An essay by Megan Boyle
Over the last few months, with the release of Leave Society and renewed interest in Marie Calloway, people are talking about alt lit more and more. That post-9/11, 2008-centric, pre-Trump period now seems cloaked in nostalgia—even the idea of a “hipster” seems hopelessly idealistic and sincere, despite how ironic it seemed at the time. Dov Charney is gone; Trump came and went; the editors of n+1 have children; in fact, everyone seems to have children. Alt lit, dismissed at the time as childish autistic narcissism by Gawker etc. (now also gone, though in odd phantasmic reincarnation), can now be reevaluated. That’s why I love Megan Boyle’s essay about the beginning of the film company she starts with Tao Lin, MDMAFILMS. I love its defense of experiment, of scrappiness, of not knowing what you’re doing, of not being a “real” filmmaker. Film—way worse than lit—has such high barriers to entry. A really low budget film easily costs $200,000, which is still a lot of money (like, you could get a house in Columbus), but almost never makes anyone any money. So even though producers won’t actually make any money from it, you still have to adapt your project to give the illusion that it might, possibly, make some—or at least give the producer the illusion of importance/social contribution/being a good person via supporting a serious and morally “good” project. So projects end up bland and uninspiring, with whatever individual passion there is diluted and deadened in the crucible of respectable, professional filmmaking. So anyway, film is either dead or dying & Megan’s piece, maybe, gives a little glimmer of how to save it: by “just playing around.” Please see Megan present her & Tao’s film Mumblecore at Cinema Village on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 7pm.
I’m in a taxi, facing the man who inspired me to write in a way that would shape my voice and worldview for years to come, Tao Lin. We’re about to peak on MDMA—a drug I did for the first time with him, a few weeks ago. Perched on the taxi door is a MacBook, recording our conversation on iMovie. It’s early November, 2010. Over the past two months, our relationship has escalated from online to real-life friends. In a few hours we’ll kiss for the first time. Three weeks after that, we’ll elope in Las Vegas. Ten months and two weeks after that, the relationship will end. Those ten months will be some of the most creatively fecund of my life.
I, of course, know none of this as we film in the taxi, but I’m beginning to feel something open in me—a sense of magic about my place in the world, a budding certainty of purpose, a maybe trustable hope for a bond I’d long dreamed of developing with someone—just by being around this man. He’s somewhat notorious on the Internet for promoting his bluntly honest, imaginative autobiographical writing in ways I consider charmingly prankish, but critics call “gimmicky and annoying.” He also maintains a personal blog, that my comments on began our friendship, a year prior to this exchange in the taxi.
Traffic creeps under five miles per hour, and our conversation bubbles steadily around ten words per five seconds. A warm red glow from brake lights or the New York City buildingscape occasionally orbs across our faces. This is the fifth time we’ve filmed ourselves together. A few days ago, Tao gave a reading in Baltimore, and afterwards at my apartment, we filmed ourselves interviewing each other both soberly and on MDMA for a YouTube video promoting our books, because we thought our contrasting behavior would be funny (and educational, for us) to watch. We left iMovie recording all night. The next day we tabled the YouTube idea when reviewing the three-ish hour video file, gleefully agreeing its subtle character-driven narrative, experimental cinematography, and voyeuristic authenticity were just as, if not more, interesting to watch than most movies we liked.
Instead of letting Tao return to New York alone, I’ve followed him to film material for our to-be-titled production company. We know nothing about the film industry and have faith we’ll figure out the details as they come; we’re excited by each other’s presences, by shifting from writing to movies, by creating something together instead of alone. There are rare, shared threads between our artistic sensibilities, philosophies, and sensitivities of personality. One of these threads is a proclivity to use writing as a self-reflective learning tool, as well as a vehicle for new ideas. We want our film company to be the moving-image extension of this. The general plan is to catalog our experiences with one entity per film, as a kind of visual index of our lives. We’ll end up releasing three DVDs: MDMA (one cut, about today’s outing), BEBE ZEVA (edited by Tao and me, about our friend Bebe), MUMBLECORE (edited and subtitled by me, about our transition from friends to lovers to husband and wife).
This is all well and good. But I work at a used bookstore and have just re-enrolled in college to complete a psychology degree. I have a social life that appears thriving, but that I’m beginning to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to endure. Privately, I experience a kind of depression that will almost take my life, three years from now.
“The mushrooms one’ll be so good! It’s amazing,” Tao interjects in the taxi, referring to our recent psilocybin-fueled night at a gallery where we made the never-released MUSHROOMS.
“Yeah, film festival material.”
“Except when we blow it up the quality will be shitty.”
“No, that’s even better!”
“Yeah, that’s part of it.”
“That’s the aesthetic,” I say, looking out the window, “damn.” I point to something on the street and ask Tao if he sees it. There is a pause, as he looks.
“Extreme mumblecore,” he says.
Somewhere between “aesthetic” and “damn” I had a thought of great gravity, that looking out the window was an attempt to conceal on my face: I’m either sitting next to a genius, or a man losing his mind. I can either go home and forget this ever happened, or I can see.
For many years, I will view myself as Icarian and naïve, for choosing to depart from my societally secure albeit troubled life to pursue an inner creative beckoning. I’ve come to view this self-assessment as ridiculous. Tao wasn’t losing his mind, though I was about to lose sight of my soul in the mires of addiction. I’d recover her years later, dampened and a little wiser, but in mostly the same place. I’m certain something similar would’ve happened in another world where I’d chosen to go home instead–though if I had, I’d now feel a nagging sense of loss about everything I hadn’t been brave enough to try.
Not long after Tao and I divorced, someone asked me if I really considered myself a “filmmaker,” as a Google search of my name had indicated. More than any passing regret about how I handled my life post-MDMAfilms dissolution, it saddens me that I answered this question with what I felt was expected of me to say: “No, we were just playing around.”
As if there is no place in art for “just playing around;” as if rigid formal traditionalism is the sole source of any art that moves or changes anyone; as if the core of any human advancement hasn’t always contained the very quality of freedom, experimentation, and joy I see in Tao’s and my movies today. When I watch them, I don’t see two clowns on drugs playing around with Macbooks; I see two people in a very young form of love, playing around with their limits in a new relationship and medium of expression, with the courage to commit to an idea, and see it through until the end.
Moving and inspiring. Thank you Megan.