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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

The Searcher

A talented Stanford student disappeared into the wilderness leaving a lifetime of writings behind; Palo Alto filmmaker Bill Rose looks for answers in 'This Dust of Words'

By Richard von Busack

IN A HOME MOVIE from the late the 1960s, Elizabeth 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. She is 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 Palo Alto documentary maker Bill Rose's new film, This Dust of Words, screening at Cinequest. His previous work, the superb 2004 film The Loss of Nameless Things, followed a different bedeviled writer, Oakley Hall III, a promising playwright and actor who was brain-damaged after a mysterious fall from a bridge.

This Dust of Words records a similar but ultimately different fall from grace, the story of a talented woman who died far from civilization near a Merced County reservoir.

I catch up with Rose on the porch of Printers Cafe in Palo Alto. He is a silver-haired, fit middle-aged man, sitting outside despite the February rain and chill.

Rose brings me up to speed on his career since the success of The Loss of Nameless Things, which is being distributed by Cinequest. The documentary played at a lot of festivals: AFI's Silverdocs Festival, the international film festivals in Cleveland and Seattle and the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Ultimately, Rose took four Best Documentary Awards on the festival circuit.

"That was the first round," Rose says. "And then there were the national broadcasts on PBS after that on Independent Lens in 2006. It was given a full hour-and-a-half broadcast time, which is rare for the program. It was all gravy after that."

A feature version of The Loss of Nameless Things is currently in development. Fred Dekker of the cult favorite The Monster Squad wants to direct. Dekker is working with Curtis Burch, who has just formed an independent company after leaving LightStorm, James Cameron's company.

"After the festivals were over," Rose continues, "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 alumni publication Stanford Magazine."

Wandering Scholar

In the 2001 article, also called "This Dust of Words," 40-year veteran of Stanford's English department Felstiner recalled his first reading of 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. More than 30 years after he had first encountered 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 Procter & Gamble, who took the family around the world. She had always been a brilliant student. After Stanford, Wiltsee led a wandering scholar's life, working as an au pair in Europe before returning to library jobs in Seattle and at 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 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, Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Peggy 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."

The Idea of Solace

After Wiltsee's skeletal remains were found in 2000, a trove of her writing was discovered in a storage locker in Watsonville. She had kept her report cards from every school she had attended, from Manila to Geneva to Milton Academy in Boston.

Of the writings, Rose says, "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 out to a woman who loved to contemplate the sky.

Rose shows me Wiltsee's Chinese ideographs, done in tiny, delicate pencil lines on scrap paper. We flip through photo albums. Here are 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 is a stenographer's pad that Elizabeth had left behind, a cipher for the Chinese characters she had taught herself, sitting in the Watsonville library.

Also found in Wiltsee's storage locker was a play called Tadpole, written under one of her pseudonyms, Anne Appleby. It is 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 Rose's documentary, we see a page of Wiltsee's play Business as Usual, suggesting that the Spanish conquest introduced the idea of garbage to natives of the New World 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. It's not just a dust of words we leave behind but traces: old bones and rags, the books we thumbed through, the clothes we wore, the recordings of the music we made and heard.

A Sense of Foreboding

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 admits, "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."

In the film, actress Alison Jean White reads an excerpt from Jane's Story. It 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 letters gave me a chance to talk with her," Rose says. "It was as if I could ask her help and hear her voice."

Some of the letters Rose read charted Elizabeth's delusions. There is 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 lover of a Stanford student who founded noted bookstores. Rose deduced his identity by putting together the letters and his own personal knowledge of the area. He tried to get this man on camera. "I wrote to him and wrote to him," Rose recalls. "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 in his student film, performing 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 near the 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. Rather than having a psychiatrist explain everything, I had a parish priest. I didn't have her lover, but I did have her brother."

Beyond High Concept

After working as a folk musician, a guitarist and a singer in Europe, Rose returned to San Francisco State to attend film school and was accepted to the American Film Institute. He was the AFI assistant to director Martin Ritt on the 1985 film Murphy's Romance.

"The big thing in L.A. was the bestirring of the blockbusters," Rose says. "These were films that were very high concept, which took the wind out of my aspirations. It wasn't any one reason why I left L.A. without getting an agent. I'm not the most schmooziest person anyhow."

Rose returned to Palo Alto and started an award-winning business doing corporate films and commercials. Rose was working in the Silicon Valley during the most euphoric, utopian days of the 1980s. This gave him a lot of room for metaphor in his advertising films. "I rarely showed the actual products," he comments.

When the indie film dawned in the early 1990s, Rose began to become obsessed with the idea of little films. "I wanted to go to a film festival, and so I want to Cinequest. I saw about six films there—small films, character-driven films. I was almost 50, and I was starting to think about the kind of things I wanted to do, to get married, to have children and to make films. Four years later, I had all three."

What once was an optimistic scene is now a crowded pool indeed. "It's a hard, hard market," Rose says with a sigh. "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 considers 600-700 submissions a year, including both stuff they solicit and work that arrives over the transom. Add PBS's 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."

Into the Wild

The edge This Dust of Words will have over the competition is that it should appeal 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, he 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.

What we can understand of Elizabeth Wiltsee's life is the final hejira into the woods, the longing for space, quiet and freedom. 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 wanderings 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. And the time was a distant mirror of today's own madness, of endless unwanted war and suffering.

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 earth in 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 Dust of Words 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 ask Rose if making the film had been a matter of falling in love with his subject. "She has a Joan of Arc quality," Rose replies. "Her life has for me a beauty. I feel like she were a member of my tribe, with the lack of attachment to the material things, a longing for a simpler, more meaningful life that persisted even through her collapse."

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