Issue 18 : Spring 2010







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Samizdat Sister

by Molly Hankwitz

19 Feb 2010

Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker
(2009, Directed by Barbara Caspar)

Kathy Acker's books--which first appeared in New York City in the early 1970s--were unequivocal, infectious. She responded to the spectrum of male-dominated publishing, to the oppressive forces of institutions, and the evils of the dominant culture. Producing a controversial and incisive body of work, initially as hand-made, serialized, self-published zines (though Grove Press and Ira Silverberg later picked her up), Acker questioned everything and expressed her own life. The pleasures and painful contradictions of revolutionary erotic freedom with which she loaded her texts seem to have given countless other women and queer artists a profound license to revolt ever since. Acker did this with a brave heart--the ever-challenging honesty of a writer determined to reach and to create. Her voice rolled cultural disillusionment and political insight into literary dramas which portrayed sexual and political angst in the age of Gender Studies and Reaganomics. In doing so, she forged a meaningful gap between second wave feminism and the realpolitik of women's daily lives. Moreover, Acker was a punk. Many of her circle, interviewed in this film, made up the experimental punk art and music scene of the eighties East Village (Richard Hell, et al.). Barbara Caspar's film covers many important angles of that artistic milieu--and its role in Acker's eventual rise to literary stardom. One cannot avoid to recognize some correlation between Acker's hyperbolic intellect (for which she has also been well known) and the type of overblown postmodern celebrity zeal which tended to mark the New York art world at that time. Acker's whole performance was about making herself into a legend.

"She was a hoodlum," states Avital Ronell-- positively--in one of Who's Afraid's many interviews with old mentors and colleagues. Ronell's comment refers to Acker's penchant for pillaging the canon of white male literature---Don Quixote for example--in order to detourn the male-dominated literary canon. Having crawled savagely to the margins of American and international literature to achieved a blistering fame, Kathy Acker was then safe to exist in that pirated space. Within the many interviews and performance videos included by Caspar, the director's emphasis is uniquely upon Acker's youth and struggle to become. The screen is filled with her starkly beautiful young face. We see her naked healthy young body. There are photos and anecdotes from her college years at Brandeis. She is portrayed as an honorable brilliant scholar, a Jewish intellectual woman, a friend, and a girl. The strangely lonely, sometimes violent, and often tragic life of one of America's most creative writers comes across well. Acker's career, lasting some twenty years up until her death in 1997, is nicely mapped and chronicled in this work. Caspar, in what amounts to a loving homage, manages to offset less flattering representations (some of which have portrayed Acker as a sort of rude-lipped rebellious anachronism). Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker? offers us her effect. It is a critical and compelling glimpse of the artist's life and work. To remember this legendary feminist and literary icon is a not only impressive feature debut for Austrian filmmaker Barbara Caspar, it is a loving--and political--deed.