By Kate Durbin
Insert/Blanc Press, 2012
Full color 40 p. chapbook
If Hedda Hopper had been reincarnated into a bag lady forced to stuff her own newspaper columns into her clothes for warmth, the wyrd outer hummings of her cycle toward rebirth might well have been echoed in Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment. The 40 page deconstruction, namesake of the television network and interspersed with lurid screenshots, is prose-poetry fed less by muses than by an alternative kind of green energy powered by their garbage: “recording angel” concept gone Murdoch wiretap, courtroom stenography as art that fluctuates between high and low like designer prescription drug-induced mood swings.
The book opens with an episode (presented as script-summary) from reality TV’s The Hills. The shot (recognizable and iconic in renditions from Wilder to Lynch) rises over the narrative like a smog-crepuscular sun:
Opening shot pans over Los Angeles. The buildings sparkle in the sunlight. Episode title appears in white font. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID’. Shot of Sunset Boulevard sign, man in grey shirt going over crosswalk…
But Durbin is not interested in exploring mystery here so much as she is leaving us to dissect it, if we can find it. E!’s four chapters (the remaining three are on Dynasty, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Nicole Smith) are so wholly representative of their medium their strategy is almost undetectable, its illumination indistinguishable from the famous sunlight in which it exists. Just as cubism and surrealism aim toward simultaneous representation, The Hills explores the overlap of interiority within presentation, like a sheet of tracing paper: “closed captioning” repeatedly refusing and belying the accuracy of spoken dialogue–as if the piece were composing itself against its own five-second broadcast delay:
“I’m intimidated’ says a male voice with a British accent. The white letters say the same thing….’okay,” says Lauren. The white letters do not say this.
Shot of Lauren putting her hand over her heart and leaning forward…shot of Lauren’s face ….her eyes are glassy and her nose looks like a button.
The aforementioned chapter on Dynasty is E!’s crown jewel, a campy, morbidly funny stop-motion dollhouse in which Joan Collins and Linda Evans in a cat fight are repeatedly played and put on freeze frame:
Alexis’ blurred upper body fills ¾ of the frame. Her black hair is pouffy and a wig. Krystle’s face is coming at her. The crease of her cheek can be seen. The rest of her face is indistinct, and looks old.
Collins and Evans are as fairytale crones with false faces, their true countenances only glimpsed at certain slants of light, angles, pauses. Sometimes the glamour loses its footing and the realtime-face–the pathos under the camp–can be seen, the blow-by-blow cattiness stopped and neutered into a fascinating playset:
Alexis sits on a beige sofa. Her tummy fat bulges. Her black wig is mussed. She is picking up a large crystal vase from a dark wood dressing table. Her fingernails are press-on and fire-engine red. The veins in her hands bulge.
Krystle is face-down on a chartreuse sofa. She is covered in broken glass. Behind the sofa the stairs to the upper level of the room are covered in something white. It must be feathers.
This last vignette, with its suggestion of forensic crime scene and waiting white angel–or specter–looming just out of the frame, reads like a horror story blurb. Another image brings to mind a wonderfully ghastly portrait of a foliage-camouflaged bogey or gremlin, crouching in the corner, reaching up for its prey with alarmingly long arms:
…There is a potted plant is the corner. Krystle is crouched near it. Her right arm reaches out all the way to her right. She is almost touching the upper level of the room with it.
Some of these scenarios run as fascinating companion pieces to the work of visual “dollhouse” artist Laurie Simmons, whose photographs feature everything from plastic figurines to ventriloquist’s dummies to Japanese love dolls:
Alexis is at the upper level of the room, which is elevated five feet above the lower level of the room. Her blue skirt flares out. Her left leg is in the air. She is wearing granny flats.
Alexis and Krystle are lying on the wood floor, locked in an embrace. Krystle’s right leg is blurry and slung over Alexis. In the foreground is a small round dark wood table with a crystal vase on it filled with yellow daisies and green filler.
Of course, we are all “green filler”/worm food sooner or later, but Alexis and Krystle are also action figures filled with the Stretch Armstrongish green “goo” of envy, hair-pulling drag queens brawling it out:
Krystle fills most of the frame. She is scrunching her face so her wrinkles show a lot. Her cheekbones are savage.
Extracts from the infamous Howard K. Stern/Anna Nicole Smith “clown makeup” video (in which a drug-stupefied Smith is alleged to have mistaken her own unborn eight-month-old child for the swelling of flatulence) make up the book’s fourth and final chapter. Though there is a brief preamble suggesting the whole scene might be staged, no comprehensive explanation for the scene is offered, and so, for those who haven’t seen the footage, Durbin’s transcript evokes a blow-up doll in whose womb Hasbro’s Baby Alive kicks up a can-can of a storm, a manic mechanical stillbirth:
RILEY: It’s your baby. The clown doesn’t need gas medicine, she needs baaaaby medicine. That’s your baby kicking you. She isn’t real. Look. She’s having brain trouble. Brain trouble. It’s a battery baby. She’s fake. It’s fake. She has major brain trouble. Get the screwdriver. Yes, take one battery out to prove that’s not a real baby. Camera, camera…
ANNA: I think I just have a little gas. It hurts and I need some gas poot stuff so I can poot it out. I need somecuz look how big this belly’s getting cuz it’s gas. Nu uh. It’s gas…it’s cryin. Get her a binkie; it’s cryin. My baby whore. I’m gonna go give her her binkie cuz she don’t know how to take care of a baby.
MECHANICAL BABY: Mama. Mama. Waah. Waah. Mama. Mama. Mama…
There is something disturbingly “unattended” about this, as if it–and, indeed, E! itself, like Lynch’s Club Silencio–are, conceivably, “all a tape recording”. But the surveillance-or-theater question remains key; Durbin doesn’t explicate. As readers, we’re left to navigate possible meanings with no tools but our own understanding of the absurd and–strangely–our own conscience. It’s an ingenious strategy that has the boldness to potentially dismiss itself as literature–just as its subject, reality TV, is so often summarily dismissed. “My visibilities hide/I gleam like a mirror,” wrote Plath. The back cover of E!–a looking-glass image of its front cover, with correspondingly reversed text and images–is just one of many variations upon this theme. Whether we’re looking into a funhouse distortion or simply seeing a reflection of something already, innately warped is up to us–and a loaded, philosophically complex question dwarfed in an entertainment value that–significance notwithstanding and by any other name–smells exactly we want it to.
- Funhouse Mirror as Lite-Up Makeup Mirror: Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment
- The Ecstatic Tragedy of Reality TV: Interview with Kate Durbin on E!