JANUARY 9, 2020
WRITER, CRITIC, AND ARTIST Masha Tupitsyn trusts her ideas enough to know they will evolve. As we collectively send off the decade to start a new one, Tupitsyn has spent this time examining it. In her latest collection of essays, Picture Cycle, time is slowly compressed during the shift from analog to digital, but she still slows down to reconsider important details.
Memory, and the way it is now contextualized, has been outsourced to apps like Instagram or Facebook; we no longer have to conjure our memories ourselves, as they can now be summoned for us. But Tupitsyn makes space for the in-betweens that are lost in the compression. Nothing is finished or set aside — it is constantly being reconsidered.
The author of Love Dog, LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film, and Beauty Talk & Monsters, as well as the durational films Love Sounds and DECADES, spoke to me about how she homes in on the things we’ve overlooked and forgotten. Picture Cycle is a book meant to be revisited multiple times because the breadth and depth of its arguments force you to reconsider your own ideas, and help them to change over time.
SARA BLACK MCCULLOCH: In Picture Cycle, you delve deeper into your own fandom and desire, but it also felt like you were mourning something. Many of the essays you included are almost 10 years old. What prompted you to revisit these essays and these memories? Did you find yourself agreeing with what you said in the past? Had something shifted in your thinking?
MASHA TUPITSYN: I wrote these essays over 10 years. The book is a thematic cycle and also a temporal cycle. From 2008 to 2018, the world was in the process of a seismic shift — with the introduction of the smartphone, the 2008 bank crash, social media, the official move from celluloid to digital, and the bloat of disaster capitalism in general — and that cycle of change was something I wanted to slowly track as it was happening, instead of retroactively. In this way, time shows itself (what it is; what it was) rather than the other way around.
The book tracks a long period of thinking about personal identity, movies, the increasing obsession with fame, technology, and cultural loss. In that way, it is a specific record not only of time, but also of spectatorship — a way of seeing, desiring, and being that has become inseparable from images. All books are records, of course, but not all books are explicitly about the role that time plays in unveiling the optics of contemporary culture. Picture Cycle is a mourning work which studies incremental losses. When I read some of the earlier pieces, I’m surprised at how much I was already anticipating the total encroachment of the digital on interior life, erasing all our old hard drives, so to speak. The collection as a whole also made apparent the way I keep wrestling with the same questions in new ways. My answers keep evolving.
I have to object to the description of my work as the work of fandom. Fandom is a very reductive catchall, and it’s not at all what orients my thinking — quite the opposite. Even in the essays about my childhood cathections, I use the “I” of my adult critic self to recontextualize and decode those “childish” absorptions, which most people never outgrow. By zooming in, I zoom out. Drawing a map between self and culture, myself and culture. So I think to simply call it fandom is to stifle the depth of critique that no one tolerates when it comes to celebrity and popular culture, which demands our total reverence and attention. That’s starting to happen in some ways now, with #MeToo. But when I wrote Beauty Talk & Monsters in 2006, a callout book that went behind the camera, asking what it means — what is required — to be an actress, to be on-screen, to be a spectator, no one wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to look at the relationship between art and artist, filmmaker and film. A director, as we’re quickly learning, doesn’t just become a director to make movies — there are other fantasies involved. In the same way, movies are about a lot more than what we see on-screen. So to call what I do fandom expresses the deficit of language around contemporary culture, which can only either dismiss images as harmless or worship them. Both are suspect positions to me, and useless. If we’re going to obsess about celebrities 24/7, and be on Instagram all day surveilling other people’s lives, including our own, let’s not pretend that it’s not serious. Let’s actually pay careful attention to what that means, what that does to the world, our sense of self, our sense of others, our orientation in the world. I am trying to explore all those passageways in my work using familiar motifs as a starting point.
The book is organized in three parts, and a lot of the essays and themes in this book, similarly to your work in film, come in threes, so to speak. What value do you find in the trilogy, whether it’s revisiting themes, changing your mind, or contextualizing your ideas?
Again, I think it’s this idea of using a structure of time as a formal and cumulative conceit. Trilogies are structures of duration but also relation — a way of grouping ideas, themes, motifs, and questions over time. In a trilogy, which means a story three times, you can focus on something closely, but you can also come back and reinvent it in sequels. In my Immaterial Trilogy, I used different forms and media in one series. Part of the reason for that was to mourn and mark the loss of materiality itself — the print book, vinyl, celluloid, time. So the Immaterial Trilogy was a story in three different ways. LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film, a book of film aphorisms, was written on Twitter over the course of one year. Love Dog, a digital, multimedia manifesto on love, was written on Tumblr, also over the course of one year. It used texts, images, songs, and video clips. Love Sounds, the final installment, was a 24-hour film that spanned eight decades of cinema using eight chapters. In Picture Cycle, I use images that way too. The photographs are a form of writing, or what I refer to as screenshot criticism. Most of the essays in the book are introduced via a screenshot. But each of those screenshots features a caption — some line of text that is a clue to the larger picture I am drawing. That text — made possible by the DVD format — is also what makes the image essential to me. It forces us to see the image differently. The meaning and effect of the essays, as Kevin Killian notes in his introduction, is separate but aggregate, which is another way in which the span of 10 years is important. The book has recurring characters, themes, tropes. They meet and intersect in different ways in each of the three parts. The essays stand against the idea of the topical — of time as trend. The idea that something matters then doesn’t simply because a week or a year has gone by. But things can and should also matter more as time goes by, not less.
You also discuss how the camera can capture things in someone who may otherwise be described as nondescript in person, like Dustin Hoffman, for example. How does that impact desire or even our attraction to that person? Is this projection, or are we simply attracted to someone who is meant to be looked at?
In Image-Music-Text, Roland Barthes introduces one of the most important concepts about the camera, which is that the final signified is always read as natural. No matter what we discover about the artifice of the image — of a person, of a face, of a life — what appears before us always usurps what we know about its construction. So you may know that a fashion model or a celebrity’s “beauty” is the result of cosmetic intervention (as well as hair, makeup, lighting), but you will still think of her beauty as natural and therefore superior to your own. In the same way that we are told time and time again — now more than ever — that the lives of the rich and famous, are often built on misery and duplicity, and yet we continue to elevate and fetishize those lives. Why? Because all that matters is the final signified. And if this age is a testament to anything, it’s a testament to the failure of knowledge. Never have we known more, had more access to the truth, to information, to media, to the depth of corruption, and yet it doesn’t alter our perception enough to change our behavior. We know our president is an incompetent liar and a monster, and yet that doesn’t get him impeached. Before, we hid lies because we knew that their exposure — on camera — could destroy a person’s career.
But, as I write in the book, over the past 20 years, reality TV has shown us just how much we can get away with, that terrible behavior is just another industry. That discovery, as it were — which to me is the real project of reality TV — has really changed everything because it made us unshameable. It resocialized (or desocialized) us. It corrupted our behavior — politically and socially — even more. In Beauty Talk, I thought that the answer lay in exposing lies, in learning to disrobe how an image gets made. But I guess I was wrong. For me, the camera is the instrumentation of the total corruption we’re living through right now. I was shocked and appalled when people (writers, critics, artists, PhD classmates) I knew and respected watched Donald Trump on The Apprentice and fully loved it. They thought it was hysterical, despite his history in New York. And then those same friends and colleagues were suddenly outraged by his election into office, thinking that the horror began with his presence in office, or that their viewership had nothing to do with it. As if that wasn’t political. As if we aren’t supposed to ask moral questions about our entertainment and entertainers, leaving morality to religious fanatics, who scare us away from real thought.
Likewise, Dustin Hoffman’s meaning on camera is completely separate from his meaning off camera. More importantly, he would never have attained the meaning he has without the triangulation of the camera. That’s why, as I write in the book, his talent and appeal was literally invisible until Mike Nichols looked at him through a camera lens. I think this has also led to our increasing obsession with the vocation of acting. Acting is the professionalization of being, but also lying. You don’t have to be real, you just have to know how to capitalize on your image, and your script. Before, we had gatekeepers in charge of the final signified — Hollywood, the fashion industry. You had to be chosen, handpicked. Now we have selfies and social media. Filters are not natural, for example, they are cultural. Yet we read the effect, not the construction. We say, This is the way I look. See how good I look. We don’t say, This is the way I look when I use this technology that alters the way I look. And, more importantly, the way you see me.
There are actors, like Winona Ryder, who you describe as temporal archives — of a particular decade, for instance. How hard is it for some of them to shed that initial image or cultural impact? Right now, Ryder is reemerging after a public fall from grace. Is she still considered an outsider in Hollywood?
It’s hard to answer that question because of what I noted above. This is an age of new rules and new acquittals, combined with a speed and turnover of narratives that accelerate our cultural amnesia. Who has time to remember? So the recipe for celebrity — as well as criminality — has changed. Comebacks are possible in a way they weren’t before. Reality TV has also capitalized on failure and breakdown. There are more ways to be famous and more platforms for stardom. For a long time, Ryder was out of the picture because of her 2001 shoplifting scandal — a fall from grace, as you put it — but also because the movie screen was an inimitable space. She’s returned with Stranger Things, which is its own universe of streaming TV, but not to movies, which have a different status. She’ll never be a movie star again because movie stars will never be movie stars again. Other things are also responsible for that — her past, her age, her gender, her powerful ’90s status. Ryder has very little to do with the present time. She’s more of a ghost, a tomb. Stranger Things makes use of that. Who knows what will happen with her career after the series ends.
Fame, in a way, means appealing to more people. It also implies a loss — of identity and rawness. Can actors ever be independent of their image? Especially now with the paparazzi? Can they ever break from their public persona? Also, in more ways now, celebrities are aware that they can control their own narratives by limiting their own exposure, like how much they’re photographed or recorded, the interviews they grant to the press, and their access. Can they really control how we perceive them?
I recently watched a Robert Altman and Tim Robbins Criterion interview about Short Cuts. And in it, Altman, who was the actor’s director par excellence, tells Robbins that he thinks acting is a character defect, a dysfunction. Robbins agrees. So, of course, that would apply even more to a generation of people who want to be famous just for the sake of it. Success is the ethical quagmire par excellence of consumer culture because it jeopardizes our relation to dissent, to resistance, to saying no, as fame is precisely about what one is willing to do, how far (and low — low in the form of high, going low in order to get high) one is willing to go, and how much one is willing to say yes to. The road to fame is made up of assent. This is what gets you to the literal and figurative top. And this is why fame is almost always a parable about losing, not finding, one’s way, about being led astray. “Making it” is not the struggle to become, as it’s always been said, but the willingness to be made. It’s always a Pygmalion story.
As you suggest, fame requires a loss of agency that is disguised by money and visibility. You can perform a self, but you cannot be a self. And, as we’re finally learning with #MeToo, there is an enormous discrepancy between the way we perceive fame and the coercion and secrecy necessary to attain it. It keeps us endlessly confused about the real sacrifice of celebrity. It is an unbearable predicament that many, as we’re learning, cannot stand, have no idea how to handle, and is totally wounding and corrupting. Of course, there are always a few exceptions to the rule for one reason or another. But it’s a miracle when it happens. In the case of Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, you really see the role the camera apparatus played in her death. To survive that, to be okay with that, would be the real insanity. I’m not a Sean Penn fan, but I’ve always known I would be the celebrity that punched the paparazzi. I wouldn’t last a day. Now, to the paparazzi machine, add people photographing celebrities constantly with their own smartphones and then posting those stolen images all over the internet. We’re surveillance machines now. I’m a very private person, but more than that, I value my right to respond to situations the way I morally see fit, especially as a woman. And as a famous person, you cannot do that. If we valued agency, ethics, and truth over the power of artifice, money, and success, we would have a completely different relationship with fame and power. And a completely different world.
Not many people find value in going to the movies alone. Can you elaborate on how that enhances your own experience and thinking?
From the time I was very little, I loved the mystery of being in a theater by myself. I think I understood early on the role that time played in the development of thought and inner life. And that making time for that could make me resilient creatively and spiritually. I felt that there was value in being alone with things. I remember the first time I realized that — where I was, how old I was, what I was watching. Seeing movies with friends, family, and boyfriends — which I sometimes also enjoyed doing, of course — made the experience almost too careless in a way. I didn’t always feel like talking after a movie, or immediately announcing that I liked something, as one is expected to do. I knew early on that I wanted to contemplate the movies I watched, and I needed space and time for that. I wasn’t hording the image, or being a possessive spectator. In fact, I didn’t want to simply let images wash over me. I was being a pensive viewer, as Laura Mulvey would say. Somehow, I felt that when I was sharing too much of those things with friends, it inevitably became a form of idolatry and consensus — a dulling. Everyone had to agree to like a movie, otherwise it spoiled the fun. My parents taught me to question everything, but my friends required almost the opposite. It’s very interesting and odd, when I rewatch certain movies now and realize that I saw those movies by myself as a kid. That I choose to see them alone, sought them out. That asking my parents to let me see them alone was this huge deal for me. Those memories are still so vivid and culturally specific. They place me, but they also situate the world. I’m grateful for that.
What medium exerts the most influence on your memory and thinking?
Movies and music. A lot of my film and video work — like Love Sounds, which is all audio, apart from the eight black screen titles for each section — uses sound and focuses on the work of listening. Music, before it was digitized, was how our bodies got coherence. So what we put into our ears is very important. Sound is a direct correlative of memory and spatial orientation, so it makes us much more emotional and in tune than images. Constantly walking around with Apple AirPods is less about music, I think, and more about shutting out the world. It’s deeply antisocial.
Last week I went to see The Marion Stokes Project, and during the Q-and-A, curator Stuart Comer said that he was shocked to discover that what he thought were his memories was actually TV. I sometimes feel that way with movies and music. A few years back, I confused Warren Beatty’s final lines in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, “I don’t trust anybody but you,” with his line from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, “I guess I ain’t never been this close to anybody before.” Beatty says both to Julie Christie, who was also his lover in real life. I heard those words in my head for years, as if they’d been said to me. In my mind, I was convinced that both of those declarations came from Shampoo. It wasn’t until I made Love Sounds, and rewatched both films, that I realized the dialogue belonged to two separate movies. What was connecting them was an emotional through-line more powerful and lasting than plot or images. Both lines are about an inimitable closeness. Sound and voice give us that feeling — not images. Listening is about attunement to the invisible. Listening slows us down, which gives us coherence. I really live with the sound and mood of images — voices, dialogue, score. Ideas are notes. That’s why I listen to soundtracks when I study a film. Lately, I’ve been listening to Thomas Newman’s great score for The Lost Boys. There is the official ’80s pop score for Lost Boys, which is famous, and there is Newman’s “expanded” musical score, and that is the one to listen to if you want to think about how ideas, genres, and themes are expressed through a decade. In some ways, it tells us more than the film itself. And certainly more than a pop score. Especially because it’s the one almost no one heard for 20-plus years until someone uploaded the tracks to YouTube.
You appreciate work that requires patience and endurance. The digital really affects our perception of time and space, but will it affect our cultural memory? How does it impact your own?
I have a lot to say about this subject. My new work, Time Tells, is all about this. But for the sake of time, let’s just use the example of streaming television. Apart from HBO, most streaming platforms allow us to consume a year’s worth of time — of show — in one day or one week. So lived time is bypassed, sped up, and compressed. A year becomes eight hours, a weekend. No matter how much I might like a program, when I do this — and it’s very hard not to — I remember nothing afterward. I don’t have any memory of what I watched. I don’t retain anything beyond a few days. And because we all keep doing this over and over, and because there is always more and more to consume, you never have time to stop and think about what you have just seen, read, or heard. You only think about what’s next or what you are missing. We are busy with the upkeep of new things and what the mediasphere continuously has to say about those new things.
So what does this mean? It means that we need the connective tissue of slow time to make memories. We need delay, we need gaps between input. It’s that threading of time in-between the things we see and do that creates a lasting impression, attachment. That builds memories around those movies, TV shows, and conversations. I still remember movies and TV shows that I watched as a kid because I had to go somewhere to do it, I waited to see those things. A week, an entire summer. A lot of other things happened during that same time, giving those viewings context. A date, time, and place. Making those viewings events. There was a countdown, there was delay, there was a calendar, there was spatial recognition. The image — especially the digital image, which has no texture, which is all surface — is not a real space, but do we know that anymore? Now everything is happening on our computers at home, in one day. A hundred different things in one hour. Hourlies instead of dailies, as David Fincher once said about filming Zodiac.