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Thread: WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY (Madeline Olnek 2018)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY (Madeline Olnek 2018)



    Emily laughs

    Madeleine Olnek is a director of apparent lesbian bent, hitherto virtually unknown (but a Frameline regular), who has now garnered wider arthouse-chain attention and good mainstream reviews with her third feature about the great American poet Emily Dickinson. This is above all a welcome corrective to the downbeat and rigid cliche of the poet as lonely unrecognized recluse in which Terence Davies revels in his depressing 2016 A Quiet Passion. Olnek uses new and old information to present a quite different view that is laced with humor and satire.

    The basic facts are often the same, but seen from a wholly new angle. She lived in Amherst, and didn't go out much. We meet the Atlantic Monthly editor who came and talked for three or four hours, but refused to publish her. He's clearly terrified by her, a fool and a twit.

    A lot of what happens to the poet this time is bright fun - the sudden kiss of Emily and Susan, their fall on the floor, and later romp in bed. Laugh if you will, but it could have happened. Importantly, we spend time with Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), the tastelessly dressed woman (in a pink blush dress) who brought Emily early wide recognition after her death, but at the cost of blotting out names and her distinctive dashes and making ignorant claims. Just the dashes though, bright sunshine, and a few wild love-scuffles with a lady are enough to make this important writer more complex, more interesting, and a great deal less grim.

    The performances in Davies' film may have been more sophisticated, the mood more intense, but his film didn't serve the memory of the person and her work. Quite the contrary. This time, the crude and somewhat comical moments, self-identification into the camera, loud clothes, the surprising hilarity of the embraces, are all aspects of Olnek's deliberate strategy to blast the suffering artist cliche and to inject fun into her subject - as Davies relentlessly injected the deathly ink of gloom into his version. Davies is a specialist in sorrow, and he chose as his Emily Cynthia Nixon, who performed an Oscar-worthy dying act in Josh Mond's interesting James White. But the information Davies used is cliched and superficial. Olnek ins't going for subtlety so much as for comedy, but not without presenting up-to-date information.

    Olnek studied Emily's papers at Harvard, and was allowed by the Amherst Library to photograph her letters. There is good reason to suppose that Susan Dickinson (Susan Ziegler) wasn’t just the poet's brother Austin’s wife and Amherst neighbor but her intellectual helpmate and her lover, as shown here from an early public Shakespeare reading by the young Emily and Susan (Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova), their first flirt, the beginning of a 40-year relationship. It's obviously hinted that Susan's marriage to Emily's brother was just an excuse to be near her. This new film shows Mabel and cohorts cleaning up Emily's act posthumously by erasing the name "Susan" from her letters. Mabel is a satirical figure, to be sympathized with herself for being put down by men, but not remotely up to Emily's intellectual and creative standard and something Emily didn't suffer gladly, a fool.

    This film has the fine sense of physicality that a great artist deserves. Not only is there the love-making, which gives a whole new sense to the famous line, "I taste a liquor never brewed." There's also a piano that sends off violin sounds, a yowling cat that's only a bundle of fake fur, a tasty piece of cake that Emily sends down to some eager kids in a basket, and her again pulling out wadded paper with poems on them from her hair for Susan. We see the poem manuscripts, we learn how many there were.

    Emily Dickinson does and doesn't occupy center stage in this movie. Mabel Todd not only promoted the poet at the cost of despoiling her legacy. She had already seduced Emily's brother Austin (Kevin Seal) away from his first wife Susan (Susan Ziegler), the poet’s best friend - and more. One reason Mabel painted Emily as a recluse (apart from its harmony with tragic artist cliches) is that Emily had been unwilling to have anything to do with her. The focus on that, and the satire of the fools who surrounded the poet, leave less room than there might otherwise have been for the poetry itself.

    All this can be confusing, too. Olnek's screenplay isn't the most lucid piece of exposition. But this is also simply a film you ought to watch again once the new angle is clear, to appreciate better what Olnek is doing (the short run-time makes re-watches manageable) . This is a fresh and promising movie. Let's hope Madeline Olnek stays in the limelight for further efforts.

    Wild Nights with Emily, 85 mins., debuted at SXSW last year, followed by inclusion in at least sixteen other festivals, mostly in the US. The US theatrical release began 12 April 2019.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-25-2019 at 09:38 PM.


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