LOADED GUN: Life, and Death, and Dickinson

The Film

Sunlight shines from the window on a book and papers sitting on a small wooden desk
Emily Dickinson's writing desk
'My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -In Corners - till a Day The Owner passed - identified - And carried Me away -' -from Emily Dickinson's 'Loaded Gun'

Hundreds of scholars and biographers have tried to explain the life and work of Emily Dickinson, but the famously reclusive poet remains an enigma. In LOADED GUN: Life, and Death, and Dickinson, stumped filmmaker Jim Wolpaw uses a decidedly unorthodox approach to create a documentary about the writer whose beautiful, haunting and cryptic poetry has never quite squared with her reputation as a sensitive spinster. Wolpaw's efforts to illuminate this ethereal subject - more than 150 years after her death - yield some hilariously frustrating results.

Born in 1830 to a prominent New England family, Dickinson wrote the first of her nearly 1,800 poems when she was about 20 years old. Although she shared some of her work with relatives and close friends, only a handful of her poetry was published during her lifetime. At 23, she began to withdraw from the world outside her home, dressing only in white and isolating herself in her room.

Large Colonial home sits behind a snow-covered yard
The Dickinson Homestead
in Amherst, MA

Manšs bare back covered with large tattoo of Dickinson
Phillip Jenks shows off his Emily Dickinson tattoo

Woman at the mic heads up the band
Singer Sara McGurkin tries out some "Dickinson Rock 'n Roll"

Wolpaw begins his film by employing the standard documentary methods, interviewing historians, literature professors, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and even an opinionated trio of psychotherapists. He adds a few nature drawings as backgrounds to readings from Dickinson's poems. "But my central character wasn't coming into focus," he confesses. "How did this woman, who was apparently too sensitive to go out in the world, write about the world with such power, precision and presence?"

The next step? Wolpaw considers "the Hollywood route," imagining Charlton Heston and Jean Stapleton in a movie as Emily's parents, Tracey Ullman as sister Lavinia and Kevin Spacey as brother Austin. But who would play Emily herself? A casting call in Backstage magazine produces more than 1,000 responses, the auditions showing some of these would-be Emilys straining to stay in character as they answer the filmmaker's four questions: Why don't you ever leave your house? Are you in love with death? Do you have a problem with God? Describe what would be for you a truly "wild night."

Enlisting the help of this unlikely team of academics, actresses and artists, LOADED GUN dissects the meaning of its puzzling title poem, speculates about Dickinson's possible love affairs and recasts the poet in an array of contradictory personas: Emily as sexualized seductress, anxiety-ridden basket case, sarcastic comedian, reluctant interview subject, childlike genius, tormented spinster - even a talented second baseman. Who was Emily Dickinson, really? Perhaps it is this unanswerable question which makes her such a captivatingly modern mystery, inspiring legions of fans that include poetry-spouting English majors, rock bands and tattoo addicts. As LOADED GUN shows, Dickinson's greatest legacies may simply be the strength of her words and her persistent refusal to be easily defined.

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