Terence Davis' Human Emily Dickinson

Directed by Terence DAVIES

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set. —Emily Dickinson

If, like me, you live anywhere near Amherst, Massachusetts, you're likely to have one of two very strong opinions about native daughter Emily Dickinson—you either worship the grass upon which she trod, or you're sick of hearing her very name. I am a card-carrying member of the second camp. I feel about Dickinson much as I feel about characters from the Brontes and Jane Austen—enough with the tormented passivity and internalized repression. Director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon have not only made me reconsider Ms. Dickinson, they've sent me scurrying back to her poems.

The rejoinder to my impatience with Dickinson is, of course, that women of her era (1830-1886) had few options. Davies subtlety shows us the stultifying effects of being female in the 19th century. His is a very European film in style, filled with pan shots and moments in which silence speaks louder than dialogue. Though it might be hard for those weaned on action films to watch, there are several scenes of domestic non-bliss in which the camera slowly surveys a silent room in which men are contentedly reading and women look at if they might devolve into boredom-induced madness or melt into the patterned wallpaper upon which the lens lingers. Indeed, it's hard not to think of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in moments such as these. Where are the cultural cracks through which non-conformists can escape? That's exactly the slant Davies employs in his look at Emily Dickinson—one whose interstices, jumps, and cuts are filled with snippets of her verse.

We see Emily as a rebel from the start—a woman fiercely guarding her own soul and willing to stand up to the indomitable Mary Lyons to do so—perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson only lasted ten months at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Davies doesn't give us an eternally gloomy Dickinson. Young Emily (Emma Bell) is light, clever, carefree, and saucy enough to bait her pious, drear Aunt Elizabeth. This carries over as she enters maturity. If you only know Cynthia Nixon from Sex in the City, be prepared to be astonished; it would not surprise me if hers supplants Julie Harris' as the definitive portrayal of Dickinson. Nixon gives us a Dickinson who takes joy in other insouciant women, especially her sunny sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her good-hearted sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and the tart-tongued Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), the principal of a local school for girls. Bailey is a special delight. In the film, she drops witticisms, snide comments, and wicked remarks like a female Oscar Wilde. In fact, Dickinson's mid-life inner circle of female friends stands in contrast to the Stygian outlook of elders such as her sad-sack mother (Joanna Bacon) and of men drowning in their own impossible standards of honor and piety: her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), a procession of stodgy ministers, and her father Edward—expertly played by Keith Carradine, who finds it hard always to play the stern paterfamilias and breaks expectations when least expected.

This is far more than Life with the Dickinsons. There is plenty of heavy stuff: Emily's obsession with mortality and immortality, her desire for artistic acceptance, and her fury over being better known for her gardening skills than for her verse, a frustration she uses to batter editor Samuel Bowles (Trevor Cooper). And, of course, there is Dickinson's storied descent into isolation, misanthropy, and despair. What precipitated this? Well… that's the stuff of scores of dissertations and no one knows for certain.

Dickinson scholars, I'm sure, will bemoan liberties in the film. such as the conjecture that she was in love with a married minister, or a scene in which she is the interruptus to her brother's coitus with Mabel Loomis Todd. Austin indeed had an affair with Todd, but Emily never met the woman who later edited her poems. Non-Dickinson junkies might be baffled at moments in which Davies telescopes time in ways that require some pre-knowledge. It's certainly ambitious to tackle so much biography in one film and, perhaps, inevitable that gaps will emerge. I can forgive these, as Davies hands us a human Emily Dickinson whose sadness and resignation are balanced by flights into humor, hope, and independence. Are these readings too feminist? Too modern? Again, who knows? I want Davies' take to be true, and it's to his credit that he moved a Dickinson Abstainer such as I. There's a closing morphing sequence in which the (to-date) only authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson slowly becomes the image of Cynthia Nixon. And so I shall henceforth think of her.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The exteriors of this movie were filmed in Amherst; the interiors on a set in Belgium modeled on the Dickinson homestead.


WOW is a WOW! Exhibit

WOW: World of Wearable Art
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 11, 2017

Some art exhibits welcome analysis and critique; the rare few beggar description and are best experienced through images. Such an exhibit is the World of Wearable Art at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum.

The skinny for those who've never heard of WOW: It began in the New Zealand South Island town of Nelson in 1987. Appropriately, its founder, Suzie Moncrieff, is a sculptor, not a fashion designer. Her idea was to combine design with the then emerging concept of performance art. To that end, she invited professional and amateur designers, artists and fabricators, and individuals working in various media to submit their wildest, most inventive designs for a show. The only rule was that whatever they created, it had to be wearable. That definition did not include the word "pragmatic;" in fact, the more whimsical and outlandish, the better. WOW, if anything, challenges, even lampoons, ideas of designer fashion.

  WOW was an idea whose time had comes. It is now in its 30th year, awards over
$165,000 (New Zealand) per year, and culminates in a sound, light, and art performance that's like Cirque du Soleil on steroids. It's also an international competition these days, but it's still by no means the domain of professionals—wood and fabric artists submit entries, but so too do taxidermists, metallurgists, and people who are simply clever at fashioning something from everything from plastic stay ties to re-purposed suitcases. The Peabody Essex Museum exhibit has 32 pieces, a stripped down show, but still one that's like falling down an LSD-induced rabbit hole. But enough words. Here are some visual examples of the magic awaiting a viewer. 

Lobster dress with working tail
Detail of claw

Plastic and ties

This is color printer sheets transferred onto sheet metal

Plastic & ceramic

Inspired by tattoo art

Inspired by reptiles shedding skin
Wooden dress

Lady Gaga? Cinna from The Hunger Games?

Felt but designed so that...

... the punchouts create the fasteners!
Commentary on British obsession with equestrianism

New Zealander commentary on American car love

Just wow!

Cat Woman goes op-art?
Woman warrior. Samoan if memory serves

Uniform made of old suitcases

Bra fashioned from hedgehogs

Iguana bra


Witchfinder's Sister a Harrowing Read

The Witchfinder’s Sister. By Beth Underdown. Ballantine Books, 2017, 336 pages.

Americans reflexively think of Salem whenever witch trials are conjured. We forget that the Puritans that conducted Salem's horrors were Englishmen, just as we forget that (by some estimates) 50,000 Europeans were executed for witchcraft from 1500 to 1800, 80% of them women.  A half century before Salem (1692), witchcraft hysteria swept East Anglia, particularly Essex, Wessex, and Suffolk.

The most notorious of England’s witchfinders were John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins, both of whom figure prominently in Beth Underdown’s gripping debut. Bear in mind that this is a historical novel. Very little is known of the historical Matthew Hopkins (?1620-47), other than the fact his father was a clergyman, and that Matthew moved to Manningtree, Essex sometime around 1640. From there he launched a two-year reign of terror in 1644-46 that saw more 300 individuals arrested, around a hundred of whom were executed. We don’t know if he had a sister, let alone one named Alice, Underdown’s protagonist and narrator. Moreover, Hopkins probably died of TB, not the more satisfying ending Underdown provides. So bear in mind as you read that the story is “true” in its essence, but not in its particulars.

They are mighty fine particulars, though. Underdown gives us a portrait of how hysteria begins small—whispers, gossip, grudges, innuendo­—and gathers steam when embraced by bullies, demagogues, and fanatics. She imagines Hopkins as more complex than a monster, a true believer who justified doing unspeakable things as advancing God's work. Alice and her associates represent the voices of reason. And never shall the twain meet, especially in a climate rent asunder by the English Civil War. Alice also represents a protest against misogyny, but that too was a cry in the 17th century social wilderness. Thus the catastrophe that unfolded. Underdown uses her invented characters to personalize the tragedy and give us entrĂ©e into specifics. Her description of a "swimming," a watery test for malevolence, is particularly vivid and makes us shudder. Ditto her depictions of witch "detection" tactics such as sleep deprivation, walking, watching, and examining for imps.

Most of all, though, the clash between Matthew and Alice over the unfolding events gives us both a micro and macrocosm perspective on the witchcraft trials. It is easy to forget that both accusers and victims were also ordinary people who prepared meals, emptied chamber pots, tended their gardens, mourned lost loved ones, courted, and conducted business. Underdown does a nice job of capturing the rhythms of everyday life without getting bogged down in minutiae that would detract from the central plot. She's also good with suspense. We, the readers, can see Alice's options melt and the walls begin to close in around her. It is to Underwood's credit that we feel like screaming out for Alice to run and keep turning the pages to see if she does.

To be objective, this book also bears some of the weaknesses of a debut novel. Several of the characters are drawn a bit too broadly; others (too) conveniently appear and disappear. Stylistically, I wish Underwood and her editors would learn when to use "her" and when to use "she." You can decide for yourself if she went over the top with her ending. I understand the allure of delicious irony, but sometimes it's better to leave things understated. You will also have to decide whether our narrator, Alice, is credible for the time period, or if she is a 21st century feminist in 17th century drag. For the record, I think Underwood wanted to have her both ways, hence I was willing to suspend disbelief in passages I found ahistorical.

The Witchfinder's Sister is a chilling tale that most readers will rip through. We should remember, though, that Matthew Hopkins was a real person and that his The Discovery of Witches was widely consulted as a go-to guide for more than a century. Salem loomed in the future, but European witch trials continued into the 19th century. England had a case of witch swimming as late as 1863, even though it repealed its witchcraft laws 127 years earlier. Underwood's novel ultimately made me think upon how easily hysteria forms and how hard it is to vanquish. Maybe the 17th century lurks closer than we might imagine.

Rob Weir