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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Zero Dark Thirty

Assault & vinegar

JessicaChastainMayaI don’t need the Academy to tell me.  I’ve been saying it for two years: Jessica Chastain is the Best Actress.  I’ve gushed enough about her prolificness, her unrivaled collection of characters, and her steadfast dedication to the craft (which has, as far as what I can gather from her own words, taken precedent over anything worldly, including personal relationships and romance).  Here is an actress who believes in the importance of empowered women in the movies, and in powerful characters to be played by them (not to mention a cultivated understanding of what “strong” means in that context).  Here is an actress who can be interviewed on television and say insightful things you haven’t heard before.  Here is someone who radiates originality, maturity, and independence every step of the way.  A year ago, she wasn’t recognized in public.  Look at her now.  If we need role models from our visual entertainment industry, I’ve got one for you.

“This is a very rare lead role in cinema,” she said to Time about the role of Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. “Women, I find, we’re defined a lot by men and thus defined by our gender, who we are through our relationship with men, be it as a victim or a love relationship. The idea that this is a woman who defines herself by her work and by her brain and doesn’t try to sleep with her superiors, that to me is really inspiring. I’m in a very different business. As an actor, there are a lot of women around. Not as many women as men, but there are more women around than in a field like the CIA. I don’t experience that [numbers difference], but I do experience that in our society we are still labeled by our gender.”

Isn’t it the truth?  Just look at the filmmaker.  How many viewers and interviewers define Bigelow by the fact that she was married to James Cameron, a far inferior filmmaker?  Add the fact that the couple were only married for two years (’89-’91), long before Bigelow was a juggernaut on the directing scene, and long before she trounced him for Best Picture (2008), an accomplishment in itself, since only four female directors including Bigelow have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and only three for Best Director.

Zero Dark Thirty, a sort of spiritual successor to The Hurt Locker, is introduced with the promise that the story we’re about to see is based upon true events.  Which events?  We are left to judge and believe as we will.  The protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, goes only by the name Maya; whether or not this is her real name (most characters in the film go by first name only) is also left to us.  Maya is based upon a real person, labeled in the news as the “Girl Who Got bin Laden,” a CIA officer with incredible confidence.  This introduces a conundrum in the process of storytelling: Maya, just like her real-life CIA counterpart, has little or no personal life.  Every bit of her time is dedicated to her work.  In the movie, we watch her chase down leads on Osama bin Laden over the course of several years, and her unbridled drive is something we are never allowed to understand.  We get tidbits of her old life in the background of shots (a screensaver and so on), but if you take your eyes away from Maya while watching this film for the first time, your scrutiny is misplaced.

Jason Clarke appears as Dan, a CIA muscleman who tortures prisoners for info.  There’s plenty of onscreen waterboarding.  Maya observes and even assists with Dan’s torture operations in the beginning, appearing slightly disgusted at the idea but not quite feeling sorry for the people who aided in the murder of thousands of American people.  As in The Big Lebowski, a film to which I never expected to compare this one, there is a pattern of dialogue repetition.  As the Dude more or less plagiarizes other people’s pearls of wisdom for the sake of sounding smarter, characters in ZDT take what they can from each other and pass on ideas.  Maya takes the torch from Dan when the job becomes too much for him (“I’ve seen too many guys naked,” he says), and introduces herself to prisoners in the same intimidating way he once did.  Once she gives some great advice to CIA Director George (Mark Strong), he repeats some of her terminology to his superiors.

I’ve had some trouble deciding whether the characterization of Maya works.  In a traditional sense, it doesn’t, because we know nothing of her personal life, whether she has friends and family, what she thinks of being unable to tell anyone what she does, what she feels at any given time.  She is propelled only by the action of the narrative.  However, the evolution of the parts of her personality we see, which essentially amount to two versions of her work personality, are handled in a very interesting way.  When she interrogates someone (post-Dan), she wears a dark wig.  At first, this seems like an understandable precaution: you don’t want too many enemies of America to be able to identify someone with starkly unique characteristics (bright red hair, for one) by memory, or to be able to figure out who she is on sight.  But consider the garb she wears when speaking to prisoners in daylight and when convincing them to give in with words instead of torture: a white headscarf.  The dark wig enables Maya, who doesn’t truly believe torture is the best way, to play a character, a woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and ordering brutish goons to beat the hell out of a defenseless person.  Every time she peels the wig off at the end of the workday, she absolves herself of the fact that she’s skirting war crimes – granted, her most effective methods are verbal, and she doesn’t go halfway to where Dan went.  He even seemed to enjoy it before losing the stomach.

Over the years, Maya finds leads, and several quiet (and some unintentionally explosive) operations are undertaken in order to find bin Laden.  She gains a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient and always spot-on in her hunches and assessments.  She works in Pakistan with Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA’s Station Chief in Islamabad, until his identity is compromised and he is replaced by a relaxed boss who lets Maya do what she wants.  Jessica Chastain’s scenes with Chandler are her best opportunities to let loose her intensity, and will certainly be the ones shown in every reel meant to convince viewers that she deserves this year’s biggest performance awards.

Eventually, Maya’s exploits lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and she is able to convince everyone, even President Obama (not played by anyone in the film), to 100% certainty that bin Laden is there.  A squadron of Navy SEALs led by Justin (Chris Pratt) and Patrick (Joel Edgerton), unremarkable bearded goofballs who could be anyone (maybe a wise move since the identities of the actual SEALs who performed the operation cannot be released), raid the compound and take down bin Laden in a scene that takes, perhaps, as long as the real-life operation did (a far too long stretch of time without Maya onscreen, one of the film’s only structural missteps).

The film features an interesting slew of bit parts, but the characters are utilized much better than those of The Hurt Locker, which often jarred me not with its tense bomb-diffusing scenes, but with its striking misuse of Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly.  James Gandolfini appears as Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, who has a bit of a Jabba-the-Hutt vibe when trying to verbally intimidate Maya.  Jennifer Ehle is Jessica, a fellow CIA officer and friend of Maya’s who has un-spoilable involvement in the 2009 Camp Chapman Attack.  Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, and Mark Duplass also appear here and there, and their time is well-used.  Mark Strong plays a convincing American (not to mention an effective possessor of hair).

The film has been accused by Those Who Want Attention as being pro-torture.  I can’t agree.  In fact, a film with so many opportunities to be as red-white-and-blue as Argo almost completely forgoes them. The film does not ignore the fact that war crimes, including vicious torture, were implemented in order to get information (although the people at the top swear up and down that good results were never obtained through waterboarding, which is somewhat reflected in the film).  Also note that Maya does not think torture is the key to finding bin Laden, and must play a role that disgusts her in order to do what she thinks is right.  We also see the SEAL team kill unarmed people, including women, in the raid: Bigelow chooses not to give into the “we can never be anything but good guys” myths involving bin Laden firing upon the SEALs before they killed him.  She even chooses to show a news clip of President Obama (the only time he is seen in the entire film) denying that the United States uses/condones torture, immediately after a scene of Dan brutalizing a prisoner.  None of this is presented with bias or deliberate irony; it’s all very matter-of-fact, and for that, I have to concede some artistic respect.

The film also has two image patterns: one is Maya’s Converse shoe (watch how it’s used each time it’s onscreen), and the other, also touched upon twice, is a tear rolling from someone’s left eye.  This is first seen when Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being tortured despite supposedly not knowing anything, and once again at the very end when Maya is all alone on a plane home.  Could this be read, maybe, as a comment on the commonalities between people (and their reactions to figurative solitude), regardless of alignment?  Maya, after all of her work, after she was right, is relieved to finally leave this behind her, and we are relieved for her.  A step towards a normal life, maybe?  But there’s something that stings – she’s still referred to as “the girl” in a radio transmission asking for confirmation that bin Laden (“Geronimo”) is dead.  Will Bigelow receive the same label within the mix of filmmakers up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year (all of whom are male)?  If she snags Best Picture a second time (and even if not, considering this film and its lead actress’s accomplishments, and overall, how little award ceremonies mean in regards to art), I think she’ll have given a good start to shedding a long-standing stigma concerning women in movies.  We’ll have gotten to a good area, maybe, and as Jessica Chastain’s Maya says as she speaks out in a room full of all-important men, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.”

Zero Dark Thirty (2012); written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain.

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