“Unfortunately, most films by women aren’t that good.” This declaration, made just two thirds of the way through the first episode of the 2016 television series I Love Dick is, in at least two ways, the catalyst for all that follows in Jill Soloway’s new eight-episode adaptation of the 1997 cult classic book by Chris Kraus. The speaker is, of course, a man: the eponymous love object Dick (full name Dick Jarrett, played with evident relish by Kevin Bacon), a celebrated artist who runs an arts residency and institute in the desert city of Marfa, Texas. Dick has been invited to dinner by our protagonist – narrator Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), a cultural critic who has just taken up a fellowship at the Marfa Institute. The conversation turns to Chris’s work – she is a struggling filmmaker who was recently devastated to discover that her latest completed work had been pulled from the Venice film festival lineup. Dick finds this unsurprising because most women don’t make very good films.
For a moment, head tilted and mouth open in disbelief, Chris remains silent – but soon she is all fired up, rebutting Dick’s thesis with a quick-fire litany of important women film-makers (“Sally Potter! Jane Campion! Chantal Akerman!”); storming out of her seat and retreating to the bathroom; returning to the table and announcing that she has decided, after all, to stick around in Marfa and take Dick’s seminars at the institute. The words ‘DEAR DICK. IT’S ON’, all in caps, flash white across the red screen. It’s not just rage at Dick’s lazy misogyny that fuels Chris, but also desire. Desire to prove to him that he’s wrong – in her case at least – in his judgement on the capabilities of female film-makers? Partly, yes; but, more complicatedly, it’s sexual desire. Over the next eight episodes, we witness Chris become increasingly obsessive, devising an elaborate art project comprising a series of love letters addressed to the object of her affections, which she shares first with her husband, then Dick, and eventually the whole of Marfa. It’s a wonderful subversion of the usual narrative trope in which the stalkerish man becomes infatuated with the body of a woman he barely knows, and a glorious affirmation in turn of female erotic agency – of women’s capacity to lust deeply, imaginatively, inappropriately over the male body.
Dick’s words also act as the trigger for a second creative project, one not devised by any of the show’s characters but by the television series itself. Chris’s rapid catalogue of names prompts a cut-away from the dinner table setting to an equally swift series of clips flashing across the screen: brief excerpts of notable scenes from the films of Potter, Campion and Akerman. This is the first instance of a technique that recurs throughout the series, in which clips from the work of numerous woman film and video artists, usually with some kind of visual or thematic relationship to narrative events, are spliced into filmed sequences. A consulting producer on the series, Logan Kibens, has described this initial interruption as “a calling of the ancestors”, an announcement that “[w]e’re ready to go into battle” to prove Dick wrong.
The intention behind this project, which spans over half a century of women’s filmmaking from Maya Deren’s early silent film At Land (1948) to contemporary digital work by Instagram and Youtube artist Petra Cortright, is a kind of (re)construction of a feminist video-art canon. This canon-forming impulse is mirrored within the narrative itself in a scene from episode seven set at the fictional Marfa Institute, which is presented as a caricature of the emblematic mausoleum dedicated to the preservation of the white man’s art: abstract, minimalist, apolitical. The white male artist who runs the institute, Dick – whose impressively banal phallic sculptures are at one point described by another character as clearly intended to remind “us of the size of your massive steel and concrete cock” – impulsively quits, handing over the reins to his chief curator Paula. After just a moment surveying her newly won domain, Paula embarks on a total museum makeover, taking down every geometric abstraction in sight and slamming a series of post-its to the walls that act as a roll call of notable female, queer and ethnic-minority artists: Laura Aguilar; Kara Walker; Kerry James Marshall; the list goes on. Works by the artists in question flash across our screens; tears fill Paula’s eyes.
Upbeat music and snappy editing give this celebratory scene a euphoric rhythm, but it’s also a moment that concisely represents the key problems in Soloway’s highly inventive approach to adapting Kraus’s strange and hybrid novel. While Kraus’s text operates in a number of modes – epistolary novel, autobiography, cultural criticism – the television series is a more straightforward narrative tale; however, while the book focuses on the journey of our narrator-author, the adaptation expands its universe to take in a much wider, admirably diverse, cast of female and gender non-conforming protagonists. In principle this is not a bad idea: like the collages of real artworks that recur throughout the series, this is another attempt to open up the playing field (or battlefield), bring in more perspectives through the construction of a kind of collage of lives and stories.
On the whole, however, these new stories – Paula’s journey from under-appreciated curator to head bitch in charge; the evolution of groundskeeper Devon to become a fully actualised artist in their own right; Devon’s love story with Toby, a beautiful young female fellow – suffer from overly superficial treatment. There is one notable exception: episode five, ‘A Short History of Weird Girls’, directed by Soloway, a series of vignettes presented particular moments of sexual awakening for each member of the supporting cast. These fragments are, as the title promises, both gratifyingly weird (a preteen Toby, for example, has her awakening when her older cousin Tara shows her porn for the first time; Toby ends up with a PhD in the aesthetics of hard-core pornography) and unsatisfyingly short, and they only go part of the way in making up for the repetitive, simplistic series of redemption arcs that constitute the narratives of each of these characters in the rest of the series.
The same problem might be said to apply to the show’s use of found footage, which is itself fragmented, often frustratingly brief and rarely more than superficially engaged with, feminist art history reduced to a moving-image mood board. It is perhaps ironic that the reason given for the withdrawal of Chris’s film from the Venice film festival was copyright infringement – she hadn’t paid the artists whose work she used for her soundtrack. Chris rages: “I pulled that shit from obscurity. I was going to give those dipshits publicity!” Of course, there are no actual legal issues surrounding the use of the film clips in I Love Dick itself – but there are questions to be asked about the level of credit which their makers have received, as well as the level of actual engagement which their work deserves. My ambivalence on this issue is only heightened when considering the television series in comparison to the source text, which addresses visual art so carefully, showing how easily writing about life can become writing about art. One memorable passage, which discusses the American artist Hannah Wilke, is both a beautiful piece of writing on the life, work and reception of this feminist icon and a reflexive meditation on Kraus’s own project: “Hannah started using the impossibility of her life, her artwork, and career as material. If art’s a seismographic project, when that project’s met with miscomprehension, failure must become its subject too. … Hannah Wilke Wittgenstein was pure female intellect, her entire gorgeous being stretched out in paradoxical proposition.”
Soloway’s adaptation, meanwhile, is set in a predominantly fictionalised art world populated by parodic stand-ins and pale imitations – beginning, of course, with Dick, who, lording it over the Texas landscape in cowboy boots and hat, is a barely disguised substitute for American minimalist sculptor (and founder of the real-life Marfa-based Chinati Foundation) Donald Judd. While there’s little question that the epithet ‘dick’ can be applied to the artist, at least Judd’s works didn’t always take the shape of one. It’s also somewhat reductive to equate, as the show frequently does, abstraction and minimalism with misogyny – and, conversely, to suggest that anything involving a woman artist, a naked body and new media is going to be purposefully and productively feminist. At one point Toby also performs her own artwork for our entertainment, stripping naked at a ‘man camp’ (the name given to temporary employee housing assigned to oilfield workers) and streaming it live on social media. The action goes viral, and provides some good ammunition for the plot as well as plenty of humour in the form of Toby’s progressively luminous sunburn, but as an artwork openly mining the rich tradition of nudity and live performance in feminist art history, it is depressingly derivative.
As the backdrop to a television comedy with a quirky aesthetic, the art-world setting to which the story of I Love Dick is transported onscreen works well. As a ‘calling of the ancestors’ it is less effective. Far more powerful in this regard is the central narrative exploring the relationship between Dick and Chris and Sylvère. This makes sense: what medium is better for exploring romantic and sexual dynamics than television? Added to that, Soloway has form when it comes to charting and raising storms in these waters as writer/director of the powerfully subversive Transparent (2014–). Soloway’s I Love Dick is, like its predecessor, a radically honest depiction of a woman’s evolving subjectivity and sexuality.
Of all the ways in which this adaptation deviates from its source, perhaps the most significant takes place in the final episode. In Kraus’s version, Chris and Dick have sex just once, a little over halfway through the book, an encounter immediately followed by Chris’s realisation that he “never wanted to have sex with me again.” It’s a moment both devastating and fascinating in its insight into the nature of sexual fantasy and intimacy. But on screen, although they begin having sex on two occasions, Chris and Dick never finish what they begin. Then, in the show’s final sequence, Chris begins to menstruate during sex, which makes Dick panic and rush to the bathroom to wash her blood from his hands. This time, Dick’s ignorance, his instinctive misogyny, do not make Chris want him. She dons his cowboy hat and strides off, blood trickling down her thigh. This moment feels like a real call to arms, a battlecry, an assertion that women are more than capable of producing moments of art as groundbreaking, powerful and imperfect as any man.