Living Proof

Left: Cover of Time magazine, August 31, 1970. Right: Advertisement for the opening of Kate Millett's Three Lives, 1971.

KATE MILLETT’S DOCUMENTARY Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women, opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on November 5, 1971, to a positive, if not especially enthusiastic, review in the New York Times; critic Vincent Canby described it as “moving, proud, calm, aggressively self-contained.” A year earlier, more provocative, if not condescending, language had been used to characterize Millett in the mainstream press: Shortly after the publication of her feminist landmark Sexual Politics, Time magazine, which ran an Alice Neel portrait of Millet on the cover, called her the “Mao Tse-Tung of Women’s Liberation.”

A rarely screened artifact of the cultural revolution that Millett and other second-wavers were spearheading, Three Lives is, like the 1909 Gertrude Stein novel with which it shares a title, both radical and accessible. An advertisement for the documentary, made by an all-female crew and billed as “a Women’s Liberation Cinema production,” featured this straightforward tagline: “a film about women . . . what it’s like to be us.” Consciousness-raising captured on 16 mm, Three Lives is an act of intimate excavation. Its subjects delve into the past so that viewers—specifically, those who would be included in the first-person-plural pronoun in the ad copy—may somehow recognize and thus be able to articulate their own experiences.

The three women who appear in the documentary share only one trait: white skin. In her late twenties or early thirties, Mallory, the director’s younger sister, recounts a joyless marriage to a businessman. Speaking in a hard Minnesota twang as tie-dyed curtains in a Bowery loft blow behind her, Mallory recalls further misery and alienation when she, her spouse, and their young daughter relocated to the Philippines (“I was living in this huge Aztec sacrificial altar”). She fled this wifely prison, almost losing the right to ever see her child again in the process, for a life of extreme privation in New York, where her goals are crystallized: “to be important, to be recognized.”

In contrast to Mallory’s abject uxorial existence, Lillian Shreve, a chemist in her early fifties, reflects fondly on her marriage of twenty-three years. That Lillian has led a less tumultuous life may explain why her segment is the shortest in this seventy-minute film. But just as she is about to disclose, offscreen, what led to her supportive husband’s nervous breakdown, an episode Lillian considers one the greatest challenges in her union, the audio cuts out. Not a silencing, this deliberate interruption seems deployed to ensure that the focus doesn’t stray too far from “what it’s like to be us.”

Spared the details of a mental collapse, the viewer is then introduced to the film’s most confrontational interlocutor: Robin Mide, a twenty-one-year-old erstwhile “nice Jewish girl from Queens” who left her Far Rockaway family home at seventeen for a life of avant-garde theater, dope, and bisexuality—though she shuns all labels, particularly lesbian. “I do a lot of things that are not acceptable to a lot of people. I go to bed with women. I go to bed with men,” she says, filmed, at one point, in a room filled with toilets and cable spools. Inaudible offscreen comments stoke her into an increasingly agitated state. “You box me in, I’ll kill you,” Robin, credited as one of the codirectors, threatens—either to whoever is standing behind the camera or to the world at large.

Within the trajectory of filmed first-person accounts in the US, Three Lives falls between, both chronologically and structurally, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), whose only subject is a flamboyant black gay hustler, and the Mariposa Film Group’s Word Is Out (1977), in which twenty-six interviewees from around the country speak about their experiences as gay men and lesbians. (Millett’s film is also linked to another documentary, shot in 1971 but not released until 1979, in which she is conspicuous by her absence: Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall, a chronicle of the infamous “dialogue on women’s liberation” among Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and others.) Born of the then thriving personal-is-political impulse, Three Lives records a specific moment in another era yet still remains vital and absorbing today. Or, as Robin reminds the filmmakers, “You have to remember: Nothing stops.”

Three Lives screens February 8 and 19 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the series “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art.’ ”