I like to sit around my motel room after my show in my bra and panties and I’ll say to somebody, “Get me a Remy Martin and a water-back, goddamnit!” -- Sandra Bernhard, WYIN
At some point during the summer of 1990, I went to the Catalina Theater on the corner of Campbell and Grant in Tucson, Arizona, to see the film version of Sandra Bernhard’s smash one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing. I went by myself; I know people who won’t go to movies alone, but I’ve always kind of liked it, liked sitting wherever I want and being able to watch every last credit without someone saying, “Can’t we just go?”
I remember sitting in the theater, my jaw slack with wonder, my stomach clenched like a fist with envy. How does someone work up the audacity to do a performance like that? I knew I didn’t have a personality that would let me dance around on stage to “Little Red Corvette” in pasties and a sequined g-string bearing the stars and stripes, but I did decide that I wanted to use my life as the basis for my art, just like Sandra did, and that I was willing to bare almost every crevice, crack and contour of my soul.
In 1990, Sandra was best friends with Madonna, which is why she gets to deliver the great lines
And while we’re being really honest here, now that we’re not together, here’s her number. Call Madonna and f*ck the bitch! And while you’re at it, f*ck Martika!
Martika is one of those one-hit wonders who simply couldn’t go away soon enough in my book. And it was lines like that that made me write in my journal that WYIN is “full of very timely jokes and references, so I wonder if it will age well.”
A book I teach often is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about which I have mixed feelings. I love the preface; I find it witty and engaging and I love Eggers’ defense of why he wrote the book as a memoir rather than a novel. But other parts of it are boring and annoying, and it’s not at all surprising, given his admission in the postscript, “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making,” that there are long passages he wrote hurriedly and never revised because he just wanted to get the damn thing to the publisher.
I continue to teach it because it lays out a lot of the intellectual and aesthetic issues involved in writing and reading nonfiction, and because students generally love it. One semester they were all admiration for the fact that Eggers writes about the television show American Gladiator without actually referring to the title of the program, which went right over my head, because I never once saw the show. “It’s so cool that he includes the lyrics to a Journey song!” the students enthused. “It’s so cool that someone is writing about pop culture this way and that it’s so relevant to our lives!”
I turned to study something going on outside the window so they couldn’t see me roll my eyes. When I turned back to them I said, “You think it’s going to stay relevant?”
“Of course,” one of them said. “I mean, he’s writing about stuff that’s a part of our lives. It’s not like we’re going to forget this.”
“Maybe...,” I said. “Maybe you won’t forget it, but will it mean anything to anyone else?”
“Why not?” one of them asked.
“Why don’t you just tell me if you have any idea who I’m talking about.” And I straightened my back, spoke from my diaphragm, and said:
I dedicate this song to Apollonia! To Sheila E! To Vanity! To Lisa and Wendy on their own! To all that the glamorous life implies.
I looked at them. It was a small class, only half a dozen students. All six of them were staring at me in rapt alarm. “Know who I’m talking about?” I asked. They shook their heads. “Then I’ll keep going.” And I continued:
But above all I want to dedicate this song to the purple paisley god himself, to the little man who chooses to sit all alone, naked, under a cherry moon, love sexy! It’s the sign o’ the times, it’s the sign o’ the times, it’s the sign o’ the times.
Then Andy, very tall, very talented, very smart, and the front man for a band, said, “Oh, uh, Prince. It’s Prince.”
And I explained that yes, the whole riff was about Prince; the list of women were his musical proteges and in a few cases his lovers. But none of them shone much in her own right, as any brilliance they might have possessed (and I’m not sure Sheila E had much to begin with) was eclipsed by the glory his astonishing genius.
“Those references were current in 1989 or ‘90,” I said. Only fifteen years and they’re almost incomprehensible.” I picked up my copy of AHWOSG. “Because this is print, I’ll bet it ages twice as well--I bet it’ll be 30 years instead of 15 before it’s thoroughly dated.”
They didn’t want to believe that something truly inspired and relevant could become so dated so fast. So to prove it, I brought in my VHS copy of WYIN (a gift from my friend Wayne) and showed it to them.
When I mention this to colleagues, they are often shocked. “You didn’t!” said a colleague who shows some pretty outrageous movies himself. But like I said, it was a small class and I also prepped the students repeatedly, told them that there was nudity and a graphic (although brief) sex scene and that it was weird and they’d be annoyed and they had to give me their permission to show it to them and not report me for subjecting them to indecency--but hey, it meant classtime would be devoted to a movie instead of a discussion, so of course they said yes.
The movie ran a little longer than 75 minutes allotted for class, so I didn't ask for comments until the next class meeting, two days later. One of the students was planning to go to graduate school in film studies. Even though 48 hours had passed since he'd seen the movie, he said, “I’m not ready to talk about that movie. I still don’t know what I think about it.” The other students had even less to say.
Without You I’m Nothing was released on dvd on Tuesday, August 23, 2005, so if you haven’t seen it, put it at the top of your Netflix queue! You may or may not get a lot of the references, but even still, there’s just so much going on in that movie. And if you have seen it, please leave a comment telling me about one of your favorite scenes.
And don’t forget:
If you should wake up one long, lonely night and feel that you’re all alone, remember: YOU ARE.