Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wednesday Evening in SoHo: Masha Tupitsyn, Lynne Tillman, Wayne Koestenbaum and "Life As We Show It: Writing on Film" at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

This evening we took along an umbrella as the L and 6 trains brought us to SoHo for a very enjoyable reading at the great Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. As we noted in earlier posts, City Lights has just brought out Life As We Show It: Writing on Film, co-edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn.

Two stellar contributors to the anthology, Lynne Tillman and Wayne Koestenbaum, read tonight from cinema-related early pieces, both tours de force that prefigured later books that we consider masterpieces. We'd enjoyed both immensely in our reading of the book last week, but it was a special pleasure to see the authors and hear their words in their own voices.

There was a crowd of 35 to 40 in chairs in the back of the store, next to the cafe. We've spent a number of interesing afternoons and evenings here (for example, these September 2007 panels on the future of book reviewing and on literary magazines online, and we know they're well worth the occasional distraction of the sound of food and drink being made.

First, as usual, someone thanked us for coming and told us about Housing Works. If you've been living on Uranus, you know about them, but they're a now vulnerable New York-based non-profit fighting the twin crisis of AIDS and homelessness.

Housing Works runs a chain of nine thrift shops, this bookstore and cafe, a catering company and a screen-printing business as social enterprises to support their work and lower their dependence on grants and donations. All the books and periodicals in the booktore are donated, so if you live in the city and have some books you think they could use for a great cause, take them to the store at 126 Crosby Street and stop to buy some new books and get something good to eat and drink.

Anyway, then there was an introduction of Masha Tupitsyn, co-editor of Life As We Show It (along with our good friend, the brilliantly original filmmaker, novelist and critic Brian Pera).

Masha is an amazing writer and an astute cultural critic. Her book Beauty Talk & Monsters from Semiotext(e) Press, is a collection of film-based stories, and she's currently working on Star Notes, a new book about our favorite actor, John Cusack and the identity politics of the actor. Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Animal Shelter, Fanzine, Creative Aggression, the anthologies Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century and the Encyclopedia Project Volume II, F-K (Encyclomedia Press, 2009), Make/Shift, Bookforum, Fence, Five Fingers Review, and San Francisco's KQED’s The Writer’s Block.

Masha read a little of her terrific introduction to the anthology, which begins with a meditation on the movie theater scene in The Blob. The passage she read begins:

When the great comedian Gene Wilder got his first big movie break, he ran around Lincoln Center ecstatically proclaiming, "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" With Reality TV currently reigning supreme, the symbiotic bonds that we have with screen fantasies and screen idols -- that is, the way we contain, portray, and pursue images, rather than the way images portray us -- have largely gone on to erode any kind of real civic alliance, making images the ties that bind. . .

Her reading gave a look at what Life As We Show It is all about. As the book's publicity stuff says, it's
a dynamic cross-genre collection that uses short stories, essays, and poetry to explore the cinematic experience. In these innovative writings, the movie-viewer relationship is positioned as protagonist, theme and plot, and most importantly, as a new genre in its own right. The texts play with the trope that life imitates art by asking: If movie-watching has become a primary way of experiencing the world, what kind of movies are our lives imitating?

Then Masha introduced Lynne Tillman, giving Lynne's bio note from the book. Here let's just plagiarize ourselves, from the last Lynne Tillman reading we reported on, an event for BOMB Magazine in Tompkins Square Park on August 1, 2007:

Lynne Tillman is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two nonfiction books. Lynne’s No Lease on Life was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel, American Genius: A Comedy, was published by Soft Skull Press last year. Other novels are Motion Sickness, Haunted Houses and Cast In Doubt. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, including The New Gothic, New York Writes After 9/11, The Show I’ll Never Forget, The Penguin Book of New York Stories, and This Is Not Chick Lit. She’s a professor and writer-in-residence at the University at Albany, and last year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Lynne said she'd been thrilled that Brian and Masha wanted to use her story "Other Movies" to lead off the anthology because it's one of her works that "no one had ever mentioned" but it's precious to her because, as is obvious to all of us who love her masterwork No Lease on Life, its themes and styles prefigure that book's.

The story takes place on Tenth Street in the East Village in the 1980s and the block in those pre-gentrification days was more quirky and vibrant, if somewhat more dicey, than it is today. The narrator describes the block's residents and their eccentricities and reimagines them as (or casts them as) characters in one of the movies or TV shows that are frequently shot in the picturesque neighborhood.

Here's a short excerpt of a scene in a bar that's "Cheers or Archie's Place except the ethnic groups are different. For the regulars, it's a home away from home" and two of them, Kay and Harvey are talking:
Kay's wearing a cut-up T-shirt with a Bruce Springsteen logo on the back. She reminds me of Sally Fields. . . Then she drinks a shot of vodka and rolls her blue eyes at him, as if she were Demi Moore in St. Elmo's Fire. They talk about disease. His heart. Her breasts. AIDS. Kay's good friend Richard died two months ago, and she still can't believe it. Life, she tells Harvey, wasn't supposed to be like this. Kay slides off the barstool, goes to the jukebox, and plays "Born in the USA" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

Joe the bartender is nothing like Archie or Ted Danson, the guy from Cheers. He's a tall black guy, sort of like the lead in The Brother from Another Planet. . .

A longer excerpt would show how good this piece really is, but we're a little slow on typing tonight.

After Lynne stepped down to a round of applause, Masha introduced Wayne Koestenbaum and we realized we've mispronounced his name in our head all these years we've been reading his work and about him. His bio, which we've stolen from the indispensible Soft Skull Press:

Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of several works of cultural criticism including The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist), Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics; the Penguin Lives biography of Andy Warhol; and Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon. He is also the author of a novel Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes and five collections of poetry, Best-selling Jewish Porn Films, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, The Milk of Inquiry, and Model Homes.

Wayne's piece from Life As We Show It, "The Elizabeth Taylor Puzzle," prefigures his book-length studies on the role of divadom and gay male culture, The Queen's Throat and Jackie Under My Skin. Film Comment said the Taylor essay is one of the highlights of the anthology, and Wayne's reading of much of it tonight had the Housing Works audience enraptured after he said how great it was to read with one of his idols (and ours), Lynne Tillman.

Koestenbaum's take on Liz Taylor is a wonder. Perhaps you can get a feel for the tour de force Wayne Koestenbaum pulls off in this essay from this excerpt:

Elizabeth Taylor and masturbation: recall the marvelous scene in National Velvet when she plays invisible horsie in bed, pretending to ride a horse, making it go faster and faster, panting as it accelerates and she guides it over hurdles, her screen sister Angela Lansbury in bed dreaming of boys but Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet hot for a horse named Pie, as in mincemeat pie.

References to eating, hunger, and gluttony mark most of Taylor's films. In A Place in the Sun, she enters the pool room where Montgomery Clift is playing and she nibbles. In BUtterfield 8, she says, "Waitress, could you bring us some french fries?" In the first scene of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she eats cold meat straight out of the fridge. . .

The elephantine giantism of such vehicles as Giant and Elephant Walk signify that she's a star, that the emotions she inspires are huge, and that her figure is large. (Is it really? The allegedly "large" Liz often seems tiny. Liz is a matter of perspective.) It has alway been considered acceptable to comment on her size. . . She was called plump long before she was actually plump. Fluids and solids that pass through Elizabeth Taylor' body, or that stay in her body, are part of the public record.

After Wayne read, Masha thanked the audience and after the applause died down, people got up to talk with the authors, get books signed, etc. (We found a little room where we could pass fluids out of our body first.)

Masha will be reading from her own contribution to Life As We Show It, along with the wonderful Tisa Bryant, next Friday, June 26, at Bluestockings.

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