A conversation between Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn
For several years, Masha Tupitsyn and I have been engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about culture, writing, our personal lives, and, most of all, film. At some point, we decided to formalize at least part of this conversation, to pose questions for each other which could be carried around for a few days or longer, mulled over and lived in. I don’t think either one of us is too interested in perpetuating the illusion many interviews seem determined to sustain, the sense that the participants sat down one day and casually spat it all out; that an interview isn’t a construction. That we put a lot of thought into the things we’re saying, that we delete, insert, and re-word our responses as the conversation evolves, isn’t something I’m particularly embarrassed by. Sustaining this interview has been a commitment to thinking and re-thinking and an affirmation of the right to change our minds. In retrospect this seems like an act of defiance, but more than anything it’s been an expression of friendship. That’s probably pretty defiant too.
Brian Pera is the author of Troublemaker (St. Martin’s Press) and Wall of Sound (Suspect Thoughts Press) and the writer/director of The Way I See Things. He lives in Memphis, TN.
Brian Pera: Beauty Talk & Monsters deals a lot with what I take to be various aspects of your upbringing, both circumstantially and emotionally. One of the things I find interesting, getting to know you, is how close you seem to be to your family. There’s such a vogue right now for artists and writers who have really screwed-up relationships within their families, creating this mythology about intelligence and talent, as if you must suffer a great deal, from the very beginning, to eventually have anything insightful to say. The things you have to say, your ideas and your outlook and the way you express these in your work, are even more fascinating to me because they come from someone who isn’t afraid to be strong and together and political and sexual. You seem refreshingly adjusted. Can you tell me something about your background?
Masha Tupitsyn: My family has been a real source of solace and critical training for me. There are only really the three of us, so my parents sort of gave me all my critical and emotional tools, as well as what I would refer to as my internal stamina. I mean, everyone gets trained by their families in one way or another, but I think I’ve used what I experienced with my parents as a way to survive and evaluate what I encountered every day at school, with other children, or with the culture at large—like what I saw in the movies! It’s usually the other way around—where the outside becomes the space for rebellion and self-definition. I learned, in various ways, from both my mother and father, that interpersonally, at home, I had the option of being many things at once. I was allowed to express myself and ask questions. My family was very verbal, demonstrative, and affectionate. I always felt like as a human being, and as a woman, my identity could be fluid and multi-faceted. I was never taught that any of these qualities were in conflict with one another. I learned that everywhere else.
My parents are also collaborators in the truest sense of the word. They’re both critics and theorists, born in Moscow. They work together professionally and emotionally. On top of that, they have this intensely exciting love affair that’s been going in front of me for 33 years, and that was always really at the center of things in my family. Meaning, they never pushed their relationship to the side in order to raise me, to be these neutered “parents.” Their relationship was one of biggest things that informed, educated, and inspired me. Even if I’d never found that kind of complex and dynamic love myself, it would continue to play a huge role in my thinking. I think a lot of people resent their parents for not being one-dimensional. They want to be accepted as a complete individual, but neglect the fact that this complexity should work both ways. That’s something that really annoyed me about the movie Meet The Parents, where Ben Stiller has these bohemian, progressive, open parents, and he rebels against that openness and non-traditionalism by longing for the approval of the repressed, WASP patriarch (Robert De Niro). What I appreciate about my parents the most is their intellectual and emotional life beyond me. I’m a huge part of their lives, and vice versa, but they have a lot of other stuff going on. And that’s really given me the psychic freedom to develop outside of my role as “daughter.” In other words, my parents don’t sit around waiting for me to get married, have babies, and come home for the holidays.
As for your second question, I think foregrounding dysfunction, particularly familial dysfunction, in literature or cinema, even in so-called transgressive work, has sort of become this dead-end, and a complex rut too, because it’s not as if we have this easy way out of it with the reality of things being what they are. But, as we know, reality is not an inherent or fixed condition. It’s a socio-cultural one that’s constantly in flux. This means suffering is generated by a lack of progressive thinking and change. In an interview with Marie-France Alderman, bell hooks said that art should show us how things could be, not just how they are. Cinema and literature should do more than simply reiterate. Meaning, popular entertainment, for example, is obsessed with reproducing and re-implementing various social realities and injustices as a way of normalizing these injustices and conservatizing people. But we know how fucked up everything is, and it doesn’t benefit us to have cynicism and despair as our sole referent. There is clearly a very powerful need to transcend that, and that’s where cinematic fantasy/escapism comes in, right? But that’s the other extreme. There’s no real call for transgression or liberation in most of these filmic scenarios, there’s just a sugar-coated, illusory “bliss” that’s often more nostalgic and less demanding— that’s cooler in its nihilism. Tarantino is a perfect example of that—of cynical cool, of stylized pain. Directors like Tarantino have turned despair and corruption into a form, a kind of scintillatingly reflexive soap opera that, if we can’t escape and transcend (which clearly we haven’t be able to), we might as well learn to enjoy and fetishize. It’s the worst form of nihilism. Movies are like virtual chat rooms in this way. Most people will let themselves be/ feel something they won’t let themselves be/feel anywhere else. In other words, they “raise” their expectations in that framework. This means movies have an incredible amount of potential since they occupy so much of our psychic attention. I think the responsibility of critical or transgressive literature has to be two-fold: it should describe how and why we suffer and imagine a way out of it. Not just, “I suffer, so I can’t help being fucked up.” That can’t be the only possible narrative trajectory. Because if that’s the case, that means there’s no hope.
Brian: The versatility of your writing is really encouraging. It’s so fearless in what it’ll try, where it goes. You never feel coddled or pandered to reading it. You reference Kathy Acker, and sometimes the work reminds me of her, but I think like Dodie Bellamy you’re ultimately just doing your own thing. Reading Acker or Bellamy you instantly know who it is, they’ve essentially somehow distilled their personality, articulated a sensibility, and for me it’s the same with you—no matter where you went I could see you distinctly, whereas typically writers submerge themselves within the narrative, I guess maybe to hide the hand playing God? It made me start thinking about that a lot more, how so much writing now is about totally submerging yourself, so personality, which is really specific, doesn’t get in the way. There are people playing around with form a lot but it’s very tongue in cheek, very superficial, and reflects their personalities in much more innocuous, even reassuring ways. It’s not like someone saying something challenging or potentially disruptive; more like someone standing up to make a toast at the dinner table with a cute faked accent and a funny face.
Masha: Well, it may feel fearless to you as a reader, but it never feels that way when you write. I really struggled with it and some people have discouraged my approaches. Writing Beauty Talk & Monsters has really freed me in some ways. I have a much easier time allowing myself to write the way I write now that I’ve written that book and found a publisher for it. It was a breakthrough for me. To a certain extent, I can’t help but think and write the way I do. I am a victim of my interests and particularities. I’m not Joyce Carol Oates, or some other omnipotent author who can produce epic, sweeping, humanistic canvases. I don’t have those powers or drives as a writer. So I exploit and take advantage of what I think my powers are. At the end of the day, there is a kind of authorial pretension and remove that this culture values; an intense resistance towards putting art and politics into the same frame—particularly now—that I’m not interested in endorsing. So with Beauty Talk I wanted to centralize an obsession with popular culture that already exists, but that few writers put at the center of fiction. Visual art is allowed to look at the visual in a way that literature resists, and that of course has partly to do with the medium itself. How do you deal with visual culture in a textual way? It’s hard for readers of textual fiction to make these leaps and transitions. Video artists like Douglas Gordon or Stan Douglas, for example, use screens to deal with the socio-cultural signification of cinematic screens. So they’re working off an existing visual language and commenting on it partly by using the same visual language. I’m not as directly informed by literary texts when it comes to my own work as I am by film and media. And I don’t talk about my work in a literary way simply because I think film and media are a much more pervasive pedagogy. It’s everywhere. So I think my only real “talent” as a writer and thinker, and where maybe your comment about my “versatility” comes in, is my ability to let seemingly disparate things interact in one fictional (diegetic) space. The way they do in movies. The tautology of Western culture is so fragmentary and divisive, that I think it’s incredibly rare to have an integration of on/screen, public/private, work/life, intellect/emotion, author/person, reality/fantasy, in life or in fiction, and my obsession—always—has been to scrutinize gaps, or create pathways. That started as just being how my brain works. I’m both upset and fascinated by these things.
For example, actors constantly lament the ways in which their performances and craft are confused with their “private” or off-screen lives. But privacy is a privilege and also an illusion, especially when it comes to people who are certainly more protected and valued than the rest of us. People’s interest in a performer, actor, or musician’s work constantly spills over into a desire for, and identification with, them—the person—so we need to stop saying it’s all separate. Like, what does where an actress goes to get a bikini wax, or what bag she carries around with her, have to do with her work onscreen? Sometimes we are attracted to particular cinematic “characters” and roles. And sometimes we are only attracted to the actual person who performs those roles. But sometimes it’s both. We desire the acting vessel because of the signifiers it’s created. It always makes me think of the whole phenomenon of watching a movie being shot on the streets of New York, where I live, and which happens all the time. The movie production shuts a street, or a neighborhood down, and crowds of people gather around to sneak a peek at the hopefully “famous” cast shooting their scenes. Now, are these street spectators interested in the movie or the scene that’s being filmed? In the actor/celebrity they might encounter? Or are they interested in the signification of the film shoot itself, and the potential it opens up for their own interest in fame? They certainly can’t be interested in the movie “characters” or “plot”—since they don’t know what the movie is about—and they can’t anticipate the “characters” until they actually see the finished film, in which those categories take form and meaning. So this is yet another example of how a Hollywood movie is often just a vehicle through which we can exercise our cultural obsessions. The same thing happens when people see celebrities on the street. What is it they’re encountering and getting excited about? It’s not a “real person,” its some amalgamation of performances and personas.
Thus, when it comes to literary texts, Kathy Acker really blew that pretension to pieces for me. She recontextualized and decontextualized literary texts. I’m interested in doing this with cinematic narratives and popular icons—using, or re-using, existing narratives and canons. In other words, I want to take these stories back and reposition them, go back to them, sort through them, because these stories are not banal in their effect and meaning. And, if they are so banal, then why is everyone so hooked? I mean, popular culture manufactures an overwhelming amount of meaning, meaning that affects everyone profoundly, but the response is basically general, sloppy, positive, or trite. All these narratives are taken for granted. Even the “smartest” people don’t challenge the “sacred” paradigm of celebrity, desire, identification, and beauty. That’s why, for example, despite their rebellion against the establishment, male philosophers, or some so-called (“serious”) punk-rocker, still end up desiring vacuous sexual constructs like Jessica Simpson, or some other generic 20 year-old fashion model, who are as much part of the establishment as anything. How are these contradictions able to come together and co-exist? At the very least, they should clash aesthetically or superficially, right? It drives me crazy how male brilliance is never undermined by being with women who are emblems of the very society they “oppose.” Men possess a kind of signifying autonomy that is not afforded women. If the criteria for these men when it comes to other men is brilliance, then why doesn’t the same criteria apply to the women they desire? This is where desire is so tricky. It’s so a-political. Is it just about creating a big umbrella under which everyone’s tastes will fit? How are two totally different performers able to resonant in the same way, at the same time? Is this the utopian dream, or simply the result of geo-political commodification and branding? Would this blurring have happened 20 years ago? Would the Sex Pistols be caught dead being on the same stage as some disco or pop band? I don’t think so. I guess the answer to all these questions is, this kind of reduction can only occur if everyone partitions and brands their tastes, desires, and politics, without being willing to make any real artistic or ethical distinctions and allegiances. This is the “fake accent” you were referring to—making everything harmless in order for it all to fit into the same marketable frame. That way, everyone can profit and slide through unscathed.
Brian: In “Kleptomania,” one of my favorite stories in Beauty Talk and Monsters, you imagine a meeting between Judy Garland, Diane Keaton, and Marnie. You make them all characters, the way we visualize or experience them basically, and leap from there to disparate meditations on gender and relationships between women and men and movies and their audiences. Judy and Diane and Marnie all have very fixed characters, whereas most male actors of their popularity are relatively independent, like Jack Nicholson, someone the story zeroes in on at places. Those women are all attached in public memory to some central male figure, some creator, whether Minnelli, Hitchcock, Beatty, or Allen, or the male gaze in general, while Nicholson is famously free and unattached, his own man.
I watched this movie Wanda recently, and thought about Kleptomania and your writing, the subjects it approaches and the way it drifts in any number of directions. I though too about you saying people didn’t encourage the way you write, the way your thoughts move and get organized. Wanda was the only movie made by Barbara Loden, who is better known as having been Elia Kazan’s wife at one time. The movie is amazing, open and generous in places Kazan’s would have been overdetermined and mannered–and yet he’s seen as being her primary influence. To me, Wanda presents a character like Marnie as a woman might imagine her, and it looks at the relationships between men and women, at least this woman and men, in ways you don’t see between Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in that film. Connery’s attempts to make over Hedren are depicted as heroism, as a man saving a woman from herself. When the criminal Wanda meets tries to make her over it points out his own issues of insecurity and instability, the fact he needs to make her over not to rescue her but to define himself. I read somewhere that Kazan was dismissive of Loden’s filmmaking, as if it were an untrained hobby, whereas I viewed it as rigorous formally and singular in the way it involved you as a viewer. Wanda and the story itself seem to meander, the shots exceed standard, industry-wide durations, the character is inhabited in such a way that makes Loden seem to be acting poorly, or awkwardly, the way a non-actor would if a camera were suddenly trained at her during the course of her day.
Wanda gets at its story in an entirely different way than I was used to, like your writing. It operates by the propulsion of the intellect powering it, by the tone. It isn’t afraid to work the way a story isn’t supposed to. There’s this thing going on in literature and film too where you can only go so far and still be “story”. You work within a certain system of sense and non-sense and mostly react to it or comment on it or play around with it, like throwing a sheet over it. If you can still make out the shape underneath everything’s fine. But you really make your own shapes. Movies obviously spark your interest but are there any you draw inspiration from in terms of how you shape story and visualize text?
Masha: The title of the story was inspired by Marnie’s kleptomaniac and the fact that Victorian middle-class women used to stuff their corsets with swag, and hide their booty under their bustles when department stores first came into being. The Victorians called their disorder kleptomania and doctors said it originated in the uterus. So I wanted to deal with Kleptomania as a female compulsion. Like Loden’s Wanda, Klepto wanders through the text–through writing–seemingly aimlessly. All the while, trying to circumvent something. Both narratives are psycho-cultural and psycho-geographic, meaning the story is a landscape made up of cultural meanings and identities. Identity and meaning as cultural geography, or a way of tracking the culture. It’s like a horror movie—which has its own topography, and where the person going through the nightmare is running around the carnival of the repressed/unconscious, having all these interactions that seem totally real, and have all this power on their state of mind. I’m really fascinated by the way things currently play out off-screen, producing yet another narrative, or a sequel to the on-screen. For example, I recently watched The Last Tango in Paris again, and then read David Thompson’s BFI book on it. And what’s interesting are the ways in which the actress Maria Schneider’s —Tango’s Jeanne—off-screen behavior sort of re-made the film in a sense. It added another political dimension to it and it certainly brought Bertolucci’s sexist pathologies to light, like a photographic image taking shape in the right chemicals. The reactions to Schneider’s off-screen outspokenness, sexual experimentation with men and women, and drug-use totally illuminated the hypocrisy of using the film, or art in general, to make a radical or hermetic statement about bourgeois society, but then rejecting those changes, or transgressions, when they happen in the “real” world. As a “wild” object of desire, Jeanne was useful, exciting, amusing, titillating—whatever. But as a woman outside the confines of that film, with real desires, needs, and opinions, she became wanton and inconvenient. She spilled out of the frame, so to speak.
Schneider was 20 when she made Tango and subsequently gave many “open” interviews about the experience in such periodicals as the NY Times. She was candid about her sexuality, her political positions, her interest in drugs, etc. Schneider said the same thing that many men were saying in the late ’60s and ’70s, that men have always said, but as a woman she had to backtrack because she was sort of channeling Jeanne’s identity, in a sense, claiming it as something real. As something she should be entitled to. Or, maybe, Schneider was already like that when Tango came along, and it was her own identity that informed the fictitious character of Jeanne. That’s an interesting question, I think. But Schneider was continuing that narrative in a sense. Thinking, why not? Why can’t it be real—mine—right? But when that identity perforated the screen of male fantasy, its appeal became inchoate and alarming. Revealingly, the press went after Bertolucci for a response to Schneider’s comments because they weren’t allowed to stand on their own. Essentially accusing Schneider of being an irrepressible hick, Bertolucci told Variety, “Maria was great and wild. Unfortunately, with all the success she had with the movie, it was kind of a shock to her. She didn’t have the cultural background of books and knowledge to filter the ferocious success she had… Also, she fell into the trap of talking too much.” He then goes on to criticize her for bragging about her sex life, her bi-sexuality. Bergman saw Tango as really about two homosexuals, that Maria was a stand-in for a boy. And he argued that the film only made sense on those terms. He recognized the film’s intense sexism and latent homoeroticism.
Over the years, Schneider became very bitter and angry about her involvement in Tango, the breakdown of her relationship with Bertolucci as a filmmaker on the set of his film Novecento, and has even said that both Bertolucci and Brando—the two big B’s—exploited her. Bunuel fired Schneider from That Obscure Object of Desire. Think of what’s happened to women like Debra Winger, who just stopped making films altogether because of the on-screen and off-screen sexism she encountered. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary Searching for Debra Winger, but it’s about this very issue. An issue only people inside the industry would discuss or acknowledge. A lot of the film felt like a breath of fresh air, but it was also an exploration of the silent pacts women in the film industry make, or only share with other women in the industry. And I really respect Winger for being so candid and open and honest about what she dealt with as an actress. I just wish she’d made better role choices! She really epitomizes the feminist backlash of the 80s in many ways, which is a shame, because I really like her. She had a very hard time during her film career—being labeled as “difficult.” Then, add race and class to that—and it becomes a triple attack. In the essay on Wanda that you sent me, the film scholar Bérénice Raymond writes that “Wanda also comments on how women are constantly forced to play a part within the “script” written by men who desire them, so as to play up to this desire.” Schneider, like many other women, realized that it did not benefit her to be “free” outside Tango. In fact, it destroyed her career and made her a social pariah. In this way, Jeanne is a filmic figment, a specter, confined to the spectacality of film; a medium that thrives off the energy of this kind of woman because they know what to do with them if they’re assimilated and contained by a narrative, but not when they’re outside of it, “calling the shots.” The same thing happened to Barbara Loden with Kazan. Thus, one could argue that Wanda, as a woman, is punishment for Ginny Stamper’s behavior in Splendor in The Grass. A woman who is completely cast-off for her rebellion.
Like in life, there is this overwhelming synchronization of “stories” and all of them co-exist and compete for our attention. Make demands on our psychic reserves, creating, much like the internet, a network of desire. In Kleptomania, I intentionally had some of the women appear as actors and some of them appear as on-screen characters because, as you know, on-screen and off-screen narratives and personas constantly overlap and get mixed up. Who and what are we watching? Who are we identifying with? Is it a fusion of fake and real? What is real and what is fake? It’s no longer clear. Marnie, for example, is both Tippie Hedren and Marnie from Hitchcock’s film. Particularly with regard to Hitchcock’s infamous desire for Hedren, and how Connery, as Hitchcock’s alter-ego, deals with his desire for Marnie by pursuing and overpowering her sexually and psychologically. You’re right, too, that Marnie, unlike Wanda, is organized around a Pygmalion premise; by Connery’s psychoanalysis of Marnie. He attempts to re-invigorate her into being the kind of woman he wants her to be. However, what we know about the unconscious is that you can’t possess it. So Marnie’s only escape is that she is un-possessable due to her repression. That’s why Connery’s, Mark Rutland, has to exhume Marnie’s buried memory in order to “enter” her completely. He’s already failed with just rape.
Since those 3 female characters are informing each other in the films themselves, and in the public imagination, in Kleptomania I tried to make them “interact” through the imagination of the female protagonist who is “telling” the story—although that’s too conventional a term for what’s happening. She either hallucinates this “meeting” as a way of resolving the tensions and conflicts of female identity and meaning, as well as the inconsistencies and tragedies of all these real and fictive “women.” In a conversation with Susan Buck-Morss published in Third Text, my father states, “I think interpretations of our old dreams, as well as the dreams of others, play a significant role in the formation of our subsequent dreams.” And this is really what Klepto, and what all my work is about. I mean, in this current media structure, I don’t know if there’s even a valued difference, or need, for real vs. fake. Do we even care anymore? It’s that fake Gucci/Vuitton bag syndrome. People are perfectly happy with fake because fake and real signify the same thing now. Maybe Klepto’s narrator is simply another “female narrative” participating in that dream meeting. Maybe she’s an actress herself. There is something allegorical that each woman—Judy Garland, Diane Keaton, and Marnie—offers. Is a screen heroine more valuable than a non-screen one? Today’s commercial media says she is. And what is the relationship between the two? Obviously, I had to fuck with temporality in the story as well to get at this question. It’s hard to say given the amorphous, narcissistic, and reflective quality of identity, but I do know that it’s all confused. So I tried to make part of the story about making them all deal with each other within the context of each actor’s publicly known Hollywood narrative—their legacies, movies, aesthetic designs, and personal desperations. I mean they’re part of a continuum, right? And real or not, there is a kind of incest going on in the spectator’s unconscious and conscious mind—the imagination—and they’ve got this huge backlog of movies and characters that, in many ways, are all participating in an orgy of references and meanings. Hence, the allusion to identity-theft (or borrowing) by calling the story Kleptomania.
So yes, I do think the legacy of the female star is interpreted very differently than male icons like Jack Nicholson, who is such a metafiction. “Jack” is allowed to reproduce himself endlessly, spawning lots of little Jack babies (the way he does in The Witches of Eastwick, where he is reproduced both biologically and representationally by appearing on multiple television screens in the end) because first and foremost, he is revered as a performer. Whereas, a woman like Marilyn Monroe is ultimately more famous for her extra-filmic activities and intrigues—her affair with JFK, her death, and so on. I think definitely Monroe is more famous for marrying Arthur Miller than Miller is for marrying Monroe. Certainly, his importance as a playwright isn’t overshadowed or compromised. In fact, I would say that his brief allegiance with Marilyn gives him a kind of added literary authority and weight. In other words, he wasn’t just some Communist, literary pansy. He fucked Marilyn Monroe too. Wanda works in the same way in that the movie is not just an “autonomous” work of art, operating on its own hermetic terms, the way that art produced by men often does. But Barbara Loden’s status as Kazan’s wife has as much to do with the film as the film itself. Whereas Kazan’s work is not discussed in relation to Loden. I actually don’t have a problem with that because the demarcation is an invented one, or I should say, a desired one. I just want the same kind of politics of interpretation of on-screen hero and off-screen man to take place in public discourse. That’s why I did this whole disrobing of Nicholson in Klepto. Bringing his off-screen transgressions and misogynies to the forefront, or at least placing them right beside his cinematic performances. Some of the shortcomings of feminist scholarship is the ways in which they honor the binary system to some degree. They either look at the problems of film portrayal, or real women, but not at the ways they work off each other, now more than ever, simply because the overlap itself has become public property/information.
To answer your question about which movies affected me, and how they did, is what partly drove me to write Diegesis. This notion of “The Fiction”—what’s part of it, and what’s not. As a child, I was very affected by movies that I came across as decontextualized fragments, figments. Meaning, I didn’t know what they were called, what I was seeing, what they were about necessarily; or I’d run into them mid-way, while flipping the channel. As a result, these movies burrowed into my mind as a memory I could not distinguish as real or fake. Were they mine, or did other people have them too? For example, my very intense memory/flashback of Don’t Look Now‘s final sequence. You know, that scary scene at the end of the film when the little nightmarish troll is running around in its little red raincoat, luring the poor and desperate Donald Sutherland into a psychic cul-de-sac, and ultimately to his death. That movie reminds me of Moby Dick and of what Laurie Anderson said about the book in her re-enactment of it. That the thing you spend your whole life chasing, trying to attain, will eventually destroy you. Sutherland’s father completely miss-sees, or mis-diagnoses, what he sees. He sees what he sees too late. He thinks the monster (death) is his daughter (life), and hallucinates what he wants to see. As a child, I happened to see that last scene on TV one night, when the monster slits Sutherland’s throat—leaving him to bleed to death. But I only saw that one scene! And it horrified and intrigued me so much I just took it as my own; I incorporated it as my own memory. Until one day in Provincetown, my ex-boyfriend’s wife and little sister were talking about that film in front me. His wife was commenting on how his little sister’s red hoody, which she had zipped up around her face, reminded her of the little changeling from Don’t Look Now. They were laughing about it, and of course, the sister didn’t know the movie either. And even though I had no idea what the film was actually called, or that it even existed, the description and this repressed image came together so vividly, I totally freaked out! This private thing suddenly became public. I said, “Wait, what are you talking about? Where did you see that?” And, of course, being English, an actress, and having seen the film many times, she told me everything about it. So as soon as I came back to the city, I rented Don’t Look Now and that started a whole new relationship to that movie and a love affair with Nicholas Roeg. The same thing happened with movies like The Shining, The Omen, and Jaws. A lot of horror! All these movies pop up a lot in Beauty Talk. I’m sure you know, Daphne Du Maurier wrote the story Don’t Look Now is based on, and Hitchcock made a number of her stories—like The Birds—into movies. So, you see, it’s all connected.
Brian: In an article on Inland Empire and Southland Tales, Amy Taubin talks about how those movies juxtapose seemingly unrelated information and images and themes to startling effect. She likens it to William S Burroughs’ cut-up method, where, to quote William Gibson, “meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” Taubin suggests that the kind of techniques or effects Lynch has been using are part and parcel of the web experience, where you can google your way into a virtual wormhole. One of your stories deals with that in an interesting way, when the narrator sort of recreates a guy she knew by researching him online. [unfortunately I don't have it in front of me at the moment or I would pull a quote] I had an argument once with a friend of mine about the web and how it might have influenced the modern mindset. To me it seems like the advent of sound in film or the automobile, or even film itself, or the railroad, something that not only changed the way people lived but the way they think and perceive. He said it did no such thing, that I was magnifying its relevance on the mind. Yes it was a big thing, huge even, but people are people and they continue to be. I found this weirdly old-fashioned, and simple-minded. I was wondering what your thoughts on this are. A movie like Inland Empire seems unthinkable before the web, to me. Taubin compared Lynch to Bunuel and I agree, but it’s interesting to think how Bunuel might have changed after surfing the web. I’m interested specifically in whether you feel the web has influenced your writing and thinking and even your mindset as an audience. Another question has to do with categories. I wanted to play devil’s advocate a little. It seems to me that part of what makes Lynch and Bunuel so insidiously unsettling is their disregard for boundaries and categories, something your work shares with theirs. And for me part of what makes it so unsettling is the recognition that it exists to such a degree in culture at large, in unlikely bedfellows, inconsistent ideologies, etc. The thing is, who says the male critic who focuses on the vapidity of modern society has to avoid dating the kind of woman you were talking about? I mean who makes these categories and who enforces them, and how can you break one set of boundaries but forbid another in terms of acceptable juxtapositions?
Masha: In Web Life the line, “I spy according to the ages,” has to do with a movement, a zeitgeist and network of desire; how we come to possess it and how we practice it according to historical context. Desire reflects the culture we live in. We have different ways of performing our desire, and Web Life deals specifically with a web-generated sense of curiosity. Even though the story’s narrator drags an earlier framework of desiring, obsession, and surveillance into the picture; it’s the current apparatus of “watching,” wanting, and spying that drives the narrative. She’s on the border of pre-web culture/desire and post-web culture/desire. So, although she uses this “new” technology to police “him,” investigate him, recreate him, assemble him, or dis-assemble him, this device makes her nervous because it’s misleadingly instantaneous and immaterial. Where do all these efforts/searches go? Like any good detective, she thinks there’s always some trace, some evidence or residue of her snooping. And if there isn’t, what room does that leave for real connection and intimacy? For chance? We’re all turning into spies. Most of our spying takes place in the form of celebrity googling. We look at famous people in all kinds of scenarios without actually needing any physical proximity. In this sense, virtual space has really replaced physical space. We are seeing things from the inside while remaining on the outside (somewhere else). This is a new phenomenon–being able to see things we could only previously see by being “intimate” or contextually close in some way. We are the camera, the psycho-mimetic telescope. We are virtual interlopers. We are hypothetically present. We can look up Britney Spears’ mini-skirt and see her bare pussy without ever being anywhere near her or her pussy. What does the body mean when everyone has access to it? The policing of the famous body is certainly the new spectacle, which is not the same as watching a movie or porn. These are not necessarily controlled instances or self-conscious performances. Again what celebrities want you to see, and what they don’t want you to see, is overlapping and converging. Does that mean is everything a publicity ploy? Do categorical demarcations like “behind-the-scenes” or “off-screen” even apply anymore? My father calls this “psychomimetic reciprocation.” In other words, we are responding to, and imitating, an incredible symphony of images, and those images, or spectacles, are being shaped into new ones based on our responses to them. We are appropriating and being appropriated at the same time. The cultural landscape consists of annotations.
Inland Empire is a totally liminal film, in some ways embryonic even, and I’m really interested in indeterminate states because they often suffer linguistic lack. How do we talk about death and horror and loss? A few of my stories from the book deal with some kind of symbolic limbo—like “Peter & Pictures,” for example. In various interviews, Lynch has said that Inland Empire is about “a woman in trouble.” But I think it would probably be more accurate to say that the film is about an unconscious in trouble, since I’m not sure what “woman” means in Empire’s fractured context. Laura Dern’s character(s) aren’t coherent or stable. Instead, there are multiple personalities, fragments, and fissures. The film has a virtual approach in the sense that Empire works off of a network of desire, a virtual network, and abandons any kind of face-value reality, narrative, or identity in favor of the heterogeneity of the unconscious. Lynch does what conventional films don’t do, he de-centers and fractures the narrative—it has no fixed point—so the viewer has no narrative anchor. There is a genealogy, but as Deleuze would say, there is no mother tongue. There are only new things to dart to like a fly landing on new surfaces, sites, links, search engines, etc. In the Village Voice recently, J. Hoberman said that in Empire, “there’s a sense that film itself is evil.” Certainly the politics of media and entertainment are. Evil is the Hollywood Empire and the American Empire conflated into one horrific parable. And “inland” can mean both a kind of domesticity (inclusion) on a national level, or it can refer to a regression and interiority. Meaning, the things that are happening in the film, and in the culture at large, are happening on a psychic level. With the internet’s triumph over public space, we have returned to this embryonic state. We get everything now from the 24hr inside; from the cyber-womb. We have to ask ourselves: what does it mean to never have to leave the “comforts” of your own home?
Empire has two main leads—or doppelgangers—who are also actors playing a part in a movie remake called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The legend is that half-way through the original production, the two leads/off-screen lovers were mysteriously murdered. Thus, film becomes synonymous with trauma, with horror; it’s a danger-zone, a kind of dead-end, which in many ways is what Hollywood cinema/culture has become. By simultaneously layering and skimming across things in a web-like, non-committal, hyper-linked manner, Lynch is suggesting that cinema itself is responsible for the death of these two characters/lovers—both symbolically and literally—and that in some ways these horrors are ineluctable factors of the industry. But he’s also commenting on Hollywood’s on-screen facts as much as the off-screen backdrop of cinematic history and industry lore. Hollywood has its own particular folklore, which has replaced pre-cinematic story-telling and culture (as evidenced by the spooky Grimm’s Fairytale-esque gypsy/clairvoyant, played superbly by Grace Zabriski. Zabriski shows up at Dern’s mansion— which appropriately looks more like a funeral parlor—to outline/forecast what is essentially the plot of the “haunted” movie Nikki’s is going to re-make (as well as the plot of Empire itself), but which sounds more like something preternatural, old-world. A story from Brother’s Grimm. Movies are thus likened to horror and allegorical representation: genres haunt other genres, and cinematic history becomes a kind of topography. A dark path in the medieval forest. The proverbial story of the little “girl at market” that the gypsy tells is simply an older version of Dern’s story in Empire. It is a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and Don’t Look Now. All of Dern’s troubles begin after she receives “the call” that she’s gotten the coveted part as the lead in Blue Tomorrows. This means, what I’ve always suspected, being an actress in Hollywood is a nightmare, not a fantasy come true. Mulholland Drive is similar in this regard. I think both films are about the nightmare of industry and what that nightmare does to women in particular.
One of Empire’s most brilliant “scenes” shows Dern’s character-as-actress shooting her big, Oscar-worthy finale, at 4 in the morning on the intersection of Hollywood and Vine (Hollywood as a kind of entanglement). In it, Nikki/Susan is running/hiding from something horrible—we don’t know what—and then she’s stabbed in the stomach (gutted) by some female alter-ego/nemesis and proceeds to enact a long death sequence along the star-spangled pavement. She dies on the street, surrounded by prostitutes, drug addicts, and homeless people (the only people of color in the film), so that these famous star-monikers—these culturally cemented autographs—come across as hollow distractions from the reality of suffering and despair. From reality period. In this scene, and in many of Lynch’s films, the psycho-topography of Hollywood is the horror. Nikki/Susan is wrapped up in its illusory hype. So that when she finally dies her horrible death, it’s also a moment of enlightenment for her. Lynch frames this awakening by surrounding Dern not with the fraudulent fiction of the “stars,” but with a graphic motif of pain, poverty, disillusionment, and alienation. And it’s very sad.
But just when it seems like the film might finally be over, the audience discovers that the tragedy is simply another layer of performance; another scene in the phantasmagorical horror that Dern is shooting. And it’s such a powerful comment on just how simulated everything has become and how cacophonous and allied that mock-up is; how deeply manipulated and seduced we are by medial narratives, particularly in the current culture of reality TV, War coverage, and 24hr paparazzi documentation. We longer know, or even have an interest in differentiating between staged pain and real pain, actual horror (private horror) vs. screened horror, since all pain, it turns out, is theatricalized, stylized, performed, and packaged as commodity. I was so devastated by that death scene that when Lynch pulls back the camera to reveal more camera, a corpus of cameras, a fun-house of cameras—a kind of cinematic scaffolding—it just made me feel so powerfully manipulated and besieged. On the one hand, I was shocked because I was so deeply invested in what I was seeing, in what was on the screen, in was happening to her, that despite the film’s determined reflexivity, it never occurred to me to question the scene’s “validity.” On the other hand, I sort of felt relieved to think that in an age of such detachment, ambivalence, cynicism, corruption, and savage irony, I could actually still tap into an allegorical representation of pain. I mean that’s part of what you want from art, right? In that moment, Lynch does what any “making of” documentary does on a DVD special feature. He goes behind the film—he undermines it—while simultaneously constructing the film’s front wall and persuading the viewer with its specific tautology. I think rather than breaking those projects into two separate things, he combines them. Plays them alongside each other.
In another brilliant reoccurring scene (dream), Nikki, in a state of deja vu, asks her double, Susan, “Haven’t I seen you before?” At one point, she even walks into an empty movie theater and confronts herself—her cinematic image—on screen in real-time. In other words, she is watching herself ask/perform this question. This makes it less a movie moment and more live surveillance footage. She asks herself, or her double (her screen-self, acting-self, dream-self, public-self—whatever), “Haven’t I seen you before? Haven’t we all seen these personas before? Aren’t we in this constant state of recognition, recall, deja vu? Aren’t we all confused about what we’re seeing and what we’ve seen? About who’s who? Given that most of our interactions are increasingly channeled through representation, the question couldn’t be more timely.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that DVD special features have become these natural extensions of a film’s identity, or overall makeup, nor that they’re the direction that film viewing is going in. This kind of front and back exposition is happening everywhere else too—we have the master-narrative and we have this instant reciprocity that takes place between the master-narrative and all its little sub-narratives and footnotes. The master-narrative is screened and at the same time commented on. In other words, there is instant reciprocity. Think about the whole idea of being able to watch a movie with the director or cast’s commentary literally running over it. Or when you listen to the CNN news alpha-narrative while simultaneously reading the “B movie,” or “tabloid” ticker, below. While the DVD “commentary feature” is always optional of course, there is the sense that the commentary, and the star or director’s persona, is more important, or just as important, as the “artistic” (main) narrative. Of course, in many ways these behind-the-scenes glimpses are equally interesting and create the narrative sequel I was talking about earlier in relation to Last Tango. It gives film a doppelganger–a twin–an instant reflection of itself, and which doesn’t really leave any room to process anything. Of course, this is a strategy. So the supplemental “extra” has become everything.
So, yes, I do think that Lynch’s Inland Empire works within a specifically web-mentality or context, and that Empire directly reflects and echoes a culture of cyber-technology and new media. In Empire, we don’t know what we are seeing. The political philosopher Susan Buck-Mores says, “to speak about the global is to speak about media.” She also says that without a common language, which we don’t have, the global public sphere relies heavily on images, which of course makes any kind of collectivity superficial. Lynch is thus using this new media lexicon in his work. He tosses cultural signs around and creates a Deleuzian rhizome of multiplicities. That is, the “principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.” His film, like the internet, surfs the unconscious and then constantly detaches and re-attaches. Like the web, or satellite TV, Empire is intensely associative and has endless channels. The web is less a concentrated effort, and more a sample, a buffet of lots of different meanings. We are less and less in the concrete, and more and more in the virtual, in the symptomatic, in The Shining maze, in the backlog of dreams, footprints, nightmares, chimeras, and fragments. I wonder if the box in Mulholland Drive has something to do with this? Is it a kind of virtual parallel? Like Dern’s characters, we are in some sort of limbo, a virtual ersatz, though our problems are still deeply rooted in social reality. In Empire, Lynch replaces classical narrative filmmaking with a virtual reproduction because these terms, or categories, are so much more relevant. I would imagine that he views these approaches as anachronistic and nostalgic throwbacks to a world and collective psyche we cling to and constantly reiterate, but no longer embody. I guess that’s where his interest in kitsch and naiveté come in—think of Noami Watts’ clichéd, fresh-faced, corn-fed “actress” in Mulholland. She is both sides of the Hollywood fable. She’s its caricaturized surface, the recycled fairytale, and she is its neglected, exploited, rotting corpse. The miserable guts of the Hollywood myth. What’s really interesting about Lynch’s last three films is the way in which they operate almost exclusively on a psychoanalytic level. In other words, as a key-hole into the unconscious that we can never fully return from. Though some critics, like Amy Taubin, claim that in Empire, Dern’s character “comes back” in an optimistic way. I’m not sure about that. Empire’s sunny finish might be more of a memory, a form of nostalgia. Ending in the past, rather than the present.
Two things usually happen when I talk about “boundaries”—the implementation of boundaries versus the disintegration of boundaries. It falls on deaf ears or it’s dismissed as moralistic and reductive. We have transgressions that are sanctioned and official in the alternative art/literary world, and we have transgressions—much more complex examples—that are not embraced as “cool.” Hence transgression can also be a reductive and limiting category. It has it’s own boundaries and restrictions and capacities for cliché—as you put it. Stereotypically, we tend to regard perforations and adventures (participation) into the taboo as transgressive and radical— let’s say a kind of hedonistic or bodily notion of transgression: you sample things, you try them, you test your limits, your test other people’s limits; you immerse yourself in the very things that are supposedly “not allowed.” But what about the opposite? What about abstainment? Within the liberal intelligentsia, we have completely moved away from any discourse of abstainment (think of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal and the absolute shunning of any kind of critique that took into consideration power and sexism. The only criticism of Clinton, apart for a few cultural critics, came from the right.) and exile because of its association with right-wing discourse, or just religious discourse in general. In other words, repression and shame. Historically many monks were scholars and philosophers. They weren’t just religious advocates locked away in a tower of fear, ignorance, and guilt. This is a cliché. What I’m interested in, however, is the evolution of that discourse and why it has no place in progressive thinking. How do we live in the world and simultaneously abstain and remain vigilant in a progressive way? Do we always have to spatially isolate ourselves in order to do that (be hermits or monks?). Can we integrate and reject on a daily basis? I mean that’s what’s really required for most of us. It’s easy to be radical about the “big things.” What about everyday things? What does it mean to say that the personal is political? That life is? When are we accomplices, and when are we rebels? What makes our critiques real? It’s easier to be critical about an established political administration that has a rich history of protest and activism attached to it for people to hook into, than it is to be vigilant about the more abstract and banal aspects of social control. If our critiques don’t show-up as practice, and materialize into anything concrete–into choosing when to be discriminating and when to be inclusive—how do we evaluate ourselves? For me, activism is daily. Deleuze says we must give up the idea of a Revolution and replace it with being revolutionary. The self as activist, which is also an Emersonian ideal. Change starts with the self. This whole notion of the radical self has been co-opted by the self-help movement’s denial of social reality and systematic oppression. It’s not just about the “self.” The self cannot conquer everything, nor is it responsible for extracting itself alone out of suffering and injustice. Sarah Schulman wrote that activism is one daily act of resistance. Say and do something radical and brave everyday. So it’s about instilling boundaries, not just removing them. I think it’s an exchange. For me, cultural abstainment really just means thinking against the grain in every possible way that you can.