Conversation between Erica Levin and Daniel Marcus
For Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann solo show ‘Lucy Jordan’
Galerie Allen, Paris, September 10 - October 24 2020
I met Daniel Marcus over a year ago when we started collaborating on my exhibition WATER curated by Jo-ey Tang at the Beeler Gallery in Columbus, Ohio (October 2019 - March 2020). Coming back to Paris after this immersive, slow and unique experience of the Midwest with Jo-ey, I wanted to continue the dialogue that had established with Daniel. It was also thanks to him that I got to know Erica Levin. I wanted to invite them to an interview so that Lucy Jordan could benefit from Erica’s expertise, as it addresses resistant architecture in cinema for female characters through Maîtresse by Barbet Schroeder (1976) and SAFE by Todd Haynes (1995). Not having seen Maîtresse, which remains a ghost in their discussion, they evoke a third film from 1985 - the missing decade - Vagabond by Agnes Varda. Erica and Danny were traveling constantly at that time, they carried out this interview by SMS. - LBH
ERICA LEVIN’s research focuses on the intersection between avant-garde cinema, post- war art, performance, and visual culture. Her writing has been published in Media-N, World Picture, Millennium Film Journal, Discourse, and in the collections Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable and The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Gender. Her current book project, The Channeled Image: Art, Politics, and the Moving Image after Television, is under contract with University of Chicago Press.
DANIEL MARCUS is a frequent contributor to Artforum and a founding editor of the online peer- reviewed journal Selva: A Journal of the History of Art. Previously curator at the Columbus Museum of Art and guest lecturer in the Department of Art History at Ohio State University; he has just been appointed associate curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University. As a specialist in modern and contemporary art, he has a particular interest in modernism and its politics.
Erica Levin: There’s another scene where Carol can’t sleep and is wandering through this strange exterior space in the middle of the night. She’s drawn there, and for a minute she appears like a figure in a trance – much like Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon, another film about a house that concretizes the crisis of heterosexual relations and interiority, set in Los Angeles c. 1943.
Danny Marcus: One of several such scenes
Danny Marcus: I wanted to ask you if you thought there might be more to say about motherhood in SAFE. I was thinking about the glass of milk... the baby shower… We’re never introduced to Rory’s biological mother.
Erica Levin: The baby shower where her friend’s daughter sits on her lap – it triggers a violent episode Rory’s mom is an interesting blind spot.
Danny Marcus: I wonder if one of the names for her disease -- but not quite one the film ever proposes -- might be “childlessness”. Although it never actually comes up as an issue in the film.
Erica Levin: Maybe it’s just implied by her lack of interiority. Julianne Moore said she spoke above her vocal cords so that her voice would seem to be without a body.
Danny Marcus: Wow, that’s amazing. It also marks her as a sort of child.
Erica Levin: The first crisis in the film is that she doesn’t want to/can’t have sex.
Danny Marcus: Right, that’s where the film begins. And circles back again.
Erica Levin: She is also portrayed as a failed wife when she fails to laugh at the dirty joke at the business dinner.
Danny Marcus: Right -- that’s early in the film, I forgot about that scene.
Erica Levin: She struggles to be good wife, at the same time, her responsibilities as a mother are hard to define and seem to be distributed to her housekeeping staff who also treat her like a child.
Danny Marcus: She doesn’t really have a role, does she...?
Erica Levin: At one point in the film she talks to her own mother on the phone in a strained kind of way. Her primary role seems to be managing the household, the sofa delivery, the sod installation, the renovation, the household staff. She is the ultimate bourgeois.
Danny Marcus: And she’s terrible at it!
Erica Levin: Well this may have a lot to do with why her body goes haywire, there’s no clear distinction between her environment and her “self”
Danny Marcus: There’s a scene early in the film -- in the aerobics class locker room -- where one of her classmates is recommending the work of a self-help guru. “We’re taught what to do and think, but emotionally we’re not in charge.”
Erica Levin: They are talking about “how to own your own life.”
Danny Marcus: But the next line is: “What he’s saying is, we don’t really own our own lives.”
It’s an interesting mantra, because it hits on something -- a sort of materialist explanation of alienation -- that Carol keeps hearing, but can’t quite invest in or believe in. A theory of the social.
Erica Levin: Why can’t she “own” her life?
Danny Marcus: Maybe she does own her life. I mean, not as “owner,” but as something else.
Erica Levin: She seizes on the idea that she might be allergic to the 20th century
Danny Marcus: Totally — it’s such a great line, too.
Erica Levin: However, she is more of a manager than an owner, her husband owns the property, her role is to manage it
Danny Marcus: A sort of Bartleby the Homemaker. There’s another house she visits -- the house of the friend whose brother may have died of AIDS
Erica Levin: Right, and that friend is suing her contractor
Danny Marcus: It’s really the mirror opposite -- a study in late LA modernism, even though, as you say, she’s only recently moved in (or remodeled?). The kitchen styling is more classically “80s”.
Erica Levin: I’ve been wondering about their friendship. Haynes made another film about a woman named Carol that’s a lesbian love story. The fruit diet seems to indicate some kind of mimetic bond. I’m thinking about the way interiors slip from spaces to bodies and back again
Danny Marcus: It’s one of the few moments in the film where social relations are mediated by pleasure (albeit in a puritanical vein)
Erica Levin: Decorating and dieting
Danny Marcus: There’s also a slippage in Carol’s explanation of her sickness
Erica Levin: From stress to environment, but it’s a seamless slip right?
Danny Marcus: She starts to cite the fruit diet as the cause, or at least, the event that kicked off her breakdown
Erica Levin: But the diet is a cure that becomes a cause. Haynes says in an interview that he’s “on the side of the disease not the cure.”
Danny Marcus: Yes, I like that I also wanted to say -- the lesbianism angle is interesting, too, in the way that it colors the “commune” part of the film. I mean, the clinic in... New Mexico? right?
Erica Levin: I remember thinking that the failed intimacy of the hetero couple was not redeemed by the relationship with her friend, but as you say there’s a promise of some shared desire that feels like it could yield an alternative way to be. There’s also the homosocial realm of the gym, a space of failed relationality. At the commune however she finally encounters a real potential partner, but in the end is inadequate to the relationship.
Danny Marcus: It’s interesting that the film explores so many scenes of twentieth- century sexuality -- the McMansion bedroom; the gym locker; the separatist commune -- and finds them all impossible
Erica Levin: At the commune, instead of allowing herself to be re-interpolated as a partner she retreats into the bubble
Danny Marcus: And, implicitly, into narcissism (but which we understand as a scene of failure, too)
Erica Levin: Yes exactly. Maybe space itself is the problem.
Danny Marcus: I guess my question is -- does the film offer an idea of a possible social/sexual orientation, or community? Or a possible social space?
Erica Levin: It is as if Carol can’t inhabit space. She needs to keep retreating, but no interior can compensate for her failed interiority.
Danny Marcus: Maybe it’s not accidental that this film emerges out of the Deleuzophilic 90s. She’s a nomad, baby!
Erica Levin: Her line of flight leads her into the mirror
Danny Marcus: The igloo isn’t so different from Perriand’s bivouac
Erica Levin: Right, made to the scale of a single inhabitant
Danny Marcus: Right -- freedom!
I mean, that’s how Perriand saw it. Portability.
Erica Levin: Here it is a trap
Danny Marcus: Is it though? I wonder.
Erica Levin: It is an exteriorized interior
Danny Marcus: If Haynes is “on the side of the disease, not the cure,” then what marks the space of the igloo negatively isn’t the dome per se, but the mirror. And also the mantra Carol receives from the mother figure at Wrenwood.
Erica Levin: The disease seems to be bound up with her failure to be seen by others, including us as viewers, we’re set up to find her unreadable, inaccessible, we are unable to identify properly with her as a character
Danny Marcus: Then the igloo is really a sort of utopian architecture: the perfect form of unreadability and inaccessibility
Erica Levin: Opaque no window
Danny Marcus: I think of this photo of Perriand
A picture of unanswerability
Opaque no window – exactly
Erica Levin: Perriand is turned away from the camera, the lens, and the possibility of capture in a mirror. It makes me think of the Breuer chairs we glimpse the living room of her house back in Sherman Oaks.
Danny Marcus: Yes, the “Wassily” chair
Erica Levin: Omg yes
Danny Marcus: That’s Breuer’s wife, I think
Erica Levin: I wonder if Haynes had that image in mind when he put those chairs on screen
Danny Marcus: They’re perfect, though -- the whole interior design is genius
The glowing orbs! The symmetrical torchiere lamps. Maya Lin style fireplace
Erica Levin: A room no one actually inhabits, it’s too crowded with décor
Danny Marcus: Here you can see how they designed the living room set — the “Maya Lin” facade is built on top of a preexisting rustic mantle
Erica Levin: It is so interesting how it makes the house feel like a series of disconnected planes rather than a proper interior
Danny Marcus: Yes, exactly -- it’s a really painstaking design, I wonder what other interventions were made to disarticulate the interior
Erica Levin: So the igloo becomes the counter image to this kind of space, it is a totality in a way that this space can never be
Danny Marcus: I wonder if Haynes was thinking about the Gehry house interior at all...
Just thinking about LA and interior disarticulation. I agree about the igloo -- another reason why I think it reads as more of a utopian form.
Erica Levin: It is a place where the social is not even on offer
Danny Marcus: But she does get to choose who gets in and out -- she doesn’t invite the “nice guy” in. It’s a space of control (not in Deleuze’s sense of the term).
Erica Levin: It seems the space of the igloo is designed so that choice isn’t a feature. Structurally, it just won’t allow her to couple.
Danny Marcus: Yes, exactly
Erica Levin: The social is contamination
Danny Marcus: That’s part of Perriand’s project, too, at least with the Bivouacs
Erica Levin: It is interesting that coupling would have been a violation of the rules of the commune. You can only have a relation with yourself, that is the principle.
Danny Marcus: I think the scene of the dance undermines that premise, though
Erica Levin: But the dance is like a carnival that allows folks to let off steam before returning again to the order of the law
Danny Marcus: It becomes clear that the real radicals of Wrenwood are the loners on the margins of the community
Erica Levin: Lester!
Erica Levin: He’s featured on the poster, not Carol
Danny Marcus: Yeah, he’s definitely the Deleuzian hero, a deterritorial ninja
Erica Levin: Was the igloo his house?
Danny Marcus: I don’t think so.
Erica Levin: He has no house.
Danny Marcus: Yeah, we never get any sense of his “space.” He defies space, skirts the apparatus of capture!
It could be interesting to think about SAFE in conversation with Varda’s Vagabond
Erica Levin: Yes
Danny Marcus: There’s the missing 1985 film!
Erica Levin: The scene where Carol almost gets hit by a car seems like it comes from another film, maybe an odd variation on Vagabond
Danny Marcus: Oh wow, right
Erica Levin: Mona in Vagabond is another nomad
But Vagabond proposes a very different utopian horizon - the sociability of the migrant workers (versus the pseudo migrant communards in SAFE). The tension between exterior/interior in both films really interesting
Erica Levin: Right -- and the memory (and presence) of a peasantry, in comparison with the “culturally imagined rural past” of the San Fernando Valley and New Mexico
Erica Levin: Both films turn out to be about a kind of gender trouble that can’t be contained properly inside
Dying in a ditch vs. retreating into the mirror
Danny Marcus: Yes - refusal of social capture as refusal of gender
The mirror is a ditch
Erica Levin: The threat of unfixing gender/ desire
Danny Marcus: In Vagabond, the threat of the social has to be continually reproduced by the film -- but in a way that leaves Mona in an ambiguous position; she’s never fully “in” any particular role.
Erica Levin: She gets drawn into temporary domestic situations but always escapes through a line of flight
Danny Marcus: Ultimately, the line of flight becomes a flight from all social relations, including hippie and punk communalism. The community is the cure, and her refusal is the disease (is expressed as disease).
Erica Levin: It is interesting how the environment in Safe goes from claustrophobic hetero interior to LA freeway to western landscape
Danny Marcus: All are spaces of mythic heterosexuality, and mythic whiteness
Erica Levin: Yes totally
Danny Marcus: All spaces of modernity, too
Erica Levin: And cinema, we talked before about how cinema fails in Safe
Danny Marcus: Exactly. In SAFE, that failure feels quasi-apocalyptic; whereas in Vagabond, cinema’s failure -- that is, its failure as myth -- is a useful starting place for Varda
Erica Levin: In SAFE, Carol is feeling ill, cinema is running on fumes. The line of flight is different for Varda...
Danny Marcus: I’m thinking of the slogan “fin du cinéma” from the intertitles to Godard’s Weekend
Erica Levin: The Algerian migrants suggest an interesting connection to colonial violence
Danny Marcus: Also a connection back to Weekend!
Erica Levin: Right, Vagabond offers the pedestrian counter image to the traffic jam in Weekend
Danny Marcus: SAFE is another counter-image, I think -- it doesn’t have Weekend’s faith in an exterior, anti-bourgeois politics
Erica Levin: Yes - that’s what is so interesting – SAFE doubles down on the bourgeois interior but in doing so undoes it
Danny Marcus: That’s where the spectacle of race really makes itself felt in Haynes’s universe: The scene of “gang violence” mentioned once briefly by Rory never comes to stand for resistance to white suburbia. The bourgeois interior becomes part of a psychodrama, but never a viable political alternative.
Erica Levin: Racial violence (like AIDS) is the justification for enclosure, retreat
But it is always only an imagined violence known only at a distance, mediated by TV, for example
Danny Marcus: It probably bears mentioning that SAFE would have been written around the time of the LA riots if it premiered in 1995.
Erica Levin: The riots were in 1992. AIDS and riots are two vectors of threat: one threatens the integrity of the individual’s body, the other, the civic body
Danny Marcus: But the riots don’t figure in the film. “Gang violence” is a way of NOT naming the riots.
Erica Levin: You’re right
Danny Marcus: Partly that reflects the reality of politics in LA -- the riots were never allowed to become political (to take on a political significance).
Erica Levin: It is a way of naturalizing something that would otherwise be historical, and political as you say
Danny Marcus: Yes, they had to be treated as natural
Erica Levin: Part of the “toxic environment”
Danny Marcus: Perhaps an explanation, too, for the film’s intense focus on the “natural environment” of suburbia -- as if to take literally the idea of bourgeois life as nature