Poor Chris Kraus. As the first episode of I Love Dick made abundantly clear, she hasn’t had the easiest time of it as a filmmaker. The industry is an old boys’ club, and female filmmakers never get a fair shot. That’s why she’s languishing in obscurity, right? As this episode opens, we get a glimpse of her latest work. Okay, so Dick was obviously way off the mark when he baldly asserted that female filmmakers “just aren’t very good,” but let’s be frank: From the looks of it, Kraus isn’t one of the good ones.
The clip, shot in gloomy black-and-white, looks like something Ingmar Bergman might have made, if Ingmar Bergman lacked talent. An unattractive man reads a newspaper; a woman undresses on a bed. The silences are long and meaningless; the stares are vacant; and no one appears to be having a remotely good time. This, perhaps, is what Chris’s marriage was like before Dick came into it. Cut to her bedroom, post-Dick, where she and Sylvère are screwing like crazy. As it happens, this sex scene has a male director. Although he’s only there in her imagination, Dick is in complete control. He even gets to tell her when to come.
Sylvère is clearly turned on by Chris’s fantasy about Dick, but it doesn’t take long for him to start fretting over his wife’s interactions with the man. After they get out of bed, he tries to stop her from auditing Dick’s seminar. Chris reassures him that her thing for Dick is just a harmless fantasy. But is she really going to his seminar just to hear him expound on art?
As she leaves the house for the seminar, she looks as put-together as we’ve seen her yet. She’s dressed in crisp black-and-white, her hair swept back elegantly. But she’s still the same old Chris, disheveled and bumbling. When she barges into the seminar, in a warehouse gallery, her phone goes off, and Dick, never one to mince words, warns her that he’ll smash it. Soloway mines a lot of comedy from the physical contrast between the two leads, with Chris cast as the clumsy, fumbling clown, a type normally reserved for men (Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Louis CK), and Dick as the straight man — indeed, as a man obsessed with straightness.
“A straight line is perfection,” he tells Chris later in their scene, after she dismisses one of his formalist sculptures as nothing more than “a brick.” (Which, by all appearances, it is.) Dick presents himself as a man of firm boundaries and clear convictions. During a quiet interval, he tries to get her to leave, noting that she’s not enrolled his seminar and doesn’t even have a spot on the waitlist. She promises she won’t be obtrusive, but Dick isn’t swayed. These students, he tells her, are artists — the implication being that she isn’t one. Prepared for this line of attack, she opens her laptop. The film from the opening scene is queued to play. Exasperated, Dick dismisses the class early, crouches down, and begins watching the film. Chris, meanwhile, is watching Dick.
If the episode’s title, “The Conceptual Fuck,” refers to the heated exchange that follows, what happens next would have to be the foreplay. Twenty seconds into Dick’s viewing of the film, Chris gives in to temptation and reaches down to stroke his tousled hair, almost like she’s petting a dog. It’s a weird, not particularly sexual move, and Dick recoils in surprise. She apologizes as though it was an accident, but Dick has seen enough. He slaps the laptop shut and hands it back to her. “It’s not my thing,” he tells her, knocking down Chris’s film and Chris herself in one efficient swipe.
Now, for the first time, the power dynamic between the pair begins to shift. Instead of crumbling under his put-down, she goes on the offensive, mocking the brick-like sculpture that stands in front of her like an erection. “I love a straight line,” Dick retorts, suddenly defensive, and then he says that thing about how a straight line is perfection. As Chris sees it, he’s suggesting that his work itself is flawless.
Like a shark smelling blood, Chris goes into a frenzy. Dick, she points out, hasn’t produced new work in seven years. This is a big reveal about him — the first hint that he, like Chris, has been struggling with some creative block. Judging by Dick’s speedy retreat, it seems that Chris has found a crack in his formidable armor. After he leaves, Chris collapses against the rough metal door of the gallery. “Oh my God,” she murmurs, her lips grazing the metal. She looks as though she has just engaged in intercourse, and not just conceptually.
“Sally Potter! Jane Campion! CHANTAL AKERMAN!” That was how Chris responded to Dick’s assertion in the last episode that female filmmakers aren’t any good. In the aftermath of their latest duel, we get to watch a clip of Chantal Akerman’s 1974 Je Tu Il Elle, a film in which a naked woman writes letters to an absent lover while eating an entire bag of sugar. (Feminist film critic Sophie Mayer posited that this film might be the origin of what she called the new “feminist ‘hot mess’ cinema” — a genre that encompasses such “desiring yet unmotivated female protagonists” as Hannah Horvath, Rebecca Bunch, and nearly all of Soloway’s female characters.)
Sylvère, meanwhile, is in deep in over his head, both at home and at Dick’s institute, where he struggles to come to terms with the fact that the luminous young redhead he encountered at the party, dipping her bare feet in the Koi pond, is more than just a pretty face. As it turns out, she’s his colleague and fellow writing resident. The first time they met, he underestimated Toby (Transparent alum India Menuez), attempting to impress her with his knowledge of Japan. (She countered by suggesting that he visit Bali.) But now his condescension reaches new heights. He just can’t understand how someone so “achingly beautiful” would be “obsessed with porn” — the subject of Toby’s work at the institute. She observes him in silence for a long moment, a realization slowly dawning across her face: “You’re awful,” she says.
Back at home, Chris is still shaken from her latest encounter with Dick. With her neighbor Devon as a captive audience, she launches into a rant about Maya Deren, another avant-garde feminist filmmaker whose entire oeuvre Dick would surely describe as a bummer. In her intellectual tangling with Dick, she has begun to question everything she has built her identity around. “She’s supposed to be the most important female filmmaker,” Chris tells Devon, pounding her fist against the door frame. “I think she’s boring as shit.”
Chris doesn’t say nothing much in response when Devon tells her that she, too, is an artist. In her overwhelming self-absorption, Chris hardly sees Devon, but Devon, quietly observant, sees right through Chris. When she tells her friends that she’s working on a play about a woman “who’s trying to become somebody, but she hates herself,” she is articulating Chris’s dilemma more clearly than either Chris or Dick or Sylvère have managed to do.
This theme of transformation carries over into Chris’s final scene of the episode. In a spurt of creative energy, she fills a wooden box with letters to Dick, presumably in a second attempt to get into his class. Given his enthusiasm for straight lines, the box makes sense, but why the dead moth that she sticks on the package like a bow? Maybe it’s meant to evoke the metamorphosis she has begun to undergo. She smiles thoughtfully down at her work, content for the first time all episode.
Dick, meanwhile, has begun a metamorphosis of his own. Out in the desert, he watches a snake as it slithers across the sand, and we can imagine what he might be thinking: Straight lines are lame, curving lines are where it’s at. Inspired, he gathers rocks and begins to arrange them in a snaking pattern, swerving as he goes. At dinner the other night, he lectured Chris that successful art comes from “pure want.” If Dick’s making work again after a seven-year drought, it must mean that he wants something — or someone — too.
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 storylines unfolding in Marfa; other times, they’re used for contrast. In each recap, we’ll identify them.
(1) Chantal Akerman, Je Tu Il Elle