Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson

Along with a stand-up comic, a rock band, feuding academics, and Hollywood actresses, a man searches for the secret to poetic power.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
December 16, 2003
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call

Jim Wolpaw

A Brown University graduate, Jim Wolpaw has worked in independent film for 20 years. His films include the Academy Award-nominated documentary Keats and His Nightingale: A Blind Date; Cobra Snake for a Necktie, a portrait of Bo Diddley which aired on Showtime; and the feature comedy Complex World. He has freelanced as a writer, film editor, Show more post-production supervisor, and creative consultant on numerous documentary projects, and for the past six years has taught film production and screenwriting at Emerson College. His films have won awards at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide and his honors include a Cine Golden Eagle. Show less


Steven E. Gentile

Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987, Steve Gentile has had an extraordinarily diverse film career. His animated films The Ant Who Loved a Girl and The Soldier have won awards at more than 30 film festivals, including London, Hong Kong, and Zagreb. As an editor, he has six feature credits, including the cult comedy Complex World. He Show more was also the post-production coordinator on Miramax’s Next Stop Wonderland. As a screenwriter, Gentile has scripted three one-hour teleplays for Roger Corman’s Sci-Fi Channel series Black Scorpion. He has freelanced in a variety of technical capacities on numerous documentary and industrial projects, and has taught film production and animation at Emerson College, Boston Film/Video Foundation, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Boston University. His honors include a Regional Student Academy Award nomination, a Cine Golden Eagle and a NEA/Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation fellowship. Show less

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The Film

Hundreds of scholars and biographers have tried to explain the life and work of Emily Dickinson, but the famously reclusive poet remains an enigma. In Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson, stumped filmmaker Jim Wolpaw uses a decidedly unorthodox approach to create a documentary about the writer whose beautiful, haunting, and cryptic poetry has never quite squared with her reputation as a sensitive spinster. Wolpaw’s efforts to illuminate this esoteric subject — more than 150 years after her death — yield some hilariously frustrating results.

Wolpaw begins his film by employing the standard documentary methods, interviewing historians, literature professors, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and even an opinionated trio of psychotherapists. “How did this woman, who was apparently too sensitive to go out in the world, write about the world with such power, precision and presence?” Wolpaw wonders.

Enlisting the help of this unlikely team of academics, actresses and artists, Loaded Gun dissects the meaning of its puzzling title poem, speculates about Dickinson’s possible love affairs, and recasts the poet in an array of contradictory personas: Emily as sexualized seductress, anxiety-ridden basket case, sarcastic comedian, reluctant interview subject, childlike genius, tormented spinster — even a talented second baseman. Who was Emily Dickinson, really? Perhaps it is this unanswerable question that makes her such a captivatingly modern mystery, inspiring legions of fans that include poetry-spouting English majors, rock bands and tattoo addicts. As Loaded Gun shows, Dickinson’s greatest legacies may simply be the strength of her words and her persistent refusal to be easily defined.