Wednesday, January 30, 2019

For Emily Dickinson, the Personal Wasn't All That Political

Emily Dickinson has become, with Walt Whitman, the founding poet of American poetry. She is beloved by both scholars and casual readers, the subject of endless volumes of literary criticism and the source of quotations for a plethora of Etsy products and Instagram images. It's common to lament that Dickinson didn't receive acclaim and was barely even published during her lifetime, never mind that she was ambivalent at best about presenting her work in print. It would be easy to assume that this lack of literary success while she was alive was the result of misogynistic publishing practice, but as Susan Howe has pointed out in an interview in The Birth-mark, "Emily Dickinson's inability to get her work published during her lifetime had almost nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman and everything to do with her originality." This is a more than fair point: American women writers can be counted among some of the most popular and critically successful during the nineteenth century, from Julia Ward Howe to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller to Louisa May Alcott, and many others forgotten by all but specialist scholars today. Women poets, in particular, were treasured by American readers, precisely because it was believed that women could voice particular notions of beauty, simplicity, and truth from the domestic sphere that men could not. Thus, women's publishing success in the nineteenth century was not a feminist victory in the twenty-first century sense, since it was predicated on biologically essentialist assumptions about gender.

Howe further argues that, "I think she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap." Howe's contention is fascinating and worth exploring further, not least of all because it challenges numerous received notions of contemporary feminism.

Today, it is taken for granted in feminist circles that women ought to be, and ought to want to be, empowered and that empowerment is attained through self-expression. To remain silent is to be oppressed, suppressed, repressed. Feminists are supposed to raise their voices and speak. However, speaking is not in and of itself empowering. If no one is listening to you, or no one who is listening understands you, it is speaking, and not silence, that becomes oppressive. One of the central problems of women's lives, in this very moment, is that a woman's 'no' is often heard as a 'yes' or a 'maybe' or 'whatever you say, mister.' Further, if we are all speaking, we create cacophony, rather than empowerment.

Choosing to remain silent is not a refusal of self-empowerment, but it is also not a means of self-empowerment. Instead, that choice elides the question of empowerment altogether. It is to assert, staunchly, with Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." In Dickinson's case, the silence of not publishing her poetry was also a means of creating a space in which her poetry could be unharnessed from the constraints of the cold realities of the public literary forum. She did not need to write apologia for her unusual syntax, her idiosyncratic punctuation, her elliptical references and ambiguous grammar. She did not need to neutralize the ironic observations, hitting her targets like Robin Hood's arrows, or the small blasphemies that seem quite modern to us and might have seemed unfeminine and indecent in her own day. She slips out from under the carapace of womanhood in a society that only valued angels in their homes and unlaces the corset of regular verse insisted upon by the arbiters of poetic culture.

From today's vantage point, it seems a shame that Dickinson became the darling of American poetry only after her death, that her work was only published after her death. She can't tell us how the poems ought to look on the page. She can't tell us which poems are finished and which are fragments, if she would even have seen a difference between the two. But it's questionable whether this circumstance is a tragedy or a felicity. There is a quality in Dickinson's work that can't be pinned down. She is a literary butterfly that escapes every net. "Split the lark," she wrote, "and you'll find the music." But Emily Dickinson is one lark that we can't split open, plainly and simply because she repaired into a poetic world of her own making, one without any publisher but her own hand. Does that make her 'empowered'? Perhaps not. Can we really, in all sincerity, imagine the white-clad, slant-rhyming woman receding into the distant past wanting to be empowered? At such an idea, I cannot help but see her with a bemused, Mona Lisa smile. Feminism demands empowerment because it demands that women be visibly, vocally participant in the socio-economic sphere, but Dickinson didn't need to be empowered because her poetry didn't depend on the faddish caprices of society or the hollow rewards of capitalist economy. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Short Films for Fans of Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin is more famous for her personal life - particularly the sexual aspect of it - than for her writing, though of course, it can be difficult in her case to separate the two since her most read works are her diaries. They're heavily expurgated, but nevertheless frank and, unsurprisingly, it was her intense love affair with Henry Miller and his wife June that Philip Kaufman chose to make the theme of his biographical film. The focus on Nin as a sexual figure tends to overshadow all but the sexual aspects of her writing, not all of which was confessional narration of her sex life or erotica. In fact, her collections of erotica were published posthumously and, although the volumes of her continuous novel, Cities of the Interior, are certainly not lacking in intensely sensual scenes of sex and desire, I am struck every time I read her work by the delicacy of the way she describes music, interiority, the body as it dances or walks down a street, the oddity and eccentricity of people. Nin's lightning-strike poems and stories have little in common with Kaufman's film, which runs well over two hours, and wears its lengthy runtime rather obviously. It's safe to say that Nin, always experimenting literarily, sexually, and intellectually, would prefer an evening of experimental short films than a slog of a film that, despite Kaufman's long shots and copper-tinged lighting, isn't very sexy. Here are seven to start with: 

At Land (1944)
Nin actually worked with avant-garde director and scholar of dance Maya Deren on another of her films, Ritual in Transfigured Time. The two women had many obsessions in common, from dance to psychoanalysis, poetry, women's interiority and the dream. Deren wrote, directed, and starred in At Land, an elliptical oneiric journey that begins with a woman washed up on a beach. Though not as erotically charged as Meshes of the Afternoon or her dance-centric shorts, At Land dives deep in what Nin would have termed a woman's cities of the interior.

The House Is Black (1963)
Forough Farrokhzad's documentary about a leper colony is actually a film about beauty that breaks the heart. Farrokhzad narrates her only film with her own poems and passages from the Koran and the Bible, her lilting voice carrying us through scenes that could be horrifying if she didn't waft us as lightly as a feather through them. The eye of her camera refuses to see ugliness, capturing instead as beauty's opposite the suffering of those afflicted. 

The Man with the Suitcase (1983)
Like Deren and Farrokhzad, Chantal Akerman also appears in her film, as a fictional version of herself, a writer who finds she cannot manage to work because the presence of a house guest completely upsets her usual routine. Each time she sits down to write, she is assailed by the knowledge that the man staying with her might come in or go out; she tries to sneak into the bathroom unseen and scarf down breakfast before he wakes up. Whether one sees an allegory of the anxiety of literary creation or the coexistence of women with unwanted men, this film is remarkably funny!

Mermaid (Rusalka) (1997)
Nin's obsession with aquatic metaphors, with images of oceans, waves, and mermaids, would be satisfied by this gorgeous and astounding adaptation of the Slavic fairy tale of Rusalka, created by Aleksandr Petrov. Petrov is a magician whose films are animated by filming the transformation of oil paint as it dries on panes of glass. Visually exquisite, Mermaid dramatizes the tragedy of love spurned, chains of broken hearts drowning one after the other as each takes its revenge.

La P'tite Lili (1927)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti's collaboration with a very young Jean Renoir, acting opposite his then-wife and muse Catherine Hessling, is in a deplorable state and possibly past the point of being properly restored. Even so, this adaptation of the popular song (with the score arranged by modernist composer Darius Milhaud) is oodles of horror-tinged fun, jauntily telling us the story of the p'tite Lili, a bow-mouthed orphan who becomes a fallen woman and meets a nasty end.

Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)
Though often described as a documentary, Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's impressionistic telling of French history through photographs taken by Denise Bellon, the latter's mother, throughout her life, has such a prismatic and specific to the point of eccentric approach to its subjects that it ought to be placed in its own realm: it shows us the truth, but it's a truth that is slippery and personal and contingent. This is history as diary - Denise Bellon's visions of her France show the country transforming, but they do not let us slip into a universalized, totalized mode of historical thinking. 

Themes and Variations (1928)
Today, Germaine Dulac's reputation rests on her groundbreaking film, The Smiling Madame Beudet, which is widely regarded as the first feminist film, but Dulac was a prolific, professional filmmaker and was constantly experimenting. I adored this exercise in montage and rhythm, cutting between a ballerina's limbs and the pistons of a metallic machine. Themes and Variations mesmerizes the viewer, who comes to actually hear phantom music through the silent film's manipulation of rhythmic editing.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Is Dario Argento's "Suspiria" a Dance Film?

Ballet isn't the most popular of art forms in the twenty-first century. In the United States at least, it probably owes its continued, if threatened, existence almost exclusively to the annual bonanza of The Nutcracker, a Christmas tradition that even those who would never dream of seeing any other ballet often hold dear. So it's perhaps no great surprise that most people will struggle to come up with many ballet films off the top of their heads. Most people will come up with Black Swan, Suspiria, and not much else. I, however, love ballet and have compiled a list of what I believe are the very best ballet films. Since then, I've found a few more that I would add to that list - Ben Hecht's preposterous but atmospheric Specter of the Rose and Dancer, a documentary about Ukrainian ballet wunderkind and bad boy Sergei Polunin - but I hadn't up until now seen the film that usually tops lists of films about dance: Dario Argento's Suspiria.

I didn't care for it, but that's no surprise. I don't tend to like horror films and I found it to be an alternately oppressive and silly experience. What I wasn't expecting, given its prominence in discussions of ballet on film, is that it really isn't a ballet film. Though set in what we are told is an elite dancing academy, there are no ballet sequences. The students only dance in one scene in the entire film and that scene makes it embarrassingly clear that Argento didn't bother casting dancers. Their gawky, awkward leaps and turns, uncoordinated and ungraceful, look ridiculous. Argento has a reputation for laissez-faire directing, but my goodness, the brief display in this scene is bad to the point of pain.

Perhaps a film needn't have actual dance sequences to have something to say about dance, but in the case of Suspiria, dance is essentially a means to an aesthetic end, but not an especially interesting one. Putting willowy girls in skintight black onesies onscreen seems to have been the most crucial reason for the Tanz Dance Academy (the 'Dance Dance Academy' if we translate the German - oh dear) to be a dance school, instead of, say, a cooking school or a painting school. Dance is totally beside the point.

Thus, I don't see any way in which Suspiria could be considered a dance film, though from what I have heard, without having seen it, Luca Guadagnino's remake could be so considered. What frustrates about this incorrect genre labeling is that it indicates the paucity of attention that actual dance films receive. Why should Suspiria be the automatic first choice for any list of dance films when it doesn't have any actual dancing in it? Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, though rarely if ever classified as a dance film (except perhaps by yours truly) has a lot to say about dance and includes scenes of one of Pina Bausch's ballets. Calling Suspiria a film about dance is a bit like saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is about teaching university classes or Casablanca is about how to run a bar. The 'Dance of the Hours' sequence in Fantasia, with its affectionately ludicrous choreography, its dainty hippos, airy elephants, and slithery crocodiles, expresses something of the sublime absurdity of the dance. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a film in which dance is nothing more than a minor ploy to get its heroine propelled into the academy of the occult.