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This is a graceful documentary about the life of a brilliant student who went mad; as a student she'd been part of the circle of David Chase of The Sopranos and wrote a thesis on Beckett that her professor remembered more than 20 years later. After schizophrenia claimed her, Elizabeth Wiltsee was cared for by the church ladies of a small town in Northern California. Bill Rose (The Loss of Nameless Things) interviews the men and women who knew Elizabeth Wiltsee in her years after she was a lit student in Stanford. Working from primary sources, Rose investigates this downfall. It's memorable, compassionate work and one of the highlights of the 2008 Cinequest film festival in San Jose.
This is a clear and supportive look at a woman whose genius as a writer
was recognized and supported by her family and professors at Stanford.
It is almost clinical in its examination her descent into
madness.Toward the end of her life she in a small town along the
California coast.The sensitive unfolding of the story explored her
relationship to the parishioners of a local church that succored her
and accepted her often difficult behaviors. The entire town accepted
her presence and allowed her to remain undisturbed on its streets.
Although her family tried to get her to either come home or seek care in a mental health facility she refused both offers.Ultimately she ended her own life but the journey was filled with an unselfish love of others for her rarely seen outside of fiction.
This poetic movie is a 'must see' from my perspective.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film, in a sense, reminds me of the sorts of works that have
hagiographized people who have not done anything to deserve such
attention; sort of the literary equivalents of negative Alaskan folk
legends Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell, who received feature
film treatments for their idiocy, rather than a positive one like Dick
Proenneke, whose far more interesting tale has not, which tends to only
further propagate the misguided puerile idea that if you are a basket
case you are a real artist (after all, Sylvia Plath was nuts, too, cry
so many young artsy girls with suicidal intentions), or, as in the case
of Rose's first filmic subject, if you are an infant terrible you must
be talented. And if you don't believe this is true, merely Google
Elizabeth Wiltsee, and you will find links to a young disastrous
poetastress named Nikki Reimer, who did a series of poems dedicated to
Wiltsee. Now, think of this- being so moved by someone of so little
accomplishment, and then memorializing it in bad art shows just why
hagiographizing people for no intellectual reason and all emotional
feeling is not a culturally wise thing to engage in.
Having stated that, Rose does not do JUST that, lest this film would, indeed, be a mere noxious vanity documentary- those films made by directors who usually have a personal connection to the subject matter at the center of a film that would otherwise never get a real objective documentarian interested. Yet the film never descends into the mire of being such a vanity documentary- that mix of adulatory hagiography and common, uninspiring subjects. Think of the many films that depict the hangers-on of someone like Andy Warhol, such as A Walk Into The Sea, about another so-called artist who met a mysterious end, or the almost bizarre aggrandizement, in some quarters of Henry Darger, an even bigger headcase than Wiltsee became, and one with absolutely no discernible talent.
Yes, Liz Wiltsee was a paranoid schizophrenic, and whether she was truly creative, or not, is debatable, but she was certainly a high level Functionary mind, at the least. I wish that aspect of Wiltsee's mind, not its destruction by a disease, and its fetishizing by others, had been given precedence. Of course, given her advantages and her squandering of them, the temptation to focus on these superficial, easy to grasp concepts, often proves too great, and many lesser critics of the film use these sorts of terms about Wiltsee: brilliant, tragic, haunting- yet I would opt for generic, predictable, and depressing as words that best describe Liz's life. Let me be clear, I'm not trying to kick a corpse, merely deal with an outstanding film about a subject simply not worthy of its filmmaker's skill, time and dedication. And of the three misused terms applied to Wiltsee, likely the one that personally annoys me the most is tragic. For something to be a tragedy there must be a fall from grace or greatness. Since Liz never achieved such a height (IQ hardly counts, lest most Mensan's lives of compulsion and social awkwardness be called such) there can be no tragedy, definitionally.
Nonetheless, This Dust Of Words overcomes some of the very choices and presumptions that it opens up with, and details a sad life very well. Nonetheless, all the film's merits put it on the nub between my objective admiration for its manifest technical excellence, and my hearty recommendation of it as a work of art, and my personal dislike for the film because, despite its intentions or not, its yet again holds up the genius is madness cliché in art, and like a concerned parent, on violent films that are on serial killers or gangsters, who wonders if such films can do anything but glorify the violence of its protagonists, so too do I have concerns for the gullible wannabe artistic youth that buys into the banalities the film argues for, because, the sad reality is that far more many people end up dead at their own hands than at the hands of serial killers or Mob hits. Therefore, instead of a hagiography of its main subject, which could lead to who knows what ends for deluded artistic wannabes, I wish that the film and its maker had realized how all too common such a life as Liz Wiltsee's really is. So, here's to the future uncommon!
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