“Chip” the raconteur.
The Cruise versus “the anti-cruise.”
The begrudging “academic rock star.”
Describing the demolition going on behind him.
The reluctant “dandy of deconstruction.”
A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory.
Perhaps too literally “deconstructing” the documentary.
In memoriam Jacques Derrida.
Derrida: “The Writer on Holiday.”
Delaney: word processing.
The POV of a hate crime victim.
“A classic nervous breakdown.”
Reading from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
The Albert Hotel lesson in “degenderizing.”
Bridge girder aesthetics.
A tinted abstract composition (inside a carwash).
23 envelope postcard posted online. [click on link]
Richard Serra’s Railroad Turnbridge.
Porn marquee: “Sexual Heights.”
Pride Divide—sibling rivalry?
Fred Barney Taylor’s recent documentary portrait of the writer Samuel R. Delany, The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman (2007), is in fact a double portrait. It is at once an affectionate portrayal of the prolific science fiction author and cultural critic known to his friends as “Chip” and a picture of New York City’s changing queer sexual landscape. Delany acts as our “guide,” not unlike eccentric New York tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch in The Cruise (Miller, 1998), whose theories of “the cruise” (pedestrian tactics of enjoyment) versus “the anti-cruise” (controlling technocratic strategies, the ideology of the “grid plan”) have great affinity with both Delany and de Certeau. Like Delany’s brilliantly reflexive memoir The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, Taylor’s film illustrates Delany’s life through a series of what Roland Barthes called biographemes (preferences, inflections, details to which the author might be distilled). And like Delany’s more recent book, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Taylor’s documentary intervenes in a series of debates about the fate of New York City sexual subcultures and practices after the decimating effects of AIDS and the Forty-second Street Development Project (a provocative connection, to be sure). I will go on to argue that this concern for queer space aligns The Polymath with the activist video Fenced Out (Paper Tiger Television, 2001) and another recent documentary Gay Sex in the 70s (Lovett, 2005).
We could also place The Polymath in a series of recent “intellectual profile” documentaries such as Zizek! (Taylor, 2005) and Derrida (Dick & Kofman, 2002) or perhaps Esther Robinson’s A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), which has a similar ambient electronic soundtrack. But unlike the acolyte relation established by the painfully earnest questioning of the young directors of those films, we never see Taylor on-screen. Instead we are presented with intertitles identifying extracts from home movies, or with “pull quotes” from the talking-heads style monologues that follow (a somewhat more conventional approach to documentary form).
The intellectual profile format is established early on: Delany is shown in his apartment surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books, declaring that he is actually a very boring person. He explains, “I’m the kind of person who basically thinks about writing all day long, and all the time.” He reveals that he broke up with a lover who said, “Don’t you think about anything except writing?” to which he admits,
This is obviously reminiscent of Derrida’s public image (in fact we see Delany reading a newspaper profile of Derrida) or of Barthes’s self-characterization,
Like Zizek, Delany is not really concerned to normalize himself in the eyes of the viewer. But of course, these documentaries end up humanizing their subjects (Derrida trying to find his keys, Zizek in bed, Delany showing off a scar on his belly to an admiring friend). Taylor also makes use of a rather classic genius-biopic conceit: Delany modestly says,
But obviously we are encouraged to find Delany an interesting person, and we are encouraged to ponder those deceptively simple categories of identity interrogated throughout The Motion of Light in Water: “a black man…? A gay man…? A writer…?” (356). These are also the terms by which Delany is “claimed” by various figures in the film: at the National Black Writers Conference, Walter Mosley is shown praising Delany’s genius and stressing, “He belongs to us, and most of us don’t know it. And even those of us who know it, don’t know how to celebrate it.” (An early example of claiming Delany’s work appears in the bibliography at the end of the anthology Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men).
After a montage of Delany’s published books, John Letham praises him as a rare philosophical, confessional, and artistic “genius” but notes that rather than being a monomaniac, Delany is a multifaceted intellectual (i.e. a polymath). In fact, in Taylor’s film we get the opportunity to see a short, very “hippie” film by Delany called The Orchid (1971).
Letham argues that Delany “never saw boundaries” and thus makes us question boundaries like that established between high and low art (we see Delany at a comic shop, then a modern art museum). Despite what Letham identifies as a violent “American anti-intellectual streak,” we also witness the embrace of Delany by fellow academics at a University of Buffalo critical symposium on his work. Yet Taylor’s montage of snippets of “theory speak” has the (perhaps unintended) anti-intellectual effect of making it all seem like pretentious name-dropping—“Jacobsen is primarily interested in a deconstruction of Freud,” “according to Mulvey…” Such phrases cannot help but make any academic feel the sting of recognition (indeed, the essay you are now reading is hardly immune).
In her important essay “The Evidence of Experience,” feminist historian Joan Scott uses Delany’s description of a gay bathhouse orgy in The Motion of Light in Water as an example of common reliance in accounts of minority identity on the presumed evidence of personal experience (even though the passage she references describes his visual revelation that he was part of a much larger collective group than the isolated 1950s image of “the homosexual”). Scott argues that such attempts to document hidden or alternative histories risk taking “difference” for granted:
The question, then, is whether Taylor’s film also relies on the evidence of experience (by illustrating Delany’s memories of his family and coming out with home movies and stock footage of Gay Liberation Front marches).
But Scott acknowledges that Delany’s Motion encourages critical thought about identity categories, material history, desire and subjectivity (795). The dual essay structure of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue continues this kind of critical autobiography by combining the “experiential” narrative of desire with the critical genealogy of discourse and material life (urbanism and the policing of sexuality). The Polymath shows Delany returning to the question of “how social change takes place,” focusing on the problems of racism and homophobia. He recalls being five years old when his father told him the frightening story of the lynching of his father’s light-skinned cousin and her unborn child along with her darker-skinned husband by a group of white men who must have originally assumed that she was white. Taylor accompanies this story with slow-motion images of the Ku Klux Klan from The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915).
Delany provides other instances of the prevailing discourse that says that blacks are not human beings: In 1920 when Paul Robeson obtained special dispensation to attend Columbia Law School, the other students would stomp their feet on the floor when he spoke. And in 1998 when James Byrd Jr. was dragged behind a truck until his body came apart in Jasper, Texas, interviews with the families of the murderers indicated that they were baffled and simply could not understand what their son had done,
(In a rather literal-minded fashion, Taylor accompanies this with a traveling point-of-view shot of a dirt road from the back of a pickup truck.) Delany then considers:
Likewise, Delany explains, “I live my life as a gay man and eventually people learn to deal with that,” arguing that he is able to have a similar effect through his writing by making his readers “inhabit” his world for a time (at least vicariously).
Repeating parts of The Motion of Light in Water (perhaps inevitably), Delany admits that when he was hospitalized at 22 after a “classic nervous breakdown” (including a compulsive morbid obsession with throwing himself under a subway train), he used group therapy to talk about what it was like as a gay young man who was married (to white poet Marilyn Hacker) and trying to function as a heterosexual. But he found that the discourse he used was at odds with the way he really felt: he acted ashamed about his “problem,” i.e. “being a homosexual” (a locution he now finds very pre-Stonewall). He asked himself, “Why were you so abjectly embarrassed?” since in fact he has gotten a lot out of being gay (in terms of his social contacts and worldview). While Scott might object to this belief in an experience outside the constraints of discourse, The Polymath also returns to a concern in Times Square for how discursive shifts occur: Delany is fascinated by the small rhetorical drift whereby “coming out” once referred to one’s first gay social or sexual contact (as in “coming out into” [gay] society) but came to refer to the confessional rite of “coming out” to primarily straight people (Times 118). This, he argues, affects how we think about and live different sexual identities (which is in the spirit of Scott’s advice to historians to reflect on the discursive construction of social differences).
Delany provides one more example of how social change takes place. In the 1970s he lived at the Albert Hotel along with several preoperative male-to-female transsexuals, and he originally was convinced that it must be “hardwired to want to know the gender of the person standing next to you.” But after he had been there six months, he found that he simply did not care about the gender of the people he was riding with in the elevator (Taylor accompanies this story with a doubled image of elevator door gates). Delany argues that through exposure it is possible to get used to this sort of “degenderizing,” wittily remarking,
He insists, “If I can change about something like that, then anyone can change,” and indicates that he attempted such a degenderizing of his characters in his novel Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand. Monika Treut’s documentary Gendernauts (1999) has a similarly refreshing “posttranssexual” take on gender thanks in part to her “guide” to queer San Francisco, Sandy Stone.
We could perhaps learn all this from Delany’s published books, but Taylor’s directorial hand can been seen most clearly in the imagery he inserts to illustrate Delany’s most lyrical points about the significance of recurring images (in his books and life) of bridges, decaying cities, and, of course, “the motion of light in water.” Many of Taylor’s gorgeous images of water and bridges are polychromatic (tinted by colorist Milan Boncich), double-exposed, and otherwise rendered in abstract compositions that resemble Nigel Grierson’s photography for “23 envelope,” or the sculptor Richard Serra’s abstract film Railroad Turnbridge (1976).
The inverted-color double-exposure technique is used to great effect in shots of Delany in profile reading a particularly inspiring passage from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, superimposed over slow-motion tracking shots of porn theater marquees:
Judith Halberstam calls Times Square,
But after her approving summary of the work, she returns to her misgivings (“still”):
Halberstam here acknowledges the importance of Delany’s book, but in some ways sets it up as evidence of the urban bias of queer studies that her own In a Queer Time and Place seeks to challenge—by shifting from global to local, urban to rural. Yet what bothers me in her feminist objection to Delany’s presumed androcentrism is the knowing use of the word “tellingly.” (For more on this issue, see Pride Divide [Poirier, 1997].) Spared having the onus put on her to discuss the possibilities for women’s public sex venues—because it is not her project, she oversimplifies the alleged “absence” of gender as a category of analysis in work like Delany’s, and specifically in his book. As Halberstam knows, male and masculine are categories of gender in need of analysis, but if by gender she means women, Delany does seriously consider whether women might enjoy such venues:
In fact, Delany’s work is admirable precisely because it avoids the potential sexism and misogyny of other gay male discussions of the advantages of gay promiscuity in contrast to the supposed romantic delusions of heterosexual women, or to “lesbian bed death.” Take for example Daniel Harris’s chapter on “Fucking” from A Memoir of No One in Particular (another reflexive memoir in the manner of The Motion of Light in Water, and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes):
Harris may even believe he is making a feminist point here—about how women’s lives should not be derailed by the ideology of romance—so perhaps the operative division is between gay and straight:
Delany likewise discusses “artificial” heterosexual scarcity and what might be done to remedy it:
He proposes the creation of public sex institutions set up for women: hostels throughout the city catering to women where they could bring their sexual partners for a brief tryst, wherein it was clear that
Thus the advantage of Delany’s discussion of the problem of heterosexual scarcity and monogamy is that he does not dump the emotional baggage on women alone—probably because he lived in a polyamorous, relatively functional “open marriage” with Hacker, and shared her feminist convictions.