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Conspiracy of Two

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Duncan's animated short, The History of Glamour.  

After less than a year, the two moved in together to a Nolita loft—a meticulously maintained environment, like all their homes would be, full of books and obscure collectibles. An invitation to their apartment meant a late night of drinking quality liquor while debating art and politics with an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, musicians, academics. Duncan was always the more extroverted of the two, making introductions, dictating conversations, frenetically finding connections between art and literature, past and present, the highbrow and the low. She could be stubborn until her point was made, and she could sometimes be harsh, though their closest friends cannot recall a single instance when Blake disagreed with her. They did not argue, they did not fight. Each was rarely seen without the other, and they were obsessively protective in their devotion. There was the time when Blake drove across town to confront someone who was making Duncan uncomfortable at a party. Or the occasion when a male friend kissed Duncan good-bye—a platonic gesture, in his mind—and she felt compelled to tell him, “Look, I am devoted to Jeremy.”

It was here in the Nolita loft that Blake began to experiment with making fine art on a computer. Using an electronic drawing tablet, he started creating abstract, brightly colored digital prints which then evolved into slowly looping films. The work was beautiful, opaque, and evocative, and the medium was somewhat unclassifiable: not painting, not digital art, but something that merged the two into a new form.

Duncan, meanwhile, was writing a script, about a teenage girl who moves to New York seeking stardom as a model, that would become an animated short called The History of Glamour. It was a collective endeavor: Blake illustrated; Brendan Canty of Fugazi and Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox contributed to the soundtrack. (“I’ve been thinking of us in terms of something like the Warhol factory,” Duncan later remarked.) The resulting parody of fashion and fame in Manhattan would prove to be a breakthrough for both of them. That year, 1999, Blake’s first solo shows in Los Angeles and New York received glowing reviews, and within the span of a few months in 2001, Beck called about having Blake design the album cover for Sea Change, and the director Paul Thomas Anderson requested that Blake work on his latest film, Punch-Drunk Love. In the meantime, Duncan had secured a two-picture deal with Fox Searchlight. With all that was happening for the couple, a move to Hollywood became inevitable.

In any suicide narrative there comes the point where one searches for the early signs, for the missed warnings, for the moment when the rise ended and the fall began. And in the story of Duncan and Blake there is no more obvious place to begin this search than in Los Angeles, a city with a long history of thwarting idealists. If New York can be a hostile but ultimately rewarding environment for an artist, Los Angeles is often the opposite: easy and glittering until you begin to suspect that it is all maybe a cruel illusion. It was Nathanael West, himself a New Yorker who settled in Hollywood, who perhaps best understood the potentially grim effects this can have on the mind of an ambitious optimist. “Once there, they discover the sunshine isn’t enough,” he wrote in The Day of the Locust of those who seek a specific paradise in Los Angeles. “Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time … The boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.”

In the beginning, the move seemed ideal for Duncan and Blake, another adventure in which each served as the other’s navigator. There was the subtropical sunshine, the new people to meet. There was the cottage in Venice, which they adored. (“Unlike in New York,” Duncan sometimes remarked, “here you can live like a real adult.”) Soon they were throwing parties, creating a social life quite similar to the one they had back East. Duncan, who had never learned to drive, got her license and bought a used butter-yellow Alfa Romeo, which she would take for meandering drives along the Pacific Coast Highway. Blake found studio space in Santa Monica, a large room lit by skylights, where he worked with music blasting and a glass of Maker’s Mark nearby. Though still abstract, his films were becoming more overtly story-driven, infused with themes of paranoia and secrecy. Here he would complete what was to become his best-known work, a series of films based on the California mansion of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to the Winchester- rifle fortune who built a 160-room Victorian home in the hopes of warding off the ghosts of the victims of her family’s legacy. Blake’s work was also becoming more valuable, sought out by museums and collectors who would fly into town to take him and Duncan to dinner. One of these collectors was Bradford Schlei, a producer, who optioned the George Pelecanos novel Nick’s Trip and put it into development with Blake signed on as director.


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