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NBooth

A Quiet Passion

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NBooth   

It may be a little early for a thread, but I suspect that a few folks around here dig Emily Dickinson, so this news should be of interest:

Cynthia Nixon's playing Dickinson in Terence Davies' biopic A Quiet Passion.

The film will trace Dickinson's life from precocious schoolgirl to the tortured recluse who saw only seven of her more than 1,000 poems published in her lifetime. After her death, Dickinson was recognized as one of the greatest American poets of all time.

Full confession: I can't stand Dickinson. I find her way too mannered and sing-songy. But I'm still kind of interested in seeing how this project turns out.

EDIT: How does one edit tags? I ran Dickinson and Nixon together....

Edited by NBooth

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StephenM   

I'm really looking forward to this, but that trailer felt really weird and off for me.  I don't know how the movie plays, but the trailer seems like they were trying to make Dickinson's life seem much more dramatic and eventful than it was (though of course her inner life was eventful, and I assume that's what the title's all about).  It just felt like it was trying too hard.

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NBooth wrote:
: Full confession: I can't stand Dickinson. I find her way too mannered and sing-songy. But I'm still kind of interested in seeing how this project turns out.

Ha! I know absolutely nothing about Dickinson, but I saw the film a few days ago and remarked to a friend afterwards that the dialogue seemed very... I might have said "mannered" if the word had occurred to me, but I think I said instead that the film had the sort of dialogue and performances you'd get from a stage play, and my friend (who liked the film more than I did, I think) conceded that the dialogue was kind of "arch".

I saw this either just before or just after seeing Neruda, and I do wonder if movies about poets are kind of wasted on me, since I don't read poetry and I don't have the biographical or literary contexts within which to situate these films.

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The use of the poetry is so very on-the-nose, that it continually surprised me and took me out of the movie. 

Honestly, it felt more like an undergraduate paper than a script, with all the attendant assumptions about autobiographical criticism informing a poet's work.

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phlox   

Saw this recently… 

[SPOILERS] 

As Peter noted, the dialogue is “arch”--and the witty banter gets a little heavy-handed.  

As Ken said, the voice-over poems are very on-the-nose… one of the most awkward moments is when Emily holds Austin and Susan’s baby and recites her “I’m Nobody” poem to him. 

There was too much of Vryling Buffam, who’s only mentioned in one biography footnote as a friend of Vinnie’s.  Also, Mabel Todd and Emily never met face to face. 

Maybe I’m not recalling  correctly, but – was there really no mention of Thomas Higginson, the editor Emily was friends with for decades? Nothing about George Gould, who may have been engaged to her--or her later romance with Judge Otis Lord, who proposed marriage? Nothing about the Master Letters? Nothing about the eye ailment that disrupted her life extensively. Too many long convulsion scenes…made her look like an epileptic.  [The film could have showed how, in fact, Emily refused to let a doctor at her bedside…which made diagnosis almost impossible.]  

Still, as a literary period piece the film is a splendid tribute, and Cynthia Nixon did a superb job of making Emily rebellious and vulnerable, unflinchingly honest.

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Evan C   

As someone who has liked the few Dickinson's poems he's read, but doesn't know too much about her works or her life, I may have been the perfect audience for the film - enough knowledge to appreciate the poetry references and biographical bits that were included, but not enough to knowledge to form any substantial criticism on those grounds. However, I absolutely loved it; it's pretty easily my favorite film of the year so far (with The Salesman being the only thing I'd consider switching with it.) Davies' directing is gorgeous, Nixon and Ehle both play their characters flawlessly, and the mannered nature of the script drew me into a world gone by, while reinforcing how out of touch Emily is with her time. The final argument between the sisters is going to haunt me for the rest of the year as well.

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Rob Z   

I agree with pretty much all the comments about the film itself on this thread so far. I agree with the 93% Fresh rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’m also very sympathetic to the much lower 51% audience approval.

The film is visually beautiful, even poetic. The acting is great (although I didn’t think the performance by young Emily was very good at all), but I think Cynthia Nixon was miscast. And the narrative and dialogue just didn’t do it for me. Jennifer Ehle was a fantastic Vinnie, but her presence also reminded me that so much of the dialogue felt like an ersatz Jane Austen novel of manners knock-off. I cringed when I learned the title of the Emily Dickinson biopic was “A Quiet Passion,” and I’m afraid that the film itself bore out my concern with many cringe-inducing moments.

I can forgive all that. I can deal with the “arch” dialogue. I can forgive fictitious characters, conflating multiple historical persons into one character, etc. Those can be strengths in translating a biography into a biopic, but I didn’t think they were here. The Emily Dickinson portrayed in the film just didn’t seem to be the Dickinson whose life I’m fairly familiar with, and whose poetry I’m very familiar with (I wrote a dissertation chapter on her poetry) and which has been very meaningful to me (I think she is easily America’s greatest religious poet, and in the highest tier of all English language poets). The main issue is that even though Dickinson lived a relatively quiet life outwardly, her inner life—her spiritual life—was as dramatic as they come, and the film didn't portray that successfully (in my opinion). As a biopic, it hit expected major points. Can’t leave out the Todd affair or her parents’ deaths, for example. The gender dynamics were handled well, and I found the scenes of death, grief, mourning superb and weirdly refreshing. But for all the emotion portrayed, for all the nods to Emily’s sophisticated and bold religious thinking, I don’t think the film came close to doing justice to her emotional turmoil, spiritual struggles, and poetic triumphs. Maybe it’s just the limitations of film as a medium compared with poetry for conveying these kinds of things—still, I loved that the film didn’t feel overly bound to biopic conventions.

Personally I would have liked to see her friendship with Sue developed more, as well as her correspondence with Higginson. I didn’t like that older Emily was the physically suffering, bitter, frustrated version, a borderline caricature. That’s not wrong per se, it just misses the other facets of her life. On the other hand, I think the film struck a good balance of showing her as both socially engaged and a recluse.

The opening scenes at school caught me as almost too caricatured to be meaningful as a backdrop for her. I’m not saying there’s no historical basis. But if you read sixteen-year-old Emily’s letters, she’s miles ahead in working through spiritual issues than most undergrads, adult churchgoers, even many pastors I’ve interacted with nowadays.

Finally, as to the inclusion of poetry in the film, I agree that it was another sign of a screenplay that could have been better. And the ones included were indeed on the verge of suggesting a kind of undergraduate level biographical criticism. At the same time, I wish the poems had taken front stage even more. They are why Emily Dickinson is so important and shy we know who she is. I watched the credits, eagerly anticipating a list of poems included since there were several I didn’t recognize (she wrote almost 2000 poems, after all), but there weren’t any. At the same time, if this film leads anyone to immerse themselves in even a few of her poems, it will have done the world a service beyond being a fine work of art itself.

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phlox   
On 6/16/2017 at 7:11 PM, Rob Z said:

 The Emily Dickinson portrayed in the film just didn’t seem to be the Dickinson whose life I’m fairly familiar with, and whose poetry I’m very familiar with (I wrote a dissertation chapter on her poetry) and which has been very meaningful to me (I think she is easily America’s greatest religious poet, and in the highest tier of all English language poets).

 

Is the dissertation chapter on line? I’d be interested in reading it. I agree-- the Emily Dickinson in the film didn’t reflect the image from her work, letters and several biographies.  The opening scene led me to expect more emphasis on her spiritual struggles, instead of the drawing-room repartee which was more Jane Austen’s world, it seemed. I couldn’t find a list of the poems in the film, other than these that were definitely in: This is my letter to the world …The heart asks pleasure first….I’m nobody….Because I could not stop for death. Maybe someone else recalls a few more.

Edited by phlox

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Rob Z   
On 6/18/2017 at 5:16 AM, phlox said:

Is the dissertation chapter on line? I’d be interested in reading it. I agree-- the Emily Dickinson in the film didn’t reflect the image from her work, letters and several biographies.  The opening scene led me to expect more emphasis on her spiritual struggles, instead of the drawing-room repartee which was more Jane Austen’s world, it seemed. I couldn’t find a list of the poems in the film, other than these that were definitely in: This is my letter to the world …The heart asks pleasure first….I’m nobody….Because I could not stop for death. Maybe someone else recalls a few more.

The chapter isn't online or published yet. I would be willing to share it though, phlox--thanks for your interest! Feel free to send me a personal message.

Yes, I also expected that from the opening scene.

I remember a few other poems included off the top of my head: This world is not conclusion, If you were coming in the fall (I think?), I reckon when I count at all, and My life closed twice before its close. That last one was the penultimate poem, before Because I could not stop for death. The final image was her portrait, but I thought it a little bit unfortunate that the final image of the narrative of the film was a grave. Dickinson was certainly fascinated with death, and her life ended when it ended obviously, but she wrote hundreds of poems about heaven, eternity, the afterlife. She called immortality her "flood subject." I would have loved it if the film had engaged that somehow, at least attempted to do justice to that aspect of Dickinson's thinking, and I think that it could have done something interesting and sophisticated from based on what was on display in the film as it is. Even getting a sense of her literary "afterlife" would have been nice. I wish I could have seen Vinnie's astonishment at finding all the fascicles and loose poems in Emily's drawers!

Yeah, I'm surprised and a little sad no list of poems is available. Can you imagine a biopic of a musical artist with no songs listed in the credits, no particular songs mentioned in reviews, no soundtrack album...

Any others to add to the list of poems used in the film?

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phlox   

Thanks for the other titles that appeared in the film, and for the offer on your chapter – I don’t want to put you to the trouble.

It seems safe to say Emily felt closer to God in nature than in church, and sought a personal, mystical experience of the divine.  Her work keeps vacillating between belief in heaven and rejection of it…e.g.  skepticism in # 696 “The House of Supposition –/ the Glimmering Frontier that/  Skirts the Acres of Perhaps/ To me-  shows insecure…/This timid life of Evidence/ Keeps pleading- I don’t know.”  Then just two poems later there is affirmation in #698, “Life is what we make it /Death -we do not know /Christ’s acquaintance with Him /Justify him though….His sure foot preceding /Tender Pioneer/ Base must be the coward/ Dare not venture- now.”

Probably not many here are into Emily’s work… it does take an effort to get past the sing-song  meter,  to see how she used the limited hymn stanza as a foil to jolt us with her discoveries. The intensity and compression of her work is often astonishing.  The process of writing and all it involved was a lifelong spiritual discipline.

Edited by phlox

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StephenM   

This came to my local community-sponsored art movie program last week, and I was all excited to go.  But then I got there and realized I had to pay in cash and hadn't brought any with me.  I had to park 10 minutes walk away, and I was on the campus of a university closed for the summer and the weekend, so there were no  ATMs anywhere nearby.  I wandered around for awhile looking, but the movie had already started, and at best I would have missed the whole first act, so I ended up just going home.  Guess I'll have to wait for home viewing.

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Rob Z   
On 6/23/2017 at 11:09 AM, Overstreet said:

This is the best assessment of the film of any I've read. It expresses much of what I was after in my earlier comments, only more eloquently and learnedly. Thanks for sharing.

One difference of interpretation I had is that VanZanten sees the filmmakers' decision to cut the final 8 lines off "This world is not conclusion" as a way of acknowledging her hopefulness. To me it seemed rather to present a position of confidence that the final 8 lines themselves critique.  (When the poem was originally published ten years after Dickinson's death, the final 8 lines were likewise lopped off.) I think the decision to exclude the lines mirrors the larger lack of justice to Dickinson's nuanced relationship with faith and heaven. I don't really think the poem itself concludes with doubt rather than hope or faith. Rather it doubts a sureness/certainty/faith that is not actually grounded in what it ostensibly hopes for (in this case, a heavenly life after death).

The poem reads as follows. I've added asterisks where the recitation in the film ended

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond - 
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles - 
Philosophy, dont know - 
And through a Riddle, at the last - 
Sagacity, must go -
To guess it, puzzles scholars -
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown -
[***********************************]
Faith slips - and laughs, and rallies - 
Blushes, if any see - 
Plucks at a twig of Evidence - 
And asks a Vane, the way - 
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll - 
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -

 

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Rob Z   
On 6/22/2017 at 11:36 AM, phlox said:

It seems safe to say Emily felt closer to God in nature than in church, and sought a personal, mystical experience of the divine.

 

On 6/22/2017 at 11:36 AM, phlox said:

The process of writing and all it involved was a lifelong spiritual discipline.

Absolutely. "Some keep the Sabbath going to church" is for me the quintessential example of this aspect of Dickinson's relationship to God. I also think that Dickinson's poetry was a place where she did that seeking of God more productively than the contemporaneous church allowed her--a spiritual discipline as you mention. Dickinson was a kind of mystical Calvinist for whom nature played a large role in experiencing God, but so did a kind of surrender of mental control, like Jonathan Edwards. While her contemporaries may have seen her as a "lost sheep" and "outside the fold," I believe she saw the church as the hired hand who has run away from doing the Great Shepherd's bidding while she herself has stayed close to the shepherd.

On 6/22/2017 at 11:36 AM, phlox said:

Her work keeps vacillating between belief in heaven and rejection of it…e.g.  skepticism in # 696 “The House of Supposition –/ the Glimmering Frontier that/  Skirts the Acres of Perhaps/ To me-  shows insecure…/This timid life of Evidence/ Keeps pleading- I don’t know.”  Then just two poems later there is affirmation in #698, “Life is what we make it /Death -we do not know /Christ’s acquaintance with Him /Justify him though….His sure foot preceding /Tender Pioneer/ Base must be the coward/ Dare not venture- now.”

I think belief and rejection might be too strong. As to the vacillating, Dickinson definitely tried on different positions in her poems, but usually with an ambivalence. A big part of this was negotiating between received doctrines and interpretations of the Bible and her own interpretations and experiences. Dickinson certainly gravitated toward a more orthodox view of "heaven" later in her life, I think when she was forced by the death of loved ones to fully come to terms with the meaning of death. That isn't an interpretive determiner, but it is significant. I actually wrote my dissertation chapter on heaven in Dickinson's poetry, so I have a lot of thoughts on this topic!

On 6/22/2017 at 11:36 AM, phlox said:

Probably not many here are into Emily’s work… it does take an effort to get past the sing-song  meter,  to see how she used the limited hymn stanza as a foil to jolt us with her discoveries. The intensity and compression of her work is often astonishing.

I don't think the common assessment of her use of common hymn meter as "sing-song" is fair. Some hymns are more sing-songy than others that use the exact same meter. Dickinson's poems can be easily read in a sing-songy way, as can many poems with meter, but that doesn't mean they should be. (Pop music and contemporary worship music also use meter, but they aren't designed to be sung by people the way that hymns are. And don't get me started on comparing the inanity of CCM and pop to hymn lyrics, even your standard sentimental 19th-century hymns.) I thought the recitations in the film were excellent, and they certainly didn't succumb to this tendency. I think it's a mistake to judge Dickinson's poetics by the aesthetic standards of Modernism; we don't need to ignore the innovations of the Pounds and Eliots of the poetry world to appreciate Dickinson's aesthetics. But because our culture has lost the participatory nature of singing songs together and reciting poetry, this may take more effort. I like to thing of Dickinson's poems as "counter-hymns" that are no less in praise of God than the hymns of contemporaneous hymn writers (like Fanny Crosby), but a whole lot more sophisticated and, in my opinion, orthodox.

Edited by Rob Z

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phlox   

Thanks for your further thoughts…you’ve clearly studied Emily’s work in depth…and I agree with Susan Vanzanten’s point about aspects of E.D.’s life that were omitted.  

I also agree that ambivalence is a better term than rejection.  (What I was getting at was that she rejected the Calvinist ‘spatiality’ of heaven, if that makes any sense.)  And I like your idea of “counter-hymns.”  To me though, orthodox is too strong a word for her views, even toward the end.

My understanding is that Emily constantly sought an authentic and unmediated relationship with God, and that while she did not believe in hell, neither was she certain of a blissful afterlife.  Maybe her firmest conviction was “Who has not found the heaven below / will fail of it above.”

The film came out on  amazon video last week- when I re-watched it I noted the titles of the poems included, in order –

For each ecstatic instant…..The heart asks pleasure first…. I went to thank her, but she slept…..I reckon, when I count at all……I’m nobody, who are you…… To fight aloud is very brave….. There is a word which bears a sword….. If you were coming in the fall…… We outgrow love, like other things….. The dying need but little, dear….. Of so divine a loss, we enter…….We never know we go, when we are going….He fumbles at your soul….This world is not conclusion….Our journey had advanced….My life closed twice before its close.…Tie the strings to my life (last stanza).…Because I could not stop for death…This is my letter to the world.

This time it seemed to me that Davies does focus a lot on Emily’s spiritual struggles, in the context of mortality and bereavement…he mostly ignores her blurring of erotic and religious imagery, like the early mystics - and her literary friendships.

Edited by phlox

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Rob Z   

Thank you so much for compiling that list! It's a valuable contribution to anyone who wants to dig deeper in understanding the film's interpretation of Dickinson.

On 7/17/2017 at 4:49 AM, phlox said:

I also agree that ambivalence is a better term than rejection.  (What I was getting at was that she rejected the Calvinist ‘spatiality’ of heaven, if that makes any sense.)  And I like your idea of “counter-hymns.” 

I see what you mean. That makes sense. She rejected the notion of a heaven that occupies some space other than HERE. I actually find this to be in line with what many contemporary theologians with a Calvinist bent (including N.T. Wright, who isn't Reformed by affiliation) interpret the New Testament's conception of heaven to be. Two great poems where she troubles (again, I'd say reject is too strong for these) the distant spatiality of heaven are "My period had come for prayer" and "Two lengths hath every day."

 

On 7/17/2017 at 4:49 AM, phlox said:

To me though, orthodox is too strong a word for her views, even toward the end.

Fair enough. I was speaking generally. Regarding doctrines, I definitely agree.

I'm guessing that upon rewatching I, too, wiil be able to appreciate better how the movie DOES do justice to aspects of Dickinson's spiritual struggles rather than how it doesn't.

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