Thursday, May 01, 2008

Tom and Viv

Well, of course, as a literature professor I'm drawn to a film entitled Tom and Viv (1994) because it is about the troubled first marriage of the most famous English language poet of the 20th century: T. S. Eliot. In 1915 he met and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a beautiful young woman afflicted by severe emotional and physical problems that Eliot supposedly did not know about when they married. Most of her problems were probably caused by a hormonal imbalance, at least according to the film, and had she lived in contemporary times she could have been easily treated. She learns as much as the end of her life approaches in 1947, in the insane asylum where she lived for nine years, after being committed by her husband and her family

The aim of this film wavers with some uncertainty throughout. It is first of all the story of the marriage of a famous poet and his first wife. Things begin to go wrong almost as soon as they marry. Her physical problems include severe and frequent menstrual bleeding and cramps that apparently prevent a normal sex life. They also include severe mood swings that often cause her to behave in self-destructive and irrational ways. She trashes a hotel room shortly after their first attempt at lovemaking fails. She threatens Virginia Woolf with a knife. She pours hot melted chocolate into the mail slot of her husband's publishing office. She writes letters to various women in London accusing them of seeking to seduce her husband. She causes frequent scenes wherever she happens to be.

Eliot's reaction to her problems—pretty much the reactions of her family as a whole—is to ignore them, try to keep them hidden, as if they won't matter if they don't become public knowledge. The most sympathetic to Vivienne is her mother, who can calm her when she is having difficulties simply by hugging her. No one else in the film seems interested in hugs, certainly not Eliot, who's portrayed as cold, indifferent, and unresponsive, even while he weeps in the presence of an Anglican bishop to whom he confesses that he is "totally alone."

Vivienne's problems are vaguely diagnosed as "women's problems." We overhear various lectures by various doctors about how the intestinal and hormonal systems interact and cause symptoms that worsen as time goes on. One doctor advises Eliot not to give too many details to Vivienne. Another doctor calls her illness "febrile mental illness" while another diagnoses her with "moral insanity," a condition that causes her to act in dissolute and embarrassing way. Basically, no one has a clue, and most everyone is willing to write her problems off as the vague sorts of hysteria that women in the early 20th century are supposed to suffer. Their poor men! Among whom is Old Possum.

Another aim of this film is to demonstrate how great men create their art out of the suffering of the women they victimize. This is the same approach taken elsewhere to Nora Joyce and Zelda Fitzgerald. Vivienne is said to be talented and brilliant, though exactly how is never made clear. The film implies that passages in Eliot's poems (The Waste Land in particular) are verbatim quotations of Vivienne's own statements. She shows great enthusiasm for her husband's work, wants to help edit his poems, brags about him to friends and family, and is upset when he is not consistently willing to share his life with her. At one point she confesses to wanting to share some of his fame. In 1947, in the asylum where she has lived for nine years, she fiercely defends her husband, who hasn't seen her in eleven years.

There are moments when the film seems to sympathize with Eliot. But its real agenda comes clear in the final scenes when we see Eliot and Vivienne's family conspiring to have her committed. She seems perfectly capable of behaving in a rational way but apparently chooses to behave irrationally to give her husband and her family what they want—freedom from the troubles and shame she causes. Her own brother tells their mother that Vivienne is ruining Eliot's career. The easy solution is simply to get her out of the way. At the end of the film, we see Eliot through the elevator doors that are closing in front of him, cutting him off from the rest of the world. We are therefore meant to see him as perfidious and selfish, isolated, cold and mean, more concerned with himself and poetry than with the woman he married and eventually cast off and abandoned.

It's difficult to know the truth. There are clearly elements of truth in the film's portrayal of Tom and Viv's marriage, but how much truth? Is Eliot the evil Rasputin the film makes him out to be? Is Vivienne the virtuous saint martyred on the bier of her husband's noble poetic calling? Eliot seems a bit too callow in the film, and Vivienne reeks too much of saintliness. The film's narrative vacillates between these extremes. Admittedly, the portrayal of Eliot grows increasingly cold and indifferent. There are times in the film when Vivienne behaves as a genuine maniac, and other times when she seems perfectly sound. This was, perhaps, the nature of the affliction she suffered—her moods and her physical state were slaves to the hormones at war within her.

Willem Dafoe as Eliot is effective but problematic. Eliot is described as a man who wants very much to speak with a British accent but who never quite manages it. Dafoe's accent seems a fusion of Irish and Welsh and East European dialects. It verges on the truly weird. Dafoe's hard and inexpressive face is well suited to the film's portrayal of Eliot.

The New York Times review notes that "However sympathetic to Vivienne the film is, it cannot overcome the simple fact that Eliot, an enduring poet and a horrid individual, was far more interesting than his wife." We hear various snatches of Eliot's poetry in the film. We overhear him as he reads his poems to a room of friends. We see him reading his poems over the BBC. There are minor attempts to connect the great poems with the events of his life. But these attempts are superficial and infrequent.

I'm not sure we should care that much about the lives of the poets. Their lives matter only because of the poems they wrote.

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