Stranger Friends

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

"Breakfast at Tiffany's," film still, 1961.

At the start of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s charming novella about a troubled socialite looking for “what’s hers” and attracted to everything that’s not, the unnamed narrator receives a message from a bartender named Joe Bell. He meets Bell, an old friend, and the two clandestinely talk about Holly, the socialite who has long since disappeared (as the novella progresses, we find out why). Both men are still quietly preoccupied with her.

“If she was in the city, I’d have seen her,” says Bell. “You take a man that likes to walk. . . and all the years he’s got his eye out for one person and nobody’s ever her, don’t it stand to reason she’s not there? I see pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight–” Then Bell becomes uncomfortable. “You think I’m round the bend?”

“It’s just that I didn’t know you’d been in love with her,” the narrator replies. “Not like that.”

“You can love someone without it being like that,” Bell says. “You can keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend.”

Francesco Vezzoli, "A Love Trilogy: Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf", film still, 1999.

Strangers are friends in Francesco Vezzoli‘s A Love Trilogy: Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf, a short, wistful film that had been on view at MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary until July 12.  In it, the actual Marisa Berenson wears Valentino gowns, lip-syncs to the absent Edith Piaf and floats across the screen like a well-manicured ghost. “The result is a bit like catching a whiff of perfume lingering in an empty elevator,” wrote Richard Flood in a 2000 issue of ArtForum

At one point, Berenson whisks down a red-carpeted aisle in a chapel filled with rows of empty white chairs. Vezzoli patiently waits for her at the altar, wearing a tuxedo that, while certainly not cheap, appears unpretentious next to Berenson’s couture gown. Berenson closes in on him, though doesn’t get close enough to touch him, before spinning around and whisking out. And the whole time, Vezzoli looks boyishly content–when he made the film, he was only 28 years old, practically still a boy; Berenson was 52. Later, Berenson throws herself against a black casket. “When Marisa Berenson entered a room, people would clap: she was so beautiful it was unbearable,” Vezzoli told Massimilliano Gioni in 2001.

In A Love Trilogy, everyone dabbles with what doesn’t belong to them. Berenson, a diva, inhabits the life of Piaf, an earlier diva whom Berenson never met but admires enough to embody. Vezzoli, a diva devotee, shares screen space with Berenson, an idol of his but someone whose life he likely never would have entered if not under the guise of this film about Piaf. These triangulating circumstances keep the characters–and Piaf counts as a character–in Trilogy at arm’s length; their mutual admiration is the film’s narrative glue, but they have to remain strangers because of the gaps between their situations.

Divya Victor, "Hellocasts", FERAL-CAT ATTACK performance still, 2010. Courtesy Les Figues Press.

I saw Vezzoli’s film on a Sunday afternoon, before boarding the Red Line and riding to Hollywood for Not Content 2, one of a series of performances at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). LACE’s back gallery was set up as a haphazard auditorium and vodka-spiked lemonade sat on a table next to a boxed blue cake and a carton of water. Most importantly, a big Hello Kitty icon had been inscribed into the far wall and filled with text. During the second third of the performance, I found out why. Poet Divya Victor’s Hellocasts uses the multi-part poem Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff–which talks about S.S. officers throwing stones at groups of Jews, shooting bodies twice to be sure of death, and forcing orchestras of Jewish musicians to play as others died–as a starting point. The word Holocaust sounds like Hellocasts, which sounds like Hello Cats, which, of course, recalls Hello Kitty, a symbol Victor associates with silence (“Hello Kitty, the cat, has no mouth. Hello Kitty, the brand, always speaks for itself; is always spoken for by its consumer; is a felicific felicitation of affirmed desires,” she writes).

Victor’s voice read Holocaust by Reznikoff as seven performers transcribed what she said into Hello Kitty outlines on the wall, often on top of the big, already present kitty. These performers occasionally pulled audience members up and gave them their own Hello Kitty to write in, which resulted in a crowded and quickly filling wall. Victor kept reminding everyone present that the words she read were not Reznikoff’s when they became hers, and that they were not hers when they became the transcriber’s, and that they were not the transcriber’s when they became the audience’s. In other words, the Holocaust/Hellocasts belonged to none of us and all of us. No one seemed to want full ownership, either. Those of us who wrote seemed more than willing to be friendly, silently participating, jotting what we heard into the body of a kitschy kitty cat but keeping the distance of strangers between ourselves and our situation.