"The women of the '70s had been earnest and breast-beating—and it just didn't work," announces the lady in the gorilla mask, one of the few self-aware voices featured in Lynn Hershman Leeson's over-40-years-in-the-making !Women Art Revolution, its sprawlingly clunky title a portent of things to come. "The bra-burning didn't actually effect social change," this member of the Guerrilla Girls—the feminist art movement's answer to the Yes Men—goes on to explain toward the end of Hershman Leeson's doc. And with those two sentences, the anonymous radical activist exposes the clueless arrogance that emanates from much of the doc's footage—archival as well as the director's own personal collection of interviews with her fellow feminist artists, curators, and historians of the '60s generation.
Which is a shame since Hershman Leeson has in her possession an important alternate history of the 20th-century art world. For every usual suspect like Judy Chicago, we learn of a lesser-known—and less showboating—woman like the Cuban political refugee Ana Mendieta, whose suspected murder at the hands of her minimalist artist husband Carl Andre overshadows the powerful work that she created in her too-short lifetime. We are taught about the feminists' mass picketing of museums during the Vietnam War and the fictional art critics that were created to generate publicity in newspapers. Unfortunately, Hershman Leeson—a critically acclaimed visual artist whose previous films include Teknolust, Conceiving Ada, and Strange Culture, all starring Tilda Swinton—has crafted a nonfiction film as cinematic as a slide show in an art history class. Added to the doc is a slick soundtrack by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, which only feels like a desperate attempt to inject some liveliness into the didactic proceedings. It also seems like an effort to make the academic-sounding talking heads, Hershman Leeson's gratingly timid narration, and the predictable and stale editing somehow seem less dated and more cool—which is to say, more relevant.
Unlike Pamela Tanner Boll's truly inquisitive Who Does She Think She Is?, which delves deeply and personally into the lives of a handful of working artist moms, Hershman Leeson introduces us only superficially to her dozens of pioneering friends. (Simply dividing the doc into a four-part series, one segment for each decade, thus allowing for more in-depth probing, could have made it tighter and less rambling.) Since Hershman Leeson, who brings up but never explains how she spent 10 years living as her double identity "Roberta," doesn't ask enlightening questions, but simply lets her narcissistic subjects glossily lecture about the consequences of boys'-club discrimination, it becomes difficult to sympathize with their plight no matter how right they may be. Certain asides, such as Chicago expressing shock that half the students in one of her all-female classes confessed to having been raped at one point in their lives, don't shed light on the victimization of female artists—only on women who attend Chicago's art classes.
This is why it's like a breath of fresh air when the camera finally turns away from old-guard stalwarts like choreographer Yvonne Rainer and critic B. Ruby Rich (who takes the Guerrilla Girls to task for not issuing a response to Mendieta's death—though it should be noted that Hershman Leeson never allows the monkey-masked avengers themselves to respond to Rich's charge), to focus on the less egocentric new generation represented by the Guerrilla Girls and Miranda July. This more emotionally mature, younger group of activist artists—who both embrace and reject, sometimes simultaneously, the feminist label—aren't concerned with finding themselves or taking back their own images from the Man in order to display them on their own terms. Indeed, it isn't about them at all, but about their art, which is usually less in-your-face and more striking than their predecessors' work. They've strategically given the finger to the male-dominated institutions by not defining themselves in opposition to them—by not buying those bras to burn in the first place. The Guerrilla Girls urge collectors to nab female artists' work not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's undervalued, thus a great investment. They're having their own dinner party and it's the good old boys (and girls) who are missing out.
"Publishing articles about myself actually resulted in an exhibition," Hershman Leeson says before noting that, after 35 years of struggling to break the glass ceiling, some of her early work now fetches 9,000 times its original appraisal. This is all in explanation of how—along with philanthropic help—she was able to fund this film. But if she had set aside her ego, she could have taken all this crucial material that she's so close to (there are no outtakes; all the footage is accessible online, she tells us, not realizing that abandoning early drafts isn't tantamount to self-censoring) and placed it in the hands of a talented documentarian who could have shaped it into a more thrilling form. I know for a fact there's a heck of a lot of unheralded female filmmakers out there who could use the work.