Eileen Myles’ The Importance of Being Iceland has surprised me halfway down the first page with the author’s admission that she is 59 years old. That, and her abrupt and tight and unpretentious prose, so forthright that she can describe it as such herself in her introduction. Somehow unpretentiously. “Working class intellectuals like big words and their sentence formation is excessively ornate. It’s what they think of as ‘smart.’ Pomposity.” Myles writes. “In general I think writers are not smart. They are something else and each writer can fill in a word here, but smart in not what that word is.”
That was all it took. I was smitten. And feeling off the hook. And poked at. All at once, which is I think how adoration usually works. Infatuated by the stream of consciousness type narrative even as it had me broken off from the page so often, drinking tea, making more, scrolling. Searching. For events. What about Eileen Myles, maybe? Her website described Eileen as they and again I am marvelling at 59 and also August 18. A movie screening. That had to be last night. No, tonight. Well probably it was Eileen Myles-themed or inspired and they would not be there. No, Eileen Myles would be in attendance at the Metrograph, the website blinked back curtly, thank you very much. Eileen Myles in person.
Ok, I said, believing it, now, smiling, nodding, dawning on me (this is how Eileen is making me feel). Ok, so I would go. (This is) New York.
At the Metrograph I show the attendant my ticket and he says go ahead into the theater without motioning or gesturing or making any directive whatsoever, and neither does the suited ticket checker behind him, who smiles and waits for enlightenment to smite me, so I just stagger forward to where I think I might be headed and take the fixed smile on the checker’s face as an affirmative. At the Metrograph I am supposed to know where to go. Here is a house of High Art.
In the early stages, as I am, of this first season in the city as an Actual Resident, I have been trying to flaunt forward, fling myself around lost regardless, head held high, no I am not a tourist, don’t even ask. But this morning I have been reading Eileen Myles and suddenly it feels good, fun, to dogpaddle around the blurry contours of this world clueless. (This is what her writing does.)
Deep red seats and warm glowing globe lamps, a real theater full and cold on a rainy summer evening. A man introduces Eileen Myles in the near dark and uses the pronoun she. From a couple of feet away we get the first taste of Eileen. From where the author stands impatiently in the aisle, Eileen yells to him cheerily “I’M THEY!” And the man is obviously thrown by this. Stutters to a slow halt before winding back up again for one last sentence of an accolade-ridden introduction (free of any pronouns at all) and then, “Here’s Eileen.”
I can’t see them well enough in the theater to make out their face until the film plays and gives me a good long close up. But the voice is right (as opposed to those jarring readings where the physical voice is so distinct from the imagined narrative voice), earthy and older. It is neither exactly masculine nor fully feminine, and has a questioning cadence and nasality that reminds me a bit of Woody Allen (“you know I think…”), excitable but level, and above all strictly optimistic.
“I nearly stayed in a place like this in Stykkisholmur but I got the kill-myself feeling there,” they write in Iceland. “Not that I would really kill myself in Iceland but it would begin the decline. The farmhouse had no email and I have to send my piece in. It’s always so good on the boat.”
Their optimism jumps. It’s in their voice but it’s also inherent to the narrative, located along the neurotic tether between the boat and the kill-myself feeling. In the faithful leap from the firm presence of the farmhouse to the cloudy tender affect of a depressive and then appearing childlike on a moonbeam aboard the boat once more. There’s a soft rhythm to it. One gets the feeling that Eileen lets themself to be lost on eternal, gentle waves of emotion. No reason to get stuck here, it will go as it came, It’s always so good on the boat.
The voice fits that wide and toothy grin that breaks open the film, just as the slinky gray-haired androgyny fits Marfa, Texas, where I have never been but where I planned a lot of weekend trips when I lived in Austin. Someone was always going. Someone was always planning a trip there with the new man they met on Tinder last week and we were always concerned, are you sure after two dates that you have enough in common to entertain yourselves for an eight hour car ride?
Marfa is a reality worthy of a poet’s film (debut). From what I can tell it is much like Hamlin, where my step dad grew up in a double-wide and where last time I visited I was approached at an Allsups by a man with a nigh-200 pound dog. It was a sleek, caramel-coated pit bull who jumped on the driver’s side door while my mom and I were pumping gas and thrust its head through the open window to maybe show me in the driver’s seat how easily it could swallow me. Its owner notified my mom and I as he yanked back on its chain choke collar that it was $8,000 and named Savage. (Oh you met Tom, my step dad’s sister said later, yeah, went to high school with him, he’s the friendly neighborhood junkie.) Hamlin is Savage and his owner and my mom and I pumping gas at Allsups.
So Marfa is not Hamlin, and they are actually several hours away from each other, but my best imagining of the town of Marfa is picturing Hamlin but with a Gucci store out there in the desert worthy of a DAZED editorial or something, plus the allure of alien lights and the Chinati Foundation, which altogether have a more mystical presence out there on the Texas desert than poverty does al la carte on the prairie, as in Hamlin. But the same tumbleweeds and flatlands, amber light and deadened dead-end main streets. This is how I find myself sitting in the Metrograph as Eileen explains Marfa feeling a little gate-keepy, all these probably midwesterners turned New Yorkers who have to have this explained to them lightly by someone who is not from Texas, even though I have never been to Marfa. (This is the way I am.)
Eileen explains that they found themself with “the shit ass aesthetic beauty of Marfa” and these puppets that are artifacts from their childhood, crafted by them and then found decades later. When the puppets first flash on the screen the horror of their misshapen heads and cherry thumbprint mouths scares me, a little, and the contrast between “It’s always so good on the boat” and the “kill myself feeling” becomes manifest, as apparent as Eileen’s stoned grin on screen and the puppets themselves as they float in the backseat of the truck, which is most of the content that makes up The Trip.
But I adjust rather nicely. For the rest of the remaining 15 or so minutes, I’m am buoyed along for this pleasant ride, listening and watching intently, keyed into the feelings and personas and events because they are so small. They drive down the highway, Eileen looking like Eddie Redmayne and also my grandpa, wearing a Harley shirt, and the puppets floating along in the backseat. Eileen points out a train as they pass. We are all, in the audience, along for the ride, and I imagine Eileen a couple of rows in front of me nodding along grinning at themself on the big screen.
It’s documentary, almost. Long shots of the puppets, four in a row, have me fascinated by my imagination of the state of Eileen’s childhood psyche. They speak in Eileen’s voice, two of them in her normal dialect and the other two at random it seems in a trilling warble and a low caricatured bit for the ghost. Eileen’s dog, who I seem to know a lot about after reading them just a little bit and seeing this film, has the occasional closed captions that relay her supposed thoughts. For comic relief, usually, or a tender touch back into the feelings of the audience. The dog thinks what we all think, and that is what makes it comic.
One puppet is gay, one a diva, one “like my dad,” another frequent Eileen topic, and one ghost, whose end soliloquy – ABOLISH IT ABOLISH IT ABOLISH IT ABOLISH IT in reference to the racist imperialist patriarchy (mostly Texas immigrant detention camps) jars. Casper puts the video in firm footing on the side of solid ground and again it is that lack of intention throughout the film that, when buttressed by this sturdy smack of context, creates a uniquely Eileen bridge of optimism. It is the only reference to the movie screened directly after theirs, “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” in that it is political. Metrograph quotes Eileen, “I think my own short film engages politics, and especially the politics of the region I shot it in which is America finally because it must.” Political context, reality yelled by a childhood ghost, jolts me out of this Marfa reverie in a way that is irritating, even, rubs weird, after a reel colored by an avoidance of grounded fact. Or maybe what feels funniest is that it’s spoken by a malformed, bash-headed paper mache puppet ghost.
Left in a picnic basket for 60 years (what’s that like? Eileen keeps wondering). In the end, when credits cut red to match that last show of Casper’s cherry blush cheeks and circle mouth, I find myself agreeing with the dog again, being thrust so suddenly in the present moment. “Gross or beautiful, I can’t tell.” More than anything my face feels lax, a little sore, after these 20 minutes of wonder and confusion and then the delight that follows because Eileen will force you to let go. Until she doesn’t. So I think that means beautiful. A sigh of relief.