2020s

There Are No Stupid Questions

Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind Movie Review - 2021 Nora Jacobson Documentary Film

“Forgive me, but that’s a stupid question,” says a male Harcourt Brace editor when asked about poet Ruth Stone’s place in 20th century literature. It’s a fleeting yet powerful moment in Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, Nora Jacobson’s 2021 documentary about a woman who invited curious artists into her Goshen, Vermont home for over 50 years (until her 2011 death at age 96). By looking inward and contemplating difficult questions, Stone managed to transcend above Boys Club biases of the literary world while coping with her husband’s 1959 suicide, all the while establishing a communal creative space for fellow artists and family members. There are no stupid questions when discussing art. There are no stupid questions when reflecting about the worldview of a social outlier who wrote plainly and evocatively about grief, death and the vast library of the female mind.

Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind is a documentary for those who value the journey of life. Jacobson invests time in all of the subject’s endearing personality traits, but not without extensively covering sources of pain that shaped the focal artist’s perspective. Without any context for Stone’s life and work, one might view her as an eccentric recluse who retreated into the past. But as Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind repeatedly reminds the audience, the subject’s residence represents the totality of her creative journey. She purchased the property with fellowship funds in 1956 and then enjoyed a few years of marital bliss until her husband’s sudden death. The logical individual — someone who shuts down “stupid questions” — likely would’ve abandoned the home. But Ruth built a legacy by shunning “literary politics” and confronting “extremes of feeling” through her work.

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Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind Movie Review - 2021 Nora Jacobson Documentary Film

What’s the emotional cost of turning terrible things into art? Jacobson explores this question throughout Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind’s 76-minute runtime. The subject’s daughters acknowledge having more love for “the work” than for their own mother, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek tone. Stone’s grandson muses about being named after a man who hung himself with a tie. Such moments are part of the documentary’s osmosis: Stone remains present through her ancestors; the poet’s grandchildren glow while reading her work. Stone’s constant mourning of the past produces constant readers in the present.

With Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, Jacobson directs a spiritual conversation between her subject and the surviving relatives. Bianca Stone, an artist who created the documentary’s animation, spends much of the film grappling with creative concepts while strengthening her grandmother’s legacy through do-it-your-self home renovations with her poet husband. Stone’s residence is a place where mice literally consumed her poems way back when. The mystical aspects of the property drive several key scenes in the documentary, as Bianca seems to at once lose part of herself while gaining creative wisdom; a cyclical event that began when Ruth tried to make sense of her husband’s suicide approximately six decades prior.

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Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind Movie Review - 2021 Nora Jacobson Documentary Film

Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind reminds me of the park bench scene from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), in which Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) explains to a rebellious genius named Will Hunting (Matt Damon) that he hasn’t lived enough to be so cocky about his intellect. Crucially, the old school educator doesn’t end the relationship; he doesn’t shut down “stupid” questions. In fact, Sean invites Will to open up about his worldview. “I’m fascinated… I’m in,” he says before acknowledging that Damon’s character is likely “terrified” about what he might say.

Stone seemed to be in a similar predicament in 1959, but with the added anxieties of being a female writer, one who had less-than-flattering things to say about high-brow male academics. Is it worth sharing one’s thoughts about the smell of Death, and how it looks as it descends upon a comfortable life? Fortunately, Stone didn’t reject any of the questions posed by her earthly existence, evidenced by her candid commentaries in both her work and Jacobson’s documentary. Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind is an inspiring excavation of the subject’s subconscious; a trip that shouldn’t be avoided by off-the-grid creatives.

Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind is available to stream exclusively at Ovid.tv.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.