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Chris Kraus' feminist classic gets a TV revamp

Zacharias Szumer
Zacharias Szumer

Writer and musician currently living in Jakarta

Jakarta | Fri, May 19, 2017 | 10:04 am
Chris Kraus' feminist classic gets a TV revamp

A still from the 'I Love Dick' series (Amazon/File)

Chris Kraus’ epistolary feminist novel I Love Dick came out in 1997 with little fanfare and few accolades.

The true story of a self-described failed filmmaker‘s infatuation with one of her husband’s colleagues told through a flurry of stream-of-consciousness letters sold fewer than a hundred copies a year in the decade after it was published. Despite the low sales, via word-of-mouth and it being championed by several well-known creatives, it eventually went viral. Not a rapid rise and equally rapid crash-and-burn kind of viral, more of a slow, long infiltration. Herpes, not Ebola. Chain e-mail, not Wannacrypt.

After being reprinted in 2006, it’s reportedly now selling tens of thousands of copies a year. One of these fell into the hands of Transparent-creator Jill Soloway, who was so taken by it that she, along with playwright Sarah Gubbins, adapted it into a TV series, which was released on May 12 via Amazon Video.

Kraus reportedly gave Soloway full creative control over the production, and she has taken full advantage of it. Unlike the book, which takes place over several years and in multiple locations across the United States, in the series the entire story is condensed into a few weeks in Marfa, a tumbleweed town that also hosts an upscale art gallery and residency fellowship program.

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Marfa is a real place in Texas that closely resembles its cinematic counterpart, but here it effectively functions as a microcosm of the multiple settings of the book. It has the anonymity and modesty of the rural, backwater towns where Kraus likes to hide out, but also the pretentiousness of the art world that she feels has explicitly rejected her.  

Chris’ husband and intellectual accomplice Sylvere Lotringer, whose essential Europeanness in the book has been ironed out by Griffin Dunne, is a literary critic and cultural theorist who has been accepted as a fellow at the Marfa institute to research the “aesthetics of the Holocaust.” Chris (Kathryn Hahn) comes along only to drop him off but decides to stick around after one of her films is axed from a festival she was planning on attending. After being beguiled by the gallery’s owner, the enigmatic, conceptual-art cowboy Dick (Kevin Bacon), she begins to write him a series of wild, fanciful love letters, which at first reinvigorate her relationship with Sylvère, but ultimately threaten to spin-them both off into uncharted emotional territory.

Unlike the book, the plot of which basically revolves around this notional love triangle, the series introduces multiple new characters: the art program’s handyperson and struggling local artist Devon (Roberta Colindrez), under-valued gallery curator Paula (Lily Mojekwu) and all the other residency fellows. These new characters, along with cuts of experimental video art, add multiple new dimensions to the original story and also work as a device to capture Kraus’ lengthy expositions on modern artists and the art scene throughout the original novel.

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While the essence of Chris and Sylvère – raw-nerved, cerebral and wistful, debonair, respectively – is preserved, the inclusion of numerous extra characters and plotlines means Chris’ character isn’t exposed as deeply as it is in the book. One of the results of this is that, as incisive cultural critic Bree Ahrens put it, “Chris' own sense of intellectual inadequacy [next to Dick] comes across as an actual rather than imagined deficiency.” The book enthralls through Kraus’ language and breadth of knowledge, her struggling with the meaning of her desire in a world of Dicks; the Chris Kraus of the series doesn’t come off as nearly as brilliant.

Ultimately though, the series should be seen as an homage to the original book as much as an adaptation of it. Take for example the moment midway through the series when Chris starts taping her letters to walls all over Marfa, where they are discovered with joy by the town’s inhabitants, both cowboys and artists. This never happens in the book, but it movingly illustrates the way Kraus’ writing has captured the imaginations of a select generation since it was published.

After discovering Chris’ project of struggle, Devon decides to lead a theater production inspired by her letters. At some point in a later episode, she and her troupe sit in an abandoned building shouting out lines from these letters, reveling in the vitality of their language. It’s a beautiful scene that shows how the book that Kraus wrote in a tangle of confusion and malaise has managed to extricate so many people from their own.

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