The Devils of Our Better Nature: On Dennis Cooper and His New Film




I READ DENNIS COOPER for the first time when I was a 23-year-old student in an MFA program. No professor assigned him to me. Cooper’s language is blunt, often sounding as though spoken through a veil of intoxicants, and his tales of insecure gay teenagers and the men who castrate, murder, disembowel, and cannibalize them would have been a hard pitch to those who had come to grad school to learn how to sell their manuscripts. The only other openly gay student in my writing cohort, K., recommended the George Miles Cycle (1989–2000) and God Jr. (2005), his voice catching as we talked. He was afraid to read The Sluts (2004), because he had recently been through a breakup and he was concerned that a narrative about a group of middle-aged men who become obsessed with a prostitute named Brad, using internet chat rooms to describe his torture and death, might mar his sense of the possibilities of single life as a sexually active gay person.

I was in a strange position myself at this point in the “program” (as we called it) — a name that made earning a master’s of Fine Arts sound like completing the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Reeling from my own failed relationship, with all the unwanted things it had taught me about my psychology, I balanced my graduate studies with an ambitious gay bachelorhood that I managed to sustain for no more than a year. Every day, I woke up around noon and wrote for a couple of hours before class. I left campus for a job tutoring private school students on the Upper West Side. After work, I returned to my apartment on 114th Street and wrote for several more hours. I got dressed up around dinnertime and left my graduate dorm for the bodega on the corner, where I bought a six-pack of beer with the most efficient alcohol content/price ratio. I drank three bottles while I finished writing for the day. My two roommates — another aspiring novelist in the program and his girlfriend — watched me with a surprise that turned gradually to boredom as I put on my leather jacket or rolled my shorts halfway up my thighs, shoved a book in my pocket, and left the apartment. I went out seven days a week, and unless I met someone and went home with him, I flitted among various gay bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn until four in the morning. I got back on the train, returned home, and read until eight or nine, when I passed out on the couch or slumped over the kitchen table, only to wake later in the day and begin the cycle again.

Of course, my routine was often foiled by my body’s protests against this lifestyle. Occasionally, I emerged from a blackout in Van Cortlandt Park at the end of the 1 train line, or at some other infrastructural extremity of New York City, having missed my transfer hours before. Other times, I found myself in a strange bedroom, in the middle of a sex act I did not remember initiating, or with a man leering over my body, his arms outstretched, shaking me. “I’ve been trying to wake you for the past several minutes,” said someone I hardly recognized, “but I couldn’t. I was scared.” In these moments, I sometimes thought of Dennis Cooper’s characters, their stupor and passivity:

A week later they went through the motions again. George sat on the chair near the window and got that weird look on his face that John decided meant one of two things, “Don’t hurt me,” or “What’s the matter?” John could vaguely remember when George had meant danger. Now he was only the easiest guy to lay hands on. There was nothing intimidating about him at all.

In my graduate studies, Cooper’s books suggested a value set I did not yet understand. Much of the other gay writing that influenced me then, from James Baldwin to Edmund White to Lou Reed’s Transformer, was focused on The Closet/Coming Out and, however obliquely, on gay liberation, which was often asserted through sex. All of New York City reflected back at me the centrality of these concerns. The subway trains had a cruisey communication system of glances, and the bars were packed and hung in rainbow flags, while my graduate program, however politically correct, was presided over by a competitive, heterosexual sensibility I spent my evenings trying to flee. Straight guys who prided themselves on having read Gravity’s Rainbow trolled the halls and asked unsuspecting students how many hours they wrote each day, whether they wrote sitting or standing up, at home or in coffee shops, and what value they felt their reading contributed to their writing practices. The high-wire act of my daily routine, and my lack of interest in utilitarian reading, was not something I understood how to explain to them.

I also loved Gravity’s Rainbow — and still do. I could always hide behind its 700-odd pages.

After graduation, I found other New York communities. K. has since moved to Berlin.

Dennis Cooper lives in Paris, although he was born in Pasadena, and his literature is a brilliant encapsulation of Los Angeles. Born to wealthy parents who divorced when he was in his teens, Cooper, like his characters, was galvanized by punk, and found a home in the alternative literary scene he helped to build. He spent his 20s and early 30s printing poetry chapbooks on his friends’ presses, on his own press (Little Caesar, also the name of a magazine he founded) and on gay presses, like the now-defunct SeaHorse. He also ran an influential reading series, “Beyond Baroque,” which he used to bring authors from across the country to Los Angeles. Cooper became known as a fiction writer in the 1980s, when he was seen as “the devil” — he told an interviewer in 2005 — of a burgeoning cross-country community of gay novelists.

For all his demonic reputation, the gay men I’ve met during my years romping around New York have been uniquely touched by his work. I asked my friend J., a huge fan of the author, if he owned a copy of a novel I wanted to quote in this essay. He told me that he gave Cooper’s books away after he finished them, because he wanted other people to read his stuff. He also likened Cooper’s collaborative spirit to that of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg — all postwar gay artists whose knack for working with others and affinity for hybrid aesthetic practices expressed an ambiguity that much contemporary gay writing has eschewed in favor of historical documentation and political statements. Cooper’s fiction, in which characters bleed into one another, plots are fractured or circular, and the music of teenage life holds greater sway than the cultural markers of gay history, has a similar spirit of adventure and possibility. (Cooper has often discussed the profound influence of bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Husker Dü, and Slayer on the George Miles Cycle.) In the past several decades, Cooper has collaborated with the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones and the composer Chris Cochrane on the AIDS-focused performance THEM (1986), with the French dramatist and puppeteer Giséle Vienne on a number of plays, and, most recently, with the young director Zac Farley on the feature-length films Like Cattle Towards Glow (2015) and this year’s Permanent Green Light. 

Cooper’s ability to experiment in both literature and visual media might stem from the fact that his greatest influences were not American but French, the same tradition that birthed groups like the Surrealists and the Oulipo and spawned the Nouveau Roman. French writers have often shown an ease at moving into different spheres that has eluded Americans: Jean Cocteau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras all developed reputations as novelists before going on to direct films.

Like his French influences, Cooper’s apparent apolitical leanings and the ingenuousness of his literary work — in interviews, he has repeatedly likened himself to a teenager — amount to something powerfully political. Published by big houses like Grove Press and HarperCollins since the late 1980s, Cooper’s novels slipped by on the fringes of the literary mainstream during an era when politicians and journalists were making a media game of attacking outlaw artists. One year before Cooper published Closer (1989), his first book that garnered widespread attention, Senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D’Amato went after the National Endowment for the Arts for funding Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and gay-themed photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. The year after Closer was published, Bret Easton Ellis lost a major book deal and then was lambasted by reviewers and the National Organization for Women for his novel American Psycho (1991). Although Ellis was articulate about his intentions, few seemed capable of understanding that a narrative about a misogynistic, murderous heterosexual yuppie written by a queer novelist should not be taken as a gesture of advocacy. But Ellis was satirically depicting the straight world, and it might have been the outspoken homosexuality of Cooper’s characters that protected him, ironically, from conservative scrutiny. No one cares if gay teenagers die, Cooper constantly suggests in his writing, and the blind eye American moralists turned to his work suggests that he was right.

Then, in 2016, Cooper’s longtime, massively popular blog — a mélange of aggregated criticism, lists, and information about artists Cooper likes, alongside compilations of young gay men who advertise themselves as sex slaves online — was mysteriously deleted by Google. The literary establishment, which has unexpectedly come around to Cooper since his early days on the edge, flared up in protest: PEN America wrote an outraged letter, fans expressed their discontent on social media, Cooper hired a lawyer and spoke with The New Yorker and the Guardian about the impossibility of holding a 21st-century entity like Google accountable for violating its own Terms and Conditions. Unexpectedly, Google returned Cooper’s archived content, offering as explanation for the disappearance of nearly half a decade of genre-defying internet art the fact that an anonymous person had reported a post from 2006 allegedly depicting child abuse. Google’s reaction had been to immediately expunge everything Cooper had ever hosted on his site.

Among the recovered work was a project entitled Zac’s Freight Elevator (2016), part of a series of “novels” told in the form of GIFs that Cooper sequenced and organized into chapters. These works are named after Zac Farley, Cooper’s 30-year-old collaborator on Like Cattle Towards Glow and Permanent Green Light. Describing the division of their labor earlier this month at the latter film’s North American premiere in New York City, Cooper explained that he does most of the writing while Farley handles most of the visuals. The screenplay is co-credited to both of them, with Farley being listed as the film’s director.

As someone whose formal education caused him to embrace auteur theory at a young age, I’m knee-jerk tempted to consider Permanent Green Light a Zac Farley film. Yet the nature of his collaboration with the 65-year-old writer debunks the notion of a single cinematic creator as powerfully as do Powell and Pressburger’s films, or Losey and Pinter’s. Like Cattle Towards Glow, which is told in five episodes that follow anonymous young people through various stages of the sex act, is quintessential Dennis Cooper in content and theme. Farley’s stilted direction and the stationary camera are a logical extension of Cooper’s eerily dispassionate prose.

The initial inspiration for Permanent Green Light, Cooper wrote on his blog, came from a GIF one of Farley’s friends sent him of a teenager stepping on a landmine and graphically erupting into blood and sinew and bone. Cooper and Farley’s film follows a French teenager named Roman (“novel,” in French) who enlists a group of friends to help him blow himself up using a suicide vest — not as an act of terrorism, nor out of suicidal despair, but simply because he wants to die in a large spectacle that leaves no trace of himself behind.

What follows is an extraordinarily quiet and thoughtful movie, steeped in the culture and feeling of childhood and adolescence, as well as a highly successful collaboration. Shot largely in close-ups, Permanent Green Light is told through the faces of its teenagers. The way they look at one another, at their phones, at the walls of a club while they dance, express both an emotion and a confusion that Farley-Cooper capture in dialogue at several key moments, when their young subjects seem capable of opening up. The film painstakingly avoids condescending to its adolescent characters: the audience is as incapable of understanding them as they are of understanding themselves.

As is true of much of Cooper’s earlier work, Permanent Green Light is a political film only tangentially. When Roman meets a girl, León, who collects suicide vests, he initially rejects the option of using something from her collection to obliterate himself — it would be, he says, “too famous.” León herself is not a terrorist, outspokenly claiming that her interest is merely in stockpiling the vests, not detonating them. Her hoard might as well be of baseball cards or any other childhood ephemera, of which the movie is chock-full. Tellingly, when León kills herself, she doesn’t use one of her explosives.

The suicide of a teenager has long been a flashpoint in Dennis Cooper’s work. The George Miles Cycle was named after a close childhood friend whom the author cared for through manic-depressive episodes during their adolescent years. When they met again as adults, Cooper became infatuated, and a romantic affair ensued. Miles later killed himself, and Cooper began to publish novels. His books, in their concern for the vulnerability of youth, return persistently to the theme of self-destructive desire. Often, the sex acts their protagonists engage in are motivated more by fear and uncertainty than animal lust. The passive boy of Closer, for example, sleeps with insecure teens, some of them aspiring artists, out of sheer boredom and self-contempt and welcomes the predatory attentions of murderous men with the same vacant anomie.

Cooper’s new film flips this script. León may be a George Miles figure, but she exists in a world of sexless proto-artists, not lascivious men who only want her body. In one of the film’s oddly touching moments, Roman puts his hand under León’s shirt, not to feel her flesh but to make sure the bomb she claims to be wearing is actually there. Indeed, sex is conspicuously — and quite movingly — absent from Permanent Green Light. It only appears explicitly in the desire of one of the teenagers, Guillaume (whose blue eyes and short brown hair evoke a young Dennis Cooper), for Roman. In one desperate scene, Guillaume tries to coerce Roman into sleeping with him after learning of the boy’s plan to blow himself up. Yet Roman, unlike the shadows of George Miles who people Cooper’s novels, has a sense of self-esteem, a purpose. He is “happy,” he tells León. The others, ultimately, have no choice but to accept him for what he is, and to act like supportive friends rather than infatuated lovers.

“I sometimes think friendship love is the best,” Cooper told Interview magazine earlier this year. “More than romantic love.” His work has always alluded to the importance of friendship, of community. Yet it took a collaborative project, made in Cooper’s seventh decade, for the artist to approach the concept of community with an appropriate level of gentleness. The film is beautifully shot, a testament to the skills of Zac Farley. It is also, in the long oeuvre of Dennis Cooper, his most innocent project. The shocking conceits of his novels are tamped down, the tortured mentality behind them rendered calmer. Permanent Green Light is a late work by a life-long punk who held on to his idealism long enough to depict it, indelibly, on the screen.

¤

Daniel Felsenthal writes fiction and nonfiction. He lives in New York City.


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