“I have a theory about movies,” states author Susanna Kaysen, checking her watch as we sit waiting for the start of Adam Sandler’s Punch-Drunk Love. “I think the biggest problem with most modern movies,” she says, “is that in the first half, they start out trying to be one thing, and then in the last half, for no reason, they suddenly subvert themselves and become a completely different film. I don’t get it. I don’t like it.”
She’s hoping for better from Punch-Drunk Love, the story of an emotionally-damaged toilet plunger salesman (Sandler) who, while attempting to buy enough pudding to earn a million frequent-flyer miles, falls in love with a sweet English oddball (Emily Watson). Scrunching down in her chair, Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted; Asa, As I Knew Him) props her knees up and stares at the empty screen, an excellent moment for me to heap a little praise on my guest’s remarkably odd new book. The Camera My Mother Gave Me is a memoir, of sorts, all about—are you ready for this?—untreatable vulvar vestibultis. It is, I tell Kaysen, the sharpest, funniest, most compelling page-turner about a vaginal illness that I’ve ever read.
“Oh, now I feel I should give you something,” she replies, and starts fishing around in her pocket, finally offering me my choice between a blast of nose spray or a fairly ancient cough drop. Says Kaysen, straight-faced, “That’s all I’ve got to offer you.”
Anyone who’s ever read Kaysen’s books knows otherwise; that the New York author has, in fact, got plenty to give. A first-rate storyteller with a wickedly funny, bare-bones style, Kaysen’s oddly-luminous novels have won her a devoted cult following. She’s best-known, of course, for Girl, Interrupted, the harrowing chronicle of her three-year confinement to a mental institution, the movie version of which, starring Winona Ryder, was so off-the-mark that Kaysen actually swore off going to the movies for over a year. Not that she ever went much to begin with; Kaysen’s reputed to be a bit of a recluse, In fact, while she’s an admitted fan of Eddie Murphy—”The best American movie of the last ten years is ‘The Nutty Professor’,” she insists—she’s never even heard of Adam Sandler. “I take it I’m in the minority there,” she observes with a laugh, before describing her own unique movie-rating system. It seems she seldom gets through any movie without having to leave at least once to smoke a cigarette.
“The better the movie,” she says, “the less often I leave.”
The good news about Punch-Drunk Love is that Kaysen was not once compelled to run out and smoke. On the other hand, in Kaysen’s opinion the movie only confirms her theory about what is wrong with American films: it couldn’t stay true to its own weirdness.
“The opening was such a dystopic vision of America, everything loathsome and horrible,” says Kaysen the next morning, talking by phone after letting the movie gel a while in her brain. Remember the one sex scene? When they’re in bed and she says, ‘I want to bite your cheek,’ and he says, ‘I want to smash your face in with a shovel,’ then she wants to suck out his eyeballs or something. I watched that scene and thought, ‘This is fantastic! These people are both totally psychotic and somehow, they’ve found each other! They’re not going to do these things, of course, but they are fantasies of engulfing and absorbing the other, completely eating one another up, articulating very well the feelings that lovers have about each other at the beginning of a relationship. I thought it was great that these two infuriated, enraged, crazy, nutty people can indulge their cannibalism fantasies with one another in bed!”
And then?” I ask.
“Then her whole character shifts, and she turns into this saintly, maternal type of person—and the whole movie goes ppthhhhhtttttph! These people were both totally bananas, but then she’s less bananas for some reason—and suddenly he’s less bananas.”
“Don’t you think we’re supposed to believe that his love of her, her presence in his life, is helping him heal?” I ask.
“Oh, ugh, disgusting, gross, I hate that,” she replies. “But that probably is what we’re supposed to believe. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to just stay home and never walk out the door.”
“It’s such a lie, and it’s such a fantasy, and it’s just a bunch of American recovery crap and I hate it.”
“What’s crap? That love can help us heal our family wounds?”
“Yeah,” Kaysen laughs. “I don’t think love does help us heal. Love is just another arena in which we play those wounds out. What do I know? I’m a terrible cynic, a miserable, lonely person, but I think that adult relationships are where you rehash and redo all the damage that was done to you when you were a child.”
She pauses a moment, then says, “I was totally thrilled by the first hour of this movie, because I was thinking, ‘Wow. This is not a romantic comedy. This is a totally, nightmarish, surrealistic vision of life in America,’ and I was fascinated by that. When it devolved into being just another romantic comedy, I just went ppthhhhhtttttph!”
“So what is it you have against romantic comedies?” I want to know.
“What do I have against them?” Kaysen laughs. “Well for one thing, life isn’t like that and it’s depressing. Romantic comedies make me sad. The whole idea of everything working out in the end and that love will save you. That’s so rarely born out inexperience, and it’s sad, because we’d like that to be true. We’re raised on that. Some day my Prince will come. Well, he’s not coming.”
“In your book, you describe a relationship that doesn’t work out, with issues of sex and your illness being a big part of the problem between you, but you include little details that show how maybe—if he’d made different decisions, if the timing had been slightly different—it could have worked out.”
“But it didn’t work out,” she says.
“But I saw how maybe it could have, and that was kind of heartbreaking.”
“Well, life is so funny, so odd and unpredictable,” Kaysen says. “And it’s not like the movies. In the movies, the drive is for it all to work out, so it does work out, you end up happy, even when the people involved are talking about smashing each other’s faces in with a shovel. In real life, you just get smashed with the shovel, over and over again.”
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.