You Should Really Read 'I Love Dick' Before Watching It

Jill Soloway's Amazon adaption of the autofiction cult fave is much different from its source material.

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May 23 2017, 4:59am

Jessica Brooks/Amazon Prime Video

There's a moment in I Love Dick that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. Deeply discouraged after being dismissed from a prestigious seminar led by the charismatic title character, Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) retreats to the home she shares with her husband, the dour academic Sylvère. She's shocked to discover Devon (a luminous Roberta Colindrez), a fellow artist, cleaning her refrigerator.

"I wish that we had known that you were coming today," Chris blusters; she's one half of a fractured unit. "Can I ask you a question?" she barrels on. "Have you heard of Maya Deren? Filmmaker?" Devon isn't familiar. "She's supposed to be, like, the most important female filmmaker and, you know—to be—God's honest truth, I think she's boring as shit….You know who I like? Spielberg. I like Scorsese, Cukor, Coppola, Francis Ford. Not Sofia. Sofia Coppola with the cute, perfect chestnut highlights."

What could have been a total cringe of a speech is rescued by Hahn's fluid, visceral physical comedy; she punches the wall, claws the air with her hands, the physical manifestation of psychic distress. "I'm beginning to think there's no such thing as a good woman filmmaker," Kraus declares, backlit by the Texas sunlight pouring in through an antique front door. "It's like, how can you be when you just like are raised to be invisible? I'm invisible. I mean, looked at. It's a wonder that any woman can think of herself as an artist."

Devon watches the meltdown-manifesto from within a palpable, self-made climate of speculative sensuality, swaggering rather than approaching. "I'm an artist too, so…" she trails off, charitable and gently amused. The two keep talking. The episode's called "The Conceptual Fuck," which refers to a project Chris creates with Dick in mind—but it's happening in that scene, blooming between the two women in the singular way only queer, creative, fuck-laced energy can. The air is opaque with it. Later, Devon announces to her friends that she's writing a play. "It's about a woman. She's trying to become somebody, but she hates herself."

From there, I Love Dick takes a disappointing turn. What could've been a balletic, nuanced exploration of how women exchange art and ideas devolves into a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy where the joke is, unequivocally, on Chris Kraus—the objective for the disheveled woman to win the unflinching approval of the desired guy by any means necessary. Considering the show's singular source material, this well-intentioned near miss is a particular disappointment; as witty and skilled as she is as a visual interpreter and poetic voice, director Jill Soloway has missed the point here.

From my perspective, her aim was to transpose a highly subjective and beloved cult novel into a breezy and digestible sitcom, with the intent of making intellectual feminist art more digestible for a wider audience. It's a high-stakes gamble that ultimately buckles under the strain of attempting to be entertaining, conventionally rhythmic television that's also nuanced and provocative.

But something else—something very pivotal—was lost in translation, too. The 1997 autofiction novel the show's based on has grown into a unquenchable, feverish, completely earnest phenomenon. It's an unflinchingly individual artistic manifesto masquerading as one-sided correspondence; when Kraus writes "Dick, it's hard for me to access you tonight. All your cowboy/loner stuff seems silly," she's reaching deep into herself for the urge and the impulse to create—to offer the world nothing more or less than her specificity.

In the show, Dick is not an idea, but a man—and he's Kevin fucking Bacon. Soloway depicts him tenderly, erotically, with unabashed reverence for the relentlessly recycled myth of the American man. There's Kevin Bacon, shirtless, shaving a lamb in the middle of the road; there's Kevin Bacon shot from behind, lowering himself deliberately into a steaming hot tub; there's Kevin Bacon, naked on a plush couch, his legs spread, swaddled lovingly in a blanket. It's a joke that circles back around to dead seriousness.

Worse still, as Chris gets herself into pratfall after embarrassing pratfall, her stooped and endlessly patient husband becomes the figure you most want to lend your sympathy. This isn't an accident. Soloway explained the elements of the narrative which inspired her to W's Alexandra Pechman: "Here was a couple where a woman told her husband about a crush she was having, and her husband says, 'Tell me more.' It didn't become your typical story about a secret. It became this love triangle where they both attempted to make their marriage big enough to hold this crush. And I think it's just really a special idea, not only for women but also for men, to have a heroic man who attempts to stay in love with his wife through all of this."

Something about this reverential perspective leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Rather than negotiate and reconcile with Chris' particular self loathing, Soloway turns I Love Dick into an unintentionally sympathetic ode to masculinity and marriage, albeit one peppered with the prerequisite dose of postmodern irony. Read the book instead.

Follow Helen Holmes on Twitter.

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