When I first read Eileen Myles’s 1994 classic Chelsea Girls, I was certain it was nonfiction. I think I may have told an inquiring stranger on the subway that it was a book of essays, which it isn’t (sorry, now-misinformed New Yorker). It’s fiction, a series of short coming-of-age stories about a queer poet named Eileen Myles, who is like the collection’s author in many ways but not in all. I was so certain it was memoir because the book feels so lived-in—it brings you to tactile places, conjures the mud underfoot at Woodstock and those recognizable, “gorgeous grey feeling(s)” of adolescent romance. But Myles has long called Chelsea Girls an “autobiographical novel,” a hybrid of sorts. It merges the unreal, the dreamed-up, with the hyper-real.
At Metrograph on Sunday, Myles (whose pronouns are they/them) presented their first-ever film, a 17-minute road trip movie aptly called The Trip. It was shot and takes place around Marfa, Texas, that artsy enclave about 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Myles plays the driver, Eileen, who may or may not be their autobiographical self. In the passenger seat is a dog named Honey, who opines in silent captions. Five puppets share the back—sweetly misshapen, clownish creatures that Myles the filmmaker actually made as a kid, born from their imagination and then exhumed, decades later, from their childhood home in Massachusetts. The puppets have distinctive personalities, names, and voices, which are dubbed over their unmoving, paper-mâché mouths. The group philosophizes, argues, and comes together again, all while it takes in the scenery.
The Trip’s visuals are home-video-grainy (the film was shot on Super 8mm) and faded. Myles and editor/producer David Fenster stylishly desaturate the mountains, clouds, and cargo trains of the Texas desert, which isn’t to say they strip them of their evocativeness: Oscar, the puppet who seems to psychologically suffer the most from having been relegated to storage for the last 60 years, is rendered nearly speechless when he sees the landscape. “I’m overcome,” he says, peering out the window. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Myles lives in Marfa for part of each year, and The Trip is definitely the work of someone who knows, and loves, the setting.
The Trip is also undoubtedly political, firstly because of its physical proximity to a humanitarian crisis, which complicates the place, the tone, everything. At the end, this all becomes explicit: Casper, a ghost puppet, delivers a strange and arresting monologue on the steps of Sul Ross State University. “I am a ghost, born of Eileen’s child-hands,” he begins. “I make common cause, now, with the slaves of the world, prisoners of our security state…Children, women, and men in cages and jails, not far from here. A multitude, less visible than a ghost.” Watching this odd, soft mass of clay and cloth stare, unblinking, into the camera, is a mixed experience: There is something both fancifully make-believe and disturbingly too-real about a puppet delivering such a pained manifesto. Myles has long been a master of this, filtering real-world stimuli through an abundantly poetic imagination.
Myles was present at the Metrograph screening last night, which also served as The Trip’s New York premiere. They didn’t say much to introduce the film, except to mention how and when it was made, and that it was going to be paired with Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Dixon’s is a radical and nearly-forgotten 1973 film that follows Dan Freeman, a black CIA operative who leaves the agency, moves home to the South Side of Chicago, and uses his insider expertise to head a black military uprising against the United States. It’s a fiction, of course, arguably a fantasy, but it disappeared from theaters soon after its release, and all but one of its prints were destroyed. Myles suggested—in an informal, characteristically unplanned and unhurried speech after the screenings—that there was something too real about Dixon’s movie, especially after a National Guard Armory in Compton was expertly robbed in 1974, in an echo of the film’s plot. There’s no real evidence that this robbery prompted the film’s near-extinction, but it does all feel sort of fishy.
In person, Myles didn’t make overly explicit why they paired Dixon’s film with The Trip. On Metrograph’s website, their given reason is this: “My own short film engages politics, and especially the politics of the region I shot it in, which is America.” (Also: “Because I can.”) But I think another similarity to be found—especially if you compare Dixon’s urgent work with the moment Casper takes over the screen—is that sometimes, fantasy allows us access to what’s most real, even most dangerous. What speaks the hardest-hitting truth can be what we’ve totally dreamed up.
Watch “The Trip” here.