No Subtext

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

When Marsha Norman began her play ‘Night Mother, she gave her protagonist Jesse one ominous line of dialogue: “We got any old towels?” It sounds utilitarian, but it actually dives right into the core of play’s tragedy.

As playwriting instructor Richard Toscan has pointed out, if Norman let all the implications of that line hang out, Jesse would have said something like:

Do we have any old towels, plastic sheeting or foam
rubber padding? I’m going to commit suicide in the
bedroom tonight with Daddy’s pistol as soon as I get
everything done for you and I need the towels so all the
blood won’t make a mess on your floor.

But Norman never would have written that. She’s a queen of subtext, and ‘Night Mother is about what isn’t said.

Kalup Linzy’s films hardly use subtext at all. The characters say what they feel and want with a frank degree of self-knowledge that would be prescient if their personas had a little more nuance to them. But like the stars of the soap operas Linzy takes inspiration from, his characters have fairly predictable preoccupations–love, rejection, betrayal, themselves–and embrace cliche guilelessly.

Linzy, who gained a swell of fresh attention for appearing in General Hospital with James Franco this Spring, is a Guggenheim Fellow who has been art-making for the past decade.However, Fantasies, Melodramas, and a Dream called Love, his current exhibition at Ltd Los Angeles, is his solo debut in L.A. It includes three short videos and a number of dumb-fisted cut-out collages that look like the quaint results of a Henri Matisse-Romare Bearden collaboration.

The videos, roughly made and surprisingly spare considering the flamboyance of their casts, are the exhibition’s highlight. Linzy overdubs all the voices, which gives the otherwise blatant dialogue an absurdly robotic quality. In Conversations wit de Churen VII: Lil Myron’s Trade, an animated short in which characters gallop across the frame as if riding invisible horses, two men have a sexual tryst that ends with one dead and one in prison, all because a woman in town chose to “run her mouth off.” Women are always running their mouths off in Linzy’s work. In Keys to Our Heart, two women, one a matronly Linzy in drag and another a wispy blond thing, try to help “John J.” navigate his “bitchy” lover. Linzy, playing “Lily,” says she “wants to do something positive,” then tells John, “If you can’t be an asshole to her, I suggest you leave her and find a good girl.” “I’m looking for a queen of my heart, not a shady spade,” declares John, once his female friends have coaxed him into breaking it off with his girl.

But even if Linzy’s characters purport to have their hearts on their sleeves, the over-the-top intensity of their acting always makes it seem as though their shallowness is a front for something deeper and heavier. In a way, the undercurrents in Linzy’s films are just as quietly ominous as the subtext in Norman’s play–his characters speak with a cockiness that suggests they know what they want and more or less understand their own feelings. Of course, they don’t understand themselves at all and that’s what makes listening to their “running off mouths” so exquisitely, smartly uncomfortable.