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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Rampart

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The above statement proves all too true when Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) tries to talk with his daughters near the ending of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.  Everyone in this film seems to have a plan, the fundamental fibers of which have begun deteriorating long before the beginning of the story.

Dave Brown is a bad guy.  He’s a Los Angeles police officer in the wake of the Rampart scandal, determined to retain his job despite the laundry list of allegations against him for everything you can think of, including unnecessary brutality, to which we bear firsthand witness.  He lives next door to his two ex-wives, sisters who each have a daughter by Brown.  This makes his daughters both sisters and first cousins; when the younger daughter asks if she is “inbred,” Brown responds, “I married your moms consecutively, not concurrently.  It’s all perfectly legal and up to insurance industry standards.”  I can’t help but wonder how the sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown within such a short time frame, get along so famously and nearly always stick together when it comes to issues involving him.  Perhaps their lives have reached such a low point – not to mention a point at which nothing can surprise them – that acceptance is the only fallible response.

Rampart is not presented as a film with a plot as much as a mulligan of vignettes and sideplots meticulously woven together to await their respective inevitable results.  What we might consider the major meat of the story involves Brown facing sanctions and possible forced retirement for a suspicious shooting set up by a former gangster simply named Hartshorn, played by convincing old-timer Ned Beatty.  As all of the Hartshorns in America are related, I naturally wanted to root for him, but the film makes that a bit difficult.  In the face of the allegations, Brown repeatedly tries to talk his way out of trouble using the wit, crude humor, and pretense of intelligence that got him so far on the force (for example, we learn early in the film that he often makes up quotes from nonexistent court cases in order to illustrate points to police rookies).  However, it is clear from the get-go that he has no chance of charming assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and politician Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi).  When the womanizing Brown meets a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright, the Princess Bride herself), a conflict blooms in that it would be much more beneficial for her to work against him.  When she attempts to discuss feelings vs. professionalism and the reality of the situation with him, he cannot get past the fact that she will not simply do as he says.

The movie would be over in a hurry (or quickly shift focus to the domestic conflicts only) if Brown wasn’t so desperate to keep his job as a police officer, despite everyone knowing he’s a loose cannon.  Why is staying a cop the most important thing?  “Because I am a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,” he says with pretentious, self-conscious eloquence in front of a group of big-shots who know he has no respect for them.  The story, then, represents a series of struggles, perhaps a two-way struggle against a river that runs both ways: Brown is not going to convince his superiors, who are more concerned with the public embarrassment the force has become because of him than with the fact that he’s beaten and killed countless unarmed people for the hell of it, and he’s not going to make any headway with his daughters, who are young, but old enough to know he’s an all-around ne’er-do-well.

The scenes showcasing Brown’s shady dealings with Hartshorn include some great tough-guy dialogue, most often seen in movies we might now think of as fossilized (Bogart, Mitchum, John Wayne) and more recent movies that seem to know they’re gangster movies (Reservoir Dogs, for instance), but it seems to work organically here:

Brown: “Look, if this was the gang fucks, I don’t mind.  Generic criminal scum, bogus lawsuit settlement scum, press scum – I can deal with scum.  But if this is Rampart, LAPD, some fucking girly politician setting me up as a shit-magnet to take the heat off the fucking scandal, I gotta go deep into this.”

Hartshorn: “Lookit, what can I do?  I am just a law-abiding retiree enjoying his golden years.”

Brown: “Fuck you with the Mickey Cohen routine, old man.  You’ve got your fingers in more department pie than any active cop I know.  Now, milk your contacts.  I’ve got cash left from the Harris job – thanks for that, by the way.”

Hartshorn: “You could just stop, um, beating people up.”

The more touching parts of the film involve Brown’s attempts to reconcile (or, as far as we’re concerned, to develop an anything-but-antagonistic relationship) with his older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who smokes, dyes her hair, and is dating another girl.  She also has a deep knowledge of her father’s treatment of his family, and needs only a television to see what he’s been doing elsewhere.  When she treks far from home to see what he’s up to at work, he asks, “How’s school?”  She answers, “It sucks.  It’s full of candyass future fags and dykes like me,” adding that these are Brown’s own words.  “You’re a dinosaur,” she says.  “You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer,  a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly, or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”  As an audience, we cannot help but admit that this is what we’ve been thinking since square one, and root for our protagonist as we might, we know that if he were a real person, we would ostracize him the same as everyone else.  This argument takes place beautifully and ingeniously framed between two very different trees growing from the same soil, one bare and ragged (the one closest Dave) and the other, closest Helen, covered with sturdy bark, leaves and ivy.

But there is one bond that these two share: they’re outcasts.  Even after Brown has alienated every possible character in the story, that fact cannot change.  We don’t get the sense that Helen’s mother and aunt are any more gay-friendly than Brown, but only because they don’t seem to care about much of anything too deeply (how else can their casual living situation be explained?).  When his exes decide it’s time to sell the house and move, Brown desperately tries to stop this.  Why?  Is this just further proof of his unwillingness to accept change, or does he really see potential for reconciliation?  For love, even?  The final scene of the film seems to speak to this: after all of his schemes have failed, he trespasses on what was once his own property and spies on Helen, who sits on the porch with a cigarette, experiencing what looks like a peaceful moment.  Brown does this earlier in the film, watching Helen with her girlfriend and perhaps noticing how happy she looks; after the way she acts around him, it may come as a shock to him that she even has the ability to smile.  As she sits on the porch smoking, she seems to notice him in the bushes, and he makes no attempt to hide.  After a few seconds of wordless and expressionless eye contact, the two part ways, with Brown leaving and making his way back to his squad car, which will probably not be his for much longer (along with everything else), the camera lens seeming to crack apart with reds, blues, and combination shots of Brown’s face.  Was Helen happy to see him?  Do either of them recognize their potential as father and daughter?  Is there any hope of getting that back once the family disappears from Brown’s life?  The film leaves it up to our scrutiny of Helen’s facial expressions and body language, and it’s a very rewarding scene (albeit not absolute by any means) to watch over and over again.

Rampart is a difficult film.  I’m writing about it nearly two months after seeing it.  It’s a film you must see for Woody Harrelson’s performance and its expert treatment of an ensemble cast, and it deserves an Oscar for the former, but in my experience, it’s also a film you must see, think about in great detail, rewatch parts of, try not to think about for awhile, then come back and face, just like Brown must do with Helen in the end.

Rampart (2012); written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman; directed by Oren Moverman; starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty.

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