Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Radical intimacy, technological estrangement, and hyphen as psychic portal.
New York Live Arts presents
I once knew a projectionist who carried a notebook with him to every single screening he attended. In that notebook, he would document the film’s format, running time, the quality of the print (including sloppy splices—he refused to watch digital projection), and he always sat in the same area of the theatre. He filled his notebooks with thousands of films. It was a lesson in devotion, a gesture of love: even if he hated the film, he still archived its anatomy. The passivity of “moviegoing” is turned on its head by such active listening, active viewing. Similarly, Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Sounds is a visual-aural dissection that draws the viewer into a more discerning, engaged perceptual experience.
As a meticulous and unflinching archive, its numbers are impressive. The final part of Tupitsyn’s immaterial trilogy, Love Sounds is 24 hours long and comprised of more than 1,500 love-related audio clips from films spanning 85 years (1930s– present). The only images are of a black screen with white titles denoting subject matter. The other two parts of the trilogy are LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (Zero Books, 2011) and Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013).
Charity Coleman Love Sounds gets to the pulse of intimacy—its persistence is life-affirming and demanding. What keeps your heart beating? To someone who prefers to go to the movies alone, Love Sounds validates a solitary, Romantic, somewhat obsessive experience of movie-watching. Its content provoked an emotional response, but I also enjoyed identifying the clips I was hearing (like the scene from Johnny Guitar).
Masha Tupitsyn There’s always the moment for something to happen, to be possible, and that keeps me going. One amazing night, person, conversation, book, or film is worth living for. I think it’s both that fundamental, urgent, and precarious now.
CC The structure of Love Sounds mimics the physiology of the heart. The film’s twenty-four hours are organized into eight parts, and you’ve divided the titles into two or three chambers. So, let’s talk about these hyphenated titles, which exist as relationships. They can be read as a unifying or divisive apparatus—are we together or separate? It’s similar to the modularity of hyphenated surnames. Why the split?
MT That’s always the question: Are we together or are we separate? The politics of breaking up have structured my whole life. As an only child of parents that have stayed together and are deeply in love, I guess I fundamentally can’t understand why people can’t stay together. Togetherness is my originary model, yet most people, including me, don’t have lasting relationships. That’s probably the entry point of all my work. The answer—as the film’s titles suggest—is in the construction, the thinking through—not in the classification. The final answer is love. It’s what’s left in the end. It’s also everything ahead, which is why I leave LOVE for last in Love Sounds. You don’t start with love, you work for it, you learn it; you invent and realize it. The titles, which are either doubled—DESIRE-SEX—or tripled—FATE-TIME-MEMORY—work as progressions toward and through a relation. They are ways of thinking through that ultimate question of the Two; of how to love. So the break (hyphen, dash, tear) is also the place of unity and potential. At every moment we can choose how far we can go, how much we can endure and forgive, and what that will require. And those decisions are complicated, demanding, imaginative, ongoing. You can think you’re breaking up with someone, but then decide you want to fight through/for something more. So, what does it mean to FIGHT (also one of the film’s sections)? It can mean that conflict isn’t an end. Conflict can be a process of repair and endurance.
The titles aren’t binaries or splits. They’re couples, or more abstractly, dialogues. The hyphens are passages and pathways. You once referred to them as marriages. The categories are also interchangeable, in the sense that TRUST-BETRAYAL and SEXUAL POLITICS are deeply intertwined, as are SEX and SEXUAL POLITICS. And SEXUAL POLITICS are also a form of systemic VIOLENCE and BETRAYAL; a BREAK-UP is also a HEARTBREAK; HEARTBREAK is a product of TIME and DEATH, both literal and symbolic; SEX can lead to LOVE, or not; LOVE is always in touch with DEATH, and so on. The hyphenated pairings get more and more nuanced and intricate. It becomes a question of listening for the differences in the combinations. It’s like that brainwashing montage in The Parallax View where the images that are initially classified under LOVE are reclassified and rebranded as WAR; GOD reappears under SEX—it all gets scrambled, swapped. I should add that the white titles are the only eight images in LS, and remain fixed onscreen for the duration of each section.
CC The titles are marriages, but the peril is always there. LS keeps that peril within earshot, but, as you say, “the final answer is love.” Maybe the hyphen is also a psychic portal. Thinking of the passageway between love and death—as you’ve referred to the influence of Barthes’s Mourning Diary and A Lover’s Discourse in Love Dog—I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart’s lines from In A Lonely Place, which are in LS: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dix was supposed to kill Laurel, but Nicholas Ray revised the ending because, “Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way—they don’t have to end in violence.” The film leaves us with ruins and a glimmer of salvation.
MT That scene is wonderful because it enacts the idea of love as identification—what is love and what is not-love? Bogart is trying to determine what the lines should be and where to place them—in a lonely place! He presents the question in the form of dialogue. He asks Laurel, “How do I say this, write this? How would you? How should we? Where does (our) love story go? How does love go?”
And this is how the sections in LS work. What we say and do in the name of love is often the problem. Bresson wrote that we must be “passionate for the appropriate”—something I come back to over and over because it’s precisely this dogging peril, as you put it, or precarity, that circumscribes everything. Yet the awareness of precarity, and how to respond to it appropriately, is the way of love. Love is equally what we do not say or do in the name of love. Ray’s script revision demonstrates that salvation isn’t simply there waiting for us a priori. But nor is ruin. Neither are intrinsic to the love story or the movie script, that’s why Dix and Laurel can change it. The rules can always be revised. It’s like that great diner scene in Michael Mann’s The Thief where James Caan says to Tuesday Weld, “Maybe between the two of us we could make something happen. Something special. Something really nice.” That between the two of us—the making of the two, what the two can make together—is similar to the collaborative contingencies of the hyphenated titles.
CC That’s very optimistic—the rules can always be revised. Acknowledging the significance of what goes unsaid or undone is key to that revision.
MT Love is something you construct with another person, so of course it can be revised. Love makes space and time for that, provided we make the space and time for love.
CC What are a few films you constantly return to or are haunted by?
MT Some hauntings include: In The Company of Men, where they hatch the terrible gaslighting scheme; some of the scenes from Kids, Fatal Attraction, Thelma & Louise, Out of Africa, Blue Valentine, The Shining, Splendor in The Grass, and Half Nelson are disturbing, nagging, and always hit me hard. I knew I had to make space for these films in this project. There are clips from Say Anything, Love Streams, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Wings of The Dove, and the amazing train-station reunion at the end of Reds. Also Gilda, Deer Hunter, Jarman’s Blue (“Love is life that lasts forever”) and Caravaggio (“In the wound, the question is answered”), Sex, Lies and Videotape (“My problems belong to me”), Broken English, and Truly, Madly, Deeply. Frances, where she asks, “I look at these people and I wonder if anybody really loves anybody?” Denzel Washington embracing his wife’s tombstone with his whole body in He Got Game—I love and can listen to that over and over. The clip from Against All Odds with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward is a remake of the noir Out of The Past, which I first saw at age twelve in Russia. It’s a dumb movie, but I have always found that scene incredibly sexy and stirring. It’s the definitive sound of a particular kind of obsessive desire and romantic doom that noir is preoccupied with. And of course, future heartbreak is predicted via the iterance of the word goodbye, even though they’ve only just met.
CC Some of the films you mention here are among those I often think about, even the grim ones (like In the Company of Men). I love when Natalie Wood has a meltdown trying to discuss Wordsworth in Splendor in the Grass—it’s a very earnest and moving scene. It’s impossible to leave Cassavetes out of this conversation, and there is a lot of him in Love Sounds. In 1973, he said: “I wrote Minnie and Moskowitz because I didn’t think that two people can get married anymore. Myself, I couldn’t understand why two people would get married today. So the making of this film was an investigation to me of something that I don’t understand.” The infinite investigation. Would you say you are trying to understandsomething by creating an archive, by tracking a history?
MT Yes. I’m interested in what different forms do to the same subject and object. This is part of why I made a trilogy consisting of different kinds of work. LS is made up of voices, and the Latin root of voice, after all, is also sermon, learned talk, conversation, manner of speaking, discourse, literary style. This means that love is both what we inherit and what we need to invent.
The Wordsworth scene from Splendor in The Grass that you refer to concludes the HEARTBREAK section. bell hooks said that art has to do more than simply describe how things are. It has to imagine how things could be. LS tries to track and mourn what has failed while also building a world for what is possible.
Cassavetes’s entire body of work is dedicated to the exploration of love, but it’s not clear if he thinks that the rut of sexual politics is responsible for the failure of marriage. What is clear is that most of the men in his films—Husbands being the best example—are manic, hysterical, pushy, and overbearing. I don’t see Minnie & Moskowitz as a film about the problem of marriage in any strict or institutional sense, but rather in the way we’ve been discussing things in relation to the titles. The key to Minnie & Moskowitz is not simply marriage as outdated, but marriage in relation to sexual politics and gender construction. More specifically, the marriage between sexual politics and the interventionist space that cinema historically offered heterosexual women—and love—in the form of movie-masculinity. The LOVE section includes the long dialogue between Minnie and Florence, where Minnie asserts that one problem women have is that the men women want only exist in instances of fiction, and that fiction sets up a powerful ideal and binary that women are conditioned and ensnared by, in a way that men are not. For Minnie, screen masculinity haunts and perverts the reality and possibilities of lived heterosexuality, acting as its surrogate. It’s almost like a Cyrano de Bergerac ventriloquizing scenario. It makes the failure of real-life masculinity tolerable by giving it a fantasy double. It’s also not a coincidence that this conversation takes place during the second wave of feminism, when women are radically restructuring their lives and roles in the world. Yet, as Minnie bemoans, the most exciting models of masculinity are stuck on screen, so the gap between gender reality and gender fiction only widens.
Woody Allen also explores this in The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the female viewer wills her dream man to come out of the movie screen and into her real life. At one point, Mia Farrow tells another character: “I met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.”
CC The manipulation of form in Love Sounds reminds me of that impossible question: Would you rather be deaf or blind? And I’m reconsidering this line from Derek Jarman’s Blue: “From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.” Love Sounds answers that prayer through deprivation—it forcibly blinds us so that we become better listeners. Clarity via erasure? Looking and listening (“the problem of language”) are often conflated in our attempts to understand each other—“Look at me. Listen to me.”—never mind the wobbly substrate of everyone’s internal dialogue of doubt, pride, suffering, et cetera. Deemphasizing the image frees up some space for listening.
MT Isiah Medina, a Canadian independent filmmaker, who wrote about LS for my catalogue, noted that it is a film that lets us close—rest—our eyes, which is one way of opening them. Jarman said the same thing about Blue, a big influence on LS and my work in general: “Because there are no images in Blue, you can be as free as you like… People see all sorts of things they don’t see on screen.” By withholding the image, by seeing sound, we can look at the problem and event of language. The filmmaker Michael Almereyda once joked with me about the absence of images (though it has eight very specific images) saying, “Jarman gave us the soothing color blue in place of images.” To which I replied: “I am giving people the soothing power of love.” Images can be crutches for not listening, for not hearing sound. It’s like the difference between relying on the, at times, misleading pleasure of a song’s melody without listening to its lyrics. I’m more interested in a listening viewer than a viewing listener at this point. When we take away the shorthand or vernacular of the iconic, seductive image, we are forced to build a deeper fluency in love.
CC There is a documentary called Planet of Snail (dir. Seung-jun Yi) in which a couple communicates by tactile sign language because one of them is deaf and blind. Their reliance on tactile signing imparts a totally different temporality and intimacy than sighted and hearing people are accustomed to—a torque on the “problem of language.” You and I have discussed the reality of feeling the thoughts of others; another problem of spoken or written language is that it’s often in opposition to non-verbal or empathic communication. Intuition and prescience are considered secondary modes of relating, inferior to verbalization, yet so much is communicated via what is unsaid. Your trilogy (Laconia, Love Dog, and Love Sounds) formally interrogates communication and stakes a claim to immateriality. Why immaterial?
MT In Stanzas, Agamben writes, “the problem of knowledge is a problem of possession, and every problem of possession is a problem of enjoyment, that is, of language.” In the case of LS, the problem of language is also the subject of the film. Which is about being and not being together. There are a lot of ways to tell someone something, but language is like a storefront for not-telling. Language is a problem because it is a script and a game that has no real consensus or stakes anymore. It isn’t reliable or embodied or physically located. We all act like we’re not allowed to be upset or unnerved by language or to expect anything from it. Text messages always point to this anxiety of technological affect, especially when it comes to love and desire. Yet, rather than say this form of technology is inadequate, we capitulate to it. We’re trapped in reproducing certain drive-by affects that are counterintuitive and emotionally estranging. We break off from people, instead of from the technologies or affects themselves. Listening is a way of asking ourselves which forms work toward radical intimacy and engagement and which ones don’t. Listening is a pedagogical process that involves intent and understanding, so it works through and engages with the problem of language. It’s constructive and attentive in that way. We can listen without seeing. And intensely feeling things, as we’ve discussed, is a way of hearing. There are also different things we can listen to—the seen and unseen, the said and unsaid: touch, intuition, gesture, absence. But these forms of attunement are not openly acknowledged forms of communication. They’re considered unspoken, illegitimate, often making them impossible to respond to, or even describe. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari write: “Life does not speak; it listens and waits.”
CC Texting is a minefield of misunderstanding and incoherence—absolutely counterintuitive, yes. Despite the impalpability, we’re reading and emitting thought forms, leaving traces. Deletion isn’t even foolproof—it’s all archived somewhere. Do you save the text conversations you’ve had with past or current loves, the way one might save love letters? When you write online what happens to the boundary between the private and the public, and how much are you willing to share?
MT I think the answer is in the question. How much are you willing to share? It’s always a process of deliberation. I certainly don’t feel more driven to share things online. I write every day on my Tumblr, on which I wrote my multimedia book, Love Dog, and which was largely a response to this question of emotional trace and the private/public female in digital culture. I’ve always been careful about my online presence. I tend to be aphoristic and compressive online. I like to have a lot of stillness and space around things, so I often just post a few lines, one image, song, video, and let it pulse there. I limit myself to one entry per day. I don’t treat social media as a promiscuous index or primary emotional outlet. I’m away from it a lot, which also creates a stillness and attention. I set up constraints and rules for myself in my work—an Oulipo influence. I like discipline and restraint, reading between things, the tension between presence and absence, online and offline, saying and not saying. Which is also a resistance to the sheer volume and ubiquity of content and expression that surrounds us.
I think both the public and private require shielding, care, and restraint. I’m not terribly explicit in my writing. I am a very private person while also being a very open person. Compulsive confession doesn’t inherently make you or your work more honest. I think my blog is more about radical intimacy and vulnerability than it is about being excessively public or completely revealing.
I do save all my text messages from everyone, not just lovers, just like I’ve saved all my paper letters over the years. And I write all my texts as though I were writing a letter. I spell things out, which I’m sure drives some people crazy and obviously doesn’t always remedy the problem of misunderstanding. Technological forms often hijack content and structure desire, creating new and bizarre affects and offshoots of confusion. Social media itself—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram—are all different kinds of forms, and some work for me, both creatively and emotionally, while others don’t. I can’t stand the style and tone of Facebook, but feel drawn to the formal structure of Twitter and the affective structure of Tumblr.
I think there are different ways to make deeply personal work and choosing a form is a process of personalizing or subjectivizing. Love Sounds is as much my autobiography as it is everyone’s cultural archive. It’s probably the most personal thing I’ve made. As Walter Benjamin said about his Arcades project, it is “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.”
Love Sounds screens as part of the “S/N” program at The Kitchen in New York City from May 22–June 1, 2015; at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver from May 20–21; and at VIVO Media Arts Centre, also in Vancouver, May 22–23. The film is accompanied by a catalogue published by Penny-Ante, which features contributors such as McKenzie Wark, Berit Fischer, Isiah Medina, C. Spencer Yeh, and Yaniya Lee.
Charity Coleman is the author of Julyiary (O’Clock Press, 2015). Her writing can be found in Joan’s Digest, Imperial Matters, No, Dear, and the archives of Write This Down TV. She lives in Brooklyn.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby