I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.


Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.

 

 

Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.

 

 

 

 

*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

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Wild Nights with Emily

I’ve been looking forward to this Emily Dickinson biopic since I first heard of it a few months back. I acknowledge the difficulty of making a film about writers, particularly if the film wants to give due weight to their writing, the least cinematic of art forms—but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

From indications I was expecting Wild Nights with Emily to be irreverent, but I often like some irreverence, even about things I admire. The advance publicity used the hook that it was going to go strong on the theory that Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert were lovers. That’s a legitimate theory, with evidence to support it, but the trailer and the promo clip I saw indicated it was going to be one of those “Hey, famous artists go through all the wacky and awkward stuff we do, especially when they fall in love.”

Does that sort of thing diminish art or the people that make it? We should laugh at both devils and angels some of the time (just not all the time). For an example of literary irreverence that worked for me, I’ll point out Upstart Crow,  a series that turned Shakespeare into something between the Dick Van Dyke Show  and 30 Rock  using a passel of modern critical theories as comic premises.

Wild Night with Emily Poster

What’s with all the black. More Emily Dickinson goth moves?

 

As it turns out, Wild Nights with Emily  didn’t consistently work for me, though I’m glad I saw it and I admire the effort. It’s awkward in ways that alternately charm, puzzle, and just seem off. It tries for a complex structure that jumbles time-lines back and forth and the individual scenes seem very separate. There’s little character development, little sense of change or dynamics of Character A’s actions changing the course of Character B’s life outlook, even in the central love story. We see a scene or two of Susan and Emily falling in love as teenagers, but there’s no attempt to explain why Susan or Emily were attracted to each other instead of someone else, they just are. Nor is this attempted for any of the other relationships—some kind of lust/attraction spark occurs and bang they go off. It’s consistent enough that I think the writer/director Madeleine Olnek is making a point of this. Oddly, these connections go badly for the couples other than Susan and Emily. It’s kind of a bokeh effect thing: our lead couple just want each other, and that sort of works out, and everyone else is just mindlessly and brainlessly lusting.

Indeed, my impression was that the writer/director really was interested in making a point, or series of points. The film isn’t a biographical narrative* or love story or sex-positive comedy or an exploration of creativity, it’s more an illustrated lecture with actors given to illustrate those points. The disconnection of the scenes is just a new slide in the deck being shown. The points are all worthy ones, most of which I’d agree with. Dickinson was a mocker and questioner, not a conventional sentimentalist. No one understood how revolutionary her poetry was. Families are weird, and their secrets show that. The Patriarchy is blind to a whole lot of things.

Some of the scenes work well as illustrations for me. Some don’t. Your mileage may vary. Many scenes use humor to make their point. A couple of the scenes were Dada-weird (e.g. Lavinia and her fake cat). Others are very much “see the broadly underlined point.” Some are emotionally riveting in the same way that actors doing single scene can be as they instantly inhabit a character, but again, the film isn’t really a narrative. Nor does it go out of its way to say “I’m not a narrative” like other attempts to subvert the artist biopic genre like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould  or  I’m Not There.  If you go to see it, go with that expectation and I think you’ll be more primed to absorb what it’s trying to do.

A couple of Olnek’s points I’m less sure of (she may be right, I’m no Dickinson scholar). She seems to be overcorrecting on the Dickinson was a hermit, always sequestered in her room thing. As far as her film shows it, it’s all a misunderstanding, and she just didn’t like Mabel Todd. The impression I get from my Dickinson biography research is that a much more sociable person did become increasingly withdrawn as she aged. And she seems to be saying that Dickinson directly sought publication, only to be rebuffed by the Philistines. Maybe there’s an earlier period I’m unaware of, but the testimony of among others, Susan Gilbert Dickenson herself included, was that the scattered publication of 11 or so poems in her lifetime was largely due to the efforts of others which Dickinson did not encourage.

A few times in the movie they use Dickinson’s poetry, spoken and with subtitles with scenes portraying something they relate to the poems. I’m favorable to that tactic—after all, the Parlando Project is doing that with music instead of film. I think that works in the film. The “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  and “I died for beauty but was scarce”  examples were particularly memorable for me.

That’s my reaction to the film. I appreciate the effort that went into it, and the task it set out for itself isn’t easy.  Is it the best possible way to spread greater, deeper appreciation of Dickinson? Hell if I know. Worth a try.

 

*Maybe it’s just me, but has anyone done a straightforward Emily Dickinson timeline that says what Emily Dickinson was thought to be doing year to year? A good one would include links to the various theories regarding people that came and went in her life. I find some of this hard to keep straight and the non-linear choice of this movie obviously didn’t aim to help me. For example, the Mabel Todd/Austin Dickinson affair that started in 1882 happened very late in Emily’s life, more than a decade after she’s thought to have written the vast majority of her poems. And the first meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 was when her amazing productivity was accelerating.

By the way the film’s bokeh effect makes Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson look like comic idiots. Given the heroic things they tried to do in their time, I give them a little more credit than that.

Her Final Summer Was It

I got to see the Emily Dickenson biopic A Quiet Passion”  this month. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie’s running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.

A-Quiet-Passion

This movie has no car chases or flying magician CGI battles

 
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the minds of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
 
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.

So go see “A Quiet Passion”  if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
 
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,”  because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.

Her Final Summer was it MS

Dickinson’s own hand-written manuscript of “Her final Summer was it”

You can hear my performance of “Her Final Summer Was It”  by using the player below. If you’d like to hear other Emily Dickinson pieces interpreted by the Parlando Project, we have done four other Dickinson poems with music here.

If Not For Ed

Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.

Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.

“It’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.

Blank looks now.

But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.

Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur, Ed Wood, the Ed sung about in this song, even got his own biopic.

Nurmi’s successful earlier TV work was never archived (save for this small fragment). Since her attempts to find other outlets for her character came to naught, for many people she was only known from her short appearance in this bad movie.

So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career. To hear the song selection from the Vampira project, click on the gadget below.