Under the Sign of Love: A Dialog with Masha Tupitsyn

How do we talk about love? A radically different kind of film—a “sound poem and montage” that lasts 24 hours—asks this question and more.
Phil Coldiron
The questions posed by Masha Tupitsyn’s work to date—Love Sounds completes a trilogy that began with Laconia and Love Dog, a pair of books drawn from her writing on Twitter and Tumblr—have generally been variations on “how do we talk about love?” So: How do we talk with love? How do we talk through love? How do we talk around love? How do we talk away from love? How do we talk in love? With Love Sounds, she’s taken these questions, and many more, and used them to grope, like a good archivist, through the thicket of love in English-language cinema. The slightly more than twenty-four hours she has emerged with are offered generously for interpretation, a process helped along by the eight categories, rendered as white text on a black ground, that both structure the work and provide its only images. 
In the time since Masha Tupitsyn and I conducted this interview by e-mail in late May, I met my wife, so I imagine you won’t find it odd when I say that my questions regarding Masha’s work would be quite different today. That capacity for producing new questions seems to me an acceptably incomplete definition of love, one that’s particularly relevant to Love Sounds.

NOTEBOOK: We might as well start with the most immediate feature of Love Sounds: its length, 24 hours.  What I find particularly fascinating about your film is that it’s built of precisely the sort of amorous moments that exist “out of time”—how often do we find ourselves at a total loss when trying to describe the length of a first meeting, or the moment when love finally reveals itself, or a terrible fight? These are the events that the cinema’s drawn on for its emotional sustenance from the beginning, and two or three are generally enough for an entire feature film. But to string them together for hours on end creates a cinematic space that is something close to pure duration. Love Sounds may be 24 hours of counting time, but as an experience, even at shorter lengths, I find it to be functionally timeless. In this sense, it’s quite a rebuke to Christian Marclay’s The Clock. I also find that this presents a curious situation regarding the film’s audience: if one is in the rare position of living one of those heightened moments, it would seem perhaps redundant to experience Love Sounds, and if one isn’t (as I haven’t been at any point while watching and listening to it), then I find it becomes quite painful to experience the emotional richness of those situations in such a sustained way. In the absence of counting time, it seems reasonable to me to link the length of the film to the rotation of the Earth—the idea of this return to an eternal a' seems to have obvious resonances with your ideas about love.
MASHA TUPITSYN: To begin with, I wanted to employ a structure that performs and requires endurance—for me and the listener. What I ask of the listener, I’ve already undertaken myself. So the listening is doubled. The duration of Love Sounds evokes the timeless clock of love that you refer to, where things take time and energy, but we cannot and should not count how much, like we are roped into doing with Marclay’s treatment of time, a film we recently agreed is ultimately indebted to and reproductive of capitalism’s fantasy of clock time. By making clock time durational in The Clock, clock time becomes lived time, which is a dangerous effect of late capitalism. Marclay’s lived time is chronos not kairos, which is to say it is not phenomenological. Chronos is quantative, kairos is qualitative. One of the formal deliberations with LS was how to organize the 8.5 decades of cinema I was sampling from. To figure out whether each decade would be independently organized, whether the 8 sections of the film would be consolidated within a single time phase, or whether time would work synchronously in each section. That is, whether all the times (eras of cinema) would intermingle, cross-cut. A chronology in non-chronological order. I decided on the latter because time works affectively, sonically, simultaneously. Time is a feeling as much as it is historical. I wanted the consideration of different and repetitive itterances to be part of the work the listener does in LS, and that I had to do in order to make it. If all time(s) is included in time—24 hours—it evokes the timelessness and timing you refer to (consequently, the plural of kairos is the times). So 24 hours is just one moment, one example of love as duration. If you can do a day, you can do two days, and so forth. In order to love you have to take pleasure in the uncountable, unquantifiable, unprofitable, uncommodifiable time that love involves. 
NOTEBOOK: Cinema holds a unique position in that its dialogue is, generally speaking, spoken only once by a single player, a fact that involves a level of direct embodiment absent in the other narrative arts. With that in mind, would you agree that love is ultimately a matter of performative utterances (in the sense of Austin, or Sedgwick), and if so, what might we learn by exploring the relationship between such utterances in the movies and in ordinary speech?
TUPITSYN: Maggie Nelson begins The Argonauts with the question, Are words good enough? The question runs through the whole book and at the end becomes, infants only remember not being held well enough. I think we historically went to the movies to feel that words—love—could be good enough. We needed something to hold us. Prior to cinema, we had the ancient lyric poem and later the troubadour poets—both were rooted in oral traditions. In place of religion, troubadour poetry developed a secular culture around the performance of courtly love. In the movies of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly old screwball comedies, language was an Event; a singular emotional truth. If you could say I love you, if you could get to that point—if you could figure out how to love someone—your life would change as a result, and that change was indicated through language. Language activated, actualized. In classic screwball comedies like TheLady EveThe Awful TruthThe Philadelphia Story, An Affair to Remember, being rattled by the one you love or will love is a way of getting up the nerve to love that person. So the proclamation, I love you, marks that moment of recognition and capacity. Rarely does a character during that period of cinema say I love you and not mean it. Rarely does someone say I love you until they mean it. It’s the other way around: all other utterances are outtakes for the properly timed utterance. I love you is a moment of truth that the lover must be accountable for and to from then on. It’s less about fairytale and more about the responsibility of a real relation. If the main character does not mean their I love you it is because the structure or genre itself is compromised—false—like in noir, where the subject of the film is betrayal, so everything is under suspicion. Today the space between love, ambivalence, betrayal, and paranoia is so collapsed and blurred that we don’t know what structure or person will betray us and which will set us free. We don’t know where to invest our love and where to invest our disillusionment. That’s what shocked me about the movie Up in The Air—the way the Vera Farmiga character gaslights George Clooney at the end. Why? The whole time the movie tries to convince us that this man has to undergo some profound change, has to learn to love, to open himself up to real intimacy, and then out of nowhere the movie tells us that love is just another form of betrayal, that women are gaslighters, that the entire thing was a lie without any indication that it was a lie. Today it’s impossible to accurately read a situation or a relation—to rely on it. So we don’t believe in the things we say, hear, or do. We can go through the motions of performing utterances, now more than ever maybe, with all the technological outlets we have to play with, but the affects are mostly indecipherable and unreliableWe have so much mock-language now, language for the sake of it, language as pure performance and artifice, that it makes love feel like a totally unsustainable fake out. The danger is when love becomes a script, a charade—when it doesn’t mean or change anything, like in The Bachelor, where we know a priori that the contestants won’t be a real couple, we know they’ll break up after the show, we know it's simulacra, but we’re satisfied with the presentation of affects and utterances alone.  Nothing is at stake. As Deleuze wrote: we've lost belief in this world, which means we've lost an active ethics. 
NOTEBOOK: This makes me think of the scene from The Awful Truth that you’ve included in the LOVE section: Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s obvious love for one another has to work itself out through language so twisty that it’s almost impossible to follow on one listen, but which they nevertheless speak—perform—with the full belief that it will get them where they need to go. If we can no longer believe in words to guarantee anything, the use of the final scene of Wild at Heart as your own final scene seems particularly loaded. Lynch’s film ignores the distinction between irony and sincerity that bogged down so much of the 90s, and in the end we’re left with Nic Cage, an actor whose unique style of belief is frequently taken ironically, affirming his love by screaming her perfectly ridiculous name: Lula. At least there is belief, but we’re not sure in what. It seems to me that Love Sounds might potentially provide a map (one that you’ve sounded, the way one maps the ocean floor) to bringing love back to the practice of everyday language.
TUPITSYN: Exactly. 1930s Hollywood movies like The Awful Truth put tremendous faith in the dexterity, materiality, and resilience of language. It was the source of talk. In The Awful Truth, words literally track the emotional steps that Dunne and Grant need to take with each other. The syntax is confused and convoluted because they’re confused. It will only become clear—untangled—if and when they realize what they need to know in order to be together. The same kind of complex emotional grammar occurs in The Fountainhead (1949). Many have asserted that cinema of this kind lacks nuance or realism. I think it is indicative of an ethics. When I was younger I was in the former camp. Now I side more with Deleuze—that the best of cinema puts us in the subjunctive mode in order to imagine what’s possible. As far as the love story is concerned, the best cinema takes Deleuze’s precept that ethics is to be worthy of what/who happens to us. In The Phantom Empire, Geoffrey O’Brien writes that going to the movies used to involve “always, a religious sense, of hope.” Likewise, screaming Lula (whose last name is Fortune, by the way) at the end of Wild At Heart may be read as funny by some viewers, and it is funny. But that final shout-out for love is also something very powerful. The name Lula might as well be the word love. The words mirror emotional life, unlike now, where it’s out of sync, like music videos, where the visual not only has little to do with the emotional content of the song often times, but betrays the so-called emotional content. Today we have momentary intensities of language/affect that don’t reflect or chart real or durable feeling, and vice versa. You could read the ending of Wild At Heart as deeply romantic or deeply comic—but not cynical. And in retrospect, Cage’s corpus informs that ambiguous reading. So I think we could look at the 90s as a kind of historical interstice. The last moment, as I’ve written elsewhere, of belief in this (material) world and cinema as the modern faith. There is a period of mourning that happens in the 90s (Wild At Heart came out in 1989), which I’ve referred to as the Goodbye Decade. Wild At Heart plays with time styles, affects, and genres in which these beliefs were still active. Or activates these beliefs, however ironically, by sampling all of them in order to reimagine the Hollywood love story; the movie couple. There is the fairy godmother, the epic Western, the noir, the musical, Elvis, the action movie. Maybe we need all these genres to create a momentum or force of belief. Though not in the way we’re seeing it done in the exhausting reflexivity and corporate hybridity of TV shows like Glee. I think in the 90s there was still a kind of earnestness about pastiche, and the function of American cinema, that is long gone. Cage’s character has to have the shit kicked out of him to awaken himself to love, but while he is unconscious the epiphany comes to him in the form of a good witch (specter of The Wizard of Oz). To make a love story possible in late modernity, you need every last drop of help. I feel like that’s what Maggie Nelson is saying in The Argonauts with “There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” Like we can’t afford to be cynical about what we need anymore or where it can come from. The love story today requires all our wits, knowledge, vigilance, hope, and imagination. In Phantom Empire, O’Brien writes about early cinema this way: “If only it had been possible to live like this, to examine with such leisure all sides of things.” The Argonauts and Wild At Heart is maybe this: life/love as all sides of things. When Cage regains consciousness at the end of Wild At Heart, he wakes up to total love—he is no longer homophobic, macho, violent, or nihilistic. To love Lula, he realizes he must undergo a total transformation. His love is now a love ethic. You can’t have real love without love ethic.
NOTEBOOK: The Argonauts is a useful reference here, as it seems to me to be, among many other things, a case study of a couple (though Nelson only uses this word in her own voice once in the book). Given the period under consideration, it’s inevitable that Love Sounds is a history of the couple as a social form. We’ve spoken before about the positive model of your parents’ long, happy marriage, but I also imagine that you would agree with Hannah Black that the couple is not all that love is. Love Sounds, across all eight sections, seems to be constantly prodding at the seams of this form.
TUPITSYN: I think it’s a case study of what it takes to live with others, as others. That is, through difference, not identity. In Love Sounds, I wanted to assemble and pool that history (and cinema is one version of history) of dialogue events to look at the couple in relation to the problem of language. The couple has never been able to live outside of time or culture. That’s what the section SEXUAL POLITICS (which comes second in the cycle and includes race and class) is about. It tracks the couple as a socio-political form, looking at the way it has been organized and re-organized ideologically over time; the way it is and is not able to handle those pressures, and also how it’s a product of it. The couple is as much at peril when it seals itself off from the world as it when it immerses itself in the normative constructs of the world. The reality is: everyone is in the dark about how to be a couple; how to love, how to live—whether you fit the sanctioned couple mold or not. If you want to take the normative at face value, then sure, you can read the heterosexual couple as successful and privileged. But that would mean that we’re being reductive about what happiness and fulfillment really is. True fulfillment and intimacy is something altogether different and no one has a claim on that. It isn’t normative because love isn’t normative. It’s radical. People break up because of the world they live in, because of the way they productively and destructively carry that world inside of them and their relationships—not just because of some isolated, internal dynamic. The couple form is both a private and public structure; personal and political. To succeed at love you have to learn how to constantly engage with and negotiate the world both together and apart. You have to include and exclude the world in the right ways. It’s a balancing act. In a recent BOMB interview Fanny Howe notes that love is more difficult, and therefore more necessary, than ever because life now lasts so long. Which also means life is a lot more precarious and variable. In one way another, love is always up its against time.
NOTEBOOK: Imagine you’re talking to a loved one on Skype. If you close your eyes, you might have the sense that they’re nearer to you—assuming it’s a good connection, you might hear their voice as if they were there in bed. But if you closed your ears, you’d only feel the distance: you would check that image against the knowledge of past presence (against which we might assume it would prove wanting). Do you think this accurately describes the mechanics by which Love Sounds addresses its listener-viewer in, and into, the present?   
TUPITSYN: I think so. LS is a film that lets us close our eyes. It asks the listener to listen to the ethic of what is heard. The ear is the only aperture you cannot close. It’s always open, vulnerable, receptive, prone. In Hamlet the poison travels through the ear. If listening is about presence and resonance, it creates the kind of relational space that expands and amplifies the volume of intimacy, something the visual, which is prescriptive, that “persists until it disappears,” doesn’t do. You can see someone every day and not see them. But you can be with someone with your eyes closed. You can be in the dark with someone, with a lover, with a memory, with a voice, with a song, dancing with other bodies at a club, and it is deeply intimate, erotic, sensed. You can close your eyes and immerse yourself in the attunement of touch and the affective geography of sound, which outweighs form.
NOTEBOOK: You call Love Sounds “an audio history of love in cinema,” but from what I’ve seen (the four-hour cut and one long section, DESIRE-SEX), it seems more accurate to say it’s an audio history of love in English-language narrative cinema. The conceptual need to avoid subtitles is clear, but why have you chosen to largely avoid material from the historical avant-garde? I know there’s always the trouble of availability here—it’s easy to imagine Taylor Mead rhapsodizing about golden showers in Warhol’s San Diego Surf fitting comfortably in DESIRE-SEX—but given how much now is available, does its relative absence say something about the place of love in American experimental cinema?
TUPITSYN: There’s actually quite a bit of experimental and avant-garde cinema in the 24 hours of LS. Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Lizzie Borden, Derek Jarman, Charles Burnett, Barbara Loden, Sally Potter—to name a few. I actually recorded clips of San Diego, but the film didn’t make the final cut. In the end, time constraints were a big problem. It would seem like 3 or 4 hours is plenty for each section, but I always ran over, or felt I could go on forever in some cases, like with SEXUAL POLITICS, which is 4.5 hours long. Boiling things down to the allotted time was painstaking in some cases. I had to let things go that I desperately wanted to keep. In the final stages of editing, it was a matter of content—does this section/sub-section need this clip? Does it add to the exegesis I am developing? Does the rhythm work? Do those clips answer or contradict each other? Do they sound right together (either complementary or divergent)? Because LS is also a soundscape, an atmosphere, it works politically, emotionally, and tonally. Meaning is also rhythm and cadence. I mixed/layered a lot of the sound, score, music. It’s not just a bunch of clips tied together. And it’s by no means a collection of my favorite movies. Everything is about cuts within cuts; arrangements within arrangements. I’ve frequently described LS as a history of English-speaking cinema. And, as you point out, that is because sub-titles require you to read as opposed to only listen. Narrowing it down set up a necessary constraint for me and the project. If I had done world cinema I would have been lost and the project would have gone on infinitely. It also would have become something nonspecific. I wanted to make a film as an American viewer/listener of American culture. And I had already given myself one dictate, which was to cover a history (there are many ways of constructing histories) of the medium by starting from the 1930s, when movies really began to talk. Having said that, whatever was made in English, I used. So if a European, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latin American filmmaker made a film in English, I tried to include it. But more importantly, LS is a work about Cinema as a lingua franca, a shared history that is recognizable and systemic. If it veered too far into alternatives, it wouldn’t have worked overall. It would have become too specialized. Most people did not grow up watching Warhol or Brakhage. So while I include some experimental films to offer and consider those aesthetic and political alternatives—to have them clash against the fortress of normative celluloid, and to make clear that normativity is not a norm I personally subscribe to—I was more interested in making a work that asks people to listen for the differences in the repetitive utterances themselves. Cinema is full of representational holes, cuts, and exclusions, so my job was twofold: to track the medium as a century—as it was—and also to fill in or point to some of those gaps. I could not pretend that what was missing was not missing or that a certain kind of presence isn’t a deliberate absence. 
NOTEBOOK: Then there’s the question of the film’s images, which I’ve heard more than a few people describe as absent, despite the presence of eight that are perfectly clear: the titles. To spend so much time—whether it’s 30 minutes or three hours—with a written word is a rare experience. And paying serious attention to the sensual, graphic qualities of the lettering, eventually turns on the space of the rest of the frame.
TUPITSYN: About his all-tonal film, Blue, Derek Jarman urged, “From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.” I like that the source of the freedom being invoked is love. That not being able to love properly is a problem of failed--or myopic--vision.  LS’s use of the black screen notes the end of cinema. It begins at post-cinema or post-representation in order to take a second look at a medium we need to re-encounter through sound. In one rendition of the Greek parable of Cassandra, second sight is auricular. In LS, the black screen never produces a visual scene, but it does produce an image around the absence of an image. The 8 white titles that name each section are also an homage to the haunting of the title as promise. A title that in the end doesn’t really tell us anything about an experience or a relation; that doesn’t resolve the problem of language when it comes to love or the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies. That is, between images of love and sounds of love. "The rest of the frame," as you put it, is key in LS. The titles in LS make the listener wait for a narrative—a single story—that never appears, or can no longer appear in the same way, offering a critical space for the viewer to do a different kind of work around love and cinema. I also just really love typography, especially the way Godard used it in his earlier films. So it was my chance to play with the beauty of the film title and inter-title, particularly its usage in the silent era of cinema.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think is promised by the title Love Sounds?
TUPITSYN: Now that Cinema is ostensibly over and all the previously stabilizing and organizing structures (however false, oppressive, manufactured, and unsustainable) have been eroded by late capitalism, we need to create internal structures of love, ethics, hope, and stability. So it’s not a promise, it’s a call.
For upoming events and clips, please go to: http://penny-ante.net/title/love-sounds/


Masha TupitsynInterviews
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