intellectually engaging film.
Pic reps an eclectic mix of formats, some of which give it the feel of a time-capsule entry. Carrie Brownstein’s clever score manages to editorialize on all of it through mood, rhythm and the musical periods her work evokes.