Cornelia Barber: Looking at Emma’s Dilemma






“There is No Scene Here”
Looking at Emma’s Dilemma (Henry Hills, 2012)

by Cornelia Barber

To look is to be curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning. The word conversation is banished. I think that’s what best conveys the shame and pride. Every sort of community, whether of the family or other is hateful to us, degrading. We’re united in a fundamental shame of having to live.

 Margurite Duras, The Lover

I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be an artist. You know its Emma’s Dilemma. Well what… what do I want to do? What do I want to be? Who do I want not to be?

 Emma Bee Bernstein, Emma’s Dilemma


Girls look. They look at each other, at boys, at their parents and at themselves. When I look at Emma looking I see myself as an adolescent. I see a darkness and a knowing that is intrinsic to many girls I knew at that age and still know. I see a weight bearing that is too heavy for someone whose skin is still so fresh and plump and who is just beginning to grow into a body that doesn’t yet belong to her. Girls look to reveal.

Experimental filmmaker Henry Hills’ digital video Emma’s Dilemma is made up of a chronological sequence of interviews between Emma Bee Bernstein and artists and poets who are friends of her parents, Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, recorded when she was between the ages of 11 and 15.

The film is not a documentary, though it is a kind of documentation of Emma’s coming of age years, and there is no imposed narrative, “I don’t want a movie that has a plot because my life doesn’t have a plot.” Recalling techniques used in the Language poetry of her father, the film is highly dismantled; utilizing recycled frames and remixed sound to deconstruct dialogues into collage; juxtaposing sound and meaning, invigorating image and repetition. As Charles says to camera,

I’m interested in writing that doesn’t conform to patterns that are expectable, but actually violates those patterns and, uh, puts them together, joins them in a way that increases their energy rather than dissipates it. It’s a lot like what Henry does in his films in this elaborate editing process, which in a lot of ways is very similar to my aesthetic.

Through this deconstructive form, the film desires to let Emma breathe and become what she will become, without a plot, or acute regard for the boundaries between life and film, even as her life fills with more and more boundaries and demands—

Transitioning from middle to high school; dating; becoming aware of Henry’s role as a man and their intimate relationship (which she calls “icky”); traveling abroad; asking the question of whether she will be an artist, or who she will become, or won’t.

It would be easy to have made this film a family psychodrama. Or to view it that way in retrospect, as something like The Woodmans. There is certainly the appropriate footage for an Indie documentary. But the film won’t let us in, or anyway, it won’t let us out. So musings pile up without being framed: if her family is putting pressure on her or not, if her little brother, Felix, is inspired by her, or if Emma herself feels bound by her father’s esteem, mind, notoriety; if she feels like she has a lot to live up to. Ultimately obscurity and frustration cover over ‘answers’ and ‘secrets.’ This allows us, at times, to witness Emma on her own terms, regardless of who she is talking to, her own thoughts seem to take pride of place, “I’m kind of learning what I want to do with my life. I’m kind of learning what to do with my life.”

Emma is constantly looking. She is looking at the world around her and much of the time she doesn’t like what she sees. Neither in the broader culture, nor particularly in the responses she receives from her parent’s friends. Her room is covered in pictures of celebrities like Kurt Cobain and she refers to Chloë Sevigny as her idol. Even as Jackson Mac Low interrupts her and tells her that TV is a narcotic, her father tells Henry that Emma often calls for him to get her a glass of water because she is too busy watching TV to do it. And she says of her parents, “they’re not hip, they’re just artsy.” So for Emma, there is a preoccupation with culture that is beyond the limits or is not limited by “Art.” Yet, in this film it is “Art” Hills has her addressing. Her father says,

It’s the perspective of the culture. To be twelve years old is to be in a sense the royalty of the culture. It makes you super sophisticated at the same time you’re still a child. So this is Emma’s situation. Emma’s dilemma.

How old do you have to be to be a girl? Surely we are all girls—Ken Jacobs and Kenneth Goldsmith, Susan Howe and Carolee Schneeman—to be a girl is to be cultural royalty. In his Preliminary Materials For A Theory of A Young Girl, Tiqqun says, “The mission she has been given is to re-enchant a devastated world of commodities, of prolonging the disaster with joy and insouciance.” Whether we are hip or artsy, we all are young girls, attempting to eroticize our life world, in spite of our underlying despair, anger, and detachment.

Emma is looking. What she sees is disgusting. She is tired of New York. She changes her hair color, she decorates herself in varied shades of lipstick and eyeliner, and her reactions to things change significantly as she ages. From coy to deliberately shielded, to overly aged and exhausted. A Ken doll hangs by the neck from the ceiling of her childhood room. Neither joyful nor particularly indifferent, Emma is certainly not preening in all her young girl glory. Rather she is absorbing her mission dreadfully, aware and despondent from the lethargy, schizophrenia, and self-absorption that grinds the devastated world of commodities on.

Because Emma is not Tiqqun’s Young Girl, nor is she a cultural Icon, nor is she yet even an artist, the photographer she will become, or the news story, the suicide. Emma is a real girl.

To be interested in a real girl’s life and to take part in it, not as a patriarch, a commodifying voyeur, not as a teacher, a curator or a director, but as a witness and collaborator is an extremely difficult task. It takes patience on behalf of the interested party and it takes power on behalf of the girl: to teach and coax, demand and entice, said party into listening to her. It is never a seamless encounter.

On the one hand the film frees us from drama and plot, allowing us to look at Emma looking at herself without forcing us or her into something she is not. On the other hand we are aroused, through language, to see Emma’s situation as a dilemma, which imposes on her and the film a true dilemma, that there are two kinds of looking. The first, the way she looks at herself and the world around her, and the second the way that other people look at her looking; Emma the real girl vs. Emma, cultural royalty (Tiqqun’s ‘young girl’).

The question that is fundamental to this film is which one is more important? This is as much of a question of artistic form for Henry Hills as it is a question for Emma creating her own life while being looked at.

Can she preserve that separation?

Emma is ordinarily special. She is white, freckled, husky voiced, and fitting into her body well. She appears quick, decisive, and sweet. She does not yet have much understanding of her sexuality or how to use it to get what she wants, though she is aware or maybe becoming aware that there is a battle between being a child and being a woman, and that she can-not just ‘be’. To be is not an option. Emma is introspective, reflective, sympathetic. She is loved very much by her family and her family is loved very much by artists, who vicariously discover and love Emma. But then what happens?

She is alone in a room with Goldsmith and Hills, her every breath is being captured and she is neither shy nor performative, she is rather still, as if she is waiting for something to come— is she is waiting to be prey? Is she is waiting for the flow of other people’s words to overcome her? Is she thinking about what she will watch later on TV? And then the artist is off, riffing on about their art, Hills editing speedily, noisily, obtusely through their soliloquies.

Hills says to Emma, “I don’t think their [the interviewed artists’] material itself is sacred. These people can talk about their stuff endlessly.” In the middle of the film Emma pulls out some poetry she has written, “It’s just sentences I like.” In what to me would be a pivotal scene in a kind of deep engagement with Emma’s voice, Henry treats the scene as if Emma is another artist referencing and talking about their art. He dismantles any emotion, literally editing out the poem; cutting up the language and cutting out any sentiment that could be conveyed through it. In a sense, like Emma, what Hills is interested in is also not “art” or the “artist” it is the real girl. He is not merely pulling a postmodern grammatological move, and trying to dismantle her ‘authentic voice’ in favor of linguistic cut-ups. He is trying to get at something else, at the girl beneath the words. And like when Emma was eleven asking the late sound poet Jackson Mac Low if he likes chicken, the scenes where Henry is really looking at Emma can’t be the scenes where she is reading her poetry, but the scenes where she is fighting with her parents at dinner about whether she can study with a boy or not. But in cutting up her poem like that he is already referring to her as an artist which she is clearly hesitant about, is clearly questioning, and unlike the older artists, Emma’s poem is still a condition of her emotions and spirit, in her own words, “There’s no definition for a poem. Sorting out emotions or venting them in one way or another or putting them somewhere…” Her poem should be heard not because Emma is a great poet, but because she is a little girl with a strong voice who in ordinary speech has a lot to say about how she sees the world. But for this one moment in the film, we see that in many ways her fate is sealed, not just as a “young girl” or cultural royalty, but as an artist, and a highly experimental one too.

“Maybe I’ll be a lawyer and go against all the people we interviewed.” In this way her question of “what do I want to be? What do I want not to be?” is moot and suggests a progression for her life and for the film that is comparably as bound as growing up into a household of doctors and lawyers or creating a typical narrative film. Her voice is not important because she is a young girl with a deeply introspective mind, her voice is important because people see her as cultural royalty. The film assumes a fate for Emma, an adulthood that dignifies her as a great artist because she was born into it, a great person to know because there is cultural currency in knowing her. It laments the fate of the world as seen through her eyes without recognizing its own role in proliferating this image.

So Emma is a real girl whose transformation we can’t look away from because it is the transformation of the millennium, of the internet, of 9/11. The loss of innocence and the advancement of post-post colonial, post-post modern, meta-digitalization of the consumer self, the anti-self, captured fanatically obsessive on social networking, yet apathetically grieving the American Dream, the most sublime advancement of which is catching the next episode of the new glamour cyborg Kardashians before the world completely deteriorates. The world her brother finds to haunt poetry and art in his essay book Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry.

But is this really the world Emma sees?

Emma, referring to New York City, says, “There is no scene here.” She pauses and Hills mumbles something and she remarks again, “No scene of anything good.” Perhaps for Emma, the dilemma is exterior to her: it is in the scene itself. Maybe it is all those artists she interviews; who still, like Kenneth Goldsmith, can make her giggle uncontrollably, or pause with wonder. And yet there are some who seem to escape the deficiency of the “no scene,” namely, those stars up on her wall; empty idols, paradigms, objects for looking, harnessing fuel for her imagination of her own self-image. Stars who never have to do a ‘second time’ because they are timeless; forever glued to the purple walls of a pre-teen’s bedroom.

To look at Emma and see only a dilemma is not to look at her at all. We spend so much time looking at girls: sexualizing, demeaning, expecting, portraying, politicizing…even in a film that tries desperately to let her be herself she is still being looked at, watched, portrayed. If all looking means is that you project onto someone your own story of them, no one you look at is worth it, not even Emma.

Unless maybe, this is exactly what she wanted us to see. That is, if she wanted us to see ourselves looking.

Some of her last words in the film come when she’s in high school having recently returned from a semester abroad, her first trip to Italy, in high school, eight years before her fateful visit to Venice.

Its really different when you go to another country I’m not on a pedestal I just feel different I don’t wanna do any of the same stuff I used to do. I’ve become a hermit I think it’s also cause I have a boyfriend whose not here. I used to wanna go out and party and do stuff that everyone does, but now I much prefer to be in my room like reading a book or like studying something, I like sort of like I don’t know Europe like, I like had everything so much I like got it all I like can’t explain it I really grew up in Europe. Well like I was on my own and like um I lived like more of an adult so now when I come back I don’t feel like I can be in high school anymore. I really cant stand New York I think my problem is I just need to get out of New York I think New York is just really beating me down everything is too much my room is too much— sado liberalism is a new trend in New York; really being as pc as possible I just couldn’t stand the colleges that were so pc it really made me want to puke I’m getting really sick of everything like really cynical everything bothers me a lot maybe my boyfriend’s influence cause he is really cynical.

I feel ready to like move on already

Cornelia Barber is a poet and performance artist living in Crown Heights, NY. She has performed at Bureau of General Services Queer Division, Mellow Pages Library, The Cake Shop, and several private events in Hudson, Bushwick and Manhattan, NY. She writes at the intersection of Jewish Feminine Mysticism and experimental poetics. Her first poetry manuscript ‘Grace Holes’ is published as a work in progress for the Luma Foundation’s 89+ project.

Kevin Killian and the video:

You can watch Emma’s Dilemma on Jacket2.