Quinn on Books: Tripping Over the Wilderness
Review of Walking Through Clear Water in a Black Painted Pool, by Cookie Mueller
Review by Michael Quinn
Among the arty crowd, there could be two types of people: those who have never heard of Cookie Mueller and those who are obsessed with her. She was the quintessential free spirit. Born in Baltimore in 1949, she was a self-employed advice columnist, art critic, playwright, actress, drug dealer, go-go dancer, clothing designer, sailor and “welfare single mom.” , among other things. Like many artists of her generation, she lost her life to AIDS. She is most often remembered as the smokey-eyed, tousled-haired muse of filmmaker John Waters and photographer Nan Goldin. Whatever she did, she did it well, because she put her unique mark on it. But writing seems to be where his most constant focus is.
“I started writing when I was six and never completely stopped,” Mueller confesses in Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a new collection edited by Hedi El Kholti, Chris Kraus and Amy Scholder which summarizes the two previously published works. and things never seen. On the eve of her eleventh birthday, Mueller finished her first magnum opus, a 321-page book on Clara Barton (“the American version of Florence Nightingale”), which she bound in cardboard and put away in the appropriate section of her bookshelf. local… never to see him again. Perhaps that’s why she turned to writing short stories, which Mueller calls “novels for people with short attention spans.”
Whether you’re new to Cookie’s work or are a lifelong fan, Walking through Clear Water has something in store for you: either an introduction to this singular talent or a reminder of why she’s so great. Seeing all of her work together in one place doesn’t just give you a sense of her as a writer, but as a person: many stories contain autobiographical threads. His life is messy and memorable, informed by an absurd sense of humor, a love of adventure, and a deep attraction to unusual people. Authenticity like Mueller’s is both rare and irresistible.
The work is divided into sections (anchored by where Mueller lives at any given time) and presented in chronological order. Baltimore (1964-1969) draws inspiration from Mueller’s formative years. Teen rebellion is marked by big hair, tight skirts and high heels. Parents are squares. The typical adult is “an asshole, a crass bigot who goes through life crushing everything to his level”. Romantic relationships, from the outset, are unconventional. While her boyfriend is hospitalized with hepatitis, Mueller’s narrator spends the night at a friend’s house. The girl begins to feel her: “’Pretend I’m Jack. Pretend I’m Jack,” she pleads. After a few weeks, no more pretending.
Several stories tell of Mueller’s early days as an actress in Waters’ underground films: At a screening, she won a raffle, scoring a dinner date with Waters and a screen test. “He was the writer, the producer, the director, the cameraman, the soundman, the lighting expert, the editor and even the distributor,” says Mueller. In his first role on Multiple Maniacs, Mueller struggles to remember his lines, but remembers that everyone had to shout, partly because of the crappy sound equipment, partly as a “matter of style.”
She quickly develops a close friendship with actor Divine and other Water luminaries. They live on welfare and share a poorly insulated Provincetown home in the winter, scavenging the dump for things to sell. At Christmas, they cut down a neighbor’s tree and decorate it with jewelry and fabric flowers made from a cut-out bedspread.
Shortly after the birth of his son Max, he was given a role in Pink Flamingos, Waters’ legendary film in which Divine eats dog shit and Mueller gets penetrated by a headless chicken. Mueller describes Waters’ films as “wary, fast-paced… marked by wild music and wilder action.”
Yet Mueller resists this reputation for savagery herself. “I happen to come across savagery,” she explains. “It bothers me”—that of the woman who accidentally set fire to a friend’s house in British Columbia.
In her defense, Mueller is a savvy Pisces (she was a serious practitioner of astrology), the kind of person who randomly opens an atlas and goes to whatever distant spot her finger lands on (that brings her in Rome, and finally, to her husband, the artist Vittorio Scarpati). Whatever happens – hanging out with Charles Manson’s groupies in San Francisco, attending an LSD party, unwittingly participating in a satanic ritual, escaping multiple rapists – Mueller just seems to accept. It is only occasionally that her sometimes very serious circumstances seem to hit her with the full weight of despair. With a young son to support and no place to live, “I had no money, and there was really no one to ask to borrow it,” she writes. There’s no trace of self-pity anywhere here.
In “Ask Dr. Mueller,” her highly entertaining East Village Eye magazine advice column, she answers readers’ questions about skin problems, aphrodisiacs, leg cramps, quitting smoking, psychic surgery, and impotence (“I’m doing house calls for this one”) with both levity and refreshing simplicity. Her reputation as a drug addict (pot makes her paranoid so she sticks to the “hard stuff” ) seems well-known; elsewhere, she calls this mission her column “health versus drug use.” Mueller advocates a holistic approach and espouses the benefits of herbal supplements and dietary adjustments, no matter what you’re sniffing. , shoot or smoke. Are you worried about AIDS? “Keep your body strong and don’t forget your sense of humor,” she advises.
Some of Mueller’s writings seem oddly prescient. In her December/January 1987 ‘Art and About’ column for Details magazine, she reflected on ‘the age of short-lived media stars’: ‘Never have so many stars with so few become so great in such a short time. Never before has such a carefree group of lightweights in life carved out such a wonderful nest in the minds of so many. She also mentions deforestation, the destruction of the ozone layer and the “new environmental diseases [which] are a byproduct of toxic water, poisoned air and nuclear fallout. Mutated viruses, strange pollution, and cellular degeneration ultimately weakened the breed. Um, what year was it written?
In “A Last Letter”, Mueller mourns the friends she lost to AIDS, the “kind of people who improved the quality of all of our lives, their war was against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty and cultural absenteeism. They were people who hated and despised pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness and spiritual myopia; the blindness that makes life hollow and tasteless was unacceptable. They tried to show us. Mueller doesn’t reveal her own condition here or elsewhere; it’s unclear if she’s ever found words for the experience. But Walking through Clear Water puts her squarely in the company of those she most admired: a fitting legacy for this one-of-a-kind visionary.