PRINT October 1986


David Byrne’s True Stories and Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

David Byrne, True Stories (New York: Harmondsworth, England; Victoria, Australia; Markham, Canada; and Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books, 1986), 191 pages.

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture distributed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), 144 pages.

A FLAMBOYANT GESTURE OF ART that takes place in time—performance film, video—is its vanishing act, it disappearance once the show’s over. Such work can, of course, be documented, and countless books have postulated theory about it, described its practice, and worked textually and visually as collections of artifacts of it. But there’s another tantalizing option—the idea that a book not just record an ephemeral work but at the same time in some way recreate it. Two recent books based on film works manage just such a fresh relation of book to act.

David Byrne’s True Stories is an adjunct to his feature-length movie of the same name, and to the lp by his band, the Talking Heads, that serves as its sound track. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, by Nan Goldin, is the book incarnation of a work that began as a personal visual diary and evolved into a slide show with music. Each book sets out to represent its source, but also to imaginatively recast the work in a book experience, through two staple genres, the film script and the still photograph. That desire and the books’ respective succeses in achieving it are the only thing they have in common: they succeed through completely opposite strategies.

Byrne’s True Stories film is a postmodern version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with National Enquirer-type characters; as “the Narrator,” and following no particular plot, Byrne introduces a cast of eccentric personalities (the Lying Woman, the Lazy Woman, the couple who haven’t spoken to each other in 31 years) played by an unlikely crew of performers, including performance artists Spalding Gray and Jo Harvey Allen and musical artists Tito Larriva, of the Cruzados band, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The book is a cornucopia of several kinds of representation. It’s as if this usually reticent yet articulate auteur has discovered a number of ways to talk about his movie all at once. True Stories, the book, provides a documentation of True Stories, the film, in spades, with the complete (and annotated) screenplay, story-boards, location shots, and stills. Background information is included in the form of source material from which characters and themes were drawn—articles from publications as various as the Weekly World News and the Wall Street Journal. For music fans there are the complete lyrics for the nine Talking Heads songs included in the soundtrack. But there’s also much more.

For starters, the book opens with an introduction by Byrne, part working notes for the movie, part credo. This essay spells out influences (Robert Wilson; urban studies; color photographers such as William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, and others) and movie-making methods (the film was developed from drawings by Byrne and from stories in tabloid newspapers); it also includes social comment (“Empires in retreat get into some pretty weird stuff’) and Byrne’s opinions on mass media (”Movie making is a trick. Song writing is a trick. If a song is done really well, the trick works"). Woven into the introduction are a series of full-page color photographs, a portfolio of tight shots by Eggleston of small-town Texas, the film’s setting. Like Byrne’s essay, these atmospheric photos, with their “off” colors, sideways focus, and skewed framing, make their points by indirection.

The book’s real leap is its form. On each spread (generally speaking) after the introduction, the material most directly connected to the film is laid out on the left—screenplay, storyboards, stills; then, as the eye travels to the right, nonintegral but related matter appears—location shots, research texts, short interpolated essays by Byrne on subjects touched on in the film (“See-through Houses,” for example); finally, on the far right, are photographs with an affective connection to the film but no more direct relationship. The book doesn’t adhere to this program rigidly—variations abound, but are easily followed after the basic template has been grasped. In his essay, Byrne remarks that he hoped that the book would ”be the equivalent of the way we experience people and things in their environments. Out there lots of different things are going on at the same time. You can change your focus from one thing to another and still keep the first thing in your mind.” This freeing of the viewer’s attention, an approach that seems to have filtered down to Byrne via Wilson (who picked it up from Merce Cunningham’s idea of defocused dance), is, as Byrne notes, more at home in a book, with its flexible reading patterns, than in a movie. The motion back and forth between raw source and shaped end product, between literal film script and associative photographic imagery, that True Stories, the book, allows, does more than let you in on Byrne’s creative process (though that’s worth it in itself); it also provides the reader with a way to see Byrne’s film on the multiple levels that he seems to have intended.

Byrne’s script and song lyrics for True Stories are not socially opinionated or overtly controversial; as he writes, “I stay away from loaded subjects—sex, violence, and political intrigue—because. . .everybody already has preconceived ideas about them.” But there’s a subtle radicality inherent in his style of looking, here at the eccentric side of “regular” American life, and this leaks into view around the edges. Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is not nearly as ironically distanced as True Stories. It clutches the rough stuff in a brutal embrace. This may be the most purely raw photographic collection published since Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust, of 1983. And where Byrne’s book is formally adventurous, Goldin’s work is presented in a standard photo-tome form—short introductory text followed by full-page images. However, the book serves just as effectively as Byrne’s to amplify the reader’s understanding of the original work.

In its slide-show version, Ballad presents over 700 slides, rapid-fire, in less than an hour. It’s accompanied by a soundtrack of pop tunes in the passionately melodramatic genre about love, life, and selfhood: “Don’t Make Me Over,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” ”You Don’t Own Me.” The shows are never the same, since Goldin continually updates and reedits the material. For the book the images have been reduced to 127 iconic images. The soundtrack, of course, can’t survive as such, but some of the song titles have become section titles. Stripped of its intensely emotional live aura, Ballad, the book, allows for a cooler reading of its overheated subjects, and many aspects that are subtextual, almost subliminal, in performance here float to attention. This is how Goldin reconstructs the heat.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency infuses the routines of coupling with a sense of addiction, and the love it presents is a vision of ecstasy intertwined with conflict. Grouped in clusters—women alone, women together, men alone, men together, women and men together, children —Goldin’s images make up a neo—“Family of Man" panoply miles away from that archetypical photo show’s sentimental whitewashing. Informed by her intimate, non-voyeuristic relationship with her subjects, her photographs depict people—artistic bohos, skinheads, lovers and friends, nightclubbers—hanging out, having sex, getting tattooed, brooding, picnicking. We see lives lived bonded together in which the point is to feel something real. We see how in contemporary life, read numb life, this search for feeling has as its shadow a direct line to pain. There is plenty of joy and pleasure here, but Goldin’s biggest subject as photographer/participant is the remembrance of pain and the use of its scars in photographic images to re-create the experience of it, both for herself and her viewers. In her preface, she writes of a vicious battering at the hands of a lover, her sister’s suicide, an unhappy home life. She bluntly records her own contradictions and her experience, no matter how damaging, and exposes them—and herself, victoriously snatching vibrant life from what often looks like grubbiness. Ballad, in the end, is an unlikely invocation of the spirits of Bertolt Brecht, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust (with perhaps a dash of salty tears from Robert Frank).

The book proves that the photographs can stand on their own, out of their original context, despite Goldin’s lack of “worship [for] photographs as objects.” In the slide show the images fly by. This has protected them from being used as a picturesque of the underground, as happens to so much raw material, and it has also preserved the intimacy of the work. As Goldin herself says, “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.” Now, with the blessing of this protection, the book can let us take as much time as we want to look in a still-private experience. With a larger focus the figures become more individual, less iconic. Noting the patterns made by a partly disrobed woman’s black-and-white-striped dress against the black-and-white swirls of a floral pillowcase, the eye follows her black stockings into a murky background in which stands a dim black object (a telephone?)—only to be pulled back to the center of the photograph, where a heart-shaped bruise discolors the woman’s exposed thigh. The hurt of the bruise is as painful in the book as on the screen, when it is accompanied by the tunes ”Miss the Girl“ (by Siouxsie and the Banshees) and ”She Hit Back" (by Yoko Ono). The song of Goldin’s unconventional ballad is belted out powerfully in the ordinary format of her book, though in a different register.

John Howell is the editor of High Times magazine, and contributes regularly to Artforum.