Picture Cycle: Essays: Masha Tupitsyn
by Jesse Cumming
Love has been a central concern of writer, artist, and educator Masha Tupitsyn throughout her career, appearing in the titles of both her 2013 book Love Dog, a Roland Barthes–inspired collection of brief reflections initially published as Tumblr posts, and Love Sounds (2015), an imageless 24-hour-long video in which the black screen serves as a backdrop for an edited audio compilation of movie sequences related to love and romance. It’s unsurprising, then, that one of the most resonant moments in Tupitsyn’s new essay collection, Picture Cycle (2020), involves a discussion of onscreen kisses. “Kisses are always vérité,” she writes, the declaration related to an investigation into the nature of film and authenticity that stretches across several entries; “Does the kiss belong to the fiction of a film or to an actor’s real life?”
Collecting texts written over the past decade, the book’s contents range from personal memoirs—the most formally experimental inclusions, several of which can be considered prose poems—to more traditional film and cultural criticism, with the majority operating somewhere in the middle. The porous nature of the book’s essays is frequently exploited, with episodes from Tupitsyn’s memories stretching back to her childhood invoked, to elucidate her reading of particular films and stars; for example, a moment of personal heartbreak and writer’s block supports an essay on Ingmar Bergman and The Shining (1980). At the same time, Tupitsyn notes the influence of movies and television on her own life, particularly the point in her youth when ubiquitous mainstream fare like the original Miami Vice inspired thoughts on gender and fashion.
In Tupitsyn’s consideration of the nature of actors and acting, the moment of a celebrity sighting serves as an instant of either elucidation or confusion, one that either confirms or muddles the relationship between the performer, their public persona, and their onscreen roles. These moments occur at multiple points in the book, whether referencing her pre-teen glimpses of Johnny Depp in ’90s TriBeCa (“You might not look at him unless you knew you were supposed to”); an early encounter with Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid fame, at one point a figure of infatuation for the young Tupitsyn; or tales from a co-worker about encounters with John Travolta at the Paradise Garage, suggested to be erotic in nature.
Love Sounds and DECADES (2017–present), Tupitsyn’s ongoing project tracing the sonic qualities of 20th-century cinema, are proof of Tupitsyn’s indefatigable cinephilia and her maximalist approach to assemblage. These two admirable qualities don’t always work in the context of Picture Cycle’s essays, which feature several entries that would benefit from a more condensed and focused style. Rather than a Benjaminian approach in which excerpts and reflections are able to shape a resonant whole, essays centred on topics like ’80s fashion and pop culture or the relationship between cinematic faces and voices are regularly distracted or derailed by unnecessary shifts in focus and content.
Although it’s true that introducing David Bowie, Mark Zuckerberg, Radiohead’s “Creep,” Luchino Visconti, American Psycho, and more alongside each other in a single essay makes it possible for one to draw a connection between these entities, their conceptual linkage doesn’t necessarily serve to support any broader argument or offer any cumulative import. At their worst, the connections can tend toward the facile—as in the book’s predilection for anagrams— or simply thin, like the posited comparison between Bowie’s late-’70s artistic retreat to Berlin with Zuckerberg’s escape into the internet when faced with social alienation at Harvard. The overstuffed nature plagues other essays like “Devil Entendre,” which begins as an examination of horror but flits unsatisfyingly from Rosemary’s Baby to No Country for Old Men to Se7en to Naomi Klein to Rumpelstiltskin, with the connections drawn rarely productive.
The brief chapters are the most interesting for their focus and formal play. They largely abstain from engagement with the cinematic arts in favour of personal memories, employing techniques like second-person perspective or, in an explicit reference to Joe Brainard’s experimental memoir I Remember (1975), the use of a repetitive, rhythmic refrain. Technology and the apparatus of media appear on occasion in these entries, sometimes offering resonant moments that consider how such devices trace and mediate our relationships, whereas other entries are reduced to unfortunate similes comparing emotions to green screens.
The benefits in the personal writing of a focused conceptual conceit or container also hold true for the book’s most successful writings on film. Chief among these examples are Tupitsyn’s examinations of Robert Bresson and Catalan artist-filmmaker Albert Serra. Her writing on Bresson, which explores certain motifs across the French filmmaker’s body of work, also examines the kinship between his films and brief book of artistic treatises Notes on the Cinematographer (1975), and her own past work, noting, “Like Bresson, I use form to work through form, which is how I work through ideas.”
In her writing on Serra, Tupitsyn approaches the work through her trained ear, which introduces a sonic consideration alongside an engagement with the films’ themes, historical influences, and formal emphases on faces and landscapes. As the essay turns to Serra’s Story of My Death (2013), where an unconventional and largely imagined portrait of the infamous lover Casanova appears alongside a wholly imagined Dracula, Tupitsyn’s twin interests in love and sound are again reunited. While elements of Picture Cycle tend to float freely without coalescing, this essay concludes with a rich bit of fusion, positing sound as a representation of the film’s sinister desire. In a reversal of her projects of sonic separation, Tupitsyn situates sound within the cinematic mise en scène rather than as an entity alone and above it.