Elevate Difference

Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker?

Finally, a documentary on legendary writer Kathy Acker, whose influence on sex-positive, brazen, post-modern feminist literature and art is unsurpassed. Perhaps there would have been no Riot Grrrl movement if Acker had not spoken to a young Kathleen Hanna. Hanna recalls that “Acker asked me why writing was important to me, and I said, ‘Because I felt like I’d never been listened to and I had a lot to say,’ and she said, ‘Then why are you doing spoken word?? No one goes to spoken word shows! You should get in a band’.”

Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker? contains interviews with well known icons like Hanna and Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvere Lotringer, yet also features young female students who all give different interpretations on Acker’s work and influence on their writing. There are also, of course, family members, ex-lovers, friends, and peers who all give insight into the life, work, and early death of Kathy Acker, who died in 1997 from breast cancer.

Acker, covered in tattoos and piercings, with her shaved head and a gold tooth, was a punk rock literary genius. Her experimental, post-modern writing reflected the anger, struggle for power, vulnerability, and schizophrenia of being a strong, sexually deviant woman in a patriarchal society. She turned male literature on its head by re-writing several misogynist texts from the perspective of women. Her characters blur gender and are not constrained by space, time, or death. Acker saw language as a system similar to capitalism and patriarchy—therefore, one to be deconstructed. Her work was cut-up, non-linear, sexually explicit, offensive, and sometimes nonsensical. Banned in some countries and derided by some feminists, the true genius of Acker’s work emerges in the differing of opinion and interpretation of it.

Like all good biographical documentaries, we see glimpses of Acker’s early life through photographs and archival footage as well as interviews. We also get to see her naked and masturbating in an art film she made in college! But this documentary is experimental in its own right, reflecting the cut-up, post-modern nature of Acker’s writing, through techniques like animation and voice-overs, arty shots with text across them while interviewees talk behind it, pornographic clips, and ambient electronic and punk music. It all combines to create a non-linear telling of Acker’s life story and brilliant mind.

At eighty-four minutes, it is a long biographical documentary, sometimes meandering in repetition and its own artfulness. A straight-up story of Acker’s life could have been contained in less time. Yet anyone familiar with Acker’s work knows that would not have been an appropriate homage to a writer whose work is still a huge influence on experimental writing and feminist theory.

My only irritation with the film was the interviews with the young students, which, although interspersed within the entire documentary, open the film, creating a vague and confusing introduction to an extremely dynamic person’s life. The presence of the students also breaks the flow and feels disconnected from the rest of the documentary. Perhaps, as a nod to Acker, that was intentional. In any case, as with Acker’s work, you may get confused, annoyed, enthralled, offended, and turned on by this documentary. It is a great portrait of a life and mind that should never be forgotten.

Written by: Jyoti Roy, July 19th 2009