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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Ashley

Y’know, like the Marx Brothers

AshleyThe key to Ashley is not in trying to deduce what it’s about; it’s in reading the film’s puzzling structure.  You have to decide from the outset if you’re going to take everything literally in spite of the dreamlike quality of many of the story’s character-centric vignettes (some of which seem far too convenient and inevitable, especially in the later sections).

The story is led by the titular Ashley (Nicole Fox), a seventeen year-old girl who has experienced an extended depression since the passing of her father.  Despite her age, she’s secure in her sexuality (“I like girls,” she tells a nerdy boy who innocently tries to hold her hand) and apparently in her introversion.  The film takes the form of a few dozen self-contained scenes, most of which involve Ashley being abused in some way – she’s taken advantage of by classmates (both male and female); has the stuffing kicked out of her by a gaggle of mean-girls who discover her preference for girls; her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Madsen) tries to kiss her; a girl she has a crush on (Mallory Moye) breaks her spirit after playing a cruel game with her; the school shrink (Tom Malloy) exhaustively tries to open her up; and worst of all, her own mother, Stacy (Jennifer Taylor), who is dealing with single-parenthood and an uncontrollable temper combined with the fact that her own daughter barely says a word to her, is frequently abusive.  Ashley is into self-mutilation, incorporating it into most facets of her life, even associating it with intimacy.

The characters who interact with Ashley are only allowed, as far as the narrative structure goes, to interact with her, not so much with each other.  This means that Nicole Fox carries every scene in the movie.  Since Ashley has no friends, she frequents dating sites on her laptop (when was the last time we saw cybersex in a movie?), eventually meeting Candice (Nicole Buehrer), a 33 year-old woman who also happens to be very lonely.  For most of the film, we only hear Candice’s voice, making us wonder whether there’s a more sinister motive behind her instant-message sweetness and her phone calls to the much younger Ashley (when was the last time we saw phone sex in a movie?).  But Ashley, for whatever reason – maybe faith alone, since literally everyone else has let her down in some way – trusts her, and they agree to meet.

Why isn’t Nicole Fox a full-time actor?  I realize that a scripted, brainjunk reality show got her to where she is, but let’s make the most of it after this masterful (when was the last time I used that word two posts in a row?) performance.  She defines this film, appears in almost every scene, and probably has fewer lines than Ryan Gosling had in Drive.  Most of her communication is done through facial expressions and the beginnings of words.  Watching her attempt to say “I’m sorry” and struggling to even form words is truly painful.  Where did this performance come from?  Why are so few talking about it?

Jennifer Taylor delivers a great performance as well, although it may be partially wasted on a film that isn’t really about her character.  The scene where she finally attempts to reconcile with Ashley is very difficult, and plays out as pleasantly as it can.  But it’s good payoff.  Michael Madsen briefly appears, still looking and sounding way too much like Mr. Blonde to be able to convince me of much else, but if he, like so many others in this piece, had bigger roles, the fact that he even appears here might not be so glaring.

The ending of the film is where things become a little too convenient.  I like movies that are honest about depression.  I am allergic to contrivance.  One person being nice to you does not yank you out of years of feeling absolutely nothing, does not cure addictions and harmful habits, does not heal all of your relationships and personal problems and allow everyone to understand you.  This is why I use the term “dreamlike” to describe what happens after Ashley’s protracted and very well-acted date with Candice: could Ashley possibly be imagining all of this?  That after all of the failures, abuse, and sheer bottom-of-the-barrelness she must deal with every day, that she pictures herself as a person who people love to talk to, who has a good relationship with her mother and an attractive romantic partner, who has male friends that don’t want to sleep with her, who doesn’t need therapy, etc.?  The film doesn’t do anything to indicate that what’s happening is in fact not real, but if the pacing of the film’s shoehorned denouement were slowed down, I might believe it more.  I also have concerns about the whole “girl has a sexually abusive father, so she becomes a self-loathing lesbo” trope, which is based entirely upon stereotypes about girls that have been perpetuated forever through mediums like this.  This film, and these actors, are better than that (even if the script-writers aren’t), and it would only have taken a minor tightening of the celluloid lug-nuts to fix it.

The takeaway here: stop making movies about depression if you think the depressed person has to become “happy” by the end, or if you think that introverted people secretly want to be extroverted.

Ashley (2013); written by Domenic Migliore; directed by  Dean Ronalds; starring Nicole Fox and Jennifer Taylor.

The Lie

It’s a soul-crusher

I once gave a lecture on T.C. Boyle’s selected work, noticing various patterns in sentence structures and descriptions – namely that Boyle employs techniques intended to dazzle or surprise the reader.  One of his newest short stories, “The Lie,” goes against the grain and harkens back to stories such as “Without A Hero,” in which an unsympathetic (if not altogether loathsome) male protagonist wallows in his failures and allows them to color everything in his life, most notably his personal relationships; these stories, when compared to spectacles such as “The Human Fly” (in which a Hungarian daredevil straps himself to the wing of an airplane) or “Big Game” (wherein an anthropomorphic elephant battles yuppies in an African game ranch located in Bakersfield, California), seem almost underwritten, and their character/dialogue-centric narratives lend themselves well to something we can’t seem to get enough of – movies based on books.  Director Joshua Leonard seems to agree, having adapted “The Lie” into a recent feature film, an official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Setting aside my feelings about literature being watered down to passive media, I am expressly skeptical about films adapted from short stories.  How do you remain “faithful” to a text that can be read multiple times in a half hour while converting it into a ninety-minute visual experience?  My favorite example is 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the better James Bond films, adapted from an Ian Fleming story in which Bond decides against executing a spy because he develops a soft spot for her.  The film version covers these events in about fifteen minutes, then launches into an action film: three major villains emerge, there’s a KGB conspiracy, and Bond cultivates a romance with the woman (played by Maryam d’Abo).  When my mother called and told me, “The program guide says there’s a new movie based on a T.C. Boyle story,” the very thought prompted a familiar tang of the heartbreak Timothy Dalton induced in me all those years ago.

Boyle’s story is narrated by Lonnie, a married twenty-six year-old father with a dead-end video editing job.  One day, he wakes up and decides, after watching his wife, Clover, a law student, complete her morning routine in an old Cramps t-shirt for the thousandth day in a row, that he will take the day off.  Radko, Lonnie’s tyrannical Slavic boss, knows what’s coming.  “Let me guess?  You’re sick?”  Having a bad reputation for taking time off and no sick days left, Lonnie claims that his baby has a terrible fever and that the family is at the hospital.  After enjoying the day, which most notably includes a homemade dinner and quality time with Clover, Lonnie repeats this process the following morning, except this time he panics and says the baby has died.  Clover, thinking of changing her name, in part because she isn’t “who she used to be” and partly to push Lonnie to the edge, knows nothing about the lie.  Lonnie accomplishes shockingly little during his days off, but when he returns to work, his coworkers have put together some money for his family.  Once Clover discovers his deception and the money, she confronts Lonnie, who decides to walk out the door rather than explain himself.

Joshua Leonard’s film version stars himself as Lonnie, along with Jess Weixler (of Teeth fame) as Clover, who has a much larger and more sympathetic role to play in the film.  Where Boyle’s Clover appears as a sort of mannequin with no described features and an inexplicable habit of instigating fights, Weixler’s Clover is on her husband’s side, loves him, and is understandably stressed about juggling work, school, and motherhood.  The couple is portrayed as nature-friendly, laid back, and a bit hippie-ish, whereas the text only hints at their pasts (Lonnie was once in a band and loved to snowboard, and Clover’s parents were hippies).  Here, their personalities are on the table, we can see the view from both sides, and Lonnie’s lie is fueled by far more than laziness – his extra time with Clover is an opportunity to, as he says, “press the reset button.”

Even in the film’s early scenes, it’s evident that the filmmakers have closely read the source material.  Even Clover’s punk-rock t-shirt is preserved (although in the film it’s changed to Crass, another punk diamond from the 70s; Cramps tees are likely in short supply).  Ancillary characters and background details are occasionally shifted and used to further the story in interesting ways.  Tank, a loser friend mentioned in the story, has a larger role in the film.  He’s still in a band with Lonnie and is starting his own line of organic edible face moisturizers, which he calls Face Food (something you’d think Boyle would have come up with if you hadn’t read the story).  Played by Mark Webber, Tank is bit of an enigma.  He lives in a Winnebago on the beach.  A VW bus is often parked near him, and when Lonnie and Clover ask on separate occasions who has been visiting, he says, “Some things are better left unspoken.”  He also acts as the movie’s ironic voice of reason, often spouting sagely advice to Lonnie.  On Lonnie’s first day off, the duo record a song together for the first time in years.

Lonnie: “I wish I could do that every day.”

Tank:  “Lonnie, I wanna tell you a story.  There’s a young man walking across a field and he runs into an old man who’s planting an apricot seedling.  He asks the old man, ‘Why are you planting such a new tree?’  The old man says, ‘Because I live each day as though I will never die.’  Then the young man says, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I live each day as though I will die tomorrow.  Which one of us is right?'”

Lonnie: “What does that mean?”

Tank: “Think about it, bro.”

The song they record is a transcription of Lonnie’s feelings on his trapping life, and this is obvious to everyone but Lonnie himself (he simply thinks it’s catchy): “It’s a soul-crusher, crushin’ my soul/it’s a soul-crusher, baby/waking up every day and playing this role/you love the soul-crusher, but it crushes your soul/you hate the soul crusher ’cause it kills your goals.”  Forget lyrical adroitness; this song has been extruded directly from Lonnie’s heart.  In a fantastic scene that shows almost nothing but Clover’s face for over a minute straight, Lonnie plays the rough track for her, and the fluctuations in her expressions (specifically when she knows Lonnie is watching her reactions) showcase her steadfast support of her husband even when she knows his creative work is a bit corny and probably not going anywhere.  It’s interesting to note that the phrase “soul-crushing” appears in Boyle’s original story, which may have inspired the jam.

Two important women aside from Clover appear in the film: Tipper Newton plays Jeannie, a secretary who is initially nitpicky about Lonnie’s work, but after news of the baby’s (fake) death spreads around the workplace, she becomes dejected and sallow.  Her inner tumult is evident, but she and Lonnie’s other coworkers must keep themselves composed, and Jeannie’s way of coping is to bring Lonnie lattes and cannoli; she even delivers a homemade quiche to Lonnie’s home. Eventually, she brings herself to call the house, and when Clover answers the phone, the lie is outed.  Alia Shawkat appears as Seven, Tank’s phantom girlfriend, who doesn’t show up until the second-to-last scene.  She relates a story of her own to Lonnie; the scene is shot with nearly the exact angles of the scene featuring Tank’s story, but Seven’s tale isn’t a shopworn parable; it is something that actually happened to her, and although the “meaning” of the scene is nebulous, it weighs much more heavily than Tank’s attempt to be insightful.  It’s a beautiful piece of reel.

Seven: “I love Portland.  I met an owl there once that really showed me where to go.  You know?”

Lonnie: “You met an owl?”

Seven: “Yeah.  Or it met me.”

Lonnie: “Right on.”

Lonnie’s other coworkers from the story also make effective appearances in the film: Radko (Gerry Bednob) is appropriately irascible, shouting over Lonnie’s every word.  Joel, played by Kirk Baltz (who famously had his ear sliced off in Reservoir Dogs), is more warmhearted, upset at having to take heat for Lonnie’s shortcomings at work, but who gladly covers for him after the supposed tragedy takes place.  There is a wonderful scene in which Joel seems much more grieved about the baby’s death than Lonnie (and understandably, considering that the former thinks it’s real), and seeing Joel’s sadness, we wish Lonnie had never told the lie.  This scene, along with another in which Joel and Radko present Lonnie with the collected donation money, provide a revelation that we hope Lonnie absorbs: these coworkers, people he imagines punching in the face every day, are actually quite giving and sympathetic, and consider him not only a part of their work family, but a dear friend.  Lonnie eats the cannoli, sure, but does he care that they care?

The film’s ending is heavily revised.  The original text of “The Lie” is cut off as soon as Lonnie’s deception is unearthed, preventing any real conversation or drama – how will the family move on from such a debacle?  I’m a big fan of anticlimax, but I needed another scene, and I do wonder if Boyle had anything to do with the film’s denouement: after the argument, Lonnie tearfully explains that he’s unhappy, that he’s stuck, that he wants more than anything to take care of Clover and the baby but has no idea how to do so with an unrewarding job and dead dreams.  “My music sucks,” he admits.  What follows is what he needed all along (and something we do not receive in the original): Clover’s feelings.  “What I’m doing sucks pretty bad too,” she says.  She’s not unhappily married, she’s not considering running away, but she’s buried beneath books, diapers, and the demands of her work, just like Lonnie.  The film is capped with a wonderfully organic “riding into the sunset” sequence, gentle, but assured.

I love titles like The Lie, titles that attempt definition, focus, and identification of a keystone.  In the film, it’s still pretty clear what the titular Lie is, but other lies are sprinkled amongst it: Lonnie’s career as a video editor; his hopes of making it as a musician (does he really believe he can go on tour at this stage of his life?); the couple’s “friendships” with wealthy pre-baby acquaintances; the thought that indie-rocker/hippie Clover’s true calling is law school and pantsuits.  Weixler’s performance stands out, and she radiates multitudes during a scene in which she gives Lonnie a look that, as Boyle writes, “spare[s] nothing.”  The filmmakers, using Boyle’s text as a storytelling springboard rather than copying it event-for-event, nicely round out their rendition of the story, and whether or not it represents Boyle’s vision, we must, as always, see the book version and film version as incomparable mediums.  Fading out on a stuttering blue landscape and seating us in Lonnie’s decrepit station wagon, The Lie spares nothing.

The Lie (2011); written and directed by Joshua Leonard; based on the story by T.C. Boyle; starring Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, and Mark Webber.

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