"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Filmmaker John D. Scott shares a documentary project

From the Magpie Productions Proposal for "Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing"

I. The Stories


This is the story of one of twentieth century's best poets. She won many prizes and honours, including the Pulitzer Prize and two Guggenheims. Since her death in 1979, admiration for Elizabeth Bishop’s keen craftsmanship and unpretentious, accessible, conversational style has broadened and deepened to the point where she is now considered by many to be the very best poet of her generation and one of the most influential poets on modern writers. Central to Elizabeth Bishop’s story was her ability (and her struggle) to express profound, universally held feelings with an interplay of rhythm, story and the distinct, arresting images that made the commonplace seem magical. This is a story of someone who was a genius with words.

The Search for Home

Equally, if not more compelling, is her personal story. Elizabeth Bishop suffered from profound misfortune. Her father died when she was an infant. And then when Elizabeth was five years old her mother went mad and was committed for the remainder of her life to a sanitorium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elizabeth spent the pivotal moments of this extremely anguished childhood with her grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Though a desperate time her life, Elizabeth developed a deep connection to the colourful characters, the oral traditions and the sense of community that she felt in this town. From the people and the rhythms of this place came a resonating affirmation of who she was. And later, her time here worked as a muse to Elizabeth’s unsentimental and playful, poetic voice, giving rise to heightened, and at times magical visions of this place. In fact, much of her greatest work re-imagines scenes from Nova Scotia, including the poems “First Death in Nova Scotia,” “The Moose,” “The Map,” “Cirque D’Hiver,” “Sandpiper” and the short story “In the Village.” Shortly after her mother was committed to the hospital Elizabeth was forced to leave her mother’s hometown in Great Village and went to live with relations in “the Boston States.” This was a very unhappy move and it began a life-long trend in her life of moving from one place to the next. This move set in motion a quest for that same sense of “home” she once felt in that community. This search, and its roots in her time in Great Village, Nova Scotia is the central story element of this documentary.

Mastering the Art of Losing

And what comes of this search? Despite her success as a poet, Bishop’s life was difficult. Enormously sensitive and shy, and troubled by a sense of not belonging, she became an alcoholic who nearly killed herself on a few occasions. She did have good friends but her love relationships tended to end badly – and in one instance suicide. Because of all her anxieties and her exceptionally high standards she was only able to finish one-hundred-and-one poems in four very slim books of poetry. (Her famous poem “The Moose,” for example, took twenty-five years for her to write.) Furthermore, in the latter part of her life she taught poetry composition at Harvard University but she was an uninspiring, awkward teacher who students felt was out of touch, and who other faculty dismissed as an intellectual lightweight. And while her poetry won prizes she was not well-known or well-loved by the public. Her poetry was criticized for being "out-of-date" cold and impersonal. In short, viewed from a distance, her personal and professional life can be interpreted as a series of elaborate failures and losses.

Near the end of her life, at a point where one of her great loves leaves her, Bishop, writes what will become her most-loved poem, "One Art." "One Art" is considered one of the greatest villanelles ever written and re-asserts Bishop as one of the best poets of her generation. But it is more than great writing: the poem also contains great wisdom. It starts by introducing the quixotic phrase “the art of losing" and asserts teasingly that one can easily master it. But of course, how one master’s “losing” is a real question for Bishop, who as we know was orphaned early in life, and, who almost kills herself in the aftermath of the break-up that sparks the poem.

For Bishop, writing the poem becomes a part of the answer. While writing the poem, which went through multiple iterations, she ingeniously adapts her (supposedly) impersonal and cold style, to a style that remains disciplined and beautifully crafted, but also subtly reveals more about her own suffering. She allows herself to be vulnerable despite her own natural reticence and shyness, and in so doing, reveals herself to her readership, but also to herself. It gives her greater perspective on the contradictions of her own life. It helps reveal how her public persona (in her poetry and her presentation of herself) is so controlled, and her private persona is at times desperately reckless and out of control – especially when she is drinking. The act of reconciling these two worlds in her poetry (for the first time) forces her into greater insight into her own denial about her suffering. This in turn, gives her insight into how she might be able to lose with grace. So nearly despite herself, and despite years of denial and suffering she learned at the very end of her life how to cope with great loss. It’s a great triumph. Understanding how to cope with loss is the abiding theme of this documentary. I think it's a story that many of us can relate to.

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

--Elizabeth Bishop

II. Story Structure

The Dual Narrative

The main story will begin with Elizabeth’s experiences in Great Village, Nova Scotia starting in 1916 and take us through her transient lifestyle through much of her adulthood. The second narrative (told concurrently) will start in 1971 when she is teaching at Harvard and will end when she dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1979. This structure is appealing because we start with two Elizabeths, one who is five and the other who is sixty and this conceit helps create thematic congruities between the developing awarenesses of both Elizabeths. Also, this structure permits each story to come to a climax at a peak in Bishop’s own emotional turmoil (the suicide of her great love Lota in 1967) and when her other great love Alice Methfessel leaves her in Boston in 1975 and prompts the writing of “One Art.” The movie will build into the climax, her poem “One Art” that she writes in a state of deep existential worry. And then it will conclude with the unexpected grace period of feeling “home” at the end of her life from 1975 until her death in 1979.

The Poems

Each scene will end on a poem whose inspiration comes from the tensions of the time period being described. And thus the poetry will not only be an aesthetically pleasing and rewarding study of genius, it will deepen the emotional content of her life-story. Here are two examples:

III. Style, Approach and Point of View

Poetic License

The beauty of Bishop’s poetry is that it is so loaded with the spirit of the moment, in the fragmentary, in the lush, in the juxtaposition of contrasting images and in the point of view of its subjects. What’s needed to make this come alive is a lyrical visual style to conjure this world into the cinematic. The movie needs to make use of the expressive tools that can come with the cinematic voice including techniques like time exposure, time-lapse photography, play with screen size and aspect ratio, multiple-exposure, slow motion, and play with differing levels of saturation. The result will be both expressive and suggestive as befits the poems themselves. The world of the poetry will have a magical or a heightened point of view that will contrast with the more traditional feel of the narrative segments. The two poems that I have interpreted already Sandpiper” and “One Art” are not how they will appear in the final production but initial sketches where I am beginning to uncover some of the formal properties of the interpretations that I will employ in the final project.

Eschewing Over-Analysis

While there will be interviews with people who knew Elizabeth Bishop to help tell her story but there will be few if any literary interpretation of the poems by experts. While the visual poetics of the film will be informed by research related to critical interpretations of the work, the meanings of the poems will be inflected by the shots and styles used to express them and the narrative of her life that surrounds the poem. This will work because Bishop’s style is very conversational and accessible which lends itself to this kind of approach. Also, I believe leaving a certain openness and room for interpretation will actually help the poems feel more alive to our audience than would a narrow definitive interpretation provided by an academic or another poet.

Embracing Re-enactment Where Needed

While some of the story can be told using photographs, visual coverage of the sites, and historical footage, the two centering moments in the movie in Great Village, Nova Scotia and Boston will have moments that need to be tastefully re-enacted for them to have the kind of presence that is needed to tell the story.

[John D. Scott is Associate Professor of Documentary Studies and Production, in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. His 2007 documentary on Nova Scotian poet John Stiles, Scouts are Cancelled, was nationally broadcast dozens of times on the CBC Documentary Channel, and received numerous awards. Learn more about his EB project, and sign up for e-mail updates, at www.magpieproductions.com. John welcomes feedback on all aspects of the project.]

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