Picture Cycle

Kevin Killian's introduction to Masha Tupitsyn's New Book of Essays

I. Different But Same: An Introduction to the Introduction

I recently went on a Lou Reed kick, listening to his solo albums again because they’re less familiar to me than the Velvet Underground albums I listened to in high school, and also more interesting. “Women” and “Street Hassle” are two of my favorite Lou Reed songs. “Women” is Lou being romantic and drolly whimsical. “Street Hassle” is Lou being Warholian (his mentor) and McLarenian: “And sometimes, man, they just don’t act rational/They think they’re just on TV.” Unlike Warhol, who loved TV and celebrity, young Lou hated the press, and gave unfriendly clipped interviews in sunglasses. This surliness could have been an act, sure, but it wasn’t entirely a Warholian one. Warhol was shy with the press because he was shy, not contemptuous. Listening to Lou, brought me back to Lou and Laurie, my first love. I listened to Laurie on my Walkman growing up, in the back of my parents’ car, and while riding on my 10-speed bike in Provincetown. A strange musical passion for a ten year old. Lou and Laurie were in love in the way that my parents are in love. They found each other late in life, at a concert in Munich in 1992. My parents, also collaborators, found each other early in life, in Moscow. Through my internet searches this October, I arrived at an YouTube interview Lou and Laurie did in 2003 with the now-disgraced Charlie Rose. The interview was twelve years into their relationship. Nine years later, Lou would die. Lou talked about Warhol’s influence on him—the way Warhol was a constant voice in his singer’s ear; the voice in his voice. How he always heard it and listened to it even after Warhol had been gone for years. At one point in the interview, Laurie adds that she was also a “Warhol baby,” not part of the factory like Lou, but Warhol’s voice, she says, was in her ear too. Then she imitated the voice, which was also a phrase and a mantra: “Thaaat’s grrrrreeeeaaat.” “Warhol would tell everyone this. No matter what it was.” This is what the writer Kevin Killian, a descendant of that affirmative Warholian pronouncement, was like too. He was always pro. Pro everything. Pro everyone. A fan.

Temperamentally, Kevin was Warhol and I am Lou. If I could give terse TV interviews like young Lou (or young Susan Sontag, also from the Warhol milieu. It is maybe a writer’s dream to withhold words), I would. But art culture is different now—alarmingly fame-centered—and only late 20th century rock stars could reject their fans and still be adored. Despite our vastly different approaches to reading contemporary culture, when Semiotext(e) published my first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, a feminist anti-Hollywood manifesto, in 2007, Kevin wrote he was a fan. He reviewed Beauty Talk in what is now his celebrated Amazon reviews series. At the time, he was the first older writer I respected to voice his support and praise unsolicited. “That’s grrrrreeeeaaat,” his review cooed. It gave me the strength to continue. I usually struggled and labored without these kinds of voices, not entirely a bad thing for building character and artistic integrity. The aspirational celebrity culture that Warhol surveyed, gurured, and helped create from the 1960s to the 1980s, is different from the one Kevin inherited. And certainly different from the ubiquitous one I am living through now. I am the third generation of the post-Factory era.

When I decided to ask someone to write an introduction for my new essay collection, Picture Cycle, written over a ten year period, Kevin immediately came to mind. Not because we are similar, or because our work is. But because we are so different. Because I am driven by outrage while Kevin was an enthusiast. We both had similar interests—movies, music, stars—but our interests in those interests were vastly different. Yet I knew I could trust Kevin to appreciate and enjoy ideas he didn’t necessarily share. That was his gift. To enjoy all kinds of things in all kinds of ways, and to celebrate that. That made him fair, unjaded, enthusiastic.

Even when he confided that he was very ill, Kevin continued to write the introduction for my book because, he told me, it kept him going and he was happy to be working on it. In one email he wrote, “I feel great today, and some of that has to do with my deep immersion into the complexities of your book. It’s an honor to be able to do this.” This was an immensely generous way of not only treating a writing assignment, and a writer, but life itself. Kevin died a few weeks after he finished his introduction to my book. It is bittersweet to have a foreword that is also probably the last publication by a writer before his death. Ghostly, celebratory, but also auspicious, as Kevin was the first to champion my first book twelve years ago. Kevin’s review of Beauty Talk & Monsters made me feel understood and valued as a young writer and thinker. It told me my work had a future. “I have never met Masha Tupitsyn, the young author of Beauty Talk & Monsters,” Kevin wrote in 2007. “But somehow I feel like we’re on the same wavelength, and her writing exudes a magnetic force that pulls in a reader, renders him helpless and sprawling on his back, like one of the butterflies of Nabokov.” Over the years, I have returned to that review for consolation.

—Masha Tupitsyn

II. The Introduction

The remembering child we meet in the opening essay of Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle is one of the most captivating New York children I can ever remember reading about. Maybe since Kay Thompson’s Eloise? Perhaps since Eloise’s own forebears, the hotel kids in Edith Wharton’s The Children (1928), or any of the younger and younger protagonists created by Henry James in the 1890s—in The Anxious Age, say, or What Maisie Knew. (James himself was in part a “hotel child.”) In some of the more autobiographical essays, cineastes will spy behind Tupitsyn the spectacle of tweenage Tippy Walker stalking grown musician Peter Sellers through the streets of New York in George Roy Hill’s charming 1964 comedy The World of Henry Orient. Everlastingly inventive and valiant as Tippy Walker, Tupitsyn sees things in her crushes no one else can see, not her parents, nor her dimmer contemporaries. And it is partly this fidelity to her own taste, and her faith in her earliest selves, that allow the now grown film critic to maintain an electric current; one that connects to the deepest currents of girlhood, lust, ambition, desire, and which Pauline Kael once spoke of as “reeling.”

As the Ralph Macchio fanzine Masha “publishes” as a child in “I Touch Myself ” illustrates, Picture Cycle often elaborates on the ways in which the pleasures of the cinema and the pleasures of writing need employ no object; each of these pleasures are just as valid when experienced by oneself. The whole book delights in the daring of working it out outside of social discourse, approval, reinforcement. Whenever I hear Robyn—the fortyish Swedish wunderkind—singing “Dancing on My Own,” I think of Masha Tupitsyn’s rich underglaze.

In the second section of the book, “Analog Days,” we learn about a young fellow called Fred who stalks Tupitsyn one summer—sort of—through Provincetown’s seascape, eerie as a Marsden Hartley wave painting. “He wore his gingham shirts buttoned all the way up. It was hard for me to imagine what his body was like behind all those boarded up windows of fabric.” Fred is threatening in a weird way, a subdued way, like all the most dangerous men, one of Hartley’s dangerous fishermen. We know that you can read the language of gingham (of practically all fabrics, gingham is the one that most suggests “boarded-up windows” in old New England towns.). I think of both late Dreyer and late Ozu, as masters of what you might call fabric reveal—or wow, Karin Dor’s evening gown exploding like a rose in Hitchcock’s Topaz. Tupitsyn has read and written all the signals many times, and she has enough interest in men that their shirts puzzle her also.

Let me make it plain: Masha Tupitsyn is a wonderful cultural critic and writer. But most of all, first and foremost, she’s an incomparable stylist. I know my own writing well enough to know to project that saying she’s incomparable will lead me down the pathways of comparing her to dozens of other artists with recognizable styles. Let me see: Of her youth in a stylish Manhattan, she’s something like late period Dawn Powell. On the other hand, she’s more of a sensualist. Like Mina Loy, she writes about the personal in imagist ways, as a poet might. When I told a friend that I was writing the introduction to a book of memoirs and film criticism, written by one woman in a variety of styles but linked by sharp poetic incision, my friend, who’s no slouch, without a beat, said, “You must be writing about Masha Tupitsyn, then. Gary used to call her … Oh what did he say?, ‘If Emily Dickinson wrote for Variety,’ I think is how he put it.” In part two of Picture Cycle, Tupitsyn writes an impassioned second person sonata called, “Mourning and Melancholia,” a modern-day romance inspired by not only Freud, but Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” poems. But also, the whole French playbook from Duras to Ophuls to Varda. They are the most luscious writers and filmmakers in the world, and yet Tupitsyn keeps up with them. It takes a tough tweak of the beak to think of Dickinson as any kind of urban Annie, and yet there’s something of the girl-alone in Tupitsyn. No matter where we think of her standing, and watching, the question arises: What screen feeds her secret knowledge and yearning?

Working on a chat about what haunts us in the art works of the late LA-based artist Mike Kelley, Dodie Bellamy and I returned again and again to the poet Ed Smith’s 1987 interview with Kelley in the art/poetry magazine Shiny International. I think of Picture Cycle as embodying much of Kelley’s darkness and dread. For childhood—as Kelley told Smith—is the “most interesting time of sex because you’re totally mystified. You don’t know the full difference between the sexes, so your idea of sex is really outlandish and fanciful. You spend all your time just trying to figure out what things did and as you get older it just becomes thinking about not what things do but what roles are. It gets narrower and narrower and narrower. But when you’re a kid it’s actually about physicality and body and stuff and you’re really hooked into that because you have a body and you think about it; horror films are always so sexual; they’re all about body mutations. Everything’s turning into fantastic sex organs.” In Tupitsyn’s book, 80s childhood is evoked as an era, less as memoir. Mike Kelley himself owned at least one copy of Debra Winger’s 1984 film, Mike’s Murder, and retaped it every couple of years.

My one complaint—and, as I hope to make clear, it’s not really a complaint at all. But yes, right now in this sentence I will use the word “complaint”; my kvetch about the ecstasies of Tupitsyn’s style—is in her definition of an anagram. She claims, for example, in her epic John Cusack essay, “All an Act,” that “Roy Dillon” in The Grifters is an anagram for “Lloyd Dobler.” An anagram should use once only every letter of the original word. Similarly, she anagramatizes “Daniel” from The Karate Kid as “denial”—that is a fit actually—but she also poses “Daniel” as an anagram of “lead”—no way! Charmingly, she claims, in a brilliant comparison of The Social Network and The Man Who Fell to Earth, “Part of the anagram for Mark Zuckerberg is Czar.” I don’t call these appearances anagrams—let’s call them runes instead. In “The Devil Entendre,” she writes about the devilish men in The Usual Suspects: “One of the anagrammed words the name Keyser Soze produces is Zero.” Well, you get the picture—the picture cycle, you might say.”

As the book moves into ever more vatic areas in the third section, you will begin to summon the knowledge you are being led to—the Hegelian rule of three, but from a remarkable viewpoint, that of a feminist rethinking of Hegelian thinking— a poetic translation, like those Maya Deren went working through in her own films (some left unfinished). Tupitsyn, who studied philosophy, is, after all, a filmmaker herself, while Hegel missed out on the incantatory and poetic form of cinema.

Besides the book’s three-part structure—“Famous Tombs,” “Analog Days,” and “Picture Cycle”—we find references to trilogy in the same essay about Zuckerberg vs Bowie, “Mark Zuckerberg & David Bowie Play with Time,” from which we have already mined such disruptive ideas on the anagram. “Bowie’s Thin White Duke is addicted to cocaine; jumpy, famous, polished, superior, icy, polymorphous. He is also dressed like a character from The Damned, the first film in Luchino Visconti’s German Trilogy… Like Visconti, Bowie made his own German Trilogy, the famous Berlin Trilogy—Low, Heroes, and Lodger—with Brian Eno.” In Tupitsyn’s essay, we learn about Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy, which culminates in the 1981 Lola, “loosely based on Josef Von Sternberg’s Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich.” Because Tupitsyn lodges this info in a footnote—“lodges” indeed, an echo in the third LP of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy—even the hungry among us may miss this reference and annotative gesture. But we need its teeth and we need its breath.

Similarly, in the book’s titular essay, “Picture Cycle,” we learn about “Michelangelo Antonioni’s color trilogy (Blow-Up, The Passenger, and Zabriskie Point),” and notice in passing how Tupitsyn bypasses chronological ordering in this case, insofar as in real time, The Passenger came years after Zabriskie Point. But here the emphasis is on the alphabetical. In “Devil Entendre,” she alludes to bell hooks’s canny complaint that, in order to make Darth Vader evil, James Earl Jones was cast for his “villainous” (read “black”) voice, not only evil but inhuman. This was in Lucas’s 80s Star Wars trilogy, of course. The material about trilogy mounts up in Tupitsyn’s book and comes to a troubling coda, as she refers to the sunny comic days of Pasolini’s so-called “trilogy of life,” and ends on Salo, which she alleges was part one of a trilogy of death, and which also introduces her first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters (2007).

Trilogies are much on Tupitsyn’s mind in Picture Cycle, and elsewhere. Her own celebrated 24-hour film, Love Sounds (2015), ended an Immaterial Trilogy. In the context of modernist writing in which Tupitsyn operates, John Hughes’s now controversial Molly Ringwald trilogy—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986), goes unmentioned as a trilogy, even though Pretty in Pink is integral to Tupitsyn’s book—more fabric reveal, as Tupitsyn tries to describe what to make of Andie’s own slash and grab poor girl’s prom dress. Hegel describes a model by which all conceptual and ontological development takes form—beginning with a moment of abstract or ontic fixity that reveals its inherent instability in every reflexive attempt to justify that fixity.

This instability yields the second moment of the dialectic, which Hegel terms the “aufheben,” the crucial innovation of Hegel’s dialectical method—often translated as “sublation.” Hegel frequently attempts description of a dual moment of confrontation that both negates and preserves at once, allowing for a model of contradiction which is nonetheless progressing, usually (if not always) in movement towards the unknown of an ever-widening vision of the world, and the place of consciousness within it. Hegel poses this against—and as a solution to the problems of—what he claims the character of both Socratic and Kantian dialectical forms (although it is interesting to note that the Marxian criticism of Hegel’s logic of progression sees the same problem in Hegel that Hegel identifies in the Platonic model). In part two of her own collection, “Analog Days,” Tupitsyn is working furiously both with and against Hegelian ideas of reversal and traditional opposition. In Hegel, the third and final moment of the dialectic presents a synthesis of abstract and its negation, portending a kind of sequence of dialectical processes, always moving closer to an absolute synthesis that is never reached. In the Wissenschaft der Logik, dialectical movement reveals itself at the very basis of the speculative act—Being (abstract) is revealed as conceptually without content, indistinguishable from its negation Nothingness, and the unity of the contradiction (which preserves the crucial predications of each) is Becoming, which serves as the basis of all further ontological investigation in turn.

Thus, in Picture Cycle, Masha Tupitsyn alludes to, plays with, and interrogates many of the films she admires most. The book is a trilogy of collections that assumes new meaning when read within the consecution that sets them off—contextualized, that is, by the other essays within each section, and by each section taken in the context of the collection as a whole. The parallels are subtle, but satisfying. They allow the reader to approach this volume as a kind of cultural Bildungsroman, with the work itself functioning as both an intellectual biography and a developmental understanding of Tupitsyn’s general approaches. We smile at the reader’s exposure to a fully realized critical vision because it lands with something of the gravitas of Hegelian synthesis—but with a twist. And beyond this: we are charmed—in the old sense, in the Stevie Nicks sense—into both the oneiric and the senseless; the authentic today.

—Kevin Killian, May 2019

Picture Cycle is out from MIT Press on November 19th.

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