Full disclosure up front: I received a DVD screener copy of documentary filmmaker Bill Rose’s 2008 film, This Dust Of Words, after I contacted him hoping to interview him for my Dan Schneider Interviews series, after I had seen and been impressed with his first documentary, 2005’s The Loss Of Nameless Things, which documented a promising young playwright and director’s fall from prominence after a careless bridge accident left him a wholly different person from the artist he once was. While a bit raw, the film used some dramatic innovations to make memorable a tale about a figure that, before his accident, was almost a stereotype of the solipsistic self-declared genius enfant terrible of art. Similarly, This Dust Of Words, follows another artistic stereotype whose abortive arts career was not cut short by physical damage imposed by a physical trauma, but the degeneration of her mind via that oldest of arts clichés: madness; specifically a form of schizophrenia that left a once promising female graduate, Elizabeth (Liz) Wiltsee, of Stanford University a homeless wreck, living in the streets of a small rural California town, Watsonville, where she was taken in by churchgoers, then wandered off, one day in late 1999, only to be found a decayed corpse, months later, near a reservoir, far from town, her remains apparently ravished by wild animals, and her severed skull found far from the rest of her skeleton. This contrasted greatly to her youth of what can only be termed whitebread privilege: living and traveling abroad as a child and young woman, assorted scholarships from the finest educational institutes and universities, and wildly enthusiastic support from parents, friends, teachers, and the rest of her family. Could it get any better? In a word: no.
Technically, the film is a leap up from Rose’s first film, which itself was quite technically impressive. The visuals of the film remind me of some of the works of superlative nature documentarian John Grabowska, and the juxtaposition between poetic images and words is often striking. Even silent visuals can move, such as a late scene of a blue California sky bifurcated by a telephone, cable, or electric wire, right after mention of Liz’s deteriorating condition, seemingly slices the sky like a cheese cutter, that gives a visual magic to the moment the film captures about Liz’s life. Then there is the skilled use of angles, shadows, juxtapositions of images with words, sepia and black and white interludes, and others, that make the film arresting to watch. The use of music, as well, is understated, and usually diegetic. There are a liberal amount of talking heads, but most are just average folk who comment on the later, sick Liz’s delusions and horrid existence, which included many rejections by publishers and agents (often sent under a pseudonym like Jane Appel(by)), and a supposed romance with Left Wing muckraker Alexander Cockburn which, in reality, was all delusion. No one gives any particular insights of depth, but given the nature of her illness, this almost seems recapitulatively apropos, as their cluelessness mirrors hers. Probably the single biggest flaw in the film was the inclusion of a loopy and clueless college English professor of Wiltsee’s, John Felstiner, who wrote an essay on Wiltsee, after her death, in the Stanford Alumni Magazine. While not a particularly insightful piece, and larded with the standard clichés on art, genius, and suffering, and ending with a fairly obtuse and trite summation, the written piece is still significantly above the contributions Felstiner gives in the film. Whether or not this is due to poor editing of an interview by Rose, or the utter cluelessness of the professor, I am not certain, but I suspect it’s the latter, as Felstiner’s opinions, in the film and piece, seem to betray an overly simplistic idea of what art is and what it can do. So why include him? Yes, he knew Liz, but his comments come off almost as a burlesque of real intellectualism. Similarly, for all the hype the film and the talking heads give to Wiltsee’s intellect (a claimed IQ of 200), the excerpts from her own writing suggest a possibly high but very tightly bound Functionary mind with little understanding of what makes words, phrases, and sentences unique, good, bad, or great. In lines quoted from her own words, even pre-illness, there will be an interesting image or phrase, usually bounded by a rigid logic (void of any Negative Capability) followed by banalities of the most puerile High Romantic sort that many young females are prone to indulge in. Add to that her aforementioned Stanford thesis on the Samuel Beckett’s anomic and gratingly banal trilogy of novels- Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, which apparently Wiltsee thought astounding, to the point that Felstiner rapturously named his article (and subsequently Rose this film) over a comment made by Wiltsee in said thesis, shows just how divorced from the actual import and power of words, narrative, and the very reason art exists- communication- Wiltsee, Felstiner, and most of Academia are, and how actually non-innovatory her ideas on art were. It also illustrates the gulf that exists between potential and accomplishment in the arts, something her thesis and her later life show all too well, unfortunately for Wiltsee.
A final point that the film makes, that also undermines the claims for Wiltsee’s exceptionalism, is the fact that an inordinate amount of time, both pre- and post-illness onset, was spent not in producing original works of art, but translations from ancient languages. Having spent decades in the poetry and literary scene, it’s well established that great writers rarely make for great translators, for they too often cannot help but inject their own unique skills and voices into translated works, thus making better the works vis-à-vis their original forms. The best translators are usually people with a good, solid understanding of the mechanics of the art form, the subtleties of lingual transference, and the smarts to be ‘invisible,’ in the process- letting even the flaws in an original, shine through. This takes a good Functionary mind, not a Creationary nor Visionary one, and the fact that the film leaves the impression that this was her lot for the last bulk of her life, both fits in with my thesis on her pre-illness mind, and the ‘creative’ writing she also did in that time period. One need only watch the segment where a voice reads Liz’s translation of a famous Li Po poem, to recognize there is more Li Po than Liz Wiltsee in it.
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 enfant 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!