Kaspar Kasics • Director of Erica Jong: Breaking the Walls
“That’s what I learnt from Erica Jong: to be honest”
by Marta Bałaga
- The Swiss director takes on the legacy of Erica Jong, the American writer behind the 1973 novel Fear of Flying
In Erica Jong: Breaking the Walls [+see also:
interview: Kaspar Kasics
film profile], screened out of competition at the Locarno Film Festival, the famed American writer speaks out again, but not just about her past. As Kaspar Kasics documents her present, she meets an Egyptian journalist empowered by her work, aspiring writers at Barnard College, and tries to survive the pandemic, all the while dealing with the complex legacy of the “zipless fuck.”
Cineuropa: Maybe it has to do with my own prejudices, but I was surprised that you directed this film – I was expecting a woman to be behind it. Did you know Erica’s writing before?
Kaspar Kasics: I knew her name. When her book Fear of Dying came out, I had just finished a film about a woman who knew she was going to die. I was already sensitive to that topic. Then I thought: “Erica Jong?” I remembered the criticism surrounding her work 50 years ago, the accusations of promoting pornography. That’s how it was described at the time, which is ridiculous. Sex was important, but it was more about liberation and what you actually want as a woman. I had to know what had happened, where she was now, what it meant for her when she wrote Fear of Flying. I was amazed and intrigued by her intelligence, all the contradictions and the humour, of course.
It’s incredible that it hasn’t been done before, also given her notoriety.
She was surprised that I wanted to make a documentary. I was very honest, because that’s what I learnt from Erica Jong: to be very honest. I told her: “I haven’t read all your books, I am reading them now, and I don’t have a clear concept.” Which, to her, was quite irritating. It’s not how the Americans do it.
I wrote her a letter and two days later I got a reply: “Sounds interesting, let’s set up a phone call.” Very laconic. But all she wanted to talk about was Trump and I wanted to know more about her. She wasn’t interested in talking about her life at that point, in repeating all these stories she had told ten times already. When we met in person, after two hours she said: “Kaspar, we are going to have a lot of fun.” It didn’t mean anything, so I told her that next time, I was bringing the camera. She realised it was serious and started to talk about everything she has experienced.
It sounds like she was testing you a little?
Maybe. When she thought it was over, I told her it was just the beginning. After a while, she said: “I finally get it. You need TONS of material.”
She became a bit forgotten or looked down upon because of things like the “zipless fuck” [term coined by Jong to describe a sexual encounter without emotional involvement]. But she seems very interested in how feminism has changed.
She still thinks about how she can change the world – this attitude is still there. There must be a way to go forward when it comes to women and their destinies. “The zipless fuck,” well, she also finds it fascinating that such a tiny thing became so important. It was just a fantasy! Men always had them and she allowed herself the same thing: the thought of that brief encounter, of having sex with someone and forgetting him. Once she said: “They will put it on my gravestone.” There is some tragedy in that too, being reduced to this one thing. I think it caused her some pain.
She is a performer too, as you show in some old interviews – she always knew how to deliver the message. Is it harder to get something more authentic out of someone like that?
Every protagonist needs a different process. She has been on television and on stage, but I knew that the longer I would be there, the longer we would talk – also about her ailing husband for example – she would change. She became more private, was ready to show herself even when she felt weak. And we told her: “Forget your stylist.” The first time, she looked like a movie star from the 1930s. At the end of the film, there is no lipstick at all.
How does she see her legacy now? By making this film, she wants to be reintroduced to new readers, I guess?
I think she doesn’t assume she is still well-known. But she loves teaching creative writing, she is interested in young writers, especially female. That’s her new role, in a way. She uses the remnants of her fame, but also her incredible experience. She kept saying that sometimes it feels like your grandparents and your parents are sitting on your shoulders, looking at what you just wrote. You have to get rid of them. She tells young women that they are allowed to write and use their experiences. Also, she points out that real liberation can only happen when women are honest with themselves when they look at their lives. And able to ask: “Is that what I want?”
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