An Interview with Masha Tupitsyn
The first time I read Masha Tupitsynís name was on a book, Beauty Talk and Monsters, at Spoonbill and Sugartown in New York -- its cover was all white, red text, save a rainbow stare-you-down photo of lips and a nose, bound in crystals and washed in paint and light. How did it stare me down if it didnít have eyes? I donít know! But it did. I got a crush like I was in seventh grade and it was the cool girl in eighth.
I got a crush on the prose, too. That look, that light at once sensitive and unflinching -- it turned out to be what Iíve loved first about all Tupitsynís books so far. Sure, itís the spotlight and soft light of movie stars (she writes a lot about film, and feminism, fame and nostalgia), but itís also one of rhetoric, and love, and what comes of being driven towards obsessions till you see their bones. Her ďIĒ is at once intimate and everyone, vibrating and rooted and glitchy.
Tupitsyn dedicated her latest book, LACONIA: 1200 Tweets on Film, to the film critic Robin Wood, a writer known for elegantly lasered analysis, as well as his refusal to split that analysis from the personal and political. LACONIA is of a feather, †and not gimmickly so at all -- itís a prismatic mix of head and heart, love and death, onscreen and off, plus the gem notes of Joubert, the tightness of LeWittís geometry.
Itís so chiseled that at first I wished Tupitsyníd let herself laugh a little more (so what if Hot Tub Time Machineís a little goofball?) but then I realized she just wasnít wasting any of her 140 characters, just wasnít using any to waffle or acquiesce, as folks so often do on the Internet. I finished it in a rush, with a rush, then got to ask her a few questions by e-mail, from Chicago to New York.
When people ask what kind of a writer you are, what do you say?†
The question -- what kind of writing do you do, what kind of films do you make, whatís your favorite book or movie -- are all incredibly loaded and agonizing questions for creative people. I know they cause me a lot of anxiety because theyíre supposed to define things -- you -- but they never do, and they never give the real picture of what someone thinks or does. Only the writing can do that.†
There are times when I dodge these kinds of questions entirely. Like if Iím among people I know I canít discuss my work with meaningfully.†I donít want to answer questions that I donít feel are illuminating. ďFeminist,Ē ďcritic,Ē ďwriter,Ē ďfilmĒ -- saying any one of those things triggers associations for people, clichťs, and as a writer, you are trying to describe what you do as well as duck questions about what you do, unless the environment is conducive to answering. And I think the artistís bio plays into all these things because one, a bio is mythology for other people. Secondly, a bio is self-mythology. And thirdly, a bio is this living organism that changes and evolves and reflects what you do and have done, and how you define and redefine the past and present of your creative trajectory. How you compress it.†
But a bio also subscribes to that neatness that pretends to capture us -- our work -- without any hiccups. It says: I have no problem producing. Writing. Look how much Iíve done. I am productive. It makes it seem seamless, when the whole thing is seams. So the bio doesnít tell us the real story. And if someone (a magazine, etc.) leaves some part of your bio out, you feel that the things youíve done donít exist somehow.†
Iím also thinking about how your bios have changed over the years -- when we first met Iím pretty sure they usually said ďfiction writerĒ and ďfeminist critic,Ē but now of course you mention film and sometimes also teaching.
My old bios make me cringe when I see them online somewhere. Itís like looking at some old picture of yourself, and saying: I canít believe I wore that. I canít believe I used to look like that. Then thereís the worry that if someone reads my bio from five years ago, and not my bio from now, they wonít know who I really am and what Iíve really done! Theyíll be stuck with the old (incomplete) version of me. Thereís always that thing, too, of people wanting you to modify, shorten, and tailor your bio, so that means everyone is getting some different version of you, and you are making these different versions of yourself for other people.†
I still think of myself as a feminist critic or a feminist writer or thinker -- that informs all of the work I do. Thatís the lens. Iím not going to talk about images without engaging with their politics. Their effects. I struggle with the word ďwriterĒ most, even though it seems like it is the most generous and expansive (and non-committal) way of describing what I do. Yet for other people, writer means fiction or novels. Means my work is free of politics. It means something romantic. It has old-fashioned connotations. Itís murky. It means youíll be on Oprah. My shying away from ďfiction writerĒ has more to do with how people/critics responded to Beauty Talk & Monsters when it first came out. If I said it was fiction, which I did, people couldnít really accept the writing or what it was doing/saying. But if I said it was a de facto collection of essays, then suddenly it worked.†
We are bound up in categories and classifications and genres, not in actually evaluating what a writer is saying -- like when Eileen Myles says, ďYou canít get money without a categoryĒ in Chelsea Girls. Well, sometimes you canít get taken seriously either. People donít know how to read you unless you tell them -- teach them -- how to read you. With a first book, you lack context. An audience. You lack a bio. People donít yet know how to frame what youíre doing. In this country, the genre of fiction is incredibly conservative right now (driven heavily by the market) and therefore limiting in terms of how you can construct it, even though of course everything is a fiction, regardless of what we actually call it.†
But I think of myself as a film or cultural critic, first and foremost, not a fiction writer. Not because of how I write about film and images, which has elements of fiction, but because no matter how I write, culture is always my subject. My way of thinking through writing. And really, I have always been a critic whoís wanted to experiment with how one can write criticism. With all the different ways one can think critically. To me, there is nothing more creative than analysis. As Jean-Pierre Gorin put it, ďThe question of aesthetics is the question of politics.Ē
How do you make your living, and how do you want to make your living? How do you balance writing time with the hustle?
Hustle is a good word. I donít know if itís exactly a living, but Iíve been an adjunct professor for about 2.5 years. I adjunct at various CUNYs in New York City. I donít make any money on my writing, really, and Iíve never had an agent or any help financially from an institution. If it were up to me, I would just write and live off grants. Iíve never taught a class that I proposed or designed myself. Thatís my dream. To teach classes that are a blend of film, writing, and literature. Given how dismal the money is, which includes not having things like health benefits, I canít go on adjuncting for much longer. Iím not the good soldier.†
So thatís why Iím now doing a Ph.D. Iíve managed to write three books since I started teaching as well as articles and essays, so I do somehow find ways to make time for writing, but that time is often very fragmented and concentrated, which is how I write anyway. I get a lot done in spurts. Teaching takes over your brain and all the class work and papers just bleeds into everything. So it takes time to get that work and routine out of your system.†
With LACONIA, I wrote on a daily basis and had an intense reading and film-viewing life that was part of the writing of that book. That book was a total pleasure for me. A world onto itself. I felt like I was under its spell. But I have always pursued my writing rather than a living because I know that at the end of the day that is who I am and that is whatís going to get me to where I need to go, not the other way around. The writing always comes first. Writing is living for me, the rest is hustle. Most people confuse the two.
In ďI Touch MyselfĒ, you write about walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown with your mom, all dressed up to see The Karate Kid. (My mom and I are that way too -- thereís a photo of me sitting next to her with a book and way too many purple plastic necklaces.) Your parents sound amazing, being so glad to do that with you and making it an Event, too. And your motherís writing has influenced you as well, yes?†
Itís no secret that my parents are important to me for a number of reasons. Iím an only child, so Iíve always been close with them. Iíve dedicated all my books to them because they, my mother especially, make it possible for me to write them when I donít feel itís possible.†
Thereís a great deal of emphasis -- in both life and narrative -- on what is dysfunctional in families, on the ways in which families prohibit, limit, and atrophy their childrenís emotional or creative lives, and I feel like I want to emphasize the ways in which my parents actually made/make my life/creativity possible.†
Itís not that my parentsí writing has influenced me per say. Their influence on me began way before I could read or understand anything they were writing. Itís more by osmosis. They influenced me as thinkers and human beings. In the way they engage with the world and each other and me. Their relationship has also had a huge influence on my view of love -- what it means to love. Love as an ethic.†
Donít you quote your mother in LACONIA too?
I do quote my conversation with my mother about contemporary art, in particular Barbara Kruegerís last show, in LACONIA. My mother is an art historian and art critic. When I say conversation, thatís key, because itís in our ongoing conversations that my parents have had the most profound affect on me.†
And thatís important because LACONIA is about that too -- criticism as a form of living, which for me goes beyond the text. Itís the life of ideas and how ideas change and shape and drive the way you live because the way things are represented isnít separate from the way we live our lives. Not for me anyway.†
A lot of people have smart, prolific parents. That doesnít mean their childhoods are happy or that they were nurtured in any real way. In many ways, I discovered the movies in Provincetown, and thatís why it became an ďEventĒ to go to the movies in the summertime. I basically forced my parents to take me to The Karate Kid after an older girl talked about the movie non-stop for weeks. I went to the movies with my mom in Provincetown for years. That was our ritual. She taught me to think about images critically. To talk about them. Not to just watch. My father did too, but in a different way.†
"I Touch Myself" is also about being a '80s child. An '80s girl. There are a lot of narratives about being a '80s teenager and a '80s adult, but less about the cultural and childhood imagination/makeup of a '80s child. A child living in an age that was on the border, the cusp, of lived experience and representation. A child raised by intellectual parents as well as popular culture. That is, what it means to live with images the way the '80s forced us to live with them. Weíve mostly lost lived experience now.†
In LACONIA, you write a lot about your nostalgia for New York and Los Angeles.
All my work has a mnemonic trajectory, and time and space are fundamentally tied to memory. To what was and is; to what youíve seen and havenít seen. To what you remember seeing. LACONIA is a weblog of time. It deals with the loss of time and place, so naturally places (cities) had to be conjured -- contemplated -- in the book.†
You can find things, pieces of time, space, in a movie. Sometimes thatís the reason I watch a movie. Writing about David Holzmanís Diary (1967), the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that non-documentary films can become documentary in parts by ďbearing witness to the mood, preoccupations, and lifestyles of its own epoch.Ē I am always searching for and sifting through the difference between then and now. Wanting a different now, a different culture, a different time and space, which of course creates pain.†
One reviewer called LACONIA a work of cultural mourning, and I think thatís true. Thatís what nostalgia is, but nostalgia is a very misunderstood word and feeling. Dissonance is a form of resistance. Itís dangerous to simply fill-in and smooth over all the gaps. Why do I think there is a difference? Why do I want there to be a difference? Because if there isnít, if all we have and have ever had is a tempo-spatial flatness, then everything is generic. Social reality -- time and space -- have no bearing on culture, people, life, language, and if thatís the case, there is nothing to strive for. Nothing to change. What is has always been and will always be, and that means you donít have to be different either. But we know that isnít the case.†
The digital age has only made me yearn for time and space even more, distinguish even more, track changes even more, because of its dissolve of social structures and bonds, because of the collapse of time and space which once held things together. Giving things a distinct shape. Without a material reality, you really have no home. You donít even have the idea of a home. Itís because of the chimera of cinema that I donít know what Los Angeles is or was (see Los Angeles Plays Itself), but itís also because of certain films that I have an idea of what Los Angeles is/was. NYC and Los Angeles have had very different trajectories and lives on film. Itís this trace or idea of what was that creates a yearning for it. Or, as Dave Wakeling puts it in his song "Tenderness," ďI donít know where I am, but I know I donít like it.Ē Thatís a perfect way of describing the uncanniness of being in and out of time-space.†
One of the first things I loved about "Jaws Revisited" was how you turned the gloss into a story -- it wasnít ďJaws on TV looks like XYZ,Ē it was ďwhen I watched Jaws on TV in New York CityÖĒ Ditto how you wrote about Lost Highway. At the same time, I never feel like your criticism is self-indulgent at the cost of the work itís considering, or the audience itís for. How do you balance the personal and the critical, especially when writing about passionate, gorgeous, emotional things?
I think, again, it goes back to time and place, places in time, when and where we see things, and how that locality of time and place creates an inner history thatís part of a larger cultural history. Itís also about tracing the connective tissue between things, which means that what and how you talk about something, how you think and feel about things, all goes into your writing. Using a montage of styles, voices, and pitches, and cross-referencing to show how profoundly connected and heterogeneous everything is.†
Having said that, while my work is often personal, I am not the point in my work, even when I talk about myself. Iím interested in the way culture -- images -- affects and shapes our inner lives as well as our social interactions, so the personal digressions are a way of framing larger cultural discourses. I have to be willing to show myself and my own ties with images if Iím going to ask other people to. My ďIĒ is anchored in a certain time and place, film or idea, which creates a vantage point or lens. A way in. So Iím interested in mining or analyzing or excavating the culture thatís in our lives, that lives in and through people. That connects or disconnects us. Images have become an enormous part of what it means to exist, which means that cinematic history is also personal history.
When did you first see Jaws? Have you ever had an especially good conversation with someone about it?†
I first saw Jaws on TV in the late '80s because I wasnít born when it came out. I saw it on TV for years and years. Always in parts and rarely from start to finish. It was always on TV back then. Iíve now seen Jaws in all sorts of incarnations. The first time I saw it at a theater, on a big screen, was in London, at the ICA Museum in my mid-20s. This is before I wrote Beauty Talk & Monsters. As you know, Iíve now revisited Jaws in many different pieces, using different voices and approaches to analyze the film.†
That movie is in my blood: the water, the music, the time, the landscape, the three men, the shark. Roy Scheiderís face. His fear. Sometimes I think Jaws is actually my childhood in some way, which is a weird thing to say given the focus of the film. I listen to the John Williams score at home while I write sometimes. I could listen to and watch the end titles of the film for the rest of my life. I spent years disavowing the film in some ways because its gender politics are deeply problematic, and yet itís affected me so deeply that I constantly have to reframe the filmís effect on me.†
The Georgian poet Zurab Rtveliashvili has a line in one of his poems that to me encapsulates what Jaws really is and what I think my attraction to the film is about:†ďCulture is an ocean. And underneath the shark naps, naps, naps.Ē†
When I was in the 4th or 5th grade, my teacher took our class to the Jefferson Market Library in NYC so that each student could pick out their own book to read and present to the class. I drifted up into the Ruskinian gothic tower of the library, by myself, while the rest of the kids stayed in the main room. While up there, I saw the soundtrack album to Jaws, which looked like this, and I brought the record downstairs to show my teacher. She told me, simply, to "put it back immediately.Ē†
My other favorite Jaws story is by my Semiotext(e) publisher and friend, Hedi El Kholti, who is French-Moroccan and from a different generation. We have talked about Jaws as personal history a lot. He has a great story about the way film can literally shape our lives and interactions with people. With history and culture. I asked Hedi to e-mail his recollection:†
ďWhen my parents divorced, my sister and I were sent to a summer camp in Neuch‚tel, Switzerland. It was probably 1975 or 76, so I was eight or nine. It's where I went inside a church for the first time, also visited the Nestlť chocolate factory nearby.†
ďWe took long walks through the woods with all the kids and the young adults who were supervising us. Picking berries. Avoiding poison ivy. It was all new to me. Such a different landscape than Morocco. I was also very melancholic. Didn't make any friends.†
ďA camp counselor, a very pretty blonde woman, maybe took pity on me and befriended me. Part of our routine during the walks consisted of her telling me the story of Jaws from beginning to end. She did that many times. I was filled with anticipation.†
ďWhen we got back to Morocco, the movie was playing and I went to see it with my sister. I think that was the first movie we went to see alone. We stayed twice. Two showings. We were amazed by it. The only thing that was different from the story that she had told me was the size of the boat. In my imagination it was a much bigger boat.Ē
LACONIA covers everything from Chris Marker to Kate and Leopold -- how do you pick which films to watch? Do you like to go solo or with friends?†
I watch everything. And I like watching movies alone best. Even when I was kid. But watching movies on a daily basis and tweeting about them was part of the project with LACONIA.†So while there are things I watched on impulse, I was also carefully working through directors, genres, time periods. Themes. It was pretty focused.†
I wanted the book to have scope and variety in terms what it looked at -- so both high and low, old and new, culturally varied. I wanted to explore the connective tissue between all sorts of films. I wrote maybe 2000 tweets and used 1200. I was originally going to stop at 1000, but couldnít somehow. Someone pointed out that most movies are 2 hours, 120 minutes, so 1200 is kind of the perfect number.†
Also, I have this thing with what I call ďcinematic synchronicity.Ē That is, I think we come to certain films and books mysteriously and that the ideas in many of the films discussed in LACONIA are connected, so the tweets and the films create a prism and speak to each other. Dovetail.
I admire how expertly you seem to plan out your books (how you are already talking up your film essay collection, Screen to Screen, and the John Cusack book), also how theyíre all linked in interests or intelligence but not necessarily form or tone (fiction, essays, Twitter) -- does that just happen, or do you sit down and make lists for yourself?
This goes back to the illusion of the bio! On the outside, the process looks expert and seamless. But while much of it is planned or outlined (I do make lists of the books and essays I want to write), how and when you actually get there is another story. I often have very specific goals and ideas about what I want to write, but what and when I end up writing, or how I end up writing it, is often a complete mystery and surprise, which is both the beauty and the total and complete frustration of it. The control and the total lack of control.†
We come to things in a very roundabout way, or at least I do. And you canít always see that logic or creative/intellectual line or arc until later. I started writing the Cusack book in 2008, wrote about 100 pages, then stopped to do Life As We Show It. I have been writing Screen to Screen for a while too, but took a break from that as well to write LACONIA, which was completely and miraculously unplanned but quickly and organically became a book. LACONIA†was a work of almost no creative or intellectual stress, which is a rare thing for me. Now Iím back to writing the Cusack book and started working on Screen to Screen again last winter in Europe. So those two books are next.
Whatís your favorite section in LACONIA? Anything you feel you especially nail-on-the-nosed, or anything youíre still considering?
I canít really pick a favorite. But I can say that the tweets I like most are the ones that are truly laconic and variegated. That say the most about the world using the least amount of words. That are both transparent and mysterious, like a clue in a noir or fragments of a puzzle. What Flaubert called le mot juste.
MAIREAD CASE BIO: Mairead Case is a writer, editor, critic, and clerk. She is a member of the Dil Pickle Club, Creative Nonfiction Editor at†Another Chicago Magazine, a columnist at†Proximity,†and Volunteer Coordinator for Louder Than a Bomb. Mairead is working on a novel, supported by a CAAP grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency Ė the book will be completed in early 2012. She programmed a radio show about dreams for Neighborhood Public Radio at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and her comic about Serge Gainsbourg, drawn by David Lasky, is forthcoming in†Best American Comics 2011.†maireadcase.tumblr.com
MASHA TUPITSYN BIO: 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 Chicagoís New City. She is currently working on a new book of essays on film, Screen to Screen. Her fiction and criticism have 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)†and†BOMB Blog,†Puerto del Sol, 2nd Floor Projects, Vertebrae Journal, TINA, Venus Magazine, The Rumpus, Animal Shelter,†Fanzine, Make/Shift, NYFA Current, Bookforum,†Fence,†Five Fingers Review, and San Franciscoís KQEDís†The Writerís Block. She regularly contributes video essays on film and culture to Ryeberg Curated Video, which features writers like Mary Gaitskill and Sheila Heti.