A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

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Wild

You’re a woman!

WildWild, based upon Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, has all the makings of 1) a heroic self-acceptance tale, and 2) an Oscar-winning film.  In the first five minutes, we get gruesome suspense, body horror, Reese Witherspoon topless, endearing humor, and lots of cussing.  It’s the type of underdog story that the Academy loves, but it’s riskier and more dangerous than any of the year’s contenders because not only does it have a female hero, but it makes no effort to portray her as a synthetic ingénue whose purity cannot be pierced.  Here, we have a three-dimensional, decision-making person with recognizable foibles, which is to say a real person.  I suppose it helps that she is a real person.

Cheryl, played by Witherspoon, walks away from scrambled memories of divorce, drug use, destructive sexual escapades, and the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s clear from the start that she has not trained for this: she does not pack enough food, carries plenty of supplies she doesn’t need (which causes fellow hikers to refer to her pack as “monster”) has no clue how to ignite her camping stove, and her tent is far too large (which is probably a filmmaking flub, not a commentary on Cheryl as a greenhorn).  Gradually, events are revealed as they happened, and Cheryl’s perilous journey becomes a quest not to “redeem” herself for acting out (as Strayed has put it herself on plenty of occasions), but to come to terms with her experiences, and hopefully, to move forward.

Unlike Tracks with Mia Wasikowska earlier this year, Wild is more about Cheryl’s reasons for making the trek than the trek itself.  There is not much “hiking” to speak of in the film – there’s some walking up hills, some climbing over rocks, some ambling through the expected assortment of wilderness tile-sets (green forest, hot expanse of sand, snowy plains, and even rundown suburban road), but the film gives us the Hollywood version of the hike, and the one that appeals to this generation of filmgoers: the version that doesn’t take up much time or get bogged down in actual details.  Instead, the home drama drives the film toward its goal while the hike serves as the parable/myth: Chery’s feet are bruised, then bloodied, then broken, then stripped of boots (protection), then repaired by hand with Cheryl’s resourcefulness and improvisation, and then finally, last we see them, they’re in brand new boots.  She displays her foot injuries to other hikers to show how far she’s come.  There are animals and children deliberately placed to evoke certain somethings in an audience (and I say “deliberately placed” as in the filmmakers using elements of Strayed’s real-life narrative to cleverly, albeit sometimes predictably, perpetuate its own themes). There’s even a symbolic fox whom Cheryl initially begs to “come back” and is eventually able to let go.

The film’s core emotion is fear.  In the broad sense, it’s the fear of not succeeding, that Cheryl’s journey will yield nothing but hunger and exhaustion.  Cheryl’s biggest threat in the wilderness is not wild animals (in fact, she barely meets any, other than a spooked rattlesnake, a caterpillar, a horse, and a domesticated alpaca), but the men she comes into contact with.  There is a clever mislead early on when a farmer (W. Earl Brown) promises to give her a ride, then says he’s bringing her back to his place for dinner and a hot shower, just after Cheryl finds a pistol in his truck.  When they arrive, the man’s wife is home, having prepared a meal, and while the man has some antiquated ideas about what women should be “allowed” to do, his intentions are completely benevolent.  This scene isn’t just a good mislead; it plants a seed that stays with us: throughout the rest of the film, we’re just waiting for an aggressive pervert to show up and antagonize Cheryl for real. This happens in the form of two hunters who amuse themselves by directing rape jokes at Cheryl and later making very real threats (which one of them considers to be harmless flattery), and Cheryl stands her ground.  It’s a vital scene because it forces the audience, regardless of gender, to inhabit the receiving end of the dangerous “Can’t a guy give a woman a compliment?” attitude/behavior that threatens and victimizes so many in our current culture.

Wild‘s feminism is evident in its premise alone, just as it was in Tracks: a woman leaves it all behind to find herself in the wilderness, and survives conditions that would have made Hemingway shudder (as would the assertion that roughing it in the bush could be anything other than a “manly” pursuit).  In fact, a male hiker Cheryl befriends (Kevin Rankin) quits the trek after mentioning how rigorously he trained for it.  Cheryl is already an activist and an avid reader, but the idea of feminism is continuously denormalized, particularly in a scene wherein a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) mistakes Cheryl for a hobo and mentions that there are “almost no female hobos,” treating Cheryl, along with her ideas about the responsibilities heaped upon women vs. the fact that very few women are reckless adventurers, as novelties.  Later, a group of young male hikers refer to Cheryl as their hero.  These incidents (and the fact that they’re not just movie fabrications) make Cheryl’s eventual triumph all the more gratifying.

I’m tempted to mention that Robyn Davidson’s completely-on-foot journey across Australia involved no home-cooked meals, bus rides, or prolonged human contact (not to mention being deep-fried by the sun), but these films really should not be stacked against each other.  Both stories deal with big decisions, solitude, and identity.  Both involve lost parents and the execution of a beloved pet, and the hardships that come with those for emotional, thinking people.  Robyn and Cheryl are both incredible role models and vital figures in his/herstory, and these films are continuing (and more importantly, helping to normalize) the tradition of the empowered, independent female hero, and of depicting this character as a person, not an archetype, something that the Brontës had to hide their identities to do, and that Kate Chopin’s work was ostracized for.  Things that matter: you’re not gonna get them from Clint Eastwood.

Wild (2014); based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; screenplay by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.