An American experimental novelist who enjoyed brief mid-1980s literary celebrity gets her due in the absorbing “Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker?” As the late subject enjoyed fictionalizing her personal history, in addition to borrowing from other writers for her anarchic print fiction, a definitive portrait may not be in the cards. But debuting documentarian Barbara Caspar’s mix of archival footage, latter-day interviews, brief dramatizations and simple animation cleverly approximates Acker’s own playful, confrontative “cut-up” (a la archival interviewee William Burroughs) approach to art. Select fests and artscasters will bite.
Acker, nee Karen Alexander, fled a comfortable Manhattan Jewish family background for 1960s/’70s counterculture adventures, only truly finding her community and persona in the subsequent punk scene. Fascinated by porn, S&M, classic literature, deconstructionism and philosophy, she excited attention (particularly in Britain) with such comminglings of autobiography, profane fantasy and lit parody (or plagiarism, as some called it) as her works “Blood and Guts in High School” and “Great Expectations.”
Quick burnout of her overground fame (thanks in part to a court suit by Harold Robbins), backlash from some feminists appalled by her violent/sexual fantasias and a losing fight with breast cancer (she refused most conventional treatment) darkened her final years.
But Acker still seemed to relish provoking both friends and foes. They remember her here in wildly disparate terms that suggest a mercurially complex character. (More input from sister Wendy Bowers would have been helpful.) Contemporary envelope-pushing writers like Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana weigh in, as do musicians Acker either loved (Richard Hell) or encouraged (Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Tribe 8’s Lynn Breedlove).
Both live-action and nicely cartooned depictions of Acker’s frequent print alter ego, “Janey,” add layers of texture and depth. The least successful element is Caspar’s recurrent use of several young college women describing how reading Acker affected them. Their statements are so earnestly undergraduate and banal they actually undercut the portrayal of the subject’s thorny, intelligent legacy.