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TV Review: Jill Soloway’s ‘I Love Dick,’ With Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn, Premiering at Sundance

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

“DEAR DICK,” begins the pilot of “I Love Dick,” in all-caps cards: “EVERY LETTER IS A LOVE LETTER.” The cards are narrated by Kathryn Hahn’s character Chris Kraus, a filmmaker whose name’s unfortunate similarity to ‘90s hip-hop duo Kris Kross is just part of her tragically unhip personality. As Chris, Hahn’s narration is monotone, flat, and aggressively pointed — the consonants that bookend the name “Dick” are delivered like whiplash. Chris’ words are from her letters to a sculptor named Dick Jarrett (Kevin Bacon), a man who becomes the object and vessel for the personal, sexual, and creative crisis she experiences as she arrives in the artistic community of Marfa, Texas with her husband, academic philosopher Sylvère (Griffin Dunne).

Or to be more blunt: “THIS IS ABOUT OBSESSION.”

“I Love Dick,” the show, is based on the semi-true 1997 book of the same name — written by real-life independent filmmaker Chris Kraus about her obsession with real-life theorist Dick Hebdige. Kraus constructed the book as a series of letters to Dick, reveling in his nakedly Freudian name and using that as the provocative starting point of her storytelling. The Amazon show updates the era, moves the action to Marfa, and adds the critical element of an auteur’s eye — in this case, Jill Soloway, the vision behind the streaming service’s award-winning “Transparent.” (There is a whole extra layer of ‘90s-era academia and intertextual influence at play: Soloway’s girlfriend is poet Eileen Myles — fictionalized in the last two seasons of “Transparent” as Leslie, played by Cherry Jones — and Myles is a longtime colleague of Kraus’; she even wrote the foreword to “I Love Dick.”)

It was Myles’ idea to bring the production to Marfa — and the wide-open deserts of West Texas, coupled with the insular artistic community of the town, make for a singular backdrop for Chris’ obsessions. In some ways, it’s the only way that “I Love Dick” is plausible on television; it is only because Chris is unmoored from her usual surroundings and immersed in a hyper-verbal community of self-examined artists that she can be so toppled by six feet of cowboy-intellectual — a man so conscious of his own appeal, and so disdainful of those who are susceptible to it, that he is like a sexual black hole. (Bacon, a picture-perfect Hollywood stud of a certain age, is impeccably cast.)

This story of turning a man into the object of a woman’s obsession is perfect for Soloway, who has been explicit about her efforts to create a cinematic grammar for the “female gaze,” a concept that is usually defined as the theoretical counterpoint to the ubiquitous male gaze of the camera. Soloway is not mincing around; you could call her attention to Dick’s eyes, as he looks at Chris in her own imagination, a rather unsubtle commentary on the male gaze. At the end of the pilot, Dick, moved by a weird reverie we cannot identify, strips naked and walks into a cistern filled with water — stepping down into its yonic depths until he is completely submerged.

As I said, unsubtle.

This emphasis on symbolic vision is why it is so crucial that Chris, Dick, and their colleagues in Marfa are all, in some way, artists; “I Love Dick” posits that desire is a fundamental vector for artistic inspiration and creation — and pointedly explores creation specifically as it pertains to creators who aren’t swinging a dick. There are visual references to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in just the first two episodes; a brilliant art historian confides in episode two that there are 600 times more female nudes in the canon than there are female artists.

That is also why it is crucial that Dick doesn’t like Chris’ art — indeed, doesn’t like the work of any female directors, he tells her calmly, over a dinner of rabbit at the town’s only restaurant. His condescension only fuels her attraction, in one of those very human paradoxes; she is inflamed both by wanting to f–k him and wanting him to validate her vision, and perhaps those two impulses are the same thing. She’s torn between wanting to collapse her ego into nothing, so Dick can’t see it, and wanting to inflate it, so that Dick can’t ignore it. These warring impulses are the wellspring for her letters.

And the letters fuel some of the most difficult but fascinating scenes of “I Love Dick,” which are unapologetic sexual fantasies and reveries, fueled by memory, projection, and of course, Dick himself. Chris and Sylveré haven’t had sex in years, but once Chris begins to revel in her feelings for Dick, something is rekindled between them. She imagines Dick in the room as she’s having sex with her husband, or following her into the bathroom to make love to her, after a contentious conversation over dinner. But the reconnection to her lust has its own destabilizing core — a well of self-doubt about her own work, an insatiable desire to cross boundaries with Dick, and a consciously headlong journey into the specific kind of madness that comes with desiring a man.

Hahn, in “Transparent” and here, is Soloway’s muse for heterosexuality. As Chris, she delivers a troublesome, fascinating, maddening character — messy, thwarted, and drowning. Chris’ emotional journey makes her seem like a hatchet moving through time and space, in her endless journey to be recognized, validated, understood. Hahn is prickly but ever-present in the role, with her odd wardrobe, wild chopped-off hair, and outsize intimacy with the screen. Her face contorts with difficult-to-interpret, raw emotion at the end of Dick-fueled sex with Sylvère; immediately thereafter, she chews noisily at the breakfast table with a sloppy satiation, the muscles of her jawline rippling. In another scene she is standing on her (marital) bed, hanging letters to Dick on a clothesline — fully committed to eviscerating herself if it means understanding this unwelcome, intrusive lust, one that thrives on rejection, both creative and physical. Soloway follows Hahn’s body with curiosity that is both impersonal and intimate, interested in not just her experience of desire but in the specific odd shapes of a woman in the throes of orgasm.

The extraordinary, taut pilot focuses purely on Chris — even titular Dick, who looms large in her vision, exists mostly as her vision of him. The following two episodes are less purely arced, less cleanly self-contained. Instead the show opts for pastiche — using snippets of “found” or experimental film, including films the character of Chris is said to have made, to layer Chris’ story with a few supporting characters. It’s an interesting refraction of the pilot’s laserlike focus on Chris — and a choral unison of obsessions with Dick — but Hahn is so riveting that the auxiliary storytelling dilutes her pure, bizarre obsession.

It’s early to make judgments about where the episodes are going — and indeed, Soloway has a track record for bringing things full circle, in loop-like narrative that defies linear convention. But it’s not as viscerally satisfying as that pilot, with Hahn’s riven and riveting performance. The pastiche feels less provocative than disjointed; the two episodes’ tendency to skip around means it is harder to follow the plot than it was in the pilot.

Still, the two new episodes also contain arresting moments. A character remembers watching Dick put an arm around a woman’s waist, and realizes a desire to be “the hand, not the waist.” And Chris confronts Dick about his disinterest in her work, forcing both into a conversation about art that sounds like romantic rejection — sorry, I’m just not that into you.

“I Love Dick” is a treasure trove of charged moments, an intriguing dance of provocation, creation, and self-reflection. It digs to the roots of desire with unflinching curiosity. It is a daunting show to step into, with its scathing critiques and blunt personalities. But there is something cleansing and freeing about its unvarnished intimacy; Chris is overcome, so that the viewer doesn’t have to be.

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