Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Movie review: "A Quiet Passion"

I cannot live with You-
It would be Life-
And Life is over there-
Behind the Shelf

Emily Dickinson

A new movie about Emily Dickinson is always special.  "A Quiet Passion," masterfully directed by Terrence Davies, didn't make it to the desert, so last night I schlepped 57 miles to the Encino Laemlee Theater in the San Fernando Valley to see it.

The Encino theater is one of six Laemlee "art houses" spread around L.A., though you might also call them "senior citizen centers."  At the Encino Laemlee there were several older people in the ticket line.  The man at the head of the line was struggling to figure out first the schedule and then how to pay for his ticket, and I had my usual flash of inappropriate and uncalled for anger, thinking how slow this old guy was, before an anxious inner voice reminded me that I too am an old guy and that someone might be wanting me to hurry up. At the window I was so intent on a quick and youthful seeming purchase I didn't wonder until I had said them how the words One senior for a quiet passion might have sounded to the gum chewing teenager across from me, though she continued to chew gum and think about a better job as she impassively punched out my ticket.

I didn't expect a full house, since this was the Tuesday after the previous Friday's opening, which was probably well attended. The pool of like-minded souls I had nevertheless expected to find was as diminutive a human sample as I've seen at a Laemlee: a group of four or five women in an upper row, one couple halfway down, and one guy by himself in the front row. I had dozens of empty rows to choose from. Sweet!  

The movie starts with a group​ of soon to be graduated girls at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, circa 1846, standing at attention as they are dressed down by a fearsome headmistress who demands that the girls who have decided to go to Christ move to her left, and that the girls who are undecided move to her right. Young Dickinson (wonderfully played by Emma Bell) is then revealed standing in the middle, in neither group, an agnostic among agnostics.  She proceeds to argue theology with the headmistress.

This adherence to inner feeling stays with Dickinson throughout life, costing her all her friends and suitors- both male and female- and often the love of her family. Dickinson in later years (remarkably played by Cynthia Nixon) takes us down a slope from youthful playfulness and innocent precocity to physical degeneration and horrifying self-knowledge, lived out in Dickinson's wealthy and prominent father's house, which she never left.  

Davies dwells on illness as Ingmar Bergman often did, with shots almost a minute long of Dickinson having a seizure, or staggering across her room (which she does not leave for the last 15 years of her life) in the throes of various collapses.  She was diagnosed with a kidney disorder that probably lead to her death at age 55, but her mental state would have been called melancholia or hysteria. There are long shots of her face, staring in her candle-lit room at something far away, or very close.

To live is so startling it leaves little room for anything else.

Her hope of escape from her cloistered life was fame and recognition for her poetry, but publication came in mutilated dribbles (seven poems total, revised without her consent by condescending male editors).  She knew her poetry was different, special. The film suggests that she knew she would be posthumously famous.  Davies gives her this striking line, spoken to her sister:

If I had fame, I would have a kind of love that is barred to me now.

Young people who wonder what draws older audiences to such movies may be told a secret: the story of Emily Dickinson is intensely erotic.  From her prized position beside her domineering father (her mother is a background figure), to her infatuations with married men who spurn her, to her intense feelings for female friends and her devastation when they marry, she is a black hole of longing for people who race away from her like a red-shifting universe.  During the mourning period for her mother, while the family is dressed in black, she wears white.  Her sister exclaims, "But we are in mourning!," and Dickinson replies, "So am I!"  She wears virginal white for the rest of her life.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, that is poetry.

She lived in a cold universe, I thought in the car heading home.  On the radio Stephen Hawking predicted that humans will need to leave the earth within one hundred years or go extinct.  What if Hawking was trapped in a room, Waiting for Godot style, with Emily Dickinson? Would she scoff at his idea that space will be our solace?

Those who have not found the heaven below,
will fail of it above.

It was almost midnight when I walked into my one-roomer in the desert. There on my couch, having crawled in an open window, was Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster.  I had not seen him in weeks.

We need to talk, Robert thought at me.

Please, Robert, I thought back, no politics tonight.

Why didn't you take me with you to the Emily Dickinson movie?

I forget he can read my mind.

Sorry, Robert, sometimes I'm embarrassed by my species, what a hard time it's having as it takes over the world.

The takeover of the world Dickinson had in mind would have been different.

We agreed on that.

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