Brigitte Cornand has befriended many female artists over the years whose ranks include filmmakers, visual artists, and performance artists, the kind of women whose names you see at MOMA and at Anthology Film Archives—Carolee Schneemann, Kiki Smith, Gwenn Thomas. Cornand’s Red Birds consists almost entirely of the women’s recorded monologues, each one played over a shot of a different bird. The movie assigns a bird to each artist—Louise Bourgeois (the subject of three previous Cornand films) a cardinal, June Leaf a song sparrow, Joan Jonas a dove. From reading Wide Sargasso Sea all the way up to making one’s own gender-free language, the women’s monologues about how they first discovered the idea of feminist art address us while the tiny puffballs dart and dash across the screen. The voices aren’t identified until the end credits, so the film becomes a sort of collectively reached metaphor: woman as bird. Sexist slang is reappropriated to stand for female empowerment (Cornand’s original title for the film was even My Beautiful Women).
As each new bird chimes in, though, the experiment begins to prove irritating. The point is taken well enough—woman’s ideal state, the film seems to argue, is a completely naturalized one, and the bird hopping leaf to leaf an illustration of personal freedom. But delicate as the images are, they often simplify the women’s oral commentary rather than enhance it. That these women use art to express themselves is far from the most interesting point one could make about them, each of whom turns feminist thought into unique art; Bourgeois’s finely lined spider sculptures are nothing like Schneeman’s bikini-and-pork-orgy film Meat Joy. By lumping the women together under a banner concept, the movie disservices their individual artistries. Martha Rosler’s work is very different from Nancy Holt’s, which is very different from Kiki Smith’s, but they’re all much more rewarding than Cornand’s film.