Monday, March 14, 2011

Possession: Disturbing the Past

I watched POSSESSION this morning. It stars Aaron Eckhart (ERIN BROCKOVICH and BATTLE: LOS ANGELES) as an American research assistant in London, who stumbles across an unsent romantic letter from one of the country's most beloved Victorian poets who has been known as a faithful husband to his ailing wife.

Since the object of his desire appears to be another famous femininist poet who has been known as swearing off men all together- such a find appears monumental but needs more documentation to be taken seriously, so Eckhart enlists Gwyneth Paltrow , ( SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and COUNTRY STRONG), a professor at the university which holds the letters and diaries of said feminist poet.

While Paltrow and Eckhart retrace the poets affair through research archives, ancestral homes and sea side retreats, the story if played out in flashbacks on the screen, with Randolph Henry Ash played by Jeremy Northam, (TUDORS and THE NET) and his love interest Christabel LaMotte played by Jennifer Ehle ( PBS's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE). Of course a modern day romance is ignited by Eckhart and Paltrow and there are twist and turns to the scholarly adventure.

I have always had "a thing" for the stories of old, so loved this movie, piecing together the truth of the past with diaries and letters and notes scribbled on bits of paper, archived in dusty basements. The sophisticated stories of England past, even if made up, always intrigues me but even here in the deep West of the US, there are truths to discover and I have the privilege of being surrounded by several research libraries, that I absolutely love to frequent.

The key to good research is to make friends with the research archivist who will take you down in the basements where all the good stuff is. Last year I spent a few hours in the basement of the Anasazi Heritage Center in SW Colorado that houses the archives of the Wetherill Family, the cowboy/archeologist that brought the discovery of the ruins of Mesa Verde to the world and secondary characters in a screenplay I wrote for the Nicholl Fellowship contest last year.

I have to say it is surreal and feels a little voyeristic to be rooting through other people's ( even if long dead) possessions. Sitting there, holding ledger books and photo albums, deciphering scribble notes I also felt like I could feel them, the brothers, and their scientific partner, Gustaf Nordenskiold, who after the summer of 1891 excavating the ruins together and doing the first scientific documentations of Mesa Verde, sent the brother a photo album of his snap shots which I now held in my hands.

I also often feel like I am intruding. I wonder if they would want me snooping. The fact that the Wetherill decedents dusted all of the brother's papers with paprika to ward of insects, which was now stinging my eyes and making me sneeze could be taken as retaliation.

Ironically, the Wetherill and Nordenskiold also were intruding on the ghost of the past, when they excavated the ruins, which were far from the pristine state they are now, sometimes the cowboys were digging through five feet of dirt to get to the floor and at times literally breathing in the dust of the mummies they were finding sealed in the deep alcoves of Mesa Verde.

Do these feeling stop me, I confess, no. Do I feel a great responsibility in including real people and events in my writing, yes. Do I say a little prayer, hoping I will remain true to who they truly were as people, most definitely, yes.

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