New York

Chris Kraus, How to Shoot a Crime, 1987, still from a Super 8 film transferred to DVD, 28 minutes.

Chris Kraus, How to Shoot a Crime, 1987, still from a Super 8 film transferred to DVD, 28 minutes.

Chris Kraus

Real Fine Arts

Chris Kraus, How to Shoot a Crime, 1987, still from a Super 8 film transferred to DVD, 28 minutes.

Over the past decade, writer and cultural critic Chris Kraus has gone to great lengths to distance herself from her earliest works, a handful of experimental films made between 1981 and 1996. In a recent lecture, she described them by turns as “unwatchable” and “pathetic.” (They are neither.) Her public disdain for her films, as well as her more veiled contempt for them in her novels (including the brilliant, semiautobiographical I Love Dick [1997], narrated by a “failed filmmaker”), might be less an earnest expression of private feelings than a witty ploy to pique our interest, to get the works back into play. In any case, hindsight’s always a bitch. In the spring of 2008 the films were on view at Berlin’s Galerie Cinzia Friedlaender and for a month this past summer they were shown alongside posters, screenplays, and shooting notes at Real Fine Arts in “Chris Kraus: Films.”

Kraus is known for her ingenious and candid writings, which blend 1970s-era New Journalism with critical theory and punk panache. If there’s a connection between her publications and her films (there are probably many), it’s that both exude “a terrible megalomania, an insistence on being present,” as she notes in this exhibition’s pensive accompanying text. “Much as I loathe the idea of a feminine ecriture, I have to admit that the impulse to do this seems very female,” she adds.

Of course, it is not immediately clear in what sense this impulse might in fact be female, and the recent show did not body forth a ready answer. Was it in the poetic take on sex and death in 1987’s How to Shoot a Crime, which features interviews between Sylvère Lotringer (Kraus’s then-husband) and two dominatrices, spliced with gruesome homicide footage from New York? Or perhaps in the very different In Order to Pass, 1982, Kraus’s earliest film, a Super 8 tone poem shot in her childhood homeland of New Zealand, in which dreamy, repetitive Marie Menken–ish images of parks and people blithely wash by––and do we really buy these as indicative of feminine sensitivities anyway?

To understand what’s really so female about Kraus’s films, one should seek out her 2010 essay “Female Writing,” in which an assessment of works by Elizabeth LeCompte and Kathy Acker brings to light her own complicated love/hate relationship with the issue. “There is always too much feeling in female writing, but feeling itself isn’t the point. Female writing is compositional. It is intellectual vaudeville. It arrives at the moment of feeling, then leaves. It demonstrates something: itself.” It’s an entirely apt description of the dazzling films, one that finds an easy alliance with a constant questioning and transparency of the self, an ideal for many feminists—and one that, in its ambivalence, aligns with feminist artists and filmmakers such as Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, Tracey Moffatt, and Sadie Benning, to name but a few.

Kraus’s insistence on presence in her films, which parallels the diaristic tone so often found in her writings, is most beautifully conjured in some of her later documentary-style pieces. Shot on Super 8, they express an immediacy that is wildly different from her earlier, more nostalgic work. Watching the schoolchildren interviewed on their class trip to learn about the Underground Railroad in Traveling at Night, 1990, or the dominatrices in How to Shoot a Crime, who speak vividly about their desultory lives, one wonders what Kraus would do with today’s HD equipment––and whether we’ll ever find out.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler