Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Chance encounter: Documentary filmmaker Bill Rose made 'This Dust of Words' after coming across an article about Elizabeth Wiltsee in the Stanford alumni magazine.
A new documentary by Bill Rose examines the life of Elizabeth Wiltsee, mad genius of Watsonville.
By Richard von Busack
You see can her, looking into the camera during an afternoon in the late 1960s. As Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Peggy Townsend noted in a profile, Elizabeth Wiltsee was a slight woman, only 5 foot 1. In a home movie excerpted in the new documentary This Dust of Words, Wiltsee--blonde, slim, pensive--is seated on the porch of the long-since-bulldozed student housing known as Toad Hall on Bryant Street in Palo Alto, in the late 1960s. She's smoking a curved tobacco pipe, like Juno in the movie, looking out at the world, but also looking inward. This lost woman is the subject of documentary maker Bill Rose's new film. His previous work, the superb The Loss of Nameless Things, followed a different bedeviled writer, Oakley Hall III.
I caught up with Rose on the porch of Printers Cafe on California Street in Palo Alto. He's a silver-haired, fit middle-aged man, sitting outside despite the February rain and chill.
Rose brought me up to speed since the success of his The Loss of Nameless Things, distributed through Cinequest. The documentary played at a lot of festivals, and a feature is currently in development.
"After the festivals were over," Rose said, "my wife and I had a baby. We had a 3-year-old already, and then we had a new baby. We were looking for help, for a baby sitter. I checked under 'Nannies in Palo Alto' on Google. That's when I came up with John Felstiner's memoir about Liz Wiltsee in the Stanford alumni magazine."
In the 2001 article, "This Dust of Words," 40-year veteran of Stanford's English department John Felstiner recalled his first reading of Liz Wiltsee's thesis on Samuel Beckett. It was 1969, the year Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Felstiner saw in this promising pupil something more than just a similar avidity for Beckett. Thirty years after he'd seen her, the professor wrote of Wiltsee's "keenness of word and spirit, her skepticism, her luminous smile. You had to be grateful for such a student, even among a wonderful class at the climax of the 1960s."
Wiltsee was born in 1949 in Cincinnati, the child of an executive for Proctor and Gamble, who took the family around the world. She had always been a brilliant student. After Stanford, Wiltsee had a wandering scholar's life, working as an au pair in Europe before returning to library jobs in Seattle and Yale University.
She was always a writer, whatever she did, composing plays and letters and a novel, while studying Greek and later learning Chinese on her own. She worked for Stanford Press as an especially exacting proofreader. Wiltsee was known for editing the works for grammar and logic, even though she was just supposed to be checking the punctuation.
In 1996, the last of her jobs and her places to live ran out. The paranoid schizophrenia that underlay Wiltsee's mysteries, her solitude and her ardor to write came out in full bloom. She became homeless, sleeping in a churchyard in Watsonville and writing and reading in the public library. She raved in fury at strangers, refusing intervention from her family. Still, she was fed and cared for by parishioners at St. Patrick's Church. After Wiltsee's death, reporter Townsend traced her last years and the church ladies who helped her.
Felstiner, recalling the impression Elizabeth made on those who knew her, cited the quote from Beckett's Molloy that gave Wiltsee the title for her senior thesis: "I'm all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling, no sky for their dispersing."
After Wiltsee's body was found in 1999, much of her writing was discovered in a storage locker in Watsonville. She'd kept her report cards from every school she attended, from Manila to New Milford, Conn. Rose said, "Here were some of the Li Po poems that meant so much to her, translated on the back of envelopes, poems that were obviously an idée fixe for her. The idea of solace in them must have meant so much to her." Something in the moon-drunk Chinese poet, a favorite of Kerouac's, must have reached something in a woman who loved to contemplate the sky.
Rose showed me Wiltsee's Chinese ideographs, in tiny, delicate pencil lines, on scrap paper. We flipped through photo albums. Here were afterimages of a normal childhood; Christmas trees, family gatherings. Wiltsee is freckled and helmeted in English riding gear on the back of a pony. And here was a stenographer's pad that Elizabeth had left behind, a cipher for the Chinese characters she'd taught herself, sitting in the Watsonville library.
In Wiltsee's storage locker was a play called Tadpole, written under one of her pseudonyms, Anne Appleby. It's a consideration of reproductive rights, in the form of an allegory. The Greek goddess Artemis turns up pregnant and seeking counseling. "Every point of view is represented," Rose notes. "Her plays are well-written but polemic--they end as speeches" (Shaw's problem, too). Rose particularly enjoyed one play, Free for All, a fantasy about a New England town in which, one day a year, a citizen can ask for any piece of personal property from anyone else.
In The Dust of Words we see a page of Wiltsee's play, Business as Usual, suggesting that the Spanish Conquest introduced the idea of garbage to New World natives who previously might have used everything. (A fine idea in the abstract, though I'd love to have taken it up with her. The mark of homo sapiens everywhere is middens, mounds of rubbish such as the famous Ohlone shell mounds that ringed the San Francisco Bay.)
Rose's original idea was to make This Dust of Words a short, single-source documentary about Felstiner's article. "I thought it could be done quickly," Rose admitted, "and that I could just tell the story of Elizabeth from his perspective. I don't know the delicate way to say this, but while a one-point story would be a beautiful piece, it wouldn't be a film. After I read the Peggy Townsend piece, I went to interview Toni Breese. She was the parishioner at St. Patrick's who talked to Elizabeth, who got through her ruse of pretending to be mute. ... I started to have a physically very different film. Still, I had to deal with Elizabeth's absence. Then, reading her words gave me more of a sense of presence--particularly the 900-page novel she left behind, Jane's Story."
The excerpt Rose has read aloud by actress Alison Jean White gives a sense of Wiltsee's foreboding. It's a premonition of annihilation in the wilderness, with scavenging birds hovering overhead.
"Reading the plays and the hundreds of hundred of letters gave me a chance to talk with her," Rose said. "It was as if I could ask her help and hear her voice."
Some of the letters Rose read charted Elizabeth's delusions. There's talk of her passionate love for "Alexander"--who turned out to be political columnist Alexander Cockburn (Rose's film says Cockburn hadn't heard of Wiltsee.) This Dust of Words stresses the people Wiltsee encountered after her madness; the ones before are often more elusive.
In college, Wiltsee was the longtime real-life lover of a Stanford student who founded noted bookstores in Palo Alto and later in Seattle. Rose deduced the identity by putting together the letters and his own personal knowledge of the area. The documentary maker tried to get this man on camera.
"I wrote to him and wrote to him," Rose said. "Finally, he replied. He said he fully respected what I was doing, and he'd be happy to talk about any subject ... except Elizabeth."
Wiltsee's father also didn't want to talk on camera. Rose didn't approach perhaps the most famous man Wiltsee ever knew, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. Chase, who was getting his MA in film at Stanford in the early 1970s, is seen here play-acting the part of a fedora-wearing Mafia gunman, against Wiltsee's femme fatale. He kills her at the end; she dies in the bare hills up near campus, in a scene that looks a lot like the finale of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.
"I suppose it would have added to the commercial value of the film to track Chase down," Rose comments, "but I didn't want to belabor the point. He contributes enough by being in this home movie."
Rose isn't surprised that some of the people who knew Wiltsee are reluctant to talk on camera: "If this were my ex-girlfriend or my daughter, I might have felt the same. I didn't want to make this film a biopic. I didn't have a psychiatrist, I had a parish priest. I didn't have her lover, but I did have her brother."
Flight of the Idealist Getting a film like This Dust of Words noticed is a tougher task today than it was before.
"It's a hard, hard market," Rose sighs. "I tell people that when I went to film school, everyone had a screenplay in the trunk of their car. Today half the people I run into have a documentary. With a digital camera and Final Cut Pro, anyone can make them. There's an incredible glut of documentaries--Independent Lens on PBS gets 600-700 submissions a year, stuff over the transom. Add PBS' POV and the fests and there's still not that much room out there. The market for a film like mine, even with production values, is rapidly shrinking as well.
"The model is really broken. Theatrical distribution is almost impossible for documentaries, and it's hard to get the press you need, to get the film some attention when it goes into the home video market. If I had to sit down and really consider where the film was going to play, I'd never go into the dark to make it."
The edge This Dust of Words will have over the competition is that it appeals to romantics, to the same audience that loved Into the Wild. I liked this one better, frankly. Rose's film is both memoir and detective story. Using the GPS coordinates the sheriff's office gave him, Rose filmed Wiltsee's last place of refuge, the shore of San Luis Reservoir deep in Merced County.
"It was a little lagoon, completely peaceful. I had the sense that it was no accident she went there: this is where she was headed."
Rose notes that Wiltsee's brother Chris had commented that even if Elizabeth hadn't been afflicted, she would have been "an Emily Dickinson"--a hermit, a person most comfortable alone.
The truth is that veterans of the 1960s find a kind of idealism in her beauty and doom. She was part of an era when wandering seemed like a legitimate rejection of settling--and thus settling for less.
As for her madness: consider the reverence in which the Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing's writings were held back in those days: in some oblique angles, the mad looked sane, compared with the America of the late 1960s. Among other things, This Dust of Words notes the sanctuary Wiltsee found in Watsonville--and mentions how different it would have been for Elizabeth if she'd gone to San Francisco or any other big city, where she might have found true annihilation: the kind that leaves no trace behind. It's possible her writings would have been scarfed up by the sanitation department, and this gifted woman would have been just one in the pack of homeless. I don't think this is necessarily a spiritual movie, but it emphasizes the altruism that sheltered Wiltsee--something sacred in itself. Watsonville's St. Patrick's was not just sacred refuge but exactly what Robert Frost called home, "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
I asked Rose if making the film had been a matter of falling in love with his subject. "She has a Joan of Arc quality," Rose replied. "Her life has for me a beauty. I feel like she was a member of my tribe, with the lack of attachment to the material things, a longing for a simpler life and a fear of the modern world."
THIS DUST OF WORDS, a documentary by Bill Rose, plays Saturday, March 1, at 4:30pm and March 8 at 2:30pm at Camera 12, 288 South Second St., San Jose, as part of Cinequest. Tickets are $10 general/$5 students; 408.295.FEST or www.cinequest.org.
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