Review

Amazon's 'I Love Dick' makes an uneasy transition from page to screen

Jill Soloway, the creator of "Transparent," has, with playwright Sarah Gubbins, adapted Chris Kraus' novel "I Love Dick," again for Amazon.

Kraus' book, which was published in 1997 – the author is listed as a "consultant" on the series, which premieres to stream Friday in its eight-episode entirety – is considered a kind of literary landmark in its mixture of fiction and memoir (certain sections are titled "exhibits") and its take on female desire. Kraus and her then-husband Sylvère Lotringer are its central characters, and the book is full of cameo appearances by real people of the art world.

The text alternates between third- and first-person narrative, which has something of the removed flavor of a math word problem, and Chris’ letters (and sometimes Sylvère’s) to a third party, Dick, which include lengthy digressions and art-critical observations. It is not, on the face of it, an easily adaptable book, and somewhat uneasily has it been turned into a television show.

Where the book is, for the most part, centered in Southern California, Soloway and Gubbins have set Kraus' characters down in Marfa, Texas, a windblown hamlet turned fashionable art destination thanks to the late sculptor Donald Judd, who built a studio there. In the book, Dick is a critic and an old friend of Sylvère's; here, played by a grizzled-yet-buff Kevin Bacon, he is vaguely modeled on Judd, both an artist and the head of an institute where "people get invited to read and write and think."

Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), who has been writing about the aesthetics of the Holocaust — "Trauma and the Implications of Multi-Directional Memory in Contemporary Acts of Violence" is the title of the paper he's working on — has been invited to participate. Chris (Kathryn Hahn), a struggling, seemingly untalented filmmaker who locally becomes known as "the Holocaust wife," is along for the ride.

More or less immediately, Chris conceives an obsession with Dick, whom she first spies on horseback — he’s a rancher as well an artist, and begins writing him letters. Not at first meant to be shared, these become a sort of game that revives her sex life with Sylvère, and later transmute into an art project in which Chris finally finds her voice.

One could say that in the same way the book played with reality, the adaptation plays with the book, stirring in farce and inventing characters, including a coterie of youngsters who both tempt and rebuke Chris (middle-aged) and Sylvère (a senior citizen, nearly) with their impertinent youth. (Although they, and their art too, can seem a little dumb.)

The creators maintain some jaundiced distance from their subjects, and a viewer might be forgiven for thinking the point they’re out make is that art is dumb and artists and critics self-involved, pretentious and fatally removed from the real world. Apart from an array of clips from pioneering female film and video makers, dropped here and there into their series, they don't really make the opposite case. Even Chris' project, in spite of Sylvère’s contention that the writing is good, isn’t convincing.

The screen version does express many of Kraus' philosophical points through lines of dialogue and bits of action, but these seem inserted into the action instead of arising from it. And, apart from Roberta Colindrez as Devon, a local who works for Dick and has creative aspirations of her own, few dimensional characters emerge.

Hahn and Dunne are fine actors, but their Chris and Sylvère are annoying from the beginning, and pretty much to the end. Chris seems less a conscious agent of her desire and more a leaf blown in the wind; the book’s subtle arguments are reduced to slogans here (which get their own title cards). Dick, who is more present here than on the page, stays a little undefined, not inappropriately.

"Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?" Chris wonders in Kraus' book. But most often she seems merely debased here — disheveled and mumbling and saying sorry. It's good for the comedy and does give the character room to grow and assert herself, but it misses her intelligence, and it’s hard to care where she or any of them end up.

This much combined talent is going to provide some pleasure, of course. On a purely sensual level I would note the Southwest-flavored score by Mandy Hoffman ("Doll & Em") and camerawork by "Transparent" director of photography Jim Frohna. He catches the dusty filminess of desert light, with an particular relish and talent for dawn and twilight scenes. Incidental pictures of the town and its ordinary landscape feel more than incidental — a tonic to remind you that there is a real world beyond the musings of critical theory.

‘I Love Dick’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time, Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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