Joanna Arnow’s remarkable I Hate Myself :) presents as a diary film about Arnow’s attempt to document and thereby understand her bumpy relationship with her larger-than-life, serially provocative boyfriend James. The comparison that came to mind immediately was Jim McBride’s 1967 David Holzman’s Diary, which is a fiction film in documentary clothes. And Arnow too includes enough signifiers of fiction – most conspicuously the editing-room debates with her friend Max, who is accurately introduced as “The Naked Editor” – that we can’t comfortably regard the film as a pure document. But it seems impossible as well for it to be completely fictional: setting aside a host of practical considerations, James’s character is so extreme and so coherent in subterranean ways that one has difficulty imagining it as an actor’s or writer’s construction. Ultimately the film wends its way to on-camera display of erections and penetration, where the distinction between fiction and documentary loses relevance.
However we choose to frame them, the human issues that I Hate Myself :) deals with are unusual and compelling. James has a wide streak of rebellion in his personality that is directed against our values, the values of the presumed audience of the movie. As is often the case, his rebellion partly is channeled in constructive directions – his racially confrontational interactions with the residents of his Harlem neighborhood are clearly based on his conviction that liberal assumptions about race and class need to be broken down – and partly floats free to inflict collateral damage on Arnow and others. By contrast, Arnow is mild in demeanor, a good-girl type who tempts us to an early assumption that she is James’ masochistic subordinate. But we quickly see that she admires James’s rejection of societal niceties and counts herself as one of his tribe, even as his jagged social interface takes its toll on her peace of mind. The couple seems to split as the film-within-a-film she is making approaches the rough-cut stage, but the film itself, the one we watch, remains a record of her journey toward him and away from us. The scarlet letter that Arnow dons by including footage of her on-camera sex with James, and the outrage of showing the footage to her parents, are gestures of solidarity with the transgressive mode of being that comes so naturally to James.
This journey, which can reasonably be called spiritual, is expressed via increasingly wild formal play that blurs the distinction between film-within-a-film and film-we-are-watching, to witty effect. Arnow’s first rough cut, already topped with the cherry of unsimulated sex, is subjected to a hall-of-mirrors effect, as she screens the film repeatedly for its cast of participants, each time photographing their reaction and inserting the footage into subsequent cuts. The trick is more than mere play, as the repetition creates a crazy centrifugal effect that latches onto and accelerates the transgression that Arnow rather joyfully embraces. I especially liked the clever way that Arnow excerpts the film’s soundtrack as we watch the faces of her perplexed preview audiences. At one point we think that a piece of dialogue has accidentally been repeated, only to realize that the cut we are listening to has already looped back on itself with multiple iterations of the same dialogue. And it gradually dawns on us that the unfamiliar music we hear during the rough cut screenings is surely the end-credit music that we’ll be the very last to experience.
I left before Arnow’s question-and-answer session at Rooftop Films last week, not because I didn’t want to hear what she had to say – she’s clearly an intelligent and aware artist – but because her post-film commentary was necessarily going to add yet one more layer of reflexivity to the viewing process, and I found myself deciding arbitrarily to stop the merry-go-round at the point when the projector was turned off.