Girls on film in books

By Michelle Tea

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Masha Tupitsyn’s Beauty Talk and Monsters experiments with a feminist mashup of fiction and film comment

INTERVIEW A girl is tooling around the well-lit, oceany landscape of Cape Cod, an internal monologue spinning like a split ribbon of cellophane rotating in a dark theater. “My heart shoots a million miles a minute and I know I have a heart, a big one, which is already a head start,” she wisely intuits. What else is going on in the mind of this kid, who has already seized on cinema as both a crystal ball into the culture and a crystal ladder to climb up into the world? “I want everyone I know and don’t know to sit down and watch, think about me the way they’d think about a character in a movie. Think about me as though I have a chance,” she wishes. “If I mattered on my own, I wouldn’t need movies.” So it goes in “Diegesis (The World of Fiction),” the first piece in experimental provocateur Masha Tupitsyn’s Beauty Talk and Monsters, a literary mashup of postmodern fiction and sharp-eyed film criticism, dreamy, subconscious narrative, and stinging feminist observation, with perhaps a backbeat of memoir.

On the outside of the book — Tupitsyn’s first, recently published by avant-arbiters Semiotext(e) — a lipsticked mouth chokes on a faceful of crystal and scuzzy glitter. On the inside, all sorts of things happen: the young, yearning heroine of “Diegesis” aims herself at a spectral older boy, and her infatuation takes her in and out of movie theaters (she gets Dirty Dancing while he gets Jean de Florette), into the perverse, Top Gun–inspired make-out games of a female friend, and finally, into the ocean itself, into which she flings herself, fully clothed, in a valiant effort to make a spectacular impression on the blasé boy, who is more interested in clam chowder and David Bowie. Tupitsyn’s particular magic is in winding this path to the sea not just through the familiar physicality of coming-of-age revelations, but also into unexpected wormholes of film analysis and philosophy, where a laser of female intelligence is focused on The Night Porter, Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, Badlands, and, yes, Top Gun and Dirty Dancing.

The experience of reading Beauty Talk and Monsters is humid, intimate, and juicy; like spying through a window at a neighbor’s television set, it provides both the voyeuristic pleasure of watching a stranger’s activity and the familiar flicker of a well-known film, now playing in said stranger’s psyche. Tupitsyn imagines Hitchcock’s Marnie, Judy Garland, and Diane Keaton sharing a cocktail; the shark in Jaws gets reenvisioned as Vagina Dentata; and the archetypes of New York City’s stiletto-wearing women and blondes are called out as fascist falsehoods. The prose roils with hurt feelings and reaches for a political understanding of cultural pain — the too-tall, power-hungry boss; the video store boys who humiliate the angry girl while trying to get into the pants of her simpler, blonder best friend. The voice inhabiting the prose lashes out against and participates in the confinement of female competition, sawing off the offending stilettos of the oppressive employer and intellectually topping the best friend, whose light hair and disposition grant her the dubious privilege of sexual attention from lecherous men.

“I think the biggest threat and challenge to feminism is this sense that women must be singular in order to be powerful and visible,” Tupitsyn tells me. “That they need to knock a lot of other women down — as some social rite of passage — in order to claim some symbolic space for themselves. In terms of the dominant culture, women don’t ‘advance’ in groups. They don’t share the spotlight — they’re not allowed to. They’re tokenized like other, racial minorities. So, who’re we going to fight with if we’re marginalized? The other woman who is seemingly obstructing the path to what you want, or the patriarchy, that might give you what you want?”

And just as the narrators in Beauty Talk and Monsters struggle against a landscape blind to intellectual depth and the imaginative possibility of female intelligence, so has Tupitsyn pushed against a literary world suspicious, if not scornful, of the blatant genre-fucking she indulges in.

“I’ve gotten a lot of shit,” she confirms. “Over the years, people have really discouraged my approaches. And if you’re not completely dedicated to standing up to it, to pushing through it, the discouragement can be totally damaging and distracting. Because you see people blatantly benefiting from the compromises they make, from the conventions they uphold — not just formally, but thematically and politically.”

In a subsection of the essay-story “Kleptomania,” titled “Holiday Blockbuster,” a reading of Jack Nicholson plays like a ferocious, feminist manifesto: “He’s always doing antagonistic shit like that and being loved for it. For his mean honesty and phallic bravado. He’s always free-basing. You know, taking artistic chances. Like the time, early on, when he smacked Faye Dunaway across a room, or when he terrorized Shelley Duvall, with Kubrick’s help, kicking and screaming in the snow like some baby in a sandbox.” Characters, sure, but Tupitsyn continues with details of the actor’s own celebrated bad-boy antics, such as fucking prostitutes with his cocaine-tipped dick, or fucking prostitutes and refusing to pay them, which earned him an assault-and-battery charge in 1996.

So if Nicholson persists as the quintessential male rebel icon, who would be the anti-Nicholson? Or the female one? “An anti-Nicholson would be any actor who isn’t building on the accumulated egotistic tensions and subtexts of previous roles,” Tupitsyn says. “Nicholson rides on his own coattails all the time. It’s like he’s laying these parasitic eggs in every movie. He’s known as this male-rebellion actor — which started with Easy Rider — but what he’s really reacting against is women. The female Nicholson might be Madonna, I think. I actually say as much in ‘Kleptomania,’ which is about intergenerational female movie icons and characters — specters — meeting up through the analysis that I perform. One female producer, Julia Philips, who was the first woman to win an Oscar for producing, even wanted to do a remake of Carnal Knowledge in the ’80s with Madonna playing the Nicholson role. That makes perfect sense to me because Madonna is the phallic woman par excellence.”

Beauty Talk and Monster’s obsession with film and the personalities — real and imagined — that populate it makes me imagine the sort of movie it could be adapted into, one that sampled as heavily from other cinema as the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique did from other music. Tupitsyn sees a criticism-thick book like hers as an unlikely inspiration for film, but she imagines that “Diegesis” or the story “Cinematic Synchronicity,” which explores romantic longing, could work. “They’re both scenic and rely heavily on place, or places, as a source of narrative and illustration. Each place means something. Landscape functions as a cinematic character or set. David Lynch does that a lot too — uses Hollywood itself as a psychic stage to build on. There is a very thin line between onscreen and offscreen in this culture and in the book as a result. ‘Diegesis’ and ‘Synchronicity’ are so self-conscious, and that makes them camera ready instead of camera shy. But the book is about critical engagement, and that’s a hard thing to put a camera to!”