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How to Capture an Artist
[SYLVIA & IN THE MIRROR OF MAYA DEREN]


Sylvia

** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Written by John Brownlow
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, AmiraCasar, Andrew Havill, Lucy Davenport, Blythe Danner, and Michael Gambon.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren

**** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Martina Kudlacek

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin.The sin.

– Sylvia Plath, "Fever 103 °"

In film, I can make the world dance.

– Maya Deren

In college it always seemed like the guys who were poets got more girls than the prose writers. The assumption was that poets had all the romance and sensuality associated with their medium working for them. Poetry, after all, isn't just a block of printed material; it's an activity, and one that can turn people on sexually as well as spiritually.

In cultures such as those of Russia and Iran sexual and spiritual qualities tend to run neck and neck: the great Persian poet ForoughFarrokhzad (1935-'67), a fan of Sylvia Plath, retains a mythic allure that combines the auras of Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday, and Marilyn Monroe. And an erotic charge is one of the first things that Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath (1932-'63), gets right. It pervades the initial encounters between the title heroine and Ted Hughes in Cambridge, England, in 1956. The film arrives at these meetings with exemplary dispatch, after opening with Plath's excruciating declaration in "Lady Lazarus": "Dying / Is an art, like everything else, / I do it exceptionally well." The brisk action that follows and the lack of fuss over exposition gave me some assurance that director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter John Brownlow knew what they were up to.

Todd McCarthy writes in Variety, "There's a big piece missing from the picture's center: The all-encompassing connection that brought the couple together in the first place is never made palpable." I disagree. The couple's shared passion for poetry, depicted mainly in small but telling details, is certainly an all-encompassing connection, though I can't swear those details are made palpable for everyone.

I object more strenuously to McCarthy's opening gambit — "As grim as much of Sylvia Plath's life may have been, it wasn't as relentlessly bleak as the movie Sylvia" — which I'd probably find presumptuous even if it came from one of her friends. Of course presumed knowledge about her life has been a central aspect of the Plath myth ever since her suicide at 30, which helped to bring that myth into being — especially for those who've fetishized her as a prefeminist martyr. I find nothing bleaker about the life of Plath and Hughes than something this movie pointedly, if understandably, omits: AssiaGutmannWevill (played in the film by AmiraCasar) — with whom Hughes lived after he separated from Plath and with whom he had a daughter, Shura — killed herself and Shura six years after Plath's suicide, when she was 34 and Shura 2. She turned on the gas in her kitchen stove, just as Plath did. It's worth adding that Wevill was a poet, and that, according to Paul Alexander's biographyRough Magic, the "burden of living in the shadow of Plath" played a significant role in motivating her act.

The terrible thing about Plath "dying exceptionally well" is that her suicide appeared to clinch her fame — as if the poetry she wrote wasn't quite enough.

Maya deren

I remember how angry I was when one of my professors argued that her suicide "proved" many of the assertions of her poems, giving them a legitimacy they wouldn't have had otherwise. Whether one buys this theory or not, it points to the factor that dooms most literary biopics, including serious ones — the all but obligatory tendency to privilege the life over the work. In this case the filmmakers had legal restrictions on how much they could quote from Plath, guaranteeing that the space for her poetry would be small. (As partial compensation, we get a fair sampling of other people's poetry, including Chaucer's.)Considering the myth making that has surrounded Plath's reputation from the outset, a dispassionate view of her life has never been easy, and the film's most admirable achievement is its refusal to take sides in the dispute between her and her late husband, viewing both with sympathy and compassion. One of the best aspects of Gwyneth Paltrow's finely tuned performance is her capacity to convey Plath's chronic depression without making us recoil from it, and Daniel Craig takes on the task of representing Hughes's womanizing with a comparable feeling for complexity and nuance. Making this couple's relationship more important than their poetry surely wasn't the movie's intention, but it becomes the central program nonetheless. And this locks the movie into an imposture, because without their poetry we wouldn't know or care about their relationship.

One reason it's an imposture is that cinema and poetry aren't merely disparate art forms but largely incompatible ones. (Farrokhzad's only film, The House Is Black, is the only successful fusion that comes to mind.) Poetry has to be read slowly — one of the things that makes it sexy — and even though some great films move slowly, commercially minded biopics do so at their peril. Consider the three short lines from Plath's "Fever 103°" quoted above or any five-line stanza from "Daddy," another desperate late poem, written a week before "Fever": the poetry must be allowed to reverberate — to drift and spread, line by line and word by word. And how many movies that star Paltrow have the time for that? Indeed, as I've suggested, one of the nicest things about Sylvia, at least in the beginning, is its unusual speed. Yet speed is ultimately relevant only to storytelling; it has almost nothing to do with composing or reading poetry, except when it's recited as quickly as possible for laughs, as happens in one early scene here.

The problem is, people's lives aren't stories. They have to be turned into stories to become fodder for biopics, and the interpretations that shape them are likely to be determined by the needs of dramaturgy. I'm no expert on Plath's life, but even a superficial skimming of Rough Magicreveals that her mother played a much larger role in her life than the film's mother (Blythe Danner, the real-life mother of Paltrow). The film uses her character mainly to offer exposition about Plath's past during her sole appearance, when Sylvia brings Hughes home to meet her; once that task is gracefully accomplished by Danner, she's not allowed to interfere with the story again. I can't imagine what a biopic about Maya Deren (1917-'61) — the person who did the most to create American experimental film as we know it — would be like, and I hope I never have to find out.


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