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Review by Scott Edward Anderson
When telling someone else’s story – perhaps even one’s own – it is hard not to do so from a certain perspective or position. Two recent films whose subject is the poet Elizabeth Bishop provide examples of distinct storytelling approaches: the first, a documentary with a particular political slant; the second, a semi-fictionalized biopic that is a little fast and loose with facts and chronology.
With some anticipation I and my wife went to see “Welcome to This House” (2015), Barbara Hammer’s film about poet Elizabeth Bishop through the lens of her various domiciles. I expected an exploration into the meaning and impact of those homes on Bishop’s life and writing, but I was disappointed.
Displaced most of her life, place became important to Bishop, from her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, to the Key West house she shared with Louise Crane; from New York apartments to the several houses she famously “lost” in her poem, “One Art,” including those she shared in Brazil with her lover and companion Lota de Macedo Soares. An exegesis of her poetry from a place perspective I thought promising and useful to further understanding the poet’s work.
Instead, what Hammer provides is only a shell of Bishop’s houses, the camera gliding or spinning through them devoid of feeling and emotion. Perhaps I misunderstood Hammer’s premise for the film, for what she delivers could have perhaps been better titled, “Welcome to This Flophouse,” using as she does Bishop’s houses to portray Bishop as a promiscuous sexual predator with a dizzying array of lovers and prey. While Bishop did have several lovers before and after her 15-year stint with Lota in Brazil, it doesn’t quite jibe with the picture of Bishop from her most assiduous biographer.
“Elizabeth was so estranged from her feelings,” Brett Millier writes in her book, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993). “It is possible she did not hear or could not respect the signals her mind and body sent.”
Contrast this with Hammer’s depiction of Bishop, which she cultivates from stylized interviews with Bishop scholars, poets, and former students, and that seem at times more reality TV than serious documentary, with their gossipy speculation and slightly embarrassing “did she or didn’t she” line of questioning.
This distracts us from the real power Bishop’s homes had on her, especially the Great Village house, with its famous scream from her short story, “In the Village,” but also the house in the Brazilian mountains north of Rio, Samambaia, which Lota designed and built and into which she and Bishop moved in 1952.
“Samambaia became her true home,” novelist William Boyd noted in the Guardian a few years ago. She wrote many of her most famous poems in the house and in the little studio Lota built for her on its grounds and when she lost it after Lota’s death (Lota bequeathed it to Mary Morse, about whom I’ll say more below); Bishop lost more than a house.
As Boyd writes, “Bishop’s eventual departure from the place that she had loved, and that made her as a poet, was fraught, shaming and embittering.”
To focus on Bishop’s alleged affairs as Hammer does lends nothing to our understanding of the poet or her poetry. Bishop led, as Boyd asserts, “a life of profound emotional and intellectual complexity.” Reducing Bishop’s life to sexual pursuits or conquests that may or may not have taken place in these houses totally misses the mark and makes the film a sort of agenda vehicle rather than documentary.
If only this film focused instead on the conflict Bishop felt between her self-imposed exile and feeling at home, as she finally did in Brazil. “The position pressured issues with which her writing had dealt since the beginning of her career,” writes Victoria Harrison in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy. “The concepts of home and not-home were foregrounded for her amid this oddly coincidental social geography.”
How much more interesting, at least to this viewer, that line of questioning promises for a film titled “Welcome to This House.”
Bruno Barreto’s “Reaching for the Moon” (2013), on the other hand is a more even-handed, if flawed treatment of Bishop’s complicated love life.
Part fiction, part biopic, the film is really a love story told in an old Hollywood style, a sumptuously filmed period piece. With its portrayal of Bishop’s relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares from the poet’s arrival in Brazil in 1951 (not actually their first meeting; they met in New York in 1942) until Lota’s suicide in New York in 1967, and the domestic arrangement cum love triangle that Bishop walked into with her Vassar classmate Mary Morse and Lota.
Miranda Otto’s performance as Bishop and Gloria Pires’s as Lota are beautifully understated and rarely give in to the melodrama such a story might engender. Rather, the actresses portray an adult relationship of genuine love and creative nurturing, with its attendant jealousies and betrayals, joys and passions.
When Lota tells Bishop to stay with her in Brazil and notes that Mary will stay on as well, it is because to give in to convention in any relationship is inauthentic, in her view. The stress of maintaining her authenticity and her relentless drive to create a “people’s park” on the Rio coastline, pushed her relationship with Bishop to the background and, ultimately, led to Lota’s suicide. Barreto treats this moment, too, with a light hand, if not accuracy.
Anyone who has loved and lost or feared losing can relate to Lota’s and Bishop’s plight. We are in the room with Lota when she takes the pills and with Bishop when she discovers her dead lover on the couch. (In fact, Lota was taken to the hospital and it was thought she might recover from a Valium overdose, but didn’t.)
In that moment it matters only that they are ill-fated lovers, because the feelings expressed are real and palpable. Barreto does his audience the courtesy of letting us feel, rather than beating us over the head with a political platform. He’s showing not telling, as the old writing instruction goes.
The film occasionally falls into the trap of many biopics, using an anachronistic device to frame its story, which opens in New York in 1951, shortly before Bishop’s departure for Brazil. She’s sitting on a park bench in Central Park with her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, sharing a stanza or two of a new poem about the art of losing. Lowell criticizes her “observations broken into lines,” which decides things for Bishop, and she leaves for a trip abroad.
In fact, “One Art,” wasn’t written until the mid-1970s, in a flourish that produced 17 drafts in a short span of time, unusual for Bishop’s career. Bishop sent Lowell this “one & only villanelle of my life, written about 6 weeks ago” in a letter on February 24, 1976.
Lowell replied “Your poem came to the right buyer. An aching subject, as the art even of losing must be. Your stoical humor persuades me that loss is an advantage. Or is it the form – each rhythm, rhyme and pause right? The last 4 lines are the triumph, here the poet’s voice rings out. I am reminded of Wyatt or Herbert. You command your words.”
Bishop’s poetry is hot in cinema these days, in particular this poem, which both Cameron Diaz (“In Her Shoes,” 2005) and Julianne Moore (“Still Alice,” 2014) recite in recent films.
Like any poet whose reputation is in the ascendancy, this risks the poem being overplayed or overdone. Bishop herself apologized for “One Art,” saying, “I’m afraid it’s a sort of a tearjerker.”
The poem lasts and has resonance today because it distilled the intensity of her feelings through a filter that depersonalized it and made it less confessional, more universal. In other words, while she made art out of the stuff of her life, she allowed readers to identify with the sentiment rather than be told how to feel.
In the end that’s the difference between “Welcome to This House” and “Reaching for the Moon.” The former tells us how we should feel and doesn’t allow us to enter the story; the latter shows us a story without judgment or agenda, even if the storyteller is a little loose with the details.
Bishop’s life is complicated enough – she lost her father at an early age and her mother went mad as a result; she was shuttled between homes and family in Nova Scotia and Worcester, Massachusetts, and felt like an outsider in every aspect of her life thereafter – without filmmakers adding more layers of complexity.
Films like these are part of an ongoing reassessment of Elizabeth Bishop and her work and, while we can’t expect them to be as perfect as a Bishop poem, we can ask more of their creators in terms of respect for their subject than letting facts get in the way of a good story.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field: Poems and Walks in Nature’s Empire. He has written about Elizabeth Bishop for The Bloomsbury Review, the Worcester Review, and other publications.
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