I Love Dick is great as a TV show, but you still can’t beat the book | The Knowledge Dynasty

I Love Dick is great as a TV show, but you still can’t beat the book

Jill Soloways adaptation of Chris Krauss novel is funny and beautiful in its own way. But it can’t transmit the intense pleasure of the ideas in the original.

Chris Kraus had been describing her 1997 novel I Love Dick as funny for years by the time the news broke, in February, that Transparent creator Jill Soloway was adapting it for TV. Many wouldnt listen. Almost invariably, reviewers praise the book for its embrace of feminine abjection, although I see it more as comedy, she wrote in an essay for the Guardian.

Fair enough: I Love Dick is fun to read. Its minimal plot is propelled by perversity and real-life gossip: a film-maker named Chris Kraus and her husband, an academic who shares a name with Krauss then-spouse Sylvre Lotringer, spend an evening with a colleague of Sylvres. Chris becomes obsessed with their charismatic acquaintance, identified only as Dick ______. (The cultural critic Dick Hebdige, whose cease-and-desist notice led Kraus to excise the characters last name, filled in the blank himself.)

In her promising Amazon pilot, though Soloway heightens the frisson of Chris all-consuming crush, she doesn’t come close to capturing the books intellectual pleasures. Her adaptation transforms I Love Dick into a simple half-hour comedy, with an expanded cast of characters and proper jokes. Some of them are scathing: at an academic gathering, a man blithely refers to Chris as the Holocaust wife a reference to Sylvres research that trivializes her own work and genocide in the same breath. Kathryn Hahn plays Chris as an awkward neurotic, ensuring that the character comes across as humorous and mostly sympathetic rather than fully unhinged.

But I Love Dick, the book, is punctuated by ideas more than events. Halfway through the book, Chris realizes: Through love I am teaching myself how to think. By this point, the torrent of erotic energy drummed up by her crush has given way to a series of essays that re-evaluate the underrated work of feminist artists such as Eleanor Antin and Hannah Wilke, and meditate on the story of American activist Jennifer Harburys marriage to disappeared Guatemalan guerrilla Efran Bmaca Velsquez. Theres suspense in I Love Dick, but its not about whether Chris will finally win Dicks love or what will become of her marriage. As the letters grow into a writing project, the question that emerges is whether this period of intense living will lead Chris to a new level in her art. The books still-growing influence is better proof than its actual resolution that it did.

Feminist criticism has a reputation for being dense and dour, but some of it is electrifying. From Judith Butlers academic treatises to the essays of Audre Lorde and Ellen Willis, the most resonant feminist essays are driven by the authors need to think her way to some form of liberation. And as Willis often wrote, liberation doesnt just mean political equality; its also about womens right to pleasure. Life without pleasure without spontaneity and playfulness, sexuality and sensuality, aesthetic experience, surprise, excitement, ecstasy is a kind of death, she wrote.

Soloway has called Krauss book the invention of the female gaze. Its a puzzling sort of compliment. I Love Dick was published in 1997. If it invented the female gaze, what were the Bronts and Virginia Woolf up to? I Love Dicks real innovation was to make the intellectual thrills of feminist criticism the engine of a novel and to heighten that novels reality through Chriss pursuit of pleasure. Its hybrid form was unique at the time. But now its influence is everywhere in feminist literature, from Sheila Hetis How Should a Person Be?, a novel that brutally deconstructs a real friendship, to Maggie Nelsons X-rated, theory-steeped memoir The Argonauts. Even Jenny Offills less formally subversive Dept of Speculation, narrated by a woman who sacrifices her writing career for family and then learns her husbands cheating, owes a debt to Kraus.

TV has, in the past decade or so, become as effective a medium for serialized narratives as literature. But the I Love Dick pilot proves the rule about television: it cant compete with books when it comes to expressing complex ideas. Jill Soloway is our most intellectual television creator working today. She seems determined to do Krauss text justice. Hahn periodically reads the books epigrams, like every letter is a love letter, as the words flash against a bright red screen. Chris, Sylvre (Griffin Dunne) and Dick (Kevin Bacon) even discuss their professional interests during a tense restaurant scene, though Sylvre and Dicks jargon-filled conversation is clearly meant to sound like pretentious noise.

In the book, Chriss encounter with Dick changes her relationship to art overnight; her understanding of Henry James and the Ramones becomes intensely personal. But a TV show cant capture the thrill of these discoveries because it cant give viewers more than a few seconds per episode of Chris writing down her epiphanies as Hahn reads them in voiceover. So the pilot translates this initial flood of inspiration into a scene of Chris typing on her computer, lost in a fantasy where theyre back at dinner and Dick follows her into the bathroom.

Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick. Photograph: Reynaldo Rivera

Its an intoxicating scene, shot as a series of woozy, warmly lit closeups punctuated by the occasional still. The dream restaurant serves animals still covered in fur, an image both surreal and primal. Dick is dressed inappropriately for a spot with a tasting menu, in a bad boys white T-shirt, and sticks a hand down his pants. All of Soloways deliriously objectifying shots from earlier in the episode, which show Dick as the cowboy Chris sees when she looks at him, seem lead up to this moment.

This could be the birth of a new aesthetic. Despite feminisms ascendance on TV, with forces like Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan broadening representations of women while pushing progressive gender politics, creators still dont enjoy the stylistic freedom independent feminist filmmakers seized decades ago. I applaud Soloway for trying to insert at least one small reference to those forebears: not a spoiler, but the visual poetry of Julie Dashs Daughters of the Dust, the free-associative anarchy of Vra Chytilovs Daisies, and the obsession with subjectivity that fuels Agns Vardas entire filmography are all forerunners of the two-minute fantasy sequence at the end of this pilot.

It was a kind of hint that Soloway probably knew she could never replicate the intellectual rigor of her source material for television. Instead of attempting the impossible, she made a very good television show. But it doesnt hold a candle to the transcendent experience of reading I Love Dick.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/25/i-love-dick-tv-you-still-cant-beat-the-book

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