November 2012

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Brewsie and Willie - The Film

While Gertrude Stein broke bread and discussed theories of drama with Charlie Chaplin when she visited Los Angeles during the tail end of her 1934-35 American lecture tour, the great Modernist missed her chance to work in Hollywood. While she did not profess any great attraction to going to the movies, she had discussed with her close friend Carl Van Vechten, as reported by Diana Souhami in Gertrude and Alice, how she would have liked Hollywood to make The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into a film with the real characters (i.e. herself and Alice for starters) acting in it. So far, no one has made a film based on this work. In fact, there are no commercial films based on any of Stein's works.

Except Rosalind Morris, a professor at Columbia University, has completed a film based on Stein's post World War II novella Brewsie and Willie. On September 27, 2012, the Steiny Road Poet attended a private screening of Morris' unreleased film at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre of Barnard College in New York. This is the black box theater where the film was shot. The approximately 90-minute film with reconfigured sequencing of Stein's story about WWII American GI's in France after victory in Europe and the start up of the occupation in Germany is well cast and acted. Though the film seemed a little too long to the Steiny Poet, she thought all the scenes had heft and therefore is not sure without comprehensive study what cuts would tighten the film.  

Without asking, the Poet knows that Morris cut details from Stein's text. For example there is no reference to a soldier named Christopher, whom the Steiny Poet believes was Stein's last protégé. The name Christopher comes up in the context of nurse Pauline talking about "that Stein woman who says things." Then Pauline says that Stein said she skipped from 1890 into the twentieth century. To make a good film out of written story, a scriptwriter has to condense and reconfigure.

Essentially Stein's dramatically pitched novella, heavy on dialogue between a group of soldiers and military nurses, is a bunch of talking heads. Morris has kept the scenes flowing with interesting camera shots, use of French cabaret music like Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose," a bit of choreography that suggests two men moving as tango dancers, and a cast that has effectively carved out memorable characters. Eric T. Miller nails the soldier philosopher Brewsie, as does Billy Griffin as Willie, Brewsie's unsophisticated acolyte.


LeeAnne Hutchison as Pauline, a blond with rolled hair—a no nonsense style in her day, plays one tough broad to a much softer-spoken Julia Watt as Janet.


The women nurses form an interesting pair contrasted against Brewsie and Willie. Morris who directed the stage action is spot on in the way the actors move into each other's personal spaces and then retreat. While the supporting cast—Kyle Knauf (Jo), Andrew Ramaglia (Donald Paul), Karl Hammerle (Jimmy), Harrison Hill (John), David Sedgwick (Brock), and Lowell Byers (Sam)—does not stand out in the way that the women and the two protagonists do, they nonetheless add zest to the action.

Morris, who wrote the script for the film, follows the last scene drawn from Stein's novella with what she (Morris) describes as a "double montage [that] has 2 parts: one, a series of shots from the war [WWII] and the ticker-tape parade celebrating its victory as seen from America, the other a sequence of shots of the ideal world of plenty, which [a GI named] Jo describes as the world of a permanently higher standard of living." Shots of Levittown, the first planned suburb, feed into imagery of gasoline consumption. In an email dated September 29, 2012, Morris wrote to the Steiny Poet, "As the novella/film tries to suggest, there is a relationship between economy and war, and in my opinion, the nearly permanent state of war in which the world has lived for the past 60 years can be understood in relation to (though not as a simple function of) that extravagant consumerism which is so central to an American way of life." For Morris, Stein's novella informs our current world situation and is embodied in this line of dialog that is spoken by Pauline in the film as opposed to Janet in Stein's text, "…we might just as well think like the Germans, peace is only in between wars and not wars in between peace."

When asked why Morris made this film, she provided what she called her "short(ish) version" of a much longer answer:

I am interested in Stein's late writings, especially those produced during and in the immediate aftermath of WWII, because I believe she had a significant change in political and aesthetic direction at this time. That change is expressed in her statement that war demands realism. Brewsie and Willie is full of statements which cast doubt on the cult of the leader, which express concern over America's new imperialism, and which advocate the virtues of critical thinking as a necessary element of democracy. This is a far cry from the arch-conservatism with which Stein is usually associated. So, I wanted to explore that, both because I think it's important if we want to understand Stein's thought, and because I think the position she came to at the end of her life has a lot to offer us today.

"Brewsie and Willie" reads to me like an uncannily prescient address to out own moment. Sometimes, the discussions of economy feel like they could be spoken at a rally at 'Occupy Wall Street.'

I also wanted to make an anti-war film that could speak to a predicament like our own--where we no longer know how to end wars, where things just seem to go on and on. That's the scenario of 'Brewsie and Willie', in which the (then newly circulating) notions of redeployment and occupation make the ending of war almost impossible, as the GIs in the novella and the film recognize.

Finally, I wanted a film that would let us hear Stein anew. I'm very taken by the abstract presentations of Stein's theatrical and operatic works. But I often find that in the visual abstraction, the burden of radicalism becomes purely formal. Whereas, when you listen to Stein's words, you realize that she is saying something with profound consequences for the way we think.  For this reason, the mise-en-scene of the film is not purely abstract. It uses collage and other modernist elements to evoke a real warehouse, in which the men are relentlessly stuck, but my emphasis in directing this piece was on generating a naturalistic delivery of the lines (without situating the actors in a naturalistic battle scene).  I want people to listen to what Stein is saying.  After, all, she is saying: listen.

I could go on and on about this film, about the nature of the transformation from novella to script and so forth, but you said be brief, so....I will stop here.

In other email exchanges with the filmmaker, the Steiny Poet attempted to understand why Morris thinks that Stein had "significant change in political and aesthetic direction." Because Stein wrote over 570 works, the Poet thinks that a statement about a possible change in Stein's aesthetic direction in 1945 to Realism would be hard to ascertain by just looking at her late works which include the memoire Wars I Have Seen, the essay "Reflections on the Atomic Bomb," and the libretto The Mother of Us All. However, the mere fact that Stein drops her own name and makes a statement about herself in Brewsie and Willie with a seemingly trivial mention of some soldier named Christopher speaks to the Steiny Poet as evidence of Stein's experimentation still in place and rather similar to the way in which she drops in characters based on people she knew in The Mother of Us All. And just in passing, the Steiny Poet also noticed that Stein has a male character named Jo in Brewsie similar to Jo the Loiterer in The Mother of Us All. Jo the Loiterer was based on American GI and writer/journalist Joseph Barry as Chris the Citizen was based on American GI and writer Christopher Blake. For the Steiny Poet, Stein, throughout her writing life, continued to work in her Cubist approach using different kinds of styles to convey her thoughts on writing, psychological behavior of people, cultural proclivities, and politics.

Without a doubt, Brewsie and Willie is Stein revealing her thoughts on politics—the way she disdained the New Deal programs of Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, the rise of Industrialism that had "job chasers" eager to make useless widgets while using up valuable natural resources, the stereotyped German who followed horrendous leaders like Adolf Hitler, Communism (in Brewsie she has Jo via his father asking, "what is the difference between the New Deal and communism"), the predilection of Americans for "fluffy food ("We love sweets like babies, we dont love no lumps of cheese, and tough bread, no we just like to eat soft stuff, soft bread, soft ice-cream, soft chocolate, soft mush, soft potatoes, soft jam, and peanut butter, we dont except eat a little meat we dont really chew. … Soft eats make soft men…"), the "tired middle-aged … business men who need pin-ups" (as contrasted by Pauline's statement about how Susan B. Anthony liberated women who were "just like Negroes, before they were freed from slavery").

In an email dated October 4, 2012, Morris wrote: "the greatest change in [Stein's] consciousness, it seems to me, is around the conception of the political itself. Her admiration of authority in her early life was clearly displaced by a deep distrust of the cult of leadership by the end." While Gertrude Stein never spoke during the salons in which her brother Leo presided, the Steiny Poet is not sure this was Gertrude admiring her brother's authority. Early on, Stein challenged or chafed against her father, her favorite professor William James, the professors of Johns Hopkins Medical School. Stein was the baby of her family and was a willful child, adolescent, and young adult who continued in this way to her last days. However, she was not an independent. Throughout her life, she partnered with individuals who brought stability to her life and this included her brother Leo, her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas, her eventual literary executor Carl Van Vechten, and her WWII protector and lecture tour mentor-promoter Bernard Fa√Ņ.

In any case, the discussion about why Rosalind Morris made Gertrude Stein's novella Brewsie and Willie into a film and how the filmmaker sees this as change in Stein's political and aesthetic direction does not detract from the fact that this work—both film and novella—speaks to contemporary concerns and issues in a language that is accessible and highly quotable. It is a well done film that will add value to our lives in this day of unending wars with small pockets of peace. Morris said after the screening that she plans to submit her film to various film festivals. The Steiny Road Poet is eager to see this film again.

Photos - Milton Kam


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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine ‚ÄĒ Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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