Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on Whit­ney Hous­ton and Emily Dickinson

A film about Emily Dickinson and a doc­u­men­tary on Whit­ney Hous­ton may seem worlds apart but, writes Chris­tos Tsi­olkas, both ad­dress – with var­ied suc­cess – the no­tion of di­vine gifts.

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Ter­ence Davies, the di­rec­tor of A Quiet Pas­sion, is one of the most dis­tinc­tive and ele­gant of film­mak­ers work­ing in con­tem­po­rary English lan­guage cin­ema. I have a vivid mem­ory of watch­ing his tril­ogy of early short films at the State Film The­atre in the early 1990s and be­ing over­whelmed by both their clas­si­cal as­sured­ness and their lyrical power. Chil­dren was made in 1976, Madonna and Child in 1980 and the fi­nal film, Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, was com­pleted in 1983. Though be­gun as a stu­dent project, it was as if from the very start of his film­mak­ing ca­reer Davies had syn­the­sised his love and ob­ses­sion as a movie­goer into a co­her­ent and fully formed aes­thetic. As with his first fea­ture, the rap­tur­ously ac­claimed Dis­tant Voices, Still Lives (1988), the tril­ogy is set in work­ing-class mid-20th cen­tury Liver­pool, a world of aus­tere and muted emo­tions. But though he per­fectly cap­tures the grim set­ting, and the dis­tress­ing con­se­quence of sex­ual re­pres­sion, mo­ments of ro­man­tic aban­don suf­fuse the films: the joy of a wo­man break­ing out into song; or a child’s ec­static vi­sion of es­cape. He is ded­i­cated to an un­sen­ti­men­tal and re­al­ist mise en scène but his hu­man­ism is de­fi­antly op­er­atic. The best of his work – which for me in­cludes the tril­ogy, the first fea­ture film and the sublime adap­ta­tion of Edith Whar­ton’s The House of Mirth (2000) – are among the great tragic cin­e­matic works of the past quar­ter-cen­tury.

A Quiet Pas­sion is a bi­og­ra­phy of the poet Emily Dickinson. I have a clear mem­ory of my first en­counter with Dickinson’s po­etry. I was a cal­low youth in high school but for­tu­nate enough to have a won­der­ful English teacher who in­tro­duced me to her work. I re­mem­ber the ex­cite­ment I ex­pe­ri­enced when he first re­cited her poems, the di­rect­ness of her lan­guage and the in­tox­i­cat­ing mu­si­cal­ity of her verses. I bor­rowed a col­lec­tion from the lo­cal li­brary and through her ge­nius I dis­cov­ered the magic of the po­etic form. Born into a New Eng­land Pu­ri­tan fam­ily, and liv­ing her fi­nal years as a recluse, Dickinson’s work is de­cep­tively un­adorned. I say de­cep­tive be­cause what stirs un­der­neath is the po­tent yearn­ing to trans­late the tran­scen­dent into lan­guage. Dickinson was de­voutly re­li­gious but scep­ti­cal of hi­er­ar­chy and church. She never mar­ried, and her most pas­sion­ate friend­ships were with other women. Friend­ship and death, the de­sire for union, all these long­ings and fears erupt in her po­etry. What Amer­i­can Pu­ri­tanism of­fered her, even with her idio­syn­cratic un­der­stand­ing of the faith, was dis­ci­pline and a ded­i­ca­tion to sim­plic­ity and clar­ity that makes her work speak across the cen­turies.

Davies is a film­maker who un­der­stands this Pu­ri­tan world. Though raised a Catholic in Bri­tain, and now an athe­ist, his ex­pe­ri­ence of the cost of emo­tional and sex­ual re­pres­sion, as well as his un­der­stand­ing of the codes of class and caste, al­low him to faith­fully re-cre­ate the ge­og­ra­phy and ar­chi­tec­ture of the mid-19th cen­tury. His is a cin­ema of spa­ces, and he is acutely sen­si­tive to how rooms and in­te­ri­ors are fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant for women, par­tic­u­larly in his­toric mo­ments where the de­mar­ca­tion be­tween pri­vate and pub­lic space was rigidly seg­re­gated. There are mo­ments in the first hour of this film that are won­drous, cap­tur­ing both what was sti­fling and what was en­tranc­ing about the in­ti­macy of fam­ily life.

Equally nu­anced is Davies’ un­der­stand­ing of how lan­guage worked in the 19th cen­tury, par­tic­u­larly in this highly bour­geois re­li­gious world where what was left un­said had equal weight to what was stated. He also wrote the film, and some of its most de­li­cious mo­ments come from the sheer love of words and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It is a won­der­ful cast, from Cynthia Nixon who plays Dickinson, to Jen­nifer Ehle who plays her sis­ter, Vin­nie, and

Dun­can Duff, her brother Austin. I didn’t recog­nise Keith Car­ra­dine at first, as her fa­ther Ed­ward, so con­vinc­ing is he in his por­trayal of a lov­ing but de­ter­minedly proper Pu­ri­tan gen­tle­man. Some of the best com­edy comes from Emily’s in­ter­ac­tion with her Aunt El­iz­a­beth, played with haughty spirit­ed­ness by An­nette Bad­land.

Un­for­tu­nately, the film can’t sus­tain the elan of its first half. In part, I think the prob­lem lies with the con­ven­tions of the bi­og­ra­phy, the need to mark ev­ery point of Dickinson’s life. Her suc­cumb­ing to seclu­sion, the mak­ing of her­self a her­mit within her own home, is never sat­is­fac­to­rily ex­plained and these later scenes feel trun­cated and rushed. An even greater prob­lem is that in try­ing to make Dickinson a hero­ine suit­able and un­der­stand­able to a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence, the script un­der­mines its fidelity to the 19th-cen­tury world. Over the past half-cen­tury there have been many fem­i­nist and queer read­ings of Dickinson and her work. And it is cer­tainly true she was com­mit­ted to both abo­li­tion­ism and to women’s equal­ity. Too of­ten the film posits her as iso­lated in her views. But among many of her fam­ily and her friends, abo­li­tion­ism was a shared be­lief. Equally, the only writ­ers Dickinson reveres in the film are the Brontë sis­ters. But Dickinson is writ­ing at a time when Whit­man has pub­lished Leaves of Grass and Melville and Poe have ini­ti­ated a revo­lu­tion in the English lan­guage; I wanted to know if she was aware of their writ­ing, what she thought of it. But by mak­ing her an icon­o­clast ac­cept­able to a 21stcen­tury au­di­ence, and by not of­fer­ing a per­spec­tive on her re­la­tion­ship to this seis­mic mo­ment in Amer­i­can let­ters, the film un­der­mines her as a writer and in­tel­lec­tual.

In the end, A Quiet Pas­sion is too rev­er­ent. In mak­ing Dickinson heroic, we grow dis­tant from her ex­pres­sion and po­etry. Nixon, too, floun­ders in the film’s lat­ter scenes, an in­di­ca­tion of how the script is fail­ing the poet. Through­out the film, Nixon, in voiceover, reads from Dickinson’s po­etry and the use of the read­ings feels too lit­eral, a con­ces­sion to the bi­o­graph­i­cal genre. I wanted other voices to be read­ing the poems, to be as­ton­ished or ex­cited by the in­ter­locu­tion of both our con­tem­po­rary and the 19th-cen­tury views of Dickinson. Davies is clearly not in­ter­ested in such abrupt Brechtian dis­tanc­ing but he hasn’t man­aged to find a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing the rad­i­cal power of her work. A Quiet Pas­sion has great for­mal beauty but its por­trayal of Dickinson is, fi­nally, sadly in­ert. We miss her words.

Protes­tantism brought clar­ity and vigour to Amer­i­can English and it was also fun­da­men­tal to the de­vel­op­ment of gospel, that rev­o­lu­tion­ary ex­pres­sion of ex­al­ta­tion and sal­va­tion that be­gan in the black churches and was to trans­form mu­sic well into our cur­rent cen­tury. The seek­ing of rap­ture and re­demp­tion that one ex­pe­ri­ences in gospel mu­sic is also there in soul, in rhythm and blues, in funk and disco and in house. In my reck­on­ing, it is there in jazz and hip-hop as well. Whit­ney Hous­ton, the sub­ject of the new doc­u­men­tary, Whit­ney: Can I Be Me, was born into a proudly black neigh­bour­hood of New Jersey and her mother was the great gospel artist Cissy Hous­ton. Her in­spi­ra­tion through­out her life re­mained gospel. It’s there in her singing, in her mu­sic.

Whit­ney Hous­ton’s life ended in the wretched tragedy of drug ad­dic­tion and self-loathing. It might seem at first glance that there is noth­ing she shares with the white bour­geois Dickinson, but as the doc­u­men­tary makes clear, Hous­ton never aban­doned her faith that her voice was a gift from God. This no­tion of di­vine gift, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity ac­crued by such a be­stow­ing, is some­thing she shares with the great poet.

Nick Broom­field, the co-di­rec­tor of Whit­ney: Can I Be Me, along­side Aus­trian film­maker Rudi Dolezal, of­ten in­serts him­self into his doc­u­men­taries, cul­ti­vat­ing a brash per­sona as a naughty child-adult, seem­ingly ob­sessed with per­ver­sion and ex­cess. The con­se­quence is that of­ten his work can be wildly undis­ci­plined, both grace­less and form­less. But he isn’t self-right­eous and he isn’t cruel and in his best work, such as 1992’s Aileen Wuornos: The Sell­ing of a Se­rial Killer, he ex­tends em­pa­thy and re­gard to out­casts and out­siders. This em­pa­thy is at work in the cur­rent doc­u­men­tary and it makes it one of his finest films.

We are told early on that the phrase “can I be me?” was de­ployed as a re­frain by Whit­ney Hous­ton. Pos­sessed of a truly mar­vel­lous voice, and mas­ter­ing con­trol of her in­stru­ment from an as­ton­ish­ingly young age, suc­cess and fame came early to Hous­ton. The spine of the film is footage shot dur­ing her fi­nal Euro­pean tour in the late 1990s. What is re­vealed is both in­ti­mate and can­did and it is clear that the film­mak­ers won the trust of many of Hous­ton’s col­leagues and friends. There is some ex­quis­ite footage and pho­to­graphs of the young Whit­ney, singing in the Bap­tist Church, hang­ing out with her sib­lings.

One of the film’s strengths is how it gen­tly prods the sig­nif­i­cance of Hous­ton’s re­frain, of how the com­pli­cated in­ter­sec­tions of race, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity af­fected her choices and the re­cep­tion of her tal­ent. She was part of that pi­o­neer­ing gen­er­a­tion of African-Amer­i­can artists, along­side Michael Jackson and Prince, who started to break down the rigid seg­re­ga­tion be­tween “white mu­sic” and “black mu­sic”. This cross­ing over brought great fi­nan­cial suc­cess to these artists but it also of­ten iso­lated them from their own com­mu­ni­ties. One of the shock­ing mo­ments in the film is footage from the Soul Train awards in the late 1980s. In a cer­e­mony ded­i­cated to cel­e­brat­ing African-Amer­i­can mu­sic, Hous­ton is booed when her name comes up for an award. She’s just not black enough. That mo­ment haunts the rest of the film, cap­tur­ing the dan­gers of the Faus­tian pact im­plicit in the emer­gence of what we now call iden­tity pol­i­tics: of how the goal­posts of au­then­tic­ity keep shift­ing; of how envy and schaden­freude can be masked as ethics.

The film makes its po­lit­i­cal points soberly and care­fully. Hous­ton’s self-im­age was not only af­fected by racism and per­cep­tions of race but also by the se­ques­ter­ing of queer iden­tity. The doc­u­men­tary leaves open the ques­tion of what pre­cisely Hous­ton’s sex­u­al­ity was, though in my read­ing she loved both women and men. The fact that no clear def­i­ni­tion can be of­fered in­di­cates some­thing of how taboo sex­u­al­ity was in the pe­riod of Hous­ton’s great­est fame.

The doc­u­men­tary grants Hous­ton re­spect and I am very glad for that. Even at her most dam­aged from drugs, her voice could still stun. I only wish the film­mak­ers had a greater knowl­edge and cu­rios­ity for the mu­si­cal his­tory that was cru­cial to Hous­ton’s art. The boo­ing at the Soul Train awards was not only about race and sell­ing out. The


black artists shout­ing her down were also stak­ing a claim against disco and its as­so­ci­a­tion with gay cel­e­bra­tion and joy. That’s a dif­fi­cult and po­ten­tially in­cen­di­ary ex­plo­ration, par­tic­u­larly for white Euro­pean film­mak­ers, but I don’t think we can come to a full un­der­stand­ing of Hous­ton with­out this story also be­ing told. Just as Ter­ence Davies gets lost and for­gets that what was cen­tral to Dickinson is pre­cisely her art, her po­etry, Broom­field and Dolezal don’t give the mu­sic its due. Hous­ton’s early work was pure pop mu­sic but it was her ex­hil­a­ra­tion, built on the foun­da­tions of gospel, that made it come alive on the ra­dio and on the dance floor. And as her life was spi­ralling out of con­trol, her re­la­tion­ships as mother, wife, lover and daugh­ter fail­ing, she cuts an LP, 1998’s My Love Is Your Love that is one of the great con­tem­po­rary soul records. In the track “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” her fierce­ness and her con­trol do seem mirac­u­lous. The film asks many nec­es­sary ques­tions. But the story of how an artist cre­ates such di­vine mu­sic from within so much alien­ation and pain re­mains the greater ques­tion, and

• that one is left unan­swered.

CHRIS­TOS TSI­OLKAS is the au­thor of The Slap and Bar­racuda. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s film critic.

Cynthia Nixon (above, cen­tre) as 19-cen­tury Amer­i­can poet Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Pas­sion and (fac­ing page) footage of Whit­ney Hous­ton per­form­ing in Whit­ney: Can I Be Me.

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