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Peter T Chattaway

Wild Nights with Emily

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If I saw this trailer as an SNL skit, I'd think it was pretty funny. But I really dislike this kind of actively revisionist work that doesn't just overshoot but sets up a target (Emily's relationship with Sue) and then misses completely by shooting off in the wrong direction entirely. I haven't seen the film--I was keeping my eyes open for a local showing a couple months ago, so I either missed it or it didn't play here--but I'm not encouraged by what I see here.

Reading Dickinson's poetry and letters to Sue certainly warrants claims that Sue was the love of her life and that Sue was her primary reader, even a muse. But I've read some of the scholarship arguing for a lesbian Dickinson, and I haven't found it convincing (not to mention that it distracts from the poetry itself, an even greater danger in a biopic) even acknowledging that we only have textual evidence to work with. Such portraits seem reductive and anachronistic, and only work by ignoring huge chunks of what we know about Dickinson. Much about her relationships were "queer" for the time, certainly, and deserve to be foregrounded. When you have a lot invested in a historical figure/writer, you want to see a biopic done well,  I guess, which also makes you more prone to disappointment. I wasn't disappointed by A Quiet Passion, and I'd love to be pleasantly surprised by this one, but again...this trailer seems pretty clear where the film goes. I'd particularly be interested to see how they deal with the Todd affair and the later editing and publishing of her works, but the trailer again seems to set up her editors as straw men to be knocked down by the enlightened filmmakers. 

Just to quibble, the poem "Wild Nights" was a fascicle poem, not one sent to Sue, and it's entirely counterfactual and in the subjunctive mood. It's a poem of longing, as so many of Dickinson's are, not characterizing events. Oh well, I guess they weren't going to title it A Ribald Passion.

 

 

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Rob, I'm a little concerned that the distance between "I haven't found it convincing" and "shooting off in the wrong direction entirely" is not as great as you do. 

I've seen the film, but I declined to review it, in part because I felt like it treated fairly standard and long-standing questions about Dickinson's sexuality as being shocking new revelations that had been previously suppressed!!!! I'm comfortable to a point with speculations, but absent a smoking gun, they are just that...speculations. I find them more plausible than you apparently do, but I agree that a film which postulates that the jury is back and there is no question whatsoever about her sexuality is as problematic as the film that fails to acknowledge the queerness of some of her life as well as her poetry. 

I'm perhaps a bit more tolerant of overreach because of the historical pendulum coming from a place where homosexuality (or the potential for it) was written out or pooh-poohed or explained away in any cases questionable, and politely avoided in cases of people like Wilde or Whitman. 

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I've heard from several sources that close female friendships in the 19th century often turned sexual at times, and when novels from that era refer to a woman being a lady's companion, usually that was code for some sort of lover. I thought the film made its case that the relationship between Emily and Sue was of such a nature fairly compellingly, but definitely overplayed the "this is shocking unprecedented information" aspect.

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21 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

Rob, I'm a little concerned that the distance between "I haven't found it convincing" and "shooting off in the wrong direction entirely" is not as great as you do. 

I've seen the film, but I declined to review it, in part because I felt like it treated fairly standard and long-standing questions about Dickinson's sexuality as being shocking new revelations that had been previously suppressed!!!! I'm comfortable to a point with speculations, but absent a smoking gun, they are just that...speculations. I find them more plausible than you apparently do, but I agree that a film which postulates that the jury is back and there is no question whatsoever about her sexuality is as problematic as the film that fails to acknowledge the queerness of some of her life as well as her poetry. 

I'm perhaps a bit more tolerant of overreach because of the historical pendulum coming from a place where homosexuality (or the potential for it) was written out or pooh-poohed or explained away in any cases questionable, and politely avoided in cases of people like Wilde or Whitman. 

You're right, Ken--"shooting off in the wrong direction entirely" is an overstatement, and stopping my sentence with the word "misses" would have been more accurate. My negative tone comes less from my objectively questioning the arguments about Dickinson's sexuality (there is a the wide range of plausibility) and more from my feeling that the biographical speculation gets in the way of really appreciating the poetry, and what we can know. And  we do know that she had an intense and important relationship with her sister-in-law that deserves attention. But I'd want to foreground even more the ways that her poetry is queer in how it challenges social categories and hierarchies in ways that are still relevant today. Can that even be translated into a biopic? I don't know. I think someone in the A Quiet Passion thread said they'd never seen a good biopic of a poet. I tend to be wary of biography as criticism, but good biography doesn't go all in on speculation. I guess I shouldn't fault the film (or rather its trailer!) too much for lacking in academic rigor!

That's a great point about overreach being understandable, too, and in general I agree since the  history is very much not neutral as you say. I do honestly wonder how much overreach is warranted to make the point.

17 hours ago, Evan C said:

I've heard from several sources that close female friendships in the 19th century often turned sexual at times, and when novels from that era refer to a woman being a lady's companion, usually that was code for some sort of lover. I thought the film made its case that the relationship between Emily and Sue was of such a nature fairly compellingly, but definitely overplayed the "this is shocking unprecedented information" aspect.

Yes, that's interesting. I will certainly have to see the film before I make a judgment on it. 

P.S. Evan, I really liked your recent essay on Through A Glass Darkly. 

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