Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review: Life As We Show It and We Saw the Light

Life As We Show It: Writing On Film
eds. Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn
Published by City Lights

We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry
by Daniel Kane
Published by University of Iowa Press

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Two books about the connections between cinema and writing in the US, published within a month of each other. Both lay claim to a community of “we” based in experimental art, predominantly as practised by queer artists. And there’s absolutely zero connections or cross-over between them. I find that strange.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these two books is discerning the meaning of we as used in each title, given that their imputed community is so divergent. Maybe it’s a generational thing: Life As We Show It collects contemporary writers, while We Saw the Light tells a critical anecdotal history of the crazy years (1950s-70s) of the American avant-garde through conversations discovered between the work of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, and poets such as Frank O’Hara, Jack Spicer and Allen Ginsburg. Kane notes the boycentric universe he’s caught up in, in his introduction, and also notes that it’s not ‘corrected,’ but certainly broadened by a wonderful conversation between filmmaker Jennifer Reeves and poet Lisa Jarnot about Reeves’ 2004 film The Time We Killed, in which Jarnot plays an agoraphobic bisexual writer. Anyone considering a collaboration across genres will be inspired by this fascinating piece – as will anyone wondering about the (ongoing) place of women in the avant-garde.

Despite the plethora of queer artists included, Kane never fully divines or discerns the cultural function of homosociality in the avant-garde. Did poets and filmmakers meet because they were marginalised by their sexuality as well as their aesthetic interests? Is avant-gardism in America essentially queer? No answers, but Kane does offer some wonderful descriptions of little-known (and hard-to-see) films and a fantastic map to the sexually, as well as artistically, interconnected scenes (angels giving head to hipsters?) of the East Coast.

That’s the other divide right there: Life as We Show It is everything that being published by City Lights suggest it will be: a diverse range of voices from New Queer (mainly West Coast) writing, including fan favourites Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Rebecca Brown, Lynne Tillman, Robert Glück, David Trinidad and Abdekkah Taïa. Not one of the writers in the book mentions a single film or author in Kane’s book. Pera and Tupitsyn have missed potential bridging contributors such as filmmaker and poet Abigail Child (who has worked on both coasts), late filmmaker and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, poet LeAnn Howe, Jarnot herself – all part of the same Naropa circuit.

It’s an exemplum of how swiftly the avant-garde is forgotten because it doesn’t circulate in the same way as mainstream cinema, and – on the showing of Life – because Americans rarely have access to anything outside their own pop culture at an impressionable age. This is the post-avant garde generation, whose voices are largely ironic and mainly autobiographical, “viewing life through screen-tinted glasses,” to quote the blurb. Slanted through the prismatic lens of (for the most part) popular American cinema, the book suggests a febrile (perhaps fatal) postmodernity where reality is framed by, and processed through, its simulacral representations in pop culture.

The finest pieces in the book – by Bellamy, Killian, Brown, Taïa and poet Fanny Howe – step beyond that Gen X campness, practised to the highest order in a sonata pathetique on Elizabeth Taylor by Wayne Koestenbaum. Killian takes up, in a surprisingly critical manner, the hints of masturbation in “screen-tinted glasses” and castigates the production and spectatorship of violent and abusive pornography through his clever and well-reasoned take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Tale of Goodman Brown (one of the few literary references in this work of literature). Taïa and Howe both address films from beyond the (anti-) canon of popular American cinema: Taïa writes movingly, and erotically, about encountered gay desire through an obscure French film broadcast on late-night Moroccan TV while his mother sleeps right behind him, while Howe encounters Stalinist Russia at its bleakest in “After Watching Klimov’s Agoniya.” These pieces have a socio-political context, clearly but never didactically established, in which cinema figures both freedom of representation and the hope or desire for change.

Bellamy and Brown show that’s not an impossible effect to achieve when writing about American cinema, and Richard Grayson’s touching “The Forgotten Movie Screens of Broward County” queers the multiplex in a charming, if slightly sentimentalised, way. Bellamy, writing about her mother’s last weeks and death, revivifies E.T. by pouring her heart into it to find the heart of it. “Phone Home” is almost unbearably moving as it replays and replays scenes from the film and from life, without allowing the former to become a distancing frame for the latter. The emphasis here is on life. Brown’s tribute to her father takes a different approach, through an in-depth account of the paradigmatic Western Shane – a film that perhaps doesn’t mean much to British viewers, but which is part of the deep mythology of the American West. Figuring out patriarchs and Manifest Destiny, Brown’s cool style cumulatively builds its rhetorical and affective rhythms.

Like many of the authors, Brown is obsessively concerned with star power, investigating the effect of actors reappearing across genres and film. She intimates that such performativity suggests each of us contains a “we” of different modes of being that appear at different times and places, and that this is how and why cinema has such a hold on our imagination, especially as video and DVD enable us to watch and re-watch films at different moments in our life. As in Bellamy’s essay, Brown observes brilliantly the effect of the observer on the observed. Not so much Life as We Show It as Cinema as It Shows Us. There’s no reason to follow E.T.’s pointing finger, or Elizabeth Taylor’s earrings, otherwise.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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