How do you prefer to watch movies? Do you think the way in which you watch a film contributes to your reaction to it?
The film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “When one considers the different rates at which people read, it’s miraculous that films can ever solve the problem of a pace at which audiences can ‘read’ a film together.’” It’s funny, a lot of people react to that line in LACONIA—where I write about watching movies alone. It’s like blasphemy when it comes to cinema. But it’s true. I do prefer to watch movies alone, for a lot of different reasons. I think they come in a different way when you watch them alone. When you do anything alone. I also started watching movies that way as a kid, and the way you start is maybe the way you always stay. I am really selective about who I watch movies with, so I had like movie friendships. Friendships that were based on watching movies together and talking about them. But I’ve moved away from that more and more, and DVDs and streamed movies only exacerbate my tendency. And since I’m also someone who writes about movies, I have particular tics and ways of watching them that would irritate someone who’s just trying to watch a movie for (uninterrupted) “pleasure,” because I’m constantly interrupting the cinematic fold, so to speak. Or maybe I’m never even in it in the way that a traditional viewer is supposed to be, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it intensely. Where you don’t talk while a movie is playing. You don’t stop and start a movie. Go back, go forwards. Re-watch. Watch a movie too late or over a period of 2 days. But for me it’s less about watching and more about working through a film: what it’s doing, what it’s trying to do, what it’s showing, what it’s not showing. What it does to me. What it does to the world it’s in as well the world that’s in a film. The world it makes and that makes a film possible.
There are two quotes about cinema from Steve Erickson‘s novel Zeroville that I always think about. The first is: “Last night, the movie became mine and no one else’s.” Which is the idea that there is a kind of alchemy between a film (the true or secret film that is underneath the false film, as Erickson says repeatedly, which is the one everyone watches together—the “official film—at the same time. The film you’re meant to read in a certain way) and a viewer, so that cinema is also about who’s watching it—the chemistry between a particular film and a particular viewer, at a particular time, and that, like a book, has an ideal reader that contributes to the meaning and existence of that book, and the writer who writes it—a film needs the right pair of eyes to really see it.
The second quote from Zeroville that applies to what we’re talking about is: “The thing is, that movie last night is a completely different movie when you watch it by yourself. Why is that? Movies are supposed to be watched with other people, aren’t they? Isn’t that part of the point of movies—you know, one of those social ritual things, with everyone watching? It never occurred to me that a movie might be different when you don’t watch it with anyone else.” Having said this, it’s important to distinguish the critical, discerning, and radical intimacy between a viewer and a film from a kind of purely fetishistic and possessive relationship to images that is dangerous and titillating and alienating, and which Michael Haneke so brilliantly conjures in Benny’s Video, for example. And with Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero. Where images are used to feel less, not more. Where images are used to cut us off from knowing what things really even feel like in the real world—off the screen. To engage with the real world less, or only via the screen. So that Benny thinks killing a pig, or watching a pig get killed, is the same thing as killing a girl in real life, in his house.
What I’m interested in now is an evolution of what I’ve always been interested in when it comes to film: The cinematic subjunctive. That is, the relationship between what’s possible in the cinema (how the cinema influences and/or hijacks our idea of possibility and potentiality) and what’s possible or not possible in real life—the gap(s) in between and what those gaps do to and mean for us—for our hopes, desires, and dreams; whether they limit and expand them, whether they hold them hostage in cinematic space, and how one—offscreen vs. onscreen—affects, shapes, and confuses the other. How they overlap and blur. Rub up against each other and clash. Sometimes even cancel each other out. Which is, in many ways, what I’ve been looking at all along—in LACONIA, Beauty Talk & Monsters, and Life As We Show It. For me, the real question is always: What do images want and what do we want from images? But not just from images when we look at them, but what wants of ours are stored in and reflected back to us (often unconsciously) by/through images—films? And can we access and live those wants and desires unless they are mediated and contained by images? How do images mediate and contain us? And more, how do we live because of movies? For as Geoffrey O’Brien writes in his book about movies, Phantom Empire: “If only it had been possible to live like this.” This is what every movie is always engaging with and putting us in touch with—if only it were possible to have this, to want this, to be this. Because as O’Brien also points out: “It wasn’t narrative that drew them but the spaces that the narratives permitted to exist.”
What is your favorite period in film history?
It varies culturally, of course. Whether it’s European cinema or Third World Cinema or avant-garde cinema. But in American cinema, it’s the 1930s and 1970s. With the 1930s, you have this athletic, dexterous, and energetic attention to language. To the elliptical way people talk and feel. Their rigorous back and forth—a sign of tenacity—of not being able to let something or someone go. I think one of the great things about the screwball comedies of yesteryear (and there are many) is their velocity, because that speed and energy and attention have to do with the quantity and quality and intensity of feeling and interaction and desire. In the 1930s, as Geoffrey O’Brien writes, “a movie was a completed destiny,” which has so much to do with the motif of time and memory; the way the characters live in and through and for time. So there’s this wonderful cadence and rhythm to everything. To the way things are felt and said and done. And in the 70s, you had the recognition of social reality and what it does to people’s lives. You had incredible doubt and skepticism and suspicion of dominant power structures, so that for a moment there was a sense that things could change politically and socially.
What’s your biggest critique of the industry?
Exactly that—industry. The way everything gets turned into industry these days, including people. I think Beauty Talk & Monsters really answers that question though.
Who do you most admire?
To quote James Baldwin again—which I’ve done so many times: “True lovers are as rare as true rebels.” I admire people who are wholly dynamic: attune, thinking, against the grain—alive. People who believe in love. People you come across once in a blue moon.
The subject matter of the book skips quicker than any book I’ve read, yet it’s always the same subject creating an unusual sort of narrative shift. Topics change as quickly as a tweet pops up! Why the Twitter format for a book and why the subject of film contemplated using tweets?
Actually it doesn’t skip, or jump. It simply tries to find other ways of building narrative (an arc even) and accumulating meaning. The book cycles through themes and comes back to things—key ideas, motifs, obsessions—over and over. The films and tweets talk to each other and echo each other. I was constantly returning to things. Reframing, zooming in and zooming out. LACONIA is tightly woven. In his essay about Roland Barthes’ The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at The College de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980)—on the novel Barthes was going to write, was preparing to write, but never did—David Winter notes: “The fragments thread together, each epiphany at rest in its medium.” The medium, in this case, Twitter, is a container (the set) for all the disparate sources that thread meaning today—meaning that is also hanging by a thread—and from which we must try to make new sense. A different kind of sense. In an interview about Salo, Pasolini said, “When I shoot a film, I’m really just collecting material. Therefore, I choose a set or a natural location. And I collect material depending on the light and whatever’s there.” And I feel the same way about Twitter. It was the “light” that was there for what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. LACONIA is a minimalist text with a lot in it. I was trying to reject the “macroscopic fact,” as Pasolini put it, “of the new human epoch.”
David Winters concludes his essay on Barthes “novel” by writing: “It is truer now than it was thirty years ago that ‘those who write want to produce books, but what’s disappeared is the intentionality that characterizes the Work as a personal monument, a mad object that the writer is totally invested in”. LACONIA is absolutely my mad object—a mad object made out of and in reaction to a mad and fragmented world. What Avital Ronell in her discussion of Kafka refers to as, “Giving up the spectacular for the speck in a distressed landscape.”
Quotes seem the thread connecting the dots in your book, one quote leads to another and the web creates a clarity of vision as a movie quote leads to a lyric which encompasses the entirety of a novel, or something not quite so immense. Was this intentional or organic as you updated your twitter feed?
I was pretty intentional with everything. That’s why LACONIA became a book to begin with. I was working through periods in cinema, genres, directors. And the quotes were an extension of this connectedness and relationality. The quotes would pull from a film or a film would pull from a quote. I wanted to create a multi-layered conversation between different sources and disciplines, even though the project was also about reduction and concentration. So each quote that I use, for example, not only comes from a variety of sources—films, books, music—but becomes a stepping stone; a connective thread and tissue that works in tandem with all of the material and assemblage that’s being culled. In the end you get a kind of cultural textile that’s made from cultural textiles. The book is really a map. The map that films make, as well as the maps they make of our lives. The book is in part an answer song to someone I used to know, who said that they had to read my writing in doses in order to absorb it. So in a way, the book is a response to that idea. The tweets are doses. The book, among other things, is an extended prose-poem about the movies. A literary experiment as much as a piece of film criticism. That’s why I end my foreword to LACONIA with the quote by Joe Baltlake: “The way a person connects the lines; the way he or she responds to a movie, says a lot about them.” Movies happen to be my engine for thinking.
How many followers did you have while tweeting LACONIA? How many followers have you accrued since publication?
The first year and a half I was using Twitter, I was only creating creative content on it, so I was hardly ever communicating with people. And the people I did communicate with, I wrote to via direct messages, so almost never mentions. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of content in the feed. Mentions are public and part of a feed. I wasn’t socializing on Twitter, and that was really the point. Weirdly, I was able to preserve a kind of virtual hermitage on Twitter, which was important to me. But after a while, people started writing to me to tell me that they really liked what I was writing, or to share some idea or thought with me, and my “following” expanded organically and over time. Now it mostly includes film communities, which has been great, and has given me a new kind of audience. I think I have about 800 followers now. And like everyone else, I started with one.
Do you have a guilty pleasure person that you follow on Twitter? What about their tweets intrigues you?
I honestly only follow (and have only ever followed) people, magazines or blogs based on content, and whether that content is valuable to me. Not for any other reason. So I tend not to follow celebrities or well-known people just because they’re on Twitter, especially because celebrities never follow anyone but other celebrities. And that paradigm doesn’t interest me. Or rather, it does, only not in a way that reproduces it, but that looks at how it works.
Has Twitter contacted you since the publication of LACONIA? If so, what was that conversation like?
No, they haven’t! But besides celebrities, do they contact anyone? There have been a couple of novels written on Twitter.
You explain that the restriction of letters the tweet mandates interests you, can you explain? And if it interests you, then why do you break from it? Ideas flow from one tweet to the next, suggesting you disregard the constriction.
Well, I really wanted to write in close-ups. Having said this, there were a number of ideas driving LACONIA. Samuel Beckett talked about the logic of reduction—making things really lean and taut. The logic of reduction slows everything down, like making it slow motion. It slows you down as a writer, as an observer, as a thinker. Then there is the aphorism and being interested in what the aphorism does and can do. I wanted to write 21st Century aphorisms. Derrida talks about the passion of an aphorism. What one has to do to have something small contain everything. That is, to see everything contained in something minor, which leads us to Kafka’s nano-project and the nano-maneuvers he performs in his writing; and the nano-maneuvers I wanted to perform in LACONIA (LACONIA opens with Deleuze and Guattari’s quote about minor literature—about how the minor literature is political and enunciative). In the class I’m taking now with Avital Ronell, who’s been lecturing about Kafka, she talks about staying with one line all semester—staying with the speck(s) of literature. Because Kafka focuses on the speck. Flecks that seem insignificant or meaningless, but are actually everything, the way in movies (and poetry), tiny little glances and gestures and lines between characters are everything. Create an entire story. An emotional economy. A life. So that gestures, along with narratives and ideas, are not always these “grand” sweeping things or projects. And that’s what LACONIA tries to do too—focus on the little speck, fleck. The scratch. The trace. Like the shirt a man in a movie wears and sweats through, soaks; won’t take off, even though the heat is intolerable. He goes through it, bears it like an emotional burden. That’s one of the things I write about in the book and those details speak volumes to me. People always talk about writing for/to the most amount of people. But I always write for one, and the writing in LACONIA felt like a logical and organic extension of that. Writing one sentence, for one person. Nano and nano.
In answer to your question about why I also broke with this strict form at times. I wanted to heighten the sentence and charge it with meaning, as Ezra Pound said, and often 140 characters were enough to do that. But at times I also wanted to engage in a more extended micro-criticism by writing multiple posts. By stretching an idea more. As I write in the foreword to the book, over time the form evolved, and I wanted to accommodate that evolution since the project was daily and took place over the course of a year. So it changed as I went along. When I felt the 140-character limit was restricting, I began to look for ways to get around it. To experiment with Twitter’s given form. I broke posts into multiple entries, which means that I was both honoring the conventions and breaking with the conventions, as all writing should do. Use something and discard it.
You write about reality being left out of contemporary cinema, for example movies never explain where the money comes from to pay the pizza guy delivering pizza nor do they care to go into depth about his life. And therefore viewers are left out, as story lines don’t acknowledge any other existence. Could you elaborate on this newfound insularity?
The majority of today’s Hollywood movies are guilty of this. They show how love happens, for example; what people go through to find love, or themselves, but unless it’s actually part of the story itself, money and house and job and success are always just a given. Like in Eat, Pray, Love—Elizabeth can afford to “find” herself. But edifying oneself is expensive and tied to a social reality. What if Elizabeth weren’t professionally successful, what would her story of enlightenment have looked like, and would people have responded to her “enlightenment” if it hadn’t been glamorous? What if Elizabeth weren’t white and educated? I would really love to know and too see how most people get jobs and money in this country because that fact of life continually eludes me, and continually eludes representation—is represented by a jump in time: Some students have graduated from college and now they all have good jobs and nice places to live. The degree worked! Money is in the bank. But what was and what is the process? And why is it a given that people automatically have all these things that are so fucking expensive to have? Have nice houses and clothes and cars and apartments. Young people, too. So if you need a vacation, all you have to do is take one. Not, how am I going to afford it? How am I going to pay for things? Because a house on the perfect beach or a nice hotel room in Paris costs hundreds of dollars, especially the lavish hotels we typically see in American movies. There was some attempt, for example, to try to acknowledge that in Bridesmaids—the fact that for her to be a “perfect” bridesmaid, Kristen Wiig’s character needs a lot of money and that she “fucks up” throughout the movie and gets cut off from everyone—her best-friend’s wedding, as well as her best-friend—basically because she’s broke, struggling, and can’t be upfront about that. Because everyone can afford everything in the movie. Mostly, I feel like Wiig’s character is just singled out for her situation and the reality of it. Reality period. So the reality is turned into a farce. Like is it really so unacceptable to not be able to afford things in this culture? Is that what makes us socially acceptable and viable, and is that really all we have to offer to the world? Our capital? Are we just circulating commodities between each other or operating in the system as a commodity. Even friendship is a fucking commodity. I thought Woody’s Allen’s Midnight in Paris was psychotically obsessed with the veneer of wealth. It wasn’t: this is the dream of wealth. It was: this is reality. And not just wealth is a reality for a few select people, but wealth is the reality for everyone. There is no other reality and this is what Paris looks like—like a sanitized playground, not a real city with real problems. Because the reductive fantasy is the reality for Allen. He doesn’t even present it self-consciously, even though the film is about the male character’s cultural fantasy and nostalgia for the avantgarde.
You show the movie fantasy as above money and class. Why do you think that is and why do audiences (and let’s face it most people these days are BROKE) paying for this? Do you see the war in Iraq and the new recession as part of this need to escape? How does this differ from cinema in the late 30’s and early 40’s?
This is a very big question. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during times of war, instability, national hysteria and global instability—at least in this country—people retreat and take refuge in the biological and domestic sphere. In the things they feel they can control and that also barricade them. In the 70s (as well as movies made during and about 30s and 40s about the Great Depression), movies and television shows actually tried to address the reality of money and class. Of working. Of social structures. People actually had a class! They lived in shitty or normal apartments (see my video essay on the films of the 70s). But now the gloss is everything, and everything is glossed over, and we evade the realities of what living is actually like for most people. What’s more, we identify with the elite, instead of resenting them. We don’t want to see what’s happening reflected back to us in images. A movie like My Man Godfrey (1936) (You can watch the entire film on YouTube) is amazing for this reason. It’s seemingly just a film about the glamour of wealth and luxury, but really it’s a complex and nuanced film about the Depression; about identifying with the poor and working class. About what it means—ethically—to have money. To OWN. Movies also make us feel as though we can control things. We can soften and open ourselves through movies—take leaps of faith—and also keep our fantasies contained and escapist. In the movies, the subjunctive—the: what if and I wish—is possible. Movies are an escape, but they also bring us very close to the things we desperately long for. But what are we even wishing for these days? Who and what? It kills me that love has been kind of left behind at the movies. Stranded at the movies, while the rest of the culture gets tragically cynical and anti-love. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think movies are also equally fucked up about love and haven’t given us disastrous discourses and clichés on love and sex and gender.
Why the obsession with John Cusack? I’ve seen you say on Facebook you’re writing a book solely based on him and recently he contacted you. Can you give us details!?
It’s not an obsession with John Cusack. It’s a fascination with Lloyd Dobler and the mythos of Cusack’s idealized masculinity. I think his screen persona is unique and complex. If anything, as you’ll note from the long essay I recently published on him (the first chapter from my book on John Cusack), and from my posts about him on Facebook, when Cusack contacted me regarding my essay, I wasn’t that interested in actually talking to or meeting him. The fact that he wrote to me and took a genuine interest in my work is flattering and totally surreal of course, but I’m not a journalist and I’m not writing a biography on him, so I don’t need him to verify or confirm things for me. I’m interpreting his work and I want the freedom to do that. So I kind of held him at bay when he asked that we talk on the phone or skype. It might be interesting to meet at some point, and we agreed to maybe do that, but it’s not crucial for me.
Masha Tupitsyn is the author of LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk &; Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009), which was voted one of the best film books of 2009 by Dennis Cooper, January Magazine, Shelf Awareness, and Chicago’s New City. She is currently working on a new book of essays on film, Screen to Screen, as well as a book about John Cusack called Star Notes: John Cusack and The Politics of Acting. Her fiction and criticism has appeared in the anthologies Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (2008) and the Encyclopedia Project Volume II, F-K (2010), as well as Keyframe, Spectre Magazine, BOMB Blog, Indiewire’s Press Play, Venus Magazine, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Animal Shelter, Fanzine, Make/Shift, NYFA, Fence, Five Fingers Review, and San Francisco’s KQED’s The Writer’s Block. She regularly contributes video essays on film and culture to Ryeberg Curated Video, which features writers like Mary Gaitskill and Sheila Heti. She was recently commissioned to write a radio play for Performa 11, the New Visual Art Performance Biennial, in conjunction with Frieze Magazine.