It’s interesting to see screen depictions of a writer whose work you’re familiar with but whose personal life is something you know little about. Their work usually makes more sense once it’s been contextualized through their biography and vice versa. In the case of Reaching for the Moon, the writer in question is the poet Elizabeth Bishop, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970.
Even though I love Bishop’s writing (and sort of geeked out over the 2011 FSG reissues of her work), I’ve never read much about her personal life. I knew she was a lesbian and lived in Brazil for a time, but that was about it.
What’s interesting about Reaching for the Moon (Flores Raras) is how plainly Bishop’s sexuality is depicted — she’s not in a lesbian relationship with architect Lota de Macedo Soares, it’s a relationship, and an involving one, full stop.
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The danger of learning a lot about a writer’s life is the possibility of disappointment. There’s an expectation of writers being on all the time — as witty or as brilliant or as cutting as their work, their personas grand and elevated around all kinds of company. But the person can be much different than the personality that shows up on the page, especially since writing well is a mix of concentration, work, and the constant confrontation of shortcomings. It may explain the need for a lot of writers to get drunk just to function, which Elizabeth Bishop did.
Early in Reaching for the Moon, Elizabeth (Miranda Otto) fumbles her way through a conversation about literature. She’s unable to recite one of her poems informally for a small group of people over lunch. “This is why you shouldn’t meet writers,” she says as a kind of apology. There are conflicting emotions in her at this particular moment. She’s socially awkward and in a creative rut, but she’s cultivated false modesty as a self-defense mechanism. She’s mostly reeling from criticism from fellow poet Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) who said her latest poem-in-progress was merely observations separated by lines (an inadvertent sick burn for people who obsess over language).
Glória Pires plays Lota de Macedo Soares, a Brazilian architect who becomes a transformative free spirit to Elizabeth’s straight-laced intellectual. The seduction is one-sided, and Pires plays Lota with such charismatic gusto — bordering on machismo — that it bends Elizabeth’s will. There’s a great dynamic to the booming Pires and the shrinking Otto, which becomes important to the later parts of the film as Elizabeth comes into her own.
It’s weird to think of the Bishop/Soares relationship in heteronormative terms, but Lota is like the man in the relationship at first. She’s the dominant person and relishes in it, wielding a power reflected in her social and political connections as well as her own architecture. Lota wants to make Elizabeth a comfortable place to write, and to do it she blows up part of a hillside. When Lota loses interest in Mary (Tracy Middendorf), her lover just before Elizabeth, she discards her but also keeps her by helping her adopt a child. This Elizabeth/Mary/Lota triangle has the incomplete unease of long-term resentment — they see each other, they tolerate each other, and it’s complicated.
Part of what makes Reaching for the Moon fascinating is how these unconventional interpersonal relationships grow. Otto plays Elizabeth Bishop as an artist becoming more comfortable in her own skin even if she’s never quite comfortable. The growth is subtle, confessional, ultimately vulnerable. I got the sense of Elizabeth as a secretly confident person who’s also so fragile that she’s bruised by small things. That might be that secret constellation of sad personality traits that would move someone to work with language for a living.
This all leads to a mix of guilt and resentment when it comes to Elizabeth’s relationship with Lota, who is also complex in her own way. It’s clear she wants to keep Elizabeth like a housewife, and that she was more comfortable when she was the seductress and Elizabeth the seducetee she could coochie coo into compliance. But over time Elizabeth becomes someone who doesn’t want to be kept. The deteriorating political situation in Brazil coupled with career opportunities back in the United States gives her a possible out.
Like I alluded to earlier, one of the most admirable aspects Reaching for the Moon is how the movie simply examines this relationship as a relationship rather than framing it as a merely lesbian relationship. (It’s a weird way of phrasing this distinction, I know.) I was talking to my friend Steve over at Unseen Films about this, and it seems like some films reduce their characters to their sexuality and make that the focal point of the entire story. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and it’s not as if sexual identity isn’t part of the narrative. Yet the approach taken by director Bruno Barreto and screenwriters Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres is to examine such distinct personalities as personalities, not as sexless or genderless but as facts of these people. It makes me wonder how it’s handled in Flores raras e banalíssimas by Carmen L. Oliveira, the novel that this film was adapted from.
What I also admired about Barreto’s approach here was how he depicted Bishop’s writing process. I’m not sure how accurate it is to real life, but it seems right for the way she’s depicted on screen. Many times depictions of writers writing on film is pretty trite — type, type, type, ping, frustration, type, type, ping. Even Harlan Ellison’s public exhibitions of writing in shop windows have more to it than that. In Reaching for the Moon, Bishop is shown as thoroughly involved, coming back over what she’s just written to read the words aloud and find their rhythm. She paces, she obsesses, and it’s just the same line or its variations. “Observations broken into lines,” Lowell says, but when these lines are full of something essential, they’re not mere observations but magnifications and refinements of those lived experiences that matter.
The whole of Reaching for the Moon is framed in Bishop’s poem “One Art,” which begins, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The poem goes on tinged with sad irony, stating that losing people, places, and relationships is simple. It never is. Writing about loss is just as hard, Reaching for the Moon seems to say. To do it right, you have to revisit it and find its melancholy beauty. This seems as simple as admiring moonlight, but it’s really as brutal as blowing up a hill that’s in the way.
[For tickets and more info on Reaching for the Moon, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]