The first time we see Kevin Bacon’s Dick — or to be more specific, his perfect ass — he’s riding a horse through dusty downtown Marfa. The camera lingers on him as he gracefully dismounts, then cuts away to Kathryn Hahn doing an awkward double-take as she drives past. She contorts her mouth into a crooked grimace, as though she’s witnessing a gruesome accident. And, in a way, she is. The beat-up junker that her marriage has become is about to slam into a wall.
Hahn is brilliantly cast as Chris Kraus, a struggling filmmaker with disheveled hair, a disheveled mind, and an emotional range that runs to loud, colorful extremes. In Transparent, the show that made most of us fall in love with the director Jill Soloway, Hahn painted with a much softer palette. As Rabbi Raquel, she played one of the few characters on Transparent who was capable of exercising self-restraint. Raquel’s story line in the most recent season ended with a mikveh — a bath used by religious Jewish women for cleansing rituals. As Kraus, Hahn gets wet in a different way. In the book on which I Love Dick is loosely based, Kraus writes to Dick about “how wet I’ve been, constantly, since talking on the phone to you.” Hahn makes the same point in this first episode, mostly with her face. Talking to Dick at a party, she bites her lip, stammers, laughs nervously, blurts out that she is “straddling 40 … ish,” and watches him light a rolled cigarette with her mouth hanging open in an expression verging on shock.
We seem to be lately awash in televised depictions of complexly drawn women lusting after men, but I Love Dick belongs in its own category. While Girls and Broad City and Insecure show women getting horny for guys, at their core they’re really about how women relate to each other. You could say this is part of what makes them feminist works. In 1985, when the cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her characters assert that she would only go to a movie if it had at least two women in it, and only then if the women were shown talking to each other about something besides a man, she was articulating a certain kind of feminist view: the idea that men aren’t, and shouldn’t be, at the center of every woman’s life. Part of what makes I Love Dick so radical is that it completely fails the so-called “Bechdel Test.” Crazy Ex Girlfriend, another recent example of a woman obsessing over a man on TV, also fails the Bechdel Test, but it’s really about the inherent problems of traditional rom-com narratives that position love as the ultimate solution and end game to a woman’s life. I Love Dick positions lust differently, as a powerful force that can change a woman’s life. It’s a feminist show about a woman obsessing over a man — and not just any man, but the kind who has the gall to say that there are so few successful female filmmakers because “ultimately most films made by women aren’t that good.” He is truly a dick, in the pejorative sense. And that has a lot to do with why Chris is so hot for him. In a milieu where men in general, and her husband, Sylvère, specifically, constantly spout a froth of pretentious drivel about such matters as “assigning an aesthetic value to the Holocaust,” Dick says only what he needs to say in as few words as possible. He doesn’t give a damn whom he offends.
When the show begins, Chris and Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) are packing up their apartment in Brooklyn. He’s headed off to Marfa for a writing residency with the mysterious Dick; she’ll fly from there to Venice for a screening of her latest film. But as soon as they arrive in town, Chris’s plan goes awry, and we get to see the first of what I assume will be many screaming fights between the two. The festival has pulled Chris’s film after learning of a copyright dispute over a “bossa nova klezmer smash” that Chris used in the movie despite receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the musicians.
When Sylvère asks why she insisted on using the song after the musicians expressly warned her not to, Chris responds with a shouted “fuck you” — one loud enough to pull their neighbor out of her Airstream. Maybe Sylvère’s reasonableness is what bothers Chris. Maybe she hates how mundane and predictable their life together has become. Maybe she hates how nonchalantly he handles her catastrophe.
The fight ends as abruptly as it begins, with a train whistling in the background. Then the screen fades to angry red and white block letters — a nod, perhaps, to Barbara Kruger, one of the pioneers of postmodern feminist art. “Dear Dick,” says the title card. Hahn’s voice purrs a non-question question that succinctly captures the spirit of the show: “Did you know I was devastated before I met you.” It’s unclear whether she’s referring to the bad news from Venice, some other earlier trauma, or the general misery of a foundering marriage. In any case, the lack of a question mark stands out. This doesn’t seem to be the kind of letter you write hoping to get a reply.
The next morning, Chris awakes with a gasp, as though from a nightmare. Heading outside to smoke a bowl, she encounters her neighbor Devon (Roberta Colindrez), a butch and sexy fourth-generation Marfan who offers Chris a pair of cowboy boots to keep her safe from the “rattlers and scorpions.” Chris introduces herself, but as it turns out, she doesn’t have to. “I know who you are,” Devon says. “You’re Dick’s new fellow’s wife.” Chris doesn’t seem to like being reduced to that — a man’s man’s woman without a name. Still, it’s an accurate description of her current station in life: She’s at loose ends, her own career collapsing as her husband embarks on a prestigious fellowship. At the reception that afternoon at the institute, the guests take turns insinuating that she doesn’t belong among the serious intellectuals who make up Dick’s circle. First, a local who has been on the waiting list for Dick’s seminar for three years makes a point of telling her that Dick’s fellows usually arrive unencumbered by spouses; then, even more insultingly, another academic suggests she busy herself by taking a Zumba class with his wife. “Gretchen!” he calls out. “It’s the Holocaust wife.”
It is at this peak moment of despair that Chris at last comes face-to-face with Dick. As he places a cigarette between his lips, they lock eyes and the screen fades to red again. “Dear Dick: This is about obsession.” Dick is a big star in Marfa, and like any star, he exerts a gravitational pull on surrounding bodies. Sucked into his orbit, Chris fumbles for something to say. “Love, love that you just go by Dick, because usually, someone would, you know, if one is born a Richard, they would … Rich, Rick, Richie, Ricky. There’s so many —”
He is as calm and pithy as she is agitated and verbose. “Just Dick.”
For the first few moments of their conversation, he keeps his bright-blue eyes shining on her, but when she mentions that she’s married to his new fellow, he lights the cigarette, then looks away and takes a long, contemplative drag. Whether it’s his internal code or something else, Dick clearly prefers not to get entangled with a fellow’s wife. As he starts to walk away, Chris calls out after him, so desperate for his attention that she either doesn’t notice or care about his obvious lack of interest. She says that she and Sylvère would like to take him to dinner, and he accepts, choosing a restaurant called the Rope and Loin. It sounds less like a steakhouse than a bondage club, which is probably where Chris wishes they were headed.
Back at home, Chris struggles with a legitimately difficult fashion challenge: What do you wear out to dinner with your husband and his new colleague when you want to seduce the latter? She toys with a Patti Smith look, but in the end goes in a more overtly feminine direction, a clingy silk wrap dress with a deep-V neckline. Manly men like womanly women, after all. Don’t they?
Although she’s dressing for Dick, Chris can’t help but find it annoying that her look doesn’t seem to do anything for her husband, who is preoccupied with getting to the dinner on time. It doesn’t bode well for their marriage that he’s already more worried about displeasing the powerful man in their midst than about making his wife feel unwanted. When she calls him out on this, he makes a show of acting the manly man, but it’s just that — a show. “If we didn’t have to be somewhere, I would throw you down and we would just fuck,” he says. Sure. They head to dinner, though not before Sylvère somehow finds a way to blame Chris for their “drought.” If their relationship were a landscape, it would be the stretch of parched earth and shrub grass outside their windows.
At the restaurant, with Dick and an array of taxidermied animals looking on, Chris and Sylvère waste no time exposing the fault lines in their relationship. When Sylvère reveals that Chris is not, as she boasts, a “big game eater,” Chris frantically attempts to correct course. “I’m not a big, big, big, big, BIG-game eater. I’m a big little-game eater. Like,” she flounders, scrambling for an example. “Cornish hens.” If she had a New York accent, she’d sound pure Woody Allen.
Sylvère blusters on about the Holocaust, plainly competing with his wife for Dick’s attention. When the subject turns to her artistic struggles, Dick carves into her like she’s the rabbit on his plate. The film “sounds horrible,” he says. “Sounds like you’re crushed by something.” At this point, Soloway reaches into the bag of cinematic tricks that she uses throughout I Love Dick to imbue moments of heightened emotion with a dreamlike quality. Although the diners are seated at equal distances from each other around the table, Soloway blocks the shot so that it now appears that Chris is sitting alone, far across the table from the two men. The distance between them seems impossibly vast. Dick leans over to Sylvère and asks him, conspiratorially, if his wife’s film is any good. Sylvère merely shrugs; he’s seen it, but he declines to defend it or her. Dick is just getting warmed up, building to his real point, which is that Chris is failing as a filmmaker not because of “timing or talent or circumstance — it’s pure want. Which you don’t possess.” He has a point, one that her husband was either too self-absorbed or polite to make. If she really wanted her film to succeed, why did she use that song without permission? But now Chris does want something badly: Dick. It will be fun to see if that desire provides the energy she needs to break out of her artistic malaise.
Back at home, Sylvère walks in on Chris composing her first letter to Dick and demands she read it aloud. As she obliges, a fantastical sequence plays out on the screen. They’re back at the restaurant, or rather, a dreamlike version of the restaurant, eating thorns and cherries and a taxidermied rabbit head. The servers wear silk blindfolds; a live bunny appears on a platter. At one point, Dick sticks his hand down his pants. “You looked at me all night like you wanted to touch me,” Chris narrates. “And strip me. Be all gentle with me, because you knew how badly I wanted you to be rough. So, so rough.” Back in the real world, Sylvère pulls down his shorts to reveal his own arousal. “You’re so wet,” he observes as they finally break their drought.
In the final scene, Dick gets wet as well. It’s dawn, and he sits outside his ranch, smoking, thinking. Thinking about what? It’s impossible to know. His bright-blue eyes give nothing away. He stands and strolls out onto the plains, past a stone marking the grave of a woman. Is it his wife? He pauses at the edge of a small, deep, perfectly circular pool, takes off his cowboy hat, and then his boots and jeans. We get one more glimpse of that perfect ass, and then he disappears beneath the calm water. There are depths to this postmodern man of the plains that have yet to be revealed.
Film clips, in order of appearance:
I Love Dick weaves short clips from avant-garde feminist directors throughout each episode. Sometimes, those clips blend into the story lines unfolding in Marfa; other times, they’re used for contrast. In each recap, we’ll identify them.
1) Jane Campion, The Piano
2) Sally Potter, Orlando
3) Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles