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.
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
BY MAKING DICKINSON AN ICONOCLAST ACCEPTABLE TO A 21ST-CENTURY AUDIENCE, THE FILM UNDERMINES HER AS A WRITER AND INTELLECTUAL.
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.